Monday, March 10, 2008

Calcio Debate: Should Maldini Continue Playing?

Milan captain Paolo Maldini last week revealed that he was considering postponing his retirement at the end of the season. Carlo Garganese asks whether this would be a good or bad decision…

The word ‘legend’ is used far too often in football nowadays, but there is not one person on the planet who will disagree when this term is used to describe Paolo Maldini.

Over a thousand official games, the record appearance-maker in Serie A and for the Italy national team, seven Scudetti, five Champions Leagues – the statistics go on-and-on.

This longevity at the very top, which spans almost a quarter-of-a-century, is truly phenomenal; it defies the laws of physics, and is incomparable in the modern game.

Maldini had of course announced that he would be finally hanging up his boots at the end of the season. However his brilliant form, particularly in the last couple of months, has led him to reconsider.

“I still have plenty of energy and I guess we have to stick to our words, but those who do not change ideas just because they have said so are stupid,” Maldini stated.

“In the last few months my knees have been really painful and last year at the end of the season I couldn’t even bend them.

“Deep down inside there is a big will to continue, that’s just the way I am. No one is the same and the environment is pushing me to play on for another year.

“Three months ago I was much worse as I had to stop because of the operation but now I am feeling fine and I am playing in a position which I haven’t played in for a long time.”

However would it be a wise decision for Maldini to continue playing?

On the plus side is the fact that the 39-year-old has proved that he is still, despite his age, a brilliant defender. This was verified conclusively during both legs of the recent Champions League defeat to Arsenal, when Maldini was his side’s best player, along with Alessandro Nesta.

After the game at San Siro, Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor hailed Maldini as “world-class”, while pundits and journalists throughout the world all showered him with praise. These superlatives were by no means sentimental or influenced by the fact that Maldini had apparently just played his last-ever European game. They were thoroughly deserved.

If Maldini can continue to perform like this next season, then many people will say, why shouldn’t he carry on for another year? After all, he is the symbol of Milan, and his influence on the rest of the players at the club can only be a positive one.

Others will argue that Maldini risks ruining his legacy if he postpones his retirement.

The defender has a very legitimate claim as the greatest Italian footballer of all-time, if not the best defender in the history of the game. His chances of earning this status would surely be boosted if he bowed out with everyone remembering him for the legend that he is.

Last year Maldini had the perfect chance to end his career on the most glorious of notes when he lifted the Champions League in Athens. He decided to continue for another year, and many believed this was a mistake.

Despite Milan’s struggles this campaign, this hasn’t proved to be the case, and indeed Maldini has only further immortalised himself by continuing to perform brilliantly in his fortieth year.

Could next year be one too many though?

Some great footballers have ruined their legacy by going on for too long. Lothar Matthaus possibly comes closer than anyone to matching Maldini’s longevity at the top of European football, and the ex-Inter and Bayern Munich man had an international career lasting 20 years.

The former midfielder played for Germany at Euro 2000 at the age of 39, but everyone will remember how he was run ragged in defence, particularly in the game with Romania when a 35-year-old Gheorghe Hagi roasted him time and again. Of course Matthaus will always be remembered as one of the legends of the game, but whenever his name is mentioned I will always recall how he was humiliated at Euro 2000.

Other sportsmen have met the same fate. Roy Jones Jr is regarded as one of the best pound-to-pound boxers of all time, but he has ruined his legacy by continuing to fight into his late thirties, and thus losing to opponents that he would have beaten easily in his prime.

What are your views on this topic? Should Maldini continue playing for another season?