Remembering The Greats – Zinedine Zidane: Footballing Ballet

Zinedine Zidane is both seen as one of the greatest footballers ever to grace a pitch, and a reference for some vaguely humorous jokes. Like many legendary players, Zidane’s name goes before him, meaning that, ignoring all context, when former Blackburn Rovers owner Jack Walker turned him down in 1995, saying “who needs Zidane when we’ve got Tim Sherwood?”, it has made him, the club and their Premier League winning captain a bit of a laughing stock.

Of course, thinking back now, Walker has been made to look foolish, because Zidane turned out to be pretty super-human with the ball at his feet. At that time, he was little more than a young player with potential at Bordeaux. Moving to Ewood Park would mean not moving to Turin, and Juventus, the most important decision he would ever make, where the boy from an Algerian immigrant family would become a history making man.

It says a lot that the last act of his career has never defined him. For your average player, committing such a sin as Zidane did, headbutting an opponent, at a crucial point in the biggest single sporting event on the planet, would cast whatever they had achieved before under a very dark cloud.

Zidane is in no way average, though. As he marched from the pitch in the World Cup final on July 9th 2006, the red card having been thrust high in his face, with his head down, it hadn’t quite sunk in that his footballing career was over. Then 34 years of age, his story was written, he was retiring after the game, but he ended his relationship with football by costing France the highest of honours, laying Italy defender Marco Materazzi out on the floor with one swift motion of his forehead.

All geniuses are flawed, and Zidane’s anger would hold him back in many ways across his career, but for someone as special as him, it was worth forgiving and focussing on the beauty of his play instead. His style was so unique; while Lionel Messi can walk through treacle without the ball getting stuck and Cristiano Ronaldo can turn you inside-out easier than a roundabout, “Zizou” would play football like a choreographed dance, his moves keeping him two steps ahead at all times.

It seemed no one would ever beat his transfer record when he moved from Juve to Real Madrid in 2001. At 29, £48million seemed very steep, but the player he became in Turin, a graceful number 10 with feet of wizardry, made him worth every penny. Three years earlier, he had almost single handedly guided France to a home World Cup success, one of those reasons for such leniency after the Materazzi debacle.

It took eight years, when Real paid Manchester United £80million for Ronaldo, but the record was eventually broken. Zidane hadn’t managed to inspire Real to world domination, but he was as spectacular as expected during his five year stint at the Santiago Bernabeu, particularly when lifting their ninth Champions League title in 2002, with a goal that continues to reverberate through history.

It was in Glasgow, at Hampden Park, and the opposition were Bayer Leverkusen. A long ball out left was met brilliantly by fullback Roberto Carlos, another who belongs on the highest shelf of footballing royalty, who hooked it across. There stood at the edge of the box, waiting, with a raised left leg, was Zidane. He timed the connected volley to perfection, the ball flying into the roof of the net.

For many, that was the greatest moment of Zidane’s outstanding career, but what made him great was hid propensity to make everything he did pop and sparkle with class. The perfect way to sum him up, and perhaps his most underrated show of brilliance, was in a game for Real at home to Valencia in January 2003. Pouring with rain, it was proof he could do anything, anywhere on any day.

Late on in the game, with the score was 3-1 and the victory secure, Zidane received the ball centrally. Taking a touch would have been the easy option, but a Cruyff turn made the transition easier, now he had space to run into. Gently nudging forward, he threw in some slow, but deceptive step overs before playing the most perfectly weighted pass around the defence and directly onto the foot of a moving Javier Portillo, who opened his body and swept home his first La Liga goal.

It looked so easy, but the motion in which he did it was so tough, but that was Zidane. His touch, his grace, his elegance were so sumptuous, judges would be scoring him tens galore on the ballet floor.

There are many reasons Jack Walker has been ridiculed for that quote, but in fairness, most of them happened after he said it. Still, what a player to miss out on, arguably the most romantic footballer of our time.

Remembering The Greats: Alan Shearer – The Local Hero

The man himself put it best: “I’m just a sheet-metal worker’s son from Gosforth.” Alan Shearer’s was a simple faitytale story with a dash of realism, the type Hollywood would love to write. Full of grit, determination, triumphant ups and stinging downs, in the end he got to do what he always dreamt of. He scored for Newcastle United wearing the number 9 shirt, 206 times exactly, more than anyone else.

