Paolo Maldini: The Classy One-Club Man at the Heart of Milan's Glory Days

Oct 22, 2020, 2:00 PM GMT+1
Maldini is one of the game's most highly regarded defenders
Maldini is one of the game's most highly regarded defenders

Five European Cups, seven Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, two gorgeous green eyes - Paolo Maldini has it all.

Renowned for his composure, class, ability on the ball, leadership, and incredible footballing brain, Maldini is widely regarded as one of the best defenders to ever play the game, both as a centre-back and on the left.

"“When I think of the current generation, Lionel Messi is top-level. Kaka has impressed, Zinedine Zidane was brilliant but without a doubt, Paolo Maldini has been my favourite.”"

Sir Alex Ferguson

Coming through the ranks at AC Milan, Maldini made his debut in January 1985, aged just 16. In the following campaign, he established himself in the first team, making 40 appearances in all competitions as a right-back.

It wasn't long before the Italian got his hands on his first piece of silverware. In the 1987/88 season, Milan finished three points clear of Napoli at the top of the table. Alongside Franco Baresi, Filippo Galli, and Mauro Tassotti in defence, Maldini conceded just 14 goals all season in 30 games.

The next season, Milan went one step further, winning the European Cup after demolishing Steau Bucharest in the final, with Dutch duo Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit netting braces. This was the first of five European titles for Maldini - only Real Madrid's Paco Gento has more. The Rossoneri sealed back-to-back triumphs in Europe in 1990, conceding just three goals all tournament.

However, the best was still yet to come from the Italian side, and it eventually arrived with the appointment of Fabio Capello ahead of the 1991/92 season. In his first term, Milan won the league comprehensively without losing a single league game all season. This kick-started a period of dominance for the Il Diavolo, winning three consecutive Serie A titles. On top of this, their unbeaten streak extended to 58 games - the longest in the history of Europe's top five leagues.

The 1993/94 season was arguably the peak of Maldini's career. Despite being the eight-lowest scorers in the division with 36, Milan finished top of Serie A - three points clear of Juventus. This was matched by an exceptional Champions League performance. A year on from defeat in the final against Marseille, Maldini lifted his third European title and his first in the Champions League era, keeping a clean sheet as Milan destroyed Johan Cruyff's Barcelona 4-0.

Paolo Maldini
Maldini with the Champions League trophy | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Maldini took this form onto the international stage. Helping the Azzurri to the final, the 26-year-old was named in the 1994 World Cup all star XI for the second time in a row, having received the same honour four years earlier. After the tournament and the subsequent retirement of Franco Baresi from international duty, Maldini was handed the armband for the Italian national team. He later finished third in the Ballon d'Or, behind Hristo Stoichkov and Roberto Baggio.

The ageing and retirement of several key Milan players saw them drop off slightly for a few seasons, finishing 11th and tenth in the 1996/97 and 1997/98 seasons respectively. However, Maldini was still at the top of his game, finishing second in the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1995 behind teammate George Weah. It was also during this period where the Italian was given captaincy at the San Siro, following Baresi's retirement from football in 1997.

From the start of the 1994/95 season all the way through to 2002, the Rossoneri experienced very little joy on the European stage, while winning just two trophies domestically. However, the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti from Juventus reignited the Italian side, and they were soon back at the top.

In his first full season as boss, Ancelotti led Milan to another Champions League title. And, rather unsurprisingly, Maldini was instrumental in the triumph. After defeating fellow Serie A side Juventus 3-2 on penalties at Old Trafford, the captain was named Man of the Match, aged 34.

Paolo Maldini
Maldini's fourth European Cup, and his first as captain | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

In the same year, Maldini also won his first and only ever Coppa Italia trophy, beating Roma in the final 4-1. He later finished third in the 2003 Ballon d'Or behind Pavel Nedved and Thierry Henry.

While he had won everything there was to win at club level, Maldini never got his hands on an international trophy. However, this was through no fault of his own. The Italian was named in team of the tournament on five separate occasions, and also holds the record for most minutes played in World Cup fixtures with 2,216.

Coming towards the end of his career, Maldini won his final Scudetto in 2004 with a then-record 82 points. Milan conceded only 24 goals in 34 games, keeping 15 clean sheets.

On September 25th 2005, the Italian became the all time record appearance holder in Serie A, surpassing Dino Zoff with his 571st outing. This record stood until 2020, when he was overtaken by Gianluigi Buffon.

The last piece of silverware in Maldini's illustrious career came in 2007. Two years on from heartbreak in Istanbul, Milan got their revenge on Liverpool, winning 2-1 thanks to a brace by Filippo Inzaghi in Athens. In the process, Maldini became the oldest captain to win the Champions League, aged 38.

AC Milan's defender Paolo Maldini celebr...
Maldini with the matchwinner | MUSTAFA OZER/Getty Images

On 31st May 2009, Il Capitano made his final professional appearance in a 2-0 win over Fiorentina, before retiring at the end of the season. This brought an end to an astonishing 25-year career, which was spent entirely at Milan. Maldini's iconic number three shirt was later retired in his honour.