It is no secret that tight family bonds are woven deep into the fabric of Italian society. What could be more normal, then, than to find a long list of sons following a career path in Calcio first trodden by their fathers? Not all make it to the top of course, and many suffer under the weight of their illustrious surname, but a special few manage to be remembered for their first names, recalling the old proverb 'like father, like son'. Three dynasties in particular make you wonder if there is not a 'football gene' at work - the Maldinis, the Mazzolas and the Contis.
The Maldinis: defending the family name
An elegant defender with assured technique, Cesare Maldini made 14 appearances for the Squadra Azzurra and spent the large part of his career at AC Milan, whose colours he wore with distinction between 1954 and 1966. He also had the honour of lifting the first ever European trophy won by an Italian team, the Cup Winners' Cup in 1963. And by that time, he had already collected four Italian league titles (1955, 1957, 1959, 1962).
But it is above all as a coach that Cesare Maldini will be remembered. Taking his lead from Nero Rocco, a fellow native of Trieste and fabled AC Milan boss of the 60s and 70s, Cesare was a stern disciple of the old school. His teams are models of the classic Italian style, with Maldini senior applying the lessons he learnt from his mentor. His is the simple approach, founded on cast-iron defence and rapid counter-attacks.
Those methods failed to bring him success at club level, but Cesare shone on the international stage, leading Italy's Under-21 side to three consecutive European Championships in 1992, 1994 and 1996. With the senior side, he was assistant to Enzo Bearzot as Italy triumphed at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ and Bearzot's right-hand man again at Mexico 1986, before becoming Arrigo Sacchi's successor as head coach after a disappointing UEFA Euro 96 campaign.
Widely criticised for his cautious approach, Maldini nonetheless led Italy to the quarter-finals of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France, where they suffered a cruel penalty-shoot out defeat to eventual winners France.
After a last World Cup adventure with Paraguay at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, Cesare Maldini returned to AC Milan to oversee the youth teams. By that point, his son Paolo had been excelling for almost two decades in the same shirts once graced by his father - those of the Rossoneri and the national team.
Twenty years on from his Serie A debut as a 16-year-old against Udinese on 20 January 1985, Paolo Maldini is racing headlong towards his 550th match in the colours of Milan, the only club he has ever represented. "It's very possible that I'll end my career at AC Milan," predicted the proud captain of the San Siro outfit - under contract until 30 June 2006 - when announcing his international retirement after Korea/Japan 2002.
His natural elegance, courtesy and intelligence have made him an ambassador for the Calcio on football pitches all over the world. The already legendary left-back (6'2", 187lbs) will go down in football history as one of the most successful players of all time, having amassed seven Serie A titles, four Champions League trophies, four European Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.
Blessed with the physique of a matinee idol, a thick mane of brown hair and light-coloured eyes, he is the darling of mammas across the peninsula. His only regret is never having tasted glory on the international stage, despite 126 appearances for the Squadra Azzurra and four tilts at the FIFA World Cup.
"Just like my dad, a lot of things have happened to me in my career. I hope that my life follows the same path as his again in the future," explains Paolo, himself the father of two children.
The Mazzolas: in honour of a father
It is always difficult to take over from a myth, but Alessandro Mazzola succeeded in doing precisely that after having lived for so long in the shadow of his father, Valentino. Mazzola senior was the star striker of the great Torino side that dominated the Calcio in the 1940s, but at just 30 years of age and entering the peak of his career, he tragically lost his life in the Superga air disaster. Returning from a match against Benfica on 4 May 1949, the plane carrying the Torino squad crashed into hills near Turin, killing everyone on board and leaving the young Sandro without a father.
Valentino had just won his fifth championship with Torino. He also collected twelve Italy caps in an era when international matches were disputed much less often than they are today. Just seven at the time, Sandro was then taken under the wing of Inter Milan striker Benito Lorenzi.
A first-team regular for Inter from 1960 onwards, Sandro quickly made a name for himself thanks to his creative instincts and breathtaking technique. In 17 years of dedicated service to the Nerazzurri, he struck 116 goals in 418 games and helped his side to four Scudetti (1963, 1965, 1966 and 1971), two European Cups (1964 and 1965) and two Intercontinental Cups (1964 and 1965).
In the international arena, he was a member of the Squadra Azzurra side that won the European Championship in 1968. And his rivalry with Milan star Gianni Rivera, nine months his junior, was a huge national talking-point, splitting Italy down the middle like no two players before or since. Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi's answer was to field both men during the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, and Italy advanced all the way to the final after winning an epic semi-final with West Germany 4-3. Sandro Mazzola finally called time on his career at the age of 36, having joined his father in the pantheon of the Calcio's all-time greats.
The Contis: a difficult heritage for Daniele
In the words of Pele back in 1982, Bruno Conti was "the most Brazilian of all the Italians". Capable of bamboozling opponents with mazy dribbles, by the end of the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ the diminutive winger (5'6", 143lbs) had earned the nickname 'Marazico' - a combination of Maradona and Zico, no less. In raw statistics, he scored a mere five goals in 47 appearances, but his true contribution was in setting up the goals Paolo Rossi converted to take Italy to glory on Spanish soil. He fulfilled the same role at Roma, where he provided chances on a silver platter for Roberto Pruzzo, while helping himself to 37 strikes in 304 Serie A games overall.
Conti retired aged 36 in 1991 and now works with Roma's youth teams, where his son Daniele kicked off his own career. After making his full Roma debut on 21 November 1996, Daniele moved to Cagliari and he is currently disputing his sixth season there, four of which were spent in Serie B.
"It's marvellous to be able to play with Gianfranco Zola. He's an extraordinary and very humble champion," says Daniele, who early in his career was castigated by his father for picking up too many yellow cards. "I play in front of the defence so often I have to step in and stop a striker who's bearing down on goal," he retorts, before adding in a sentence charged with meaning: "I don't want to play for the team where my father works because my name is already hard enough to carry as it is."