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.


Victory for Klopp on Sunday will lift an early monkey off his back

Winning is always relative. It is, in it’s essence, the point of football, and can give validation to a style and ideology. Naturally, though, it can mean more in some situations than others, and Sunday is certainly a good example.

Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in October carrying a weight of expectation. The club found itself in a state of flux after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers, not achieving what they wanted despite almost winning the Premier League title less than 18 months earlier. It wasn’t that Rodgers had done a particularly terrible job, but he lacked the charisma, and past record, that demanded trust from the Reds fans. It all felt as though he had just gone as far as he could at Anfield.

The German had everything, it appeared, to take the club on. His geek-like charm and toothy smile were much more than just a façade. The Borussia Dortmund side he spent seven years in charge of earned numerous admirers across the globe for a unique, if slightly odd, style of play, infamously dubbed “heavy metal football” by Klopp himself. The basic requirement is high pressure, not too dissimilar to Rodgers in a sense, but he backed it up with success, winning two Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the Champions League final in 2013.

Mixed results on the pitch since, though, have brought criticism of his appointment. His reputation and personality give the impression things will turn around, and of course he will get the time, but he will be looking for victory at Wembley this weekend when they face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final.

It is a competition which proves that context is key behind victory, taking some stick for the lack of profile in comparison to the FA Cup. English football pays much more attention to the notion of domestic competition than most other countries who only have one. With fixture congestion the way it is these days, and the number of high profile games that need to be played, it is understandable that a pecking order of importance is formed.

With the final being played in March, allowing minimal crossover with both the FA Cup and Champions League, there should be little excuse. That, in a way, can be an advantage to the likes of Klopp. Winning silverware at the first attempt, no matter how prestigious, will be a relief and serve to show he can work his magic at Anfield in the coming years.

There is a similar feel around the opposition on Sunday, with Manchester City looking to win it for the second time in three years. His opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini, will be able to empathise with Rodgers, having announced he will leave the club at the end of the season and be replaced by the most sought after coach on the planet, Pep Guardiola.

Pellegrini matches Klopp on the charm offensive, but is much quieter, more reserved and polite. In his native Chile, he is affectionately known as “The Engineer” for his ability to get teams functioning, and winning, quickly. He certainly did that at the Etihad, winning the double in his debut season and using the League Cup as a springboard. He has not been able to shake the stigma that he is not a top-rate manager, accepting this with such grace and stepping aside nobly.

He takes his side to Wembley under much less personal pressure than two years ago, but Klopp finds himself in a similar position. Jose Mourinho opened his trophy account in England with Chelsea by lifting it in 2005, doing so again last year. On both occasions, like Pellegrini, he accompanied it with the Premier League title. That may be out of Klopp’s short term reach. but victory would be the first step on his journey to re-establishing Liverpool as a British, and European, superpower.

The Capital One Cup certainly has its critics, and it isn’t a priority for most. If Arsene Wenger won it for Arsenal, it wouldn’t be seen as a huge statement because of his longevity in North London, but it can play a big role in some clubs’ seasons.

Since he took the job on Merseyside, there have been some moments that have felt big and defining. That includes a victory at Manchester City, and if Pellegrini shows this competition the same contempt he showed the FA Cup at Chelsea last week, Sunday could see Jurgen Klopp’s most important victory in England yet.

The Totti debate: What’s in a legend?

Every club has cult heroes, no matter how big or small. To earn such a status, a player does not to be the best, most skilful or even that important a figure, but they often symbolise how a fan feels about their club.

There is, though, a difference between a cult hero and a legend. Heroes of a certain era may never have to buy a pint in the local pub ever again, but in reality the memories don’t last, unless they do have some sort of talent. Those players who define eras with their ability, inspiring teams to trophies, or at least exciting times, as well as representing the shirt with the same love the fans would, go down in history.

But sometimes, there is a step above an ‘ordinary’ legend. Not every club can profess to having such an icon, but those who do cannot be mentioned in a sentence without the player’s name following swiftly.

Mostly, but not always, these folk are local and have grown up as supporters, experiencing that same unspoken bond with their clubs and areas that the very best of fans do. The likes of Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Alan Shearer at Newcastle and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United are prime examples of this exact phenomenon.

Few countries have such a grasp of the concept of the eternal legend like Italy. Each of Serie A’s top sides have at least one, but it can be argued that no one has proven the living embodiment of a football team like Roma’s Francesco Totti.

Money’s stranglehold on football is growing ever tighter, and it is impacting almost every fibre of the game.  The days of the biggest clubs buying the best players could be numbered, with Chinese football the latest expensive trend to make an appearance.

It is, therefore, rare for any player to stay at the same club for their entire career, now moreso than ever. Giggs and Totti have managed it, but an increase in financial power has resulted in a severe decrease in loyalty.

Players often get the rawest deal in this argument, constantly accused of looking for a move whether it is motivated by money or playing at a higher level. In this modern day climate, clubs are also showing their propensity to move on quickly from the past, tossing aside even their most adored.

At Chelsea, Frank Lampard’s time was called two years ago, and his career at Stamford Bridge was under scrutiny well before that despite becoming the club’s record goalscorer. John Terry, club captain and the man seen as “Mr Chelsea”, also looks set for a departure when his contract runs out in the summer, regardless of consistently saying he wants to stay.

Gerrard shares similar adulation at Liverpool, a club who certainly takes care of their own. His inspirational performances in the 2005 Champions League final, and FA Cup final a year later, didn’t help when former boss Brendan Rodgers didn’t offer him a new deal in 2014, forcing him to play out his swansong years in the United States with LA Galaxy.

Even with the growing list of legendary cast offs, there has always been something about the mutual love between Totti and Roma which suggested a similar occurrence wouldn’t happen at the Stadio Olimpico.

As much as Gerrard, Lampard and Terry are all revered in Merseyside and West London, they have each either entertained the idea of, or indeed played for, other clubs. Totti, now 39 and still going strong having made his debut for Roma in 1992, has always insisted his heart and career will belong to the Giallorossi forever, despite heavy interest from a number of big hitters over the years.

Last week the striker, who has been playing with a chronic knee problem for a number of years now, accused his beloved club of disrespect by not playing him as much as he wants. He claimed his relationship with new boss Luciano Spalletti, in his second spell at the helm, was not a working one after be sat out the Champions League defeat to one of his biggest past suitors, Real Madrid.

His contract runs down at the end of the current campaign, and he finds himself in a similar situation to those aforementioned. Some may accuse him of arrogance and having overly excessive expectations given his age, but he knows he is a Roman king and understands he is not what he was. Given his loyalty towards the club, in some pretty testing times too, perhaps he deserves the same curtesy.

Francesco Totti is one of the most remarkable footballers to ever live. He is and always will be associated with AS Roma, but his situation is yet another example that loyalty is not just the player’s prerogative.