Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Calling it a day with no regrets

PADDY AGNEW talks to the iconic figure who has had 25 years as a professional footballer and has been with AC Milan for 31 years

YOU MIGHT expect Paolo Maldini to be feeling just a little melancholic, these days. Two months from now, 40-year-old Maldini will finally bring down the curtain on one of the most remarkable (and successful) careers in top-flight football.

He has had 25 years as a professional footballer, and he has been with the same club, AC Milan, for fully 31 years since joining as a nine-year-old back in 1978. Regret, however, seems to be a word, an emotion that is foreign to Maldini: “I’ve been very lucky, I played all my life in Milan, for a very good team and I’ve always had my family around me. Everything has been perfect. Everything that I wanted to do in my career, I did it.”

Maldini has always seemed like one of the healthier corners of Italian football. Not only a majestic left back but also a devilishly handsome lad who leads an exemplary life, on and off the field.

In a country where football-related scandals pop up as frequently as mushrooms on a damp September morning, Maldini simply does not figure. Rows with referees, polemics with coaches, fast cars and faster women, none of that belongs to the world-according-to-Paolo Maldini.

Today’s generation of football fan might imagine that Maldini would have bitter memories of that infamous night in May 2005 in Istanbul when Liverpool came from 3-0 down to equalise against Milan and then go on to win the Champions League final on penalties. To imagine that the memory of that dramatic Turkish night would “hurt” Maldini is to fail to understand the man: “Why would that be a bad memory? That was one of the best finals I ever played in. We played really well, much better than Liverpool and we really deserved to win much more than them but . . . that’s football.

“That defeat though meant that when we met them two years later again in the final, we were really keen to get our revenge. The second final maybe wasn’t a great game but it was real proof of how determined we were and then we went on to beat Boca Juniors (in the Intercontinental Cup) just to prove the point, that we really were a very good team.”

IF YOU ARE looking for a game that Paolo Maldini would have preferred never to have played, then you have to go back to Olympique Marseilles v AC Milan in March 1991 when the floodlights failed just at the beginning of injury time at the end of a second-leg Champions Cup, quarter-final tie. At the time, Marseilles were winning 1-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate (with an away goal to boot).

Milan, to all intents and purposes, were eliminated. Yet, in a distinctly unsporting (and much criticised in Italy) move, Milan director general Adriano Galliani marched the team off the field and refused to play out the last three minutes of injury time. The Milan ploy was obvious. They would argue that the game had to be replayed because of the floodlight failure. Uefa, however, took a rather different view, banning Milan from European competition for a year.

Now that was a game never to have played, says Maldini. If you do your best and you get beat, too bad. But to walk off in a huff, that is simply not the Maldini way.

Maldini occupies a rarefied position in Italian public life. He is not so much a professional footballer as a national icon. On the day I met him this week at Milan’s Milanello training centre near Varese, the clubhouse was jammed with a bus party of Milan fans who had been given permission to visit the centre for the afternoon.

As we waited for Maldini to appear, press officer Beppe Pazienza gets a call on his mobile from the ever-correct Maldini just to say that he is on his way and will soon be there. Okay, says Pazienza, but Paolo, take the long way round the clubhouse and meet us on the back lawn, there are too many people around today.

Pazienza and Maldini both know that if he were to run into the bus-load of fans, then he would be stuck there for the next half hour signing autographs and posing for mobile-phone camera shots with just about everyone in sight. Around these parts, he is the Man.

THESE DAYS, of course, the Italian national team does not figure prominently in the Maldini diary. The most capped Italian player of all time, with 126 appearances, he has not played for Italy since that infamous 2002 World Cup elimination by the Gus Hiddink-coached South Korea.

He played in four World Cup final tournaments (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002) and on at least two of those occasions, he came close to winning the trophy. Remember, Italy were beaten by Brazil on penalties in the USA ’94 final and they were probably unlucky to go out to Argentina in Naples at the semi-final stage in 1990, again beaten in a penalty shoot-out.

Given that track record, we wondered with just what mixed emotions he had watched Marcello Lippi’s team triumph where he had so narrowly failed, in Germany three years ago. He is the first to admit that his emotions were indeed mixed: “I was in America, a long way away so until it got to the semi-final stage, I saw hardly anything. I saw the final all right, I was very happy for them but disappointed for myself because we had gone so close so often when I played . . . but you know I’ve had so much out of life that I cannot complain.”

Looking forward to next week’s Italy v Ireland qualifier in Bari, he offers no predictions. For a start, he says, he has not really seen that much of Trapattoni’s Ireland. However, having been coached in the Italy set-up by Trap, he is not surprised at his good start with Ireland.

