As Paolo Maldini turns 53, we look at what made him such a great player and how it is he continues to influence things at AC Milan.
That Italy has produced a number of great defenders is no surprise. After all, the nation’s football identity is tied to the idea of a strong defence. Italy’s main football style is referred to as the ‘Catenaccio’, which translates to “door bolt”. This is because in Italy, teams defend first before looking to attack. It’s why they have produced so many players and managers who swear by the counter-attacking style. But of all the defenders to have come through the country, one name stands out more than most – Paolo Maldini. The AC Milan legend, nicknamed ‘Il Capitano’, was and is in a league of his own.
As the defender turns 53, we look at what made him such a great player and how it is he continues to influence things at AC Milan.
An oft-used cliche in sport is that a certain player was ‘born to play’ the sport. However, in Maldini’s case, it rang true to an extent. After all, his father Cesare was a successful defender for both Italy and Milan.
Indeed, young Paolo was coached by his father at Milan, the Italy U-21 side and even the senior Italy team. Being coached by one’s parent – especially one who was already so successful – can sometimes be an added pressure.
However, in the case of Paolo, that added pressure made him an even greater player. Such is his legacy in the game that many will argue – rightfully so – that he eclipsed his own father.
His youth career showed plenty of promise – indeed, he made his debut for the Milan senior side aged 16 in 1985. By the next season, he was in the senior team and was handed the squad number 3 – the same as his father.
He went on to have quite the career, winning five Champions Leagues, seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, four European/UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.
Maldini was right-footed but comfortable with both feet. As a result, he made his name mostly as a left-back – despite starting his career on the right side.
Then-Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi played him on the left due to the presence of Mauro Tassotti on the right. Yet such was his tactical versatility that he could play absolutely anywhere in the back-line.
In his later years, with his speed reducing, he switched to a centre-back role and was successful there too.
As a full-back, Maldini was renowned for his stamina, speed and crossing ability. He regularly featured in the assists and even scored a few when the chance came.
As a centre-back, he dominated the game due to his understanding, awareness and imposing presence. He was a good tackler as well, but famously shunned doing it unless needed.
This is reflected in his defensive record. He played with discipline and only got three red cards in his entire career. But along with his style came the type of leadership you just cannot teach.
He not only played a part in organising defences but in motivating his teammates too. It wasn’t uncommon to hear him bellowing instructions to his fellow defenders.
Equally, if the situation so called for it, he was adept at getting the spirts of the team up too. His vocal leadership skills saw him earn the nickname ‘Il Capitano’.
Maldini’s legacy as one of Milan’s all-time greats remains intact. Such was his influence at the club that his number 3 was retired by the club.
After retirement, he wanted to go into coaching but so far hasn’t taken up any such job. Indeed, his post-football work also saw him come back to his club.
In 2018, when the club was taken over by Elliott Management Corporation, Maldini returned to the club as the sporting strategy & development director. At the time, he worked alongside new sporting director Leonardo.
In 2019, Maldini was promoted to the position of technical director. Incidentally, his son is also now a footballer – at AC Milan, of course.
Daniel Maldini, the younger of Paolo’s sons, plays as an attacking midfielder for the club. In a way it’s good he doesn’t play in defence, although he did start his career in the same position as his father and grandfather.
Nevertheless, whatever Daniel goes on to accomplish, the name Paolo Maldini will forever be etched in the history of Italian and Milanese football.