There is a ‘rags to riches’ element, in his humble Tyneside roots, but he is now both the envy and hero of everyone in the area. There is too much pigeonholing in football these days, certain criteria which defines a successful career, normally centring around the number of medals on a mantelpiece. That idea assumes every player dreams of lifting silverware and nothing else. Of course, most would tell you that is an aim, but not the be all and end all. For some playing football is enough, especially for the right team. Shearer was most definitely the exception to that rule.

It is a myth, though, that he completely turned his back on defined ‘success’. Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to sign him for Manchester United, twice. He failed both times, Shearer signing for Blackburn Rovers first in 1992, and more famously Newcastle for a then world-record fee of £15million in 1996.

He has become the bud of jokes, particularly among Manchester United fans, for ignoring their interest and subsequently turning his back on a much more ‘successful’ career. While he definitely, in the case of the second move, put his heart first, he admits he almost signed on at Old Trafford. It should also be remembered that, when he returned home to join Newcastle and play for childhood hero Kevin Keegan, the Magpies were legitimate title contenders, as opposed to the institutionalised laughing stock they appear now.

All he wanted was to play for Newcastle, despite other temptations along the way. It took longer than he probably anticipated growing up, failing at a trial after being put in goal despite an, unsurprisingly, prolific goalscoring record in the grassroots for the fabled Wallsend Boys Club, also responsible for producing the likes of Michael Carrick and Steve Bruce. Ironically, both enjoyed that trophy-laden life in the red half of Manchester, neither pulling on a black and white shirt.

Newcastle have not been the best at spotting and nurturing their own, which is frustrating given the amount of stars who developed. Shearer was the only one to play for the club in his peak years, but he ended up at Southampton first, before Blackburn, where he won the Premier League title, his one taste of that ‘success’.

The long route home, not returning until he was 26, may take gloss off his love affair with the club somewhat. He may not match Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti for longevity, but he still embodies everything Newcastle fans expect from both football and life. Hard work, effort, and a no-nonsense approach. Blood, sweat and tears were always part of the Alan Shearer package in some form.

Newcastle don’t look like surviving what has seemingly becoming an annual relegation battle this season. They’ve been there before, falling into the Championship in 2009 with Shearer in charge on an interim basis. Rafael Benitez in in place for a similar rescue mission, but the problems run deeper in the system. The players lack the core understanding of the emotional attachment the city and the club share, the necessity for good results to allow fans to enjoy weekends and the expectation of 100% effort all the time. This current team could use Shearer the player more than any of the sides he actually played for.

He is so much more than just a club icon, he is arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever, miles ahead in the all time top scorers charts with 260. His England record, too, stands up against most with 30 in 60 games. He played alongside some brilliant players, and fought against top strikers to be the senior man internationally, but bettered them all.

Shearer should not be cast aside or forgotten because of choices he made. He may not have played at the top level for as long as some, but he will say he chose wisely. The embodiment of everything Geordie, a fighter and a gladiator. Few did it better than him.

Gary Neville leaves Valencia a failure, but success is in his path

It seems rather fitting that both Gary Neville and Remi Garde left their respective jobs less than 24 hours apart. Neither man seemed suited to the needs of Valencia, in Neville’s case, and Aston Villa for Garde. Yet both went in, just four months ago, with good reputations, making it all the more disappointing that they failed to deliver.

The main difference between them, though, was the remit under which they were working. Garde, who had done great things with Lyon before departing there in 2012, stepped into a crisis situation at Villa, without the required track record to help save the club from relegation. Ten games into the campaign, having failed to win under Tim Sherwood, Garde was ushered in, but failing to secure a victory until January meant he was unable to have the desired effect. Having departed by mutual consent on Tuesday, he leaves them cut adrift and hurtling towards the Championship without hope of a fight.

Neville, meanwhile, joined Valencia, most likely thanks to his personal friendship with owner Peter Lim and brother Phil being on the coaching staff, with a proven knowledge of the tactical side of the game, a great personality and winning mentality. Crucially, he had never managed at any level before, despite a role as England manager Roy Hodgson’s assistant.

Success was never out of the question for him. He had, after all, rewritten the rules on punditry during four years with Sky Sports. That is by no means easy, but falling into the trap of mundanely stating the obvious, definitely is. Neville was able to portray immensely complex analysis in simple steps, all with intoxicating humour and great on-screen chemistry with former rival Jamie Carragher. Learning from the very best, Sir Alex Ferguson, during hid entire career with Manchester United also stood him in good stead for a career in management.

