On the 37th anniversary of Paolo Maldini’s Milan debut, Oli Coates asks whether the Italy legend is the country’s greatest ever defender.
For those old enough to remember, it’s remarkable to think 37 years have passed since Paolo Maldini made his senior debut for Milan. A lot has happened across those four decades, including in the career of the now 53-year-old former defender.
Maldini wouldn’t get another call-up for the remainder of the 1984-85 season, after coming on as a substitute for the injured Sergio Battistini to make his debut as a 16-year-old against Udinese on January 20, 1985. He would, however, go on to represent the Rossoneri for his entire career, pulling on his hometown club’s iconic stripes a record 902 times.
Son of fellow Milan stalwart Cesare Maldini, under whom he would play at both club and international level, the younger Maldini would reach even greater heights than his late father for club and country.
Maldini Jr claimed the Scudetto seven times for his beloved Milan, while also lifting the European Cup/Champions League five times between 1988 and 2004. There was a Coppa Italia in 2003, along with four Supercoppa Italiana triumphs, four UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup in 2007.
In a testament to both his ability and longevity, Maldini won 126 caps for Italy between 1988 and 2002. That’s the second-highest total managed by an outfield player behind fellow defender Fabio Cannavaro, with only goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon ahead of the pair with his astonishing 176 caps.
A calm, classy and cultured left-back with an innate ability to read the game, Maldini would move into the centre of defence later in his career, but was always able to play anywhere across the back with ease.
He was, however, unable to lift a piece of silverware with Italy. The Azzurri were runners-up at the 1994 World Cup on the back of a third-place finish at Italia 90, while Maldini would also lose to France in the final of Euro 2000 via David Trezeguet’s famous golden goal.
Another of the contenders to be named Italy’s greatest ever defender, Franco Baresi, did lift a trophy with the Azzurri, although he didn’t make it on to the pitch as a member of the 1982 World Cup-winning squad. Baresi is second on Milan’s list of record appearance-makers after playing 719 times for the Rossoneri, with more than 400 of those alongside Maldini.
As a central defensive partnership, Baresi and Maldini were so good that they only conceded 23 goals in 196 matches at the heart of Milan’s defence, with both one-club men laying a claim to being not only the Rossoneri’s greatest ever defender, but also Italy’s.
In the modern era, the likes of Gaetano Scirea and Fabio Cannavaro would have something to say about that though. They were both key figures in the Azzurri’s World Cup triumphs of 1982 and 2006, with Juventus hero Scirea excelling as a libero and making 78 appearances for the Azzurri before his tragic death in a car accident in 1989 at the age of just 36.
Cannavaro was named the FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d’Or in the wake of Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. Maldini, meanwhile, finished second in the voting for the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and third in the Ballon d’Or, in both 1994 and 2003.
Georgio Chiellini also has his advocates as Italy’s greatest ever defender, on the back of a stellar club career and his epic performances during the Azzurri’s triumphant Euro 2020 campaign. Others, meanwhile, will point to the elegant Alessandro Nesta as the prototype for the modern defender.
Whether you regard Maldini as the greatest Italian defender of all time will no doubt be heavily influenced by your club allegiances. Milan supporters will tell you the honour should go to either him or Baresi, while Juventus fans will point to the trophies lifted by the Azzurri’s World Cup and Euro 2020-winning heroes, Scirea, Cannavaro and Chiellini.
What no one can deny though, is that Maldini deserves his place right at the heart of this conversation. Greatness is quantified by different metrics depending on your values and beliefs, but stripping away the red and black, it’s impossible to ignore the spectacular accomplishments of a one-club man who also represented his country with distinction.
If the latest member of this esteemed footballing family, 20-year-old Daniel Maldini, can have anything like the career his papà and nonno enjoyed, Italy will have another special player on their hands for many more years to come.