Paolo Maldini almost never played at right-back during his 25-year career, yet that was his natural position; the one where he started out. When he was 12 he spent countless hours kicking the ball various distances with his left foot, until he was as comfortable using it as his right.
It was just as well. When Maldini was on the fringes of the Milan first team as a 17-year-old, the formidable Mauro Tassotti had made the right-back slot his own – but a vacancy arose on the other side. The fresh-faced hopeful was thrown in the deep end didn’t drown. Little changed over the next quarter-century.
It’s a story that captures Maldini’s career in a microcosm: he offered poise, presence and eternal consistency on the pitch due to his diligence and meticulous self-discipline off it. His lifestyle was a model of elite-level professionalism, his private life was exactly that, while his work with the fabled ‘Milan lab’ ensured he remained in peak condition as his career ticked well into its third decade.
“Paolo’s biological age is much younger than his actual age. The tests we have done now have scored much higher than three of four years ago,” said Adriano Galliani of the then-36-year-old in 2005.
Very few players reach the vaunted 1,000-game mark. Even fewer do so as a mainstay at one of European football’s gilded heavyweights. Maldini did both, winning seven league championships and a frankly staggering five European Cup/Champions League titles in the process. All the while he embodied the Milanese notion of grinta – ‘grit’ – but without sacrificing more typically Italian qualities of suave, refinement and immeasurable handsomeness.
His only relative disappointments came with Italy, who finished runners-up at the 1994 World Cup and at Euro 2000 (although his own displays were impeccable in both tournaments).
If his retirement in 2009, at the age of 40, was proof of the inevitable effects of time, then the previous 25 years were equally good evidence for the very opposite: a player for whom age only served to sharpen his exquisite talents.
Maldini was part of not just one but two of the all-time great defensive partnerships, with Franco Baresi and then Alessandro Nesta. It was his achievements alongside the former, which peaked in 1992 with an unbeaten title-winning campaign, that arguably rank at the top of a remarkable CV.
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