A first job, particularly these days with the average lifespan of a coaching job seemingly shrinking by the week, has the ability to make or break a career. Neville could hardly have entered into a more pressurised situation than the one he found at Los Che, one of Spain’s biggest clubs with the financial power and reach to return to past heights thanks to the input of Lim and super-agent Jorge Mendes.

The first campaign under that regime, with Nuno Esperito Santo in charge, went well, with the club gaining Champions League qualification for the first time in four seasons. Fans expectations, which have never been particularly low anyway, skyrocketed, and a poor start to the season, Nuno was sacked. It seemed a tall order for anyone to get them back on track, despite only being 11 games into the new campaign.

Neville was also arriving in the shadow cast by a second failure of David Moyes’ career, at Real Sociedad. Moyes spent a year at the Anoeta looking to rebuild after a nightmare stint at Man United, but ultimately his poor grasp of the language, culture and footballing style cost him dear. Neville had to learn from that, but faired worse, something he deserves some criticism for, too.

The Spanish media, particularly in the Valencia region, and fans never took to him. In that country, more than most, it is like swimming against a heavy tide when the respect of those is lost.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Neville’s claim that he would hurt his credibility had he ignored Lim’s call is not entirely correct. Not many would turn down such an opportunity, but his biggest mistake was not looking beyond the bright lights of Europe’s premier club competition and focussing on the fact he faced an uphill battle to succeed. No one has ever criticised his credentials, and he was brave not to shirk the responsibility by remaining in the comfortable Sky studio, but a job in this country would have given him a better springboard.

It is worth remembering Neville completely changed his public image during his television career. His playing days showed him in as an arrogant, competitive loudmouth, a persona which returned on the touchline in Spain. Those traits are needed for success as a coach, but must be honed and tailored if he chooses to step into another job any time soon. An honourable man, he knew his time was up because his results have not been good enough. After losing 11 of his 28 games in charge, he leaves Valencia just six points above the relegation zone.

Football is far too unforgiving. While Neville has made some errors in judgment, which can only be expected when taking his first steps, he remains the brightest footballing mind in Britain today. This entire experience has proven a stark reminder that a good pundit doesn’t necessarily make a good coach, as much as a good player doesn’t, but it would be interesting to hear Neville the analyst’s observations of Neville the coach. He did admit he would have reservations about the appointment as an onlooker, after all.

Gary Neville may be battered and bruised, but will come out of this experience much stronger. He took a job many would dream of an found it too much at this stage in a promising career. Perhaps Remi Garde’s old job would be more his speed, but some time away would do him good.

Remembering The Greats: Johan Cruyff – Football’s prophet

The idea that FC Barcelona can call themselves ‘More Than A Club’ is seen as little more than a pompous sense of entitlement to some, but their philosophy has defined football in three separate generations, which has rewritten the entire identity of the club. Johan Cruyff was, is and will always be the main founder of an ideology which has gone much further than the 98,000 seats inside the Camp Nou.

Upon the tragic news of his death this week, aged just 68, there were calls for Barcelona to rename their stadium after the Dutch master. Football and religion are linked together far too often these days, it is a tiresome analogy which doesn’t truly reflect the meanings of either sport or faith. In the case of Cruyff and Barça, though, it fits perfectly. Upon arrival in Catalunya, some 43 years ago, having signed as a star player from Ajax, he was greeted as a saviour, some light at the end of a dark tunnel for a region of Spain so harshly treated by the iron-fisted regime of dictator General Franco. Cruyff represented more than just a footballer.

Symbolism is another overused cliche, yet Cruyff represented everything for Barcelona, as a football club and city. He was an innovator who worked on instinct, but studied the game so profusely, allowing to set the traditions in motion. He was lightyears ahead of his time, like no-one seen before or since, the archetypal ‘modern’ player in a prehistoric game. His most famous moment, a genius piece of skill in a match for Holland against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup which has been named after him, is taught as one of the basics of the game to those so eager to learn and join the revolution which he started.

Cruyff was like a prophet, hence the acceptable use of the religion metaphor. Whenever he spoke, it was worth listening to. His personal career, both as a player for Ajax, Barça and Holland, all under coach Rinus Michels, also incredibly central to the theories of ‘total football’, and a manager of the Catalan ‘Dream Team’ in the 1990s, gave him the credence he needed. Everything sounds incredibly scientific, but what came out of his magnificent brain could barely have been simpler.

“Quality without results is pointless, results without quality is boring”, he said. Winning is and always will be the main point of football, and sport in general, but Cruyff taught better than anyone about the importance of entertainment. The trophies he won prove he was right, and that continues as Barcelona continue to dominate by following his principles.

