January 20th 1985. On the day Ronald Reagan re-took the oath of office for his second term as US President, a young Italian called Paolo Maldini joined the family business. At this stage Paolo was known as ‘Cesare’s son’. Some teammates sneered that Paolo was ‘recommendato’ (connected) when he arrived as a boy at AC Milan in 1978, the club where his father Cesare Maldini played for 12 seasons. Maldini senior captained Milan when they became the first Italian side to ever lift the European Cup in 1963 and Cesare managed them in the early 70s too.
Big boots to fill, and boots were an early problem for Paolo. Italy had been hit by a record freeze in 1985 with temperatures plummeting to an Arctic -20 in Florence and -13 in Udine up in the North East of the country where Paolo was on the bench for Milan’s away match against Udinese. He didn’t have the right boots for a snowy pitch. Luckily, a fellow sub that day sorted him out with a pair – grazie Ray Wilkins (even if they were two sizes too small). Another Englishman came to the rescue that day too. Striker Mark Hateley salvaged a point for Milan with an equaliser after 63 minutes. It was Hateley’s sixth of the season nudging him one ahead of the shy and unassuming Diego Maradona who was midway through his first season in Italy. Hateley rescued a point at home to Fiorentina the following week too, but didn’t score again in the league again that season.
The game would be Paolo’s only first team appearance of the 1984-85 season, and one of his only appearances ever at right-back. Though right-back was his natural position, the formidable Mauro Tassotti had made that slot his own – but a vacancy arose on the other side and Paolo gabbed the No.3 shirt, wearing it for 24 seasons. The No.3 is now retired at Milan, the only event in which it could be worn again is if one of Paolo’s sons progresses into the Milan first team and chooses it. His eldest, Christian (born the day Italy lost 2-1 to Czech Republic at Euro ‘96) got as far as Milan U-19s but left permanently in 2016 and is currently plying his trade as a left-sided centre-back for Pro Sesto in Serie C. More interestingly, Paolo’s second son Daniel (who went viral aged five when footage of him executing a slide tackle attempt on Clarence Seedorf hit the internet) made his Rossoneri First Team debut in February 2020 scoring in a friendly against Monza. But, playing as a winger or AMC, he’s unlikely to ever pull on the No.3.
“It’s about time,” laughed Paolo speaking to James Horncastle at The Athletic in 2020 about his youngest son. “Our family has spent a lifetime chasing after other players. Now we have someone who they’re going to have to chase. I can assure you that it’s harder running after the ball than to be chased with it.”
The number three would man-mark Paolo throughout his career. He scored three goals in his entire Champions League career, conceded three painful ones against Liverpool in the famous 2005 final and in the same match became the oldest player to score in European Cup history, aged 36 years and 333 days. His greatest season began in 1993: Milan won Serie A, the Champions League (a trophy he would lift across three different decades) and Paolo finished 93-94 by playing in a World Cup Final with Italy. All the negative stereotypes of Italian defenders – niggling, pinching, play acting – didn’t apply to Paolo, he retired with only three red cards to his name.
Paolo’s playing style and career could have sprung from the pages of a Marvel comic. I was tempted to dedicate this entire article to his incredible hair. Physically he was the perfect storm of a defender: 6ft 2in with rapid pace and an unmatched footballing IQ that allowed him to see play multiple moves ahead. He introduced football to a new level of defending, and did so with glamour and style, if not necessarily technique. “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”, he famously stated, presumably before sprinting off into the night to fight crime and rescue kittens from burning buildings. He was combative, elegant and ahead of his time in terms of fitness and lifestyle, playing beyond his 40th birthday. Continue reading
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