“Once he’s worked out what he’s got in hand, he’s just the man to make the most of both the players and their way of playing. Clearly, this Ireland is now a very organised side in defence, maybe sometimes he will play on the counter-attack, sometimes, too, that’s the only way to get a result.”

Maldini, of course, was there for the historic Italy v Ireland clashes at the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals. Curiously, he has but vague memories of both games. In 1990 Ireland were a tough opponent all right, so much so that Italy changed their whole defensive system to play with a five-man defence in that 1-0 quarter-final win at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

Yet, ask him who scored the winning goal and he has forgotten entirely. Only when the name Toto Schillaci comes round, does he remember “vaguely“:It’s not that that game was a long time ago but it’s that I’ve played so many games in the meantime . . . My memory card is full. Mind you, Italia ’90 was a great experience even if a disappointment. I mean, maybe we weren’t destined to win it but we should at least have made it to the final. Remember we got to the semi-final without having conceded even one goal.
“I do remember though the Giants Stadium game in 1994 when Ireland really caused us problems (Ireland won thanks to a Ray Houghton goal). We were expected to win that game but defeat by Ireland really started our World Cup on the wrong note and then in our next game against Norway our goalkeeper was sent off . . . oh dear, dear, what a traumatic start . . . and then we ended up in the final, losing on penalties, but that’s football.”

LOOKING BACK AT his long career – and we are talking of more than 1,000 top-class games (see panel) – there is one game that Paolo Maldini recalls very clearly. Namely his Serie A debut in January 1985 as a 16-year-old in a Serie A game away to Udinese: “I knew then that I could be a Serie A player. Our coach (Swede Nils) Liedholm was probably the perfect coach for a youngster, he was very calm and encouraging. He didn’t add to my stress which was good because I was already all worked up on my own.”

Looking at the serene Maldini of today, it is hard to imagine him ever getting “worked up” but, of course, a debut at 16 years of age is a debut, even for Paolo Maldini. With that thought in mind, too, he has made no attempt to stop his 12-year-old son Christian from attempting to follow in dad’s awesome footsteps.

After all, that is what he did himself given that his father, Cesare, was the captain of the Milan team that beat Benfica to win the 1963 Champions Cup. “Football has given me so much why should I not let him (Christian) have his chance and try,” he says.

He has two business interests that he intends to follow up more closely when he retires, one a clothes-wear line and the other an upmarket house restoration company he has formed with various business colleagues. Otherwise, wait and see. And what will he miss most?

“My best moments have probably been here at Milanello on the training ground. That’s what I’m going to miss most, being on the pitch or in the dressingroom with guys from so many different places, that atmosphere, I’m going to miss that.”

And the final match? He says he just wants it to be a real match, one of Milan’s final Serie A games of the season, probably either at home to AS Roma on the second-last day of the season or away to Fiorentina on the last day.

That would be good because those could well be important games with a Champions League place at stake: “I don’t like the idea of something special being set up, I prefer a real game and then after that, whatever will be, will be.”

The catenaccio label Not just Italians

HAVING BEEN one of the great defenders of the modern game, it tends to annoy Paolo Maldini that people associate good defensive play with “negative” football.

In particular, he finds it irksome that non-Italian critics continually accuse Italian football of being overly defensive, playing the infamous “catenaccio” game. In fact, these days, some of the most defensive football, at least in European competition, is played by the much-lauded English sides.

“When I see Manchester United or Liverpool play away from home, these are the most defensive sides I’ve ever seen. They play the entire game in their own half of the field . . . But they have started to get the results in Europe now that they have learned to be defensive.

“People tend to look down their noses sometimes at teams that work hard in defence, yet that’s what missing from a lot of the best teams around today. To get your defence right is not as easy or as negative as it might sound. Sure, fans always want you to play attacking, spectacular football but to get four guys in defence to play well together, to move together is definitely not easy.

“We’ve had teams that have played well in defence but which have also attacked much more than other teams.

“If I think about the Milan sides I’ve played in and I am not just thinking about Sacchi’s Milan (Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard et al), but right down to the present one under Ancelotti, we’ve always had good players, often small creative players with attacking full backs and with everybody willing to attack – too much so sometimes I think.”

Maldini Career

Born: June 26th, 1968

Serie A debut: Udinese v AC Milan, January 20th, 1985

Clubs: AC Milan from 1978 to 2009

Appearances: Serie A games: 638

Champions League/Cup: 143

Caps for Italy: 126

Uefa Cup: 15

Italian Cup: 82

Titles won: 7 Serie A league titles

5 Champions League/Cup trophies

2 Intercontinental Cups

5 European Supercups

1 Italian Cup

1 Fifa Club World Cup

Best opponent: Diego Maradona

Best team-mate: Marco Van Basten

Biggest player influence: Franco Baresi