Monday, April 21, 2008

Calcio Debate: Maldini – The Best Defender Of All Time?

Paolo Maldini has picked up an injury that could bring an anticlimactic end to his glorious career. In view of this, Carlo Garganese asks whether the AC Milan symbol is the greatest defender the world has ever seen…

There is nothing that captures the attention of a football fan more than a debate over who is the best or the greatest. While many of these contests are inconclusive, and rarely produce a unanimous verdict among fans, they certainly spawn a great topic of discussion.

For fans aged one to 30, a footballing world without Paolo Maldini is almost unthinkable. Soon though this will be reality, as the 39-year-old, who is already set to retire at the end of the season, suffered a thigh injury in training last week, and there are fears he may have played his last game.

Whichever yardstick you use in measuring the greatness of Maldini, you always arrive at the same one-word conclusion – legend.

Medals And Trophies

I am not a massive fan of judging a footballer by what he has won. Many average players have won everything there is in the game, one example is Christian Karembeu, who won a World Cup and European Championship with France, as well as a Champions League with Real Madrid. Meanwhile there have been some brilliant stars who have missed out on some of the biggest honors, for instance Roberto Baggio.

Nevertheless team awards are still an important reference point, and during his illustrious career, Maldini won seven Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Italian Super Cups, five Champions League titles, five European Super Cups and three World Club Cups.

In terms of individual prizes, it is scandalous that Maldini never won either the European or World Footballer of the Year award. However given the politics involved in the selection process for both of these prizes, this is not a surprise.

Among the numerous records Maldini has set for Milan, he is their all time appearance holder, while he is also the oldest-ever scorer in a Champions League final.

International Pedigree

Some players have been top-class for their club, but for various reasons have never really cut it on the international stage. Two names that immediately spring to mind are Gianni Rivera and Alessandro Del Piero.

Maldini on the other hand was just as good for Italy as he was for Milan. He is the Azzurri record cap-holder, having represented them on 126 occasions. The defender played in four World Cups and three European Championships. Luck eluded him though, as he twice was a losing finalist in major finals, first at World Cup 94, to Brazil, and then even more heartbreakingly at Euro 2000 against France. Victory in both of these games would certainly have crowned the perfect career.

Perhaps it is the smaller details of Maldini’s 14 years for Italy that really makes him stand out from the rest. Maldini made his debut for the Azzurri whilst still a teenager, an extremely rare feet in Italy, where players are not usually given a chance until they are in their early-to-mid 20s.

At just 19 he was a revelation at Euro 88, and was undoubtedly the best full back in the competition. His marking display on Spain star Michel in the second group game was particularly memorable. He was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament for three European Championships, the others being 1996 and 2000.

Roberto Baggio is often credited with dragging Italy to the final of USA 94’ single-handedly. This may be a fair assessment but it is important to remember how Maldini marshalled the defence when the equally legendary Franco Baresi missed four matches due to injury.

Maldini’s career is full of anecdotes. A historic one is when he lifted the European Cup in 2003 at Old Trafford, 40 years after his father Cesare had done the same for Milan at Wembley.


Another measuring stick for a footballer’s greatness is their longevity at the top of European and World football.

Some players over the years have been world class for a few seasons, but then for various reasons, have fallen off the radar. What really separates the all-time legends from these types of players has been the ability to maintain a level of performance not over just three to five years, but seven to ten.

Maldini takes this to another level. Since making his Milan debut in January 1985 at the age of just 16, he has been playing at the top of the European game for the best part of a quarter-of-a-century.

If this isn’t remarkable enough, then throughout this time, Maldini has almost always managed to sustain his astonishing level of performance. At the age of nearly 40 he was arguably the best player on the pitch during the first leg of Milan’s recent Champions League last 16 clash with Arsenal. In the return match at San Siro, he was one of the few Rossoneri players to come out of the defeat with any credit. After the game Gunners striker Emmanuel Adebayor labelled Maldini as still “world class”.

Maldini is quite simply in a world of his own in this respect, and there perhaps will never be another player who will be able to match his longevity at the very top. Germany’s Lotthar Matthaus is someone who comes relatively close.

Maldini has played in three great Milan teams, all in different decades - the Arrigo Sacchi side in the late 1980s, the Fabio Capello outfit in the early and mid 90s, and finally the Carlo Ancelotti squad that has been so successful in the Champions League since 2003. Sacchi's brilliant team, which inlcuded the Dutch trio of Van Basten, Rijkaard and Gullit is considered by some as the best club team there has ever been. Many more recognise the defence of Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Baresi and Maldini as the greatest-ever back four.

A Champion On And Off The Field

One thing you perhaps don’t associate with Italian defenders is fair play. Italy may have always produced the best defenders in the world, but many of these often possessed a cynical edge to their game.

Undoubtedly this is a crucial aspect in the art of defending, although not all cultures, particularly in Britain and Northern Europe, appreciate it. Maldini managed to be the best at what he did without being crafty or dirty, and it is for this reason that is he is so universally loved.

It is impossible to find a person anywhere in the world who has a bad word to say about Maldini. He commands total respect wherever he goes, and he is adored even by opposition fans. When Maldini went to take a throw-in during the Champions League tie in London, you did not see any Arsenal fans waving their hands, swearing and ridiculing him. Yet a few minutes later Massimo Ambrosini went over to collect the ball, and the abuse resumed.

Despite being such a superstar Maldini always remained humble. He was the best in the world at what he did but unlike some of the flashy, over-hyped clowns of today, he did not go public proclaiming his brilliance. He was a champion both on-and-off the field.

"My father instilled in me the need to behave correctly on and off the pitch,” Maldini once said.

In a day-and-age where the one-club man is becoming all-too rare, Maldini dedicated his entire career to the red-and-black of Milan, many of these years (as with the Azzurri) as an exemplary captain.

He was quite simply the complete defender. "You could have stuck him in any position,” stated former Milan team-mate Ray Wilkins.

“As soon as I saw him I thought, my God, this boy's got everything. He was 16 years old, 6ft 1in tall, quick and strong, with two good feet. And he was in love with football, which you can still see today. He's also stayed the same thoroughly decent bloke, a gentleman as well as an outstanding player."

There have been many great defenders over the years who are rightly referred to as legends. These include the likes of Franco Baresi, Giacinto Facchetti, Gateano Scirea, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos and Bobby Moore.

Maldini’s place among these legends is without doubt - the only question is whether he is the greatest of them all.