Maldini wants winning finale
© AFP

Chatting with the iconic Paolo Maldini is like having a conversation with AC Milan itself. In the world of modern football it is increasingly rare to find players like the Italian defender, now in the last season of an illustrious career, who have spent their entire professional life at just one club. Maldini is not just a role model in his chosen sport but in life as well.

With the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 kicking off in a month's time, FIFA.com spoke exclusively with the Rossoneri captain at AC Milan's training complex in Milanello. And who better to gauge the feeling in the camp ahead of their Japanese adventure than that great man Maldini himself.

FIFA.com: Paolo, you've said this will be your last year as a player. You've worn the same shirt in a career spanning 23 years. What does AC Milan mean to you?
Paolo Maldini:
AC Milan is like my second family. My father was a player and captain on this team and I've followed in his footsteps. My son plays in one of the youth teams, although it's by no means certain that he'll become a footballer. For the Maldini family AC Milan means a great deal, and on a football level virtually everything.

What is the secret of staying at the top for so long? Has your playing style altered over the years?
One of the most important reasons is that I've played in a good team that has provided me the incentive to go on. As time goes by you gain experience. You perhaps lose something from a physical point of view but you improve tactically and mentally.

How important is the FIFA Club World Cup for you and the team?
We give it great importance because it enables you to become a world champion. It is the pinnacle of club football. It's a road I've travelled down several times in my career and which has, unfortunately, not always ended in ultimate victory. I was a winner the first two times I played in the tournament, but on the losing side in 1993, 1994 and 2003. It's always a great disappointment to leave the pitch as a loser because the Club World Cup is such a difficult competition to qualify for. It's a real pity to let the opportunity escape you.

This is the first time you'll be appearing in the FIFA Club World Cup with the new seven-team format. What changes do you think you'll see?
The approach to matches will definitely be different because we'll be staying in Japan for a longer period. There are less certainties but you get the chance to prepare better by dedicating more time to the competition.

Boca Juniors are the most decorated team amongst your possible opponents. What can you tell us about them?
We have to play a semi-final first before we even qualify for any final. And we all know that as the years go by the first game is becoming increasingly more difficult. Upsets are never far away given the improvements in the quality of football on other continents. If we do play against Boca Juniors then we'll be meeting a team that has always shown itself to be very compact. Their personnel changes a lot because they sell their best players but the team remains very solid. Squad unity and a winning mentality are the main strengths of the Argentines in my opinion.

What is the physical condition of you and the AC Milan team in general?
My physical condition is not ideal because I still feel pain due to long months of inactivity. I need to play a few matches if I am to arrive in Japan at my best. Ronaldo is in the same condition as me. The team is improving even though we haven't yet found the right continuity in Serie A. I believe we have turned a corner though.

On the basis of past experience the backroom staff are concerned about jetlag. Is this a serious problem?
From my point of view the defeats the last three times we played were not mainly due to jetlag. In 1993 against Sao Paulo we played a very good team and lost an exciting match, whereas against Velez (Sarsfield) and Boca (Juniors) we were probably the better team on paper but couldn't show it on the pitch. Jetlag affects everyone and the South Americans have to travel even further than us.

During your career you've played with some of the best players of all time. How do Kaka and Ronaldo compare?
Above all Kaka is a decent and hard-working guy. In football terms he combines excellent technique and ability to score goals with exceptional speed. The latter is vital in modern football. Ronaldo is a world-class player and as such when he's fit he gives the team that something extra in terms of technique and personality. Let's hope he's back quickly to contribute. He has innate scoring awareness because he has a unique ability to transform every ball he touches into a scoring opportunity.

Turning back to you, how disappointed were you last summer not to be part of the Italy team that won the FIFA World Cup in Germany? After all you'd played in four previous tournaments and hold the Azzurri appearances record with 126 caps?
I was very disappointed in 1990 when we lost against Argentina in the semi-final and in 1994 when we were beaten by Brazil in the final. So my disappointment doesn't really concern Germany 2006, given that I hadn't played for Italy for four years, but rather my career as a whole.

Incredibly it was left-back Fabio Grosso and central-defender Marco Materazzi, playing in your favoured roles, who were decisive in influencing Italy's fate...
The World Cup is like that. You have to grasp your opportunities. I, and the teams I played in, were not good enough or lucky enough to succeed, whereas (Marcello) Lippi's men deserved their victory.

Luck and your ability now give you the chance to end your career as a world champion. Did you know that if you play in Yokohama you'll claim the record for the most appearances in the FIFA Club World Cup in its various guises?
Statistics only count for so much but when I look at the numbers I can't help but notice this is the only club competition where I've lost more times than won having suffered three defeats but enjoyed two victories. I'd like to end my career with those statistics evened out. I'd love to lift the trophy with my team mates. Winning the world title with AC Milan means everything to me.