Friday, March 14, 2008

Maldini Considers Postponing Retirement Staff 03.10.08, 1:00 AM ET

The elimination of AC Milan by Arsenal in the first knock-out round of this season's European Champions League on Mar. 4 brought down the curtain on a glorious five years in European tournament play for the Italian team and for its veteran captain Paolo Maldini.

Or so it seemed on the night.

At the end of the match, Mathieu Flamini, the 23-year old defensive midfielder for the victors, raced over to the soccer legend 16 years his senior to swap shirts, keen to secure the last jersey to bear Maldini's No. 3 in European competition.

But not so fast.

Maldini, who had said in December that he would retire from professional soccer at the end of the domestic Italian season one month shy of his 40th birthday, now says he is reconsidering that decision.

Forty year olds are rare in top-class soccer. The pace and combativeness of the modern game extracts a punishing physical toll from players. By his own admission, Maldini's knees creak after being dogged by injury for the past two years, but he is still near the top of his game -- his game being at a higher elevation than most. He is regarded as one of the greatest Italian soccer players and one of the best defenders the sport has seen.

He had hoped to round off an standout career this season with one last Champions League final appearance. Milan has made the final three times in the previous five seasons and won the competition twice, helping it become No 5. on our annual ranking of the Most Valuable Soccer Teams. One more title would have been a fitting climax to a career that stretches back to 1985 when a then 16-year old Maldini made his debut for the club against Udinese.

He would go onto win seven Italian league titles with the only club he has played for, plus one Italian cup and five European Champions League titles in eight attempts, the first success coming 26 years after his father Cesare played on the Milan team that won the the Champions League's predecessor, the European Cup, in 1963.

For all his brilliance, Maldini never enjoyed the same title wining success with Italy, despite having played in a record 126 games for the national team. The closest he got were runners-up medals in both the 1994 World Cup and in the 2000 European Championship.

Rossoneri fans would love their beloved captain to return, but does he risk tarnishing a lustrous reputation by falling prey to the great sportsman's perennial temptation, hanging on too long? Maldini had considered retiring after Milan won the 2007 Champions League in Athens, but decided against it, perhaps in the hope of matching the record nine European Cup final appearances of Francisco Gento, the Real Madrid winger of the 1950s and '60's.

If that is his goal, a return next season would be a gamble. For all Milan's dominance of the Champions' League over the past five years, the team owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has an average age of 30 years and has failed to reinforce its old guard with younger legs. In the Arsenal match, the 18-year old Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato was the team's only starter under 25.

No player epitomizes the old Milan more than Maldini. A 23-year career at the same club encompassing more that 1,000 top-level games is unlikely to be seen again given the physically demanding nature of top class soccer and the financial rewards to players for switching teams under soccer's transfer system.

When Maldini handed over his shirt to Flamini, Rossoneri fans were still stunned by their team's first loss to English opponents in the San Siro stadium, let alone elimination from European soccer's preeminent club competition. It was not the storybook end to Maldini's European career they wanted. It is far from certain that adding an extra chapter will produce a different ending.