24 May 2009

Grazie, Capitano

Too often in sport, particularly football, words like legend are thrown around towards players who are little deserving. But every once in a while you get a player who deserves recognition for their contribution to the game.

Football generally, particularly the Italian game, specifically AC Milan is important to me. Keeping everything in the correct perspective, football gives occasion of high and low emotions, offers opportunity of fraternity with like minded people, and a certain type of tribal rivalry that, when kept within acceptable norms, is often humorous and enjoyable. It surely doesn't need to be said, I have no time for rivalries that descend into violence.

Today was the last game played in Serie A for Paolo Maldini at the home ground of Milan, the San Siro. You would expect, that after a 24 year career with the same team, making 901 appearances (his 902nd is next week, in the last game of the season against Fiorentina) that the fans would show their gratitude to a player of the quality of Maldini. And generally that was the case, starting off with the opposing players from today's game, Roma, wearing shirts thanking and praising Maldini, congratulating him personally. Before the match, the crowd showed their appreciation, the atmosphere came through well even on TV. Would have been great to be there. However, once the game kicked off, some banners were unfurled similar to that in the picture that criticised Maldini, for some alleged offense given to the fans during the time the current England manager, Fabio Capello, was manager of Milan. At some points Maldini was whistled by his own supporters, and the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, was also roundly criticised for perceived lack of ambition in the transfer market.

Whatever the points, today was not the day for protest, and re-opening old wounds. Instead, it was a day for remembering a true great of the modern football era, a player who has performed at the top of his game for almost 25 years. Maldini made his debut for Milan when he was just 16 years old, and soon became a regular figure in the team's line-up. The haul of trophies one during Maldini's career is impressive:

7 Serie A titles
5 Champions League titles
5 UEFA Super Cups
5 Supercoppa Italiana
2 Intercontinental Cups
1 FIFA World Club Cup
1 Coppa Italia

Maldini also played 126 times for Italy, 74 of those as captain. The one major honour missing from his impressive CV is a World Cup. He had retired from the Italian national team after the 2002 World Cup, so missed out on the triumph in 2006. Maldini, for all his triumphs and great matches, was rather unfortunate in the international game, being runner up in the 1994 World Cup Final to Brazil, a match that was lost on penalties, and also runner up to France in the Euro 2000 final, a game that Italy were winning until a couple of minutes before the end of the game, France scored to take the final into extra time. They subsequently one by scoring in extra time, taking the title on the then Golden Goal ruling.

Still, even taking those disappointments into account, Paolo Maldini has had an amazing career. He is a true great of the game, and fully deserving of all the praise he receives. In a modern game where greed drives players to show disloyalty at every moment, to have achieved 901 top level games with one club is a real achievement. Grazie, Capitano, per tutto.

Paolo's father, Cesare, was a great defender for the club. With sons of his own, maybe the Maldini name will continue to be part of AC Milan into the future. The oldest, Christian, is already part of the youth set up, and if this video clip is anything to go by, there is a future for Daniel Maldini. Only 5 years old in this clip, Daniel makes an excellent tackle on Clarence Seedorf, himself a Champions League winner with three different clubs:

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