Soccer lists are ubiquitous and come in all shapes and sizes, types and varieties. We at O87 never settle for just doing another list. “Just another list” isn’t even in our vocabulary. So, when one of us decided that it would behoove our blog to have it’s own take on the “Best Of” phenomenon of modern sports, we decided that we couldn’t just list the best players in order of their relative merits, by their decades or eras, or even by their positions. We would try something marginally novel (we won’t be so bold as to claim to be the first to come up with this idea): let’s rank players by the number they wore, not by their position. Now obviously, this throws in some wrinkles. Players who might not normally be compared to each other will needs be. For example, Makelele, Hargreaves, Koeman, Zanetti, and Fabregas have all iconically worn number 4. Who to choose? It doesn’t matter! We’re trying to approach this question from a different perspective. We hope you enjoy it.
The Seven Ages of Maldini
Most sportsmen are lucky if their careers last long enough to allow them even a second act. Only great athletes have an arc that can be traced, a narrative followed and digested. Michael Jordan started out as a brash scoring machine who was impossible to win a title with, morphed into the greatest player alive, was exiled into baseball, then came back to become the greatest player of all time before retiring as a glorious champion. (What’s that you say? The Washington Wizards? I don’t know what you’re talking about.)
Since one of the defining elements of Paolo Maldini’s career was its longevity, it’s not surprising that his particular arc featured many different stages. The man played for nearly a quarter of a century and more than 1,000 games. He was a winner, yes, but also a loser, suffering five defeats in the finals of the world’s biggest competitions – three European Cup finals, one World Cup final and one European Championship final – equaling his European Cup victories. He was a captain, yes, but also occasional scapegoat, his cerebral style of defending sometimes unable to cope with some of the physical freaks he ran up against.
Put simply, Paolo Maldini is all that is man, today we’re honoring him as the greatest number 3 with an Il Capitano-centric interpretation of the seven ages of man, as taken from one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies.
I. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
In 1985, at the age of 16, Paolo makes appearance number one in an A.C. Milan jersey, coming on as a substitute at half-time for the injured Sergio Battistini. This was not a Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp situation; Maldini wouldn’t make another appearance until the following season.
II. And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
Of course, once that next season started, he had been installed in the starting lineup, which, unfortunately for purposes of this particular Shakespearean quote, happened during one of the periods when his club legend dad Cesare wasn’t coaching the team (1973-1974 and 2001, if you were curious). It took the club three more years to complete its climb back from its betting scandal exile in Serie B. In 1988, with the team under the direction of the former shoe salesman Arrigo Sacchi, Maldini won the Scudetto for the first time. In 1989, it was the European Cup, and Maldini was entrenched as the youngest member of what would become one of the most dominant defensive foursomes of all-time, the Maldini-Baresi-Costacurra-Tassotti backline.
III. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
Milan and Maldini took three of the next six European championships, winning in ’89, ’90 and ’94. Fortunately for the rest of the clubs on the continent, there was only one thing Maldini’s teams, both Milan and Italy, would prove to be as good at as they were at winning trophies: losing them at the last stage. The strength of their engine room carried Milan to the final in 1993 and 1995, both of which they lost by that quintessential Italian scoreline of 1-0. In the summer of 1994, Maldini and Baresi did one better in the center of Italy’s defense, holding Brazil scoreless for 120 minutes before losing on penalties.
IV. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
These losses did little to diminish Maldini’s reputation. He finished third in the Ballon d’Or voting for 1994 and was named World Soccer Magazine’s Player of the Year. He captained Italy for much of that World Cup before ceding the armband to Baresi when he replaced Costacurra for the final, and took over the captaincy of Milan not long after that. This is where Il Capitano literally made his name for himself; if the man wasn’t almost universally respected for his leadership skills, there’s no doubt we’d be writing the Seven Ages of Giacinto Facchetti instead. As captain, he’d lift two more Champions League winners trophies, in 2003 and 2007, but he’d also be denied another by Liverpool’s comeback and Jerzy Dudek’s frantically waving arms in 2005.
V. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
Even as a young man, Maldini’s style of defense foreshadowed the wily veteran he would become. His sense of positioning and guile meant he didn’t have to tackle, didn’t have to go body-to-body in the air, in order to win the ball. Unfortunately, that meant that when his positioning was just a little off, or his timing just a little too early or late, he could end up looking, well, old, like on this goal that knocked Italy out of the 2002 World Cup.
VI. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
In 2006, four years after retiring from the Azzurri, Maldini watches as teammates lift the World Cup without him. 126 caps and 15 years of wasted service. Legs aching, he performs dutifully for three years more and ends his career proudly.
VII. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Milan retire the number 3 in Paolo’s honor, but pledge to bestow the number upon his sons should they make the first team. The man, once legend, is now an artifact of former glory. One day soon, Christian and Daniel will replace him, as he did Cesare. Maldini entertains coaching offers and advisory roles, but rejects them all. No career compares to the stewardship of a world-class defender, he thinks. And so this chapter of the Maldini legacy ends.