Italy has produced more than its fair share of great defenders. Yet of all the many gifted exponents of the defensive arts to have emerged from the country, there are two that stand out from the rest. One is the late Giacinto Facchetti, who went down in history as the first of the game’s flying full-backs, a player who foraged forward at every opportunity to make the entire left flank his own.

The other is Paolo Maldini, the most elegant of defenders and for whom anticipation - not intimidation - was the name of the game. FIFA.com pays tribute to the elegant, one-club stalwart, who made 902 appearances for AC Milan in his 24-year-career, 647 of them in Serie A.

Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that Maldini would turn out to be one of the most accomplished defenders the game has ever seen. His father Cesare, steeped in the culture of catenaccio and an Italy international, was as solid as they come in the right-back slot for AC Milan between 1954 and 1966.

His sporting destiny mapped out for him at an early age, Paolo was only ten when he joined the Rossoneri youth set-up. It would not be long before his natural elegance and sense of sportsmanship would begin to shine through, and in the years that followed the youngster honed his positional skills, silencing the doubters and shaking off the tag of "daddy’s little boy."

The making of a modern defender
It was one of his father’s former team-mates, Swedish coach Nils Liedholm, who gave him his first outing in Serie A in a 1-1 draw with Udinese on 20 January 1985. Maldini was only 16 years and 208 days old, yet by the following season he had become an undisputed first choice.

Things would remain that way for more than two decades, the young Maldini becoming a cornerstone of the Milan rearguard thanks to his prodigious technical, tactical and physical attributes, and also to a profound shift in the Italian approach to defending.

The players change but the philosophy never does.
Maldini on the Milan philosophy

 

Out went the old reliance on all-out defence and in came a new mindset, one in which the full-back had a key part to play by getting down the channel, as it became known in modern football parlance. And with the global explosion in televised coverage of the game, the marauding Maldini quickly became a household name.

Lining up alongside Mauro Tassoti, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, he was also fortunate to form part of one of the greatest defensive units Milan have ever assembled. His two-footedness was also a factor in his longevity. Though naturally right-footed, he was perfectly at home on the left side of defence.

Those qualities inevitably brought him international recognition. After running out for the Italy U-21s for a season and a half, he made his full debut for La Nazionale in a 1-1 draw with Yugoslavia in Split in March 1988.

In the meantime the trophies would come thick and fast with Milan. In addition to five UEFA Champions League titles, the enduring Maldini would lift seven scudetti, two Intercontinental Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup crown, the full-back also enduring defeats in two Champions League finals and three Intercontinental Cups.

Adapting to change
That lasting success is something Maldini puts down to the club’s philosophy: “Milan has always sought to play its own game rather than set out to destroy what opposing sides are doing. The players change but the philosophy never does.”

And on the rare occasions defeat reared its ugly head, he always took it in his stride: “I just learned to accept it as part and parcel of the game.”

The peerless Maldini had a major hurdle to overcome at the end of the 1996/97 season when the great Baresi, the man who made the Milan defence tick, announced his retirement. The club retired his No6 shirt immediately, with Maldini taking his place in the centre of defence and pulling on the captain’s armband for both club and country.  

Baresi’s replacement’s form took a dip as he struggled to come to terms with the unique demands of the central-defensive role, with Milan also missing the influential libero’s calming presence. In the eyes of some, Maldini was a fading force, but the appointment of Alberto Zaccheroni as coach soon had the doubters eating their words.

Implementing a three-man rearguard, the new man at the helm restored Maldini to his beloved left flank. The change worked wonders as a resurgent Milan claimed another league title. And when the vastly experienced defender reverted to centre of defence after turning 30, his innate positional sense ensured the switch was a successful one.

Finals agony for the perfect gent
The biggest regret of his career was his failure to win a major title with Italy. He came close twice, the first of those occasions coming in the Final of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™. Largely faultless during the scoreless meeting with Brazil, he took no part in the fateful penalty shootout. He had that sinking feeling again in the final at UEFA EURO 2000, when France scored in the dying seconds to force extra time before snatching the trophy with a golden goal, Maldini being blameless for Italy’s agonising defeat.

He brought his exemplary international career to an end in the wake of La Squadra Azzurri’s Round-of-16 elimination at the hands of Korea Republic at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea, a golden goal once again defeating the Italians. By that time he had racked up 126 games for his country, 74 of them as captain, only recently relinquishing his status as Italy’s most-capped player to another defensive giant in Fabio Cannavaro, who has 136 caps to his name.

Yet there is more, much more to the legend of Paolo Maldini than just trophies and caps. Immaculately behaved on and off the pitch, he has always been a role model. One of football’s true gentlemen, he has never lost his cool, picking up only a single red card in over 1000 official games, and that in a friendly.

Such is his stature in the game that even the Inter tifosi paid tribute to him in the last Milan derby he played before his retirement. “It was a wonderful surprise,” he later said. “On a human level, I think it’s one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever experienced.”

The ultimate professional and the most selfless of team-mates, Maldini has always remained loyal to his principles. Discreet to the last and reluctant to bow out with a big farewell, he opted to bring the curtain down on his career with a “low-key” party, as he himself put it. “A bit like me really.”