Cruyff’s impact on a young Joan Laporta, Barça fan and future president, was vital in their latest dynasty. Exactly 30 years after the Dutchman arrived, the former starry-eyed little boy began his tenure at the top of his beloved club. Laporta, who professed to having his hair cut in the style of Cruyff such was his obsession, set about recreating his hero’s work, with his help.

Dutch flare was key, something another former Ajax prodigy, Frank Rijkaard, brought with him when he took over as manager upon Laporta’s election. It was another of Cruyff’s ‘disciples’, Pep Guardiola, who renovated and polished the style to the best effect when he stepped into the hotseat in 2008. Guardiola is the most wanted man in football right now, lauded for his ideas and constantly fresh approach to the tactical side of the game. Without Cruyff, though, Guardiola would not be the man he is, something he openly admits.

Football is losing that purity which Cruyff fought so vehemently to preserve. Money is everything, meaning that results take precedence over the beauty of the game. The need to win is matched only by the need to sell a brand, something Barça battled intensely for many years, donning no sponsor on their shirts until very recently. Even in his adopted home, though, his values have somewhat been diminished, particularly since Laporta’s exit in 2010.

It was unsurprisingly Cruyff who took the opposite stance, though, claiming he’s “never seen a bag of money score a goal” when discussing whether money guarantees success. Even when not on the frontline, be it as a player or coach, he was constantly teaching the world how to improve the game.

Johan Cruyff may have departed, but his legacy will live on. His impact on football is permanent, but he gave so much more to life than that. Whether he is the greatest footballer of all time is, at the very least, up for debate. As a player, manager, philosopher and even politician of sorts, he proved himself to be the most important figure the game has ever seen.

Remembering The Greats: Thierry Henry – A cog in many machines

Thierry Henry is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s greatest ever masterpiece. Arsenal have lost their way of late, and Wenger isn’t moving with the times as perhaps he should, but once upon a time he had a team packed with everything desirable for success, and a player who epitomised that better than anyone.

Around the turn of the century, the Gunners were an unstoppable force. They won two Premier League titles after the year 2000, the second of which, in 2004, without losing a league game; combining steely determination and dogged fighting spirit with a beautiful style of play which drew similarities with the finest art to be found in the Louvre. Henry fits in with that metaphor, as a Parisian, and he was the living embodiment of Wenger’s ideas, carrying them to the top with such grace, and at times, ease.

Past generations of football players, before both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hit top gear, have a rough deal. The records both continue to break on an annual basis look like putting the achievements of the likes of Henry to shame, but not many, if any at all, have come close to the Frenchman in the Premier League. Great players are not at a shortage in this country, but no one made playing at the top level look quite as effortless as he did at his Gunners best, almost walking through defences to score goal after goal, lighting up Highbury week after week.

What made that team, and Henry, so good was watching them develop. It was peak Wenger, whose ideas were so innovative and refreshing, that created such a prolific footballing monster. He didn’t just score goals, netting 175, the most of any foreign player in English top-flight, between 1999 and 2007, but he created too. Mesut Ôzil, Arsenal’s main protagonist these days, looks likely to go on and overtake him this season, but Henry’s assists haul of 20 in 2002/03 remains the record for the most in a single campaign.

The move to North London was the catalyst for his astronomical rise to the top and, especially without the domination of the Ronaldo/Messi axis to contend with, it is a crime he was never given one of world football’s most coveted individual awards.

It is something of a myth, though, that Wenger unearthed a hidden gem when he bought Henry from Juventus in ’99. By then, he had played in the Champions League for both Monaco. where he proved to be one of Ligue 1’s best youngsters after negotiating the fabled Clairefontaine youth academy. Most crucially, a year prior he became a World Champion, and added the European crown two years after that, all before he really began to command the upmost respect in England.

At Juve, alongside his World Cup winning team-mates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, and in a country where many others in that successful France side thrived, a young Henry floundered. Although he burst onto the scene with key goals at that tournament, and had done pretty well at Monaco, his goalscoring was never strong enough and he was mainly utilised as a winger in Serie A. It was then that Wenger, who worked with him at the Stade Louis II, sensed the opportunity to revive, rather than create, him.

Few players can profess to having such big impacts on the most successful eras of three different teams. To add to his joys with Les Bleus and Arsenal, where he became a considerable presence both on and off the pitch, captaining them after Patrick Vieira’s 2005 exit, he played his part for arguably the greatest club team ever at FC Barcelona.

