Paolo Maldini's record-breaking career was not supposed to finish in this manner. If any player over the course of the last two decades deserves a fairytale ending, it is Maldini. Five times the 40-year-old defender has held aloft the European Cup and he was a beaten finalist on a further three occasions. Factor in seven Italian Serie A titles, five UEFA Super Cups, five Italian Super Cup successes, one Coppa Italia and the FIFA Club World Cup back in 2007 just for good measure and it is apparent Maldini will be remembered as one of world football's all-time greats.
Sadly, however, when Maldini made his 902nd, and last, appearance for AC Milan this afternoon against Fiorentina there was no silverware at stake, although he did bow out on a high of sorts as the Rossoneri made sure of automatic qualification for next season's UEFA Champions League with a 2-0 win at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. His final Serie A outing for the Rossoneri at the San Siro during last Sunday's 3-2 defeat against Roma proved to be memorable for all the wrong reasons when a small section of the club's supporters sported banners blasting Maldini, who criticised fans earlier this year when telling them to get behind the team during their struggles.
One in the south stand read: "Thanks captain: on the pitch you have been an infinite champion but you have lacked the respect of those that have made you rich." Another one read: "For your 25-year glorious career our deepest thanks from those you defined as mercenaries." That banner was accompanied by a big jersey of Franco Baresi, who Maldini replaced as captain, and with chants of "There's only one captain". Maldini has been left nonplussed by it all.
"I don't really know what happened," said Maldini, who turns 41 next month. "I have always played consistently and have a lot of respect for the club. I wanted to be judged only on that ground."
Indeed, Maldini has served Milan with nothing but distinction in the 24 years since he made his debut for the club at the age of 16 back in January 1985. Like his father Cesare before him, Maldini would later be installed as Milan captain and he helped the Italian giants dominate both domestically and in Europe until recently. The first of his seven Scudetti came at the end of the 1987/88 campaign and the following year Milan-born Maldini was part of the legendary Rossoneri side alongside the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Franco Baresi that defeated Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the European Cup final.
Numerous personal and collective awards and accolades have followed since, including being the oldest player to score in a UEFA Champions League final in the 2005 defeat against Liverpool, a game in which Maldini also netted the quickest goal ever in a Champions League final after barely a minute played. He also amassed a record number of caps - 126 - for Italy before retiring from international football in the aftermath of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Maldini skippered the Azzurri all the way to the 1994 FIFA World Cup final, which they lost on penalties to Brazil, and to the same stage at Euro 2000 before again falling at the final hurdle following a 2-1 defeat to France.
International silverware may have eluded Maldini, but his committed performances for club and country, leadership skills and battling qualities were clear for all to see. That Maldini is bowing out at the very top also offers proof, if any was needed, of what a consummate professional he has been down the years. The respect from leading figures within the game for the veteran Italian was all too evident only this week when Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola dedicated his side's UEFA Champions League triumph over Manchester United in Rome to the retiring Maldini.
"He is a true great of the game and what happened to him by 20, 30 or 40 supporters was wrong," said Guardiola in reference to the fan abuse Maldini suffered last weekend. "I dedicated this triumph to him." What the future holds for Maldini is unclear as he prepares to hang up his boots, although he does not intend to follow in his father's footsteps and make the move into management.
"I won't be a coach because it is a role that brings out all the things that I don't like about football," Maldini revealed. "The excessive exposure to the media, moving to different cities and having to work with difficult presidents."
At least the Maldini name will carry on for a third generation at Milan, with Christian, Paolo's 12-year-old son who is also a defender, currently on the books at the San Siro. The pressure is bound to be heaped on Christian in the years to come due to his family heritage and even more so after Milan president Silvio Berlusconi afforded Paolo lavish praise earlier this month.
"In the list of best Milan players of the last 20 years, I would put him on top, with Baresi just behind," said Berlusconi. "We always loved Paolo and we still do, because he has always shown great professionalism and dedication to the team."
It is these enduring qualities that mean finding a worthy replacement for one Paolo Cesare Maldini will be an ominous task for the Milan hierarchy.