While so many players skip from club to club with alarming regularity, 36-year-old Paolo Maldini stands out as a beacon of loyalty in the modern game. As if proof were still needed, AC Milan's emblematic captain contested his 536th match in the famous rossonero shirt on 20 January and, in twenty years at the highest level, it is still the only one he has ever worn.
The stylish defender has his own chapter in Milan's history and if there is one episode in particular that cemented the Maldini legend, it is probably the night he held the Champions League trophy aloft in 2003, exactly forty years after his father Cesare had in the same red and black colours.
Soon afterwards, Milan's vice-president Adriano Galliani announced that the No. 3 shirt would be retired as soon as the man who had made it his own finally called time on an epic career that had begun at the age of 16. "Champions must be given a permanent place in the history of the club," he said, recalling that the side's iconic No. 6 Franco Baresi had been accorded the same honour.
It is a tribute made all the more poignant by being almost unheard of in the Italian game. Apart from Maldini and Baresi, only three players have inspired such reverence for their services, including no less a figure than Diego Maradona himself, whose No. 10 shirt was retired by Napoli in 2000. Roma took a similar step to demonstrate their "affection" for Brazilian No. 6 Aldair, who spent 12 seasons with the capital club, and, this season, Cagliari withdrew the No. 11 shirt, worn with distinction by Calcio legend Gigi Riva.
With his evergreen physique and natural elegance, combined with intelligence and a true sense of fair play, Maldini is a perfect role model whenever and wherever he takes the field.
"I was already playing in the first team at just 16 years of age. Everything happened so quickly I didn't have time to realise what was going on," he says. "I'm proud to have been at this club since I was 10 and proud to be the only player here born in Milan. For someone born and bred in this city, playing for Milan is really special.
"Of course, at the beginning I had to prove that I wasn't here just because of my surname, even if it wasn't always easy being Cesare's son. Quite a few times in my career I've found myself in the same situation as him, but we do share the same line of work after all. I hope that my life can follow the same path as his again in the future."
Reading between the lines, it appears Maldini junior already has one eye on management at the end of his playing days.
It would be an entirely natural step for a man whose thirst for victory remains as strong as ever, undiminished by a long list of honours. Maldini has already collected four winners' medals from six Champions League finals, seven Italian league titles, two intercontinental trophies (Toyota Cup), four European Super Cups and one Italian Cup. He also scored seven goals in 128 appearances with the Squadra Azzurra, dating all the way back to 1988, and starred in four FIFA World Cups™ (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002).
His only regret in all that time is not having gone one better than the runners-up spot that came with Italy's penalty shoot-out loss to Brazil in the 1994 final.
"Twice now, in 1994 and 2000, I saw the trophy just sitting there on a table by the side of the pitch. All we had to do to lift it was win," he notes with frustration.
Maldini's international days are over now, but the example he continues to set keeps him at the forefront of Italian football. "He's still got the same passion after 20 years with Milan," enthused his rossoneri team-mate Gennaro Gattuso. "He's a true leader, he never raises his voice and he never shouts at anyone. Even away from the pitch, Paolo's the kind of guy who never loses his temper," he adds, no doubt falling slightly short in that category himself.
Tributes to Maldini are legion, and on 28 January a two-hour film was released crammed with glowing testimonies from stars of the game past and present. Vieri, Ronaldo, Shevchenko and, from another era, Baresi, Zoff and Van Basten were among those who enthusiastically shared their thoughts in front of the cameras, inevitably humbling the man who has never simply chased glory for glory's sake. "Recognition from my peers is one of the most beautiful things I ever could have hoped for," he said, clearly moved by the whole experience.
Yet another example of Maldini's enduring influence was given earlier this month by AC Milan playmaker Kaka, who admitted to having confided in his captain during a period of doubt.
"Paolo has been very important to me. He told me some very meaningful things. He explained all the difficult times he has had in his career and how the club always makes it through the hardest tests." Naturally, the Brazilian has since rediscovered his touch.
Indeed, nobody at the club seems to want to think about Maldini's eventual retirement. "What would be perfect," says Galliani, "would be if he could wait until his son starts playing before calling it a day." Christian is barely eight-and-a-half years old but, as long as his Dad refuses to grow old, anything is possible.