When he moved to Camp Nou, just two years after Vieira’s departure and 12 months on from Barça’s Champions League final victory over Arsenal in the Stade de France, he was no longer king. Henry had to learn to blend in, not that it wasn’t part of the job alongside Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Dennis Bergkamp before, but as he even admitted, playing for the Blaugrana is like learning a new sport. Finishing as top scorer in his first season didn’t tell the whole story. In truth, he struggled, with injuries and the negativity around the club in Frank Rijkaard’s final, chaotic season in charge.

Playing through the middle was no longer an option, but he fared better out wide when Pep Guardiola solved the striking equation in his debut, treble winning campaign. Henry thrived alongside Messi and Samuel Eto’o, particularly in the 2-6 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, when Guardiola’s now trademark philosophy was executed with the most damning expertise.

Henry had grown from a talented Frenchman, to not only one of the best footballers on the planet, but one of the most famous faces too. His impact on MLS when at New York Red Bulls helped the league and American game in general develop. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is the struggle to pinpoint a highlight in a long and spectacular career.

Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough return could be as problematic as it is a relief

Football in the North East of England is like no where else in the country. Dominated by the fortunes of Newcastle United and Sunderland, it has become something more akin to a soap opera than a sport in the area recently, particularly this season. Disaster has been held at bay for a while, but as time goes on, it closes in like a dark rain cloud, casting a shadow. Most people see both as intense rivals, while those down the road in Middlesbrough are hardly with friendly with either, too.

The harsh economic climate has raised something of a community spirit. Many bemoan the fortunes of the big clubs, currently struggling for Premier League safety, regardless of which side they are on. It looks more and more likely, with everyone else at least eight points clear of them both and Norwich City, that at least one of them will drop out of the top-flight. Middlesbrough have offered something of a beacon of hope this season, looking good to go the other way and reach the promised land, residing at the top end of the Championship.

‘Boro have endured their fair share of turmoil in recent years, from near extinction in 1986 and relegation in the 1990s to cup final defeats and a first ever trophy in 2004. Five years later they suffered the demotion that saw them drift into no-mans land, from which they are still recovering now. Comparatively, with local businessman and life-long fan Steve Gibson at the helm, they have been heading in the right direction for the main part. When Aitor Karanka replaced legendary former captain Tony Mowbray, who despite his status was in danger of getting the club embroiled in a battle to avoid the third tier of English football, as manager, it seemed like the final stage of the rebuilding process.

Gibson was showing the ambition and faith he was famous for, and the job on Teesside was not only a perfect fit for the Spaniard, but also an enticing challenge. Despite an impressive playing career at Real Madrid, winning the Champions League in 2002, it was his work as Jose Mourinho’s assistant which caught the eye.

When Mourinho took over in 2010, Karanka was working with the Spanish under-16s without any expectation of the promotion that was to come. The former Inter and Chelsea boss has his permanent staff who follow him where he goes, but he makes it his business to employ someone who understands the club to make the transition easier.

Karanka listened and learnt, and his stamp on Boro has been a particularly Mourinho-esque one. Defensively overall this season, you’ll have to go far to find a better side, having only conceded 23 goals and breaking a record for the longest time without letting one in earlier in the campaign. Despite the play-off final defeat to Norwich last year, everything seemed rosy as they challenged both Burnley and Hull City/ Karanka was a calm, intelligent man, the opposite character to those who led the area’s football teams into crisis.

That makes this week’s events all the more bizarre. Boro have struggled to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009 for a range of reasons, but they have never been stronger than they are now. The January addition of Jordan Rhodes, a serial goalscorer at Championship goalscorer, from Blackburn Rovers plugged the only hole. Having led the table for long spells, a recent blip in form seemed natural, but it brought an explosive response from Karanka, who walked out on training, only to be told not to return the next day, or take charge of the 2-0 defeat at struggling Charlton Athletic on Sunday.

He pointed the finger at his players, claiming they didn’t have enough pride or passion. It looked as though there was no way back, but he is set to continue the charge. How this has helped an already delicate situation is far from clear, but the whole sequence shows that unwanted drama is not solely reserved for their higher-placed rivals.

Most Middlesbrough fans, naturally, have backed Karanka. He has proven to be the most significant appointment the club has made in a decade, and it is him who has dragged the club back towards the big time. Whether he can galvanise those he criticised so intensely again will prove his real challenge. For a long time it looked as though a Premier League return was nailed on because of Karanka, now it isn’t clear whether he is a help or a hindrance.

Everything seems to be falling apart for Middlesbrough at the wrong time again. Aitor Karanka has proven himself to be one of the most exciting coaches around during his time at the Riverside Stadium, but his outburst has called his temperament into question, and therefore he must prove it won’t impact on the rest of the season to save his reputation.

The house he has built is his, and there is no one better for the job. The problem for him is he may have made a small cut which needed healing into an open wound that could kill off Middlesbrough’s promotion hopes once again.

Remembering The Greats: Paolo Maldini – Like father, like son

The name Maldini looms large in Milan. Along the halls of the San Siro, it is a symbol of what it means to play for the Red and Black, the Rossoneri. The city is split into two teams with very different philosophies. By definition, Internazionale, translated literally as ‘International’, are not afraid to look elsewhere for their stars, while AC Milan have a history of developing legends from within. No one defined such ideas as clearly as Paolo Maldini.

That is not to say Inter do not pay attention to their own youth, nor does it suggest AC, more commonly known as Milan, much to their delight, fail to attract big names from afar. It is, though, quite emblematic that the Nerazzurri’s (Blue and Black) most recent answer to the legendary status of the Maldini name is Javier Zanetti, an Argentine who arrived in 1995 to become a permanent fixture for them across a number of generations. He lasted a remarkable 19 years, five years short of Paolo himself.

Maldini is not just synonymous with the red half of Milan through one generation. Paolo’s father, and later manager with both Italy’s under-21s and senior side, Cesare, won the European Cup with the club at Wembley in 1963. Both were defenders, and when Paolo took to the first team at the age of 16 just over twenty years later, his father’s legacy was both a help and a hindrance. He would be given time to prove himself, not that he needed it, but the pressure would soon be on to deliver.

No bigger compliment can be paid to Paolo than the fact that he not only lived up to, but surpassed his father’s legacy. Cesare played over 300 Serie A games for Milan in 12 years between 1954 and 1966, before leaving and retiring at Torino a year later. Paolo, who never pulled on another club’s shirt despite a plethora of big offers, didn’t retire until he was 40, in 2009, after almost 700 league outings, seven scudetto titles and a remarkable five European Cups.

The symmetry between the pair was made particularly special in 2003. At the scene of his fourth European medal, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford, Paolo emulated his father’s feat from 40 years earlier as captain, lifting the famous trophy in England.

His achievements have made it hard to pin him down to one specific era, such is his spectacular longevity. He was not only a key component in arguably the greatest Italian side ever, under Arrigo Sacchi in the 1990s, but also that for former teammate Carlo Ancelotti a decade later.

Alongside Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo not only made up one of the best defences ever to play the game, despite Sacchi’s propensity to attack with high energy and pressure, but he also set a precedent. Milan have become notorious for helping ageing legends continue at the top for a long time, dedicating their Milanello training complex to that end.

In 2007, when Paolo lifted his fifth and final continental title against Liverpool, it was effectively the same spine of the team that beat Juve, and lost to the Reds in spectacular fashion two years earlier. Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf, the only man to lift the trophy with three different clubs, all benefitted from the conditioning to enjoy long and successful careers with the club.

Paolo was never the aggressive type, he never looked like fighting for the cause, in a way that, for example, Carles Puyol at Barcelona would, but there is little doubt he’d have died for Milan. His refreshingly modern style of play, combining brilliant skill on the ball with a natural knack of defending and fantastically athletic physique, afforded much versatility in his game. He took a trial as a right winger, but was equally as effective at centre half or fullback.

To this day he remains quiet, never looking for the limelight his glittering career entitles him to. But his ability to lead by example, stay calm in the face of pressure and perform consistently on the pitch made him Milan’s greatest captain. Despite not featuring in any of the Azzurri’s four World Cup winning sides, and suffering heartache in the Euro 2000 final at the hands of France, a record 126 caps make him a candidate for Italy’s best, too.

His father said it best on a series of documentaries most fittingly named Football’s Greatest: “He is a real Rossonero, his soul belongs to Milan.” As a child he followed Juventus, he had the chance to try out for Inter too, but the love affair between player and club was destined to happen. Testament to the family name, when he retired, it was announced that only Paolo’s sons could don his number three shirt.

AC Milan are a truly legendary club, one for which success is part of it’s DNA. Recently, hard times have hit, without the same steady stream of big names to keep the flame burning. They are missing Paolo Maldini, as they always will, because he is arguably the greatest defender to ever play the game. It remains to be seen if the family tradition will be continued.