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THIRTY FIVE

It is FIFA World Cup season and the best time to talk about what got me into football, or should I say ‘who’ got me interested in football? Growing up in the pre internet era when google as an option was not available at finger tips, when news printed on paper was the only source of information that is when I became aware of Paolo Maldini. He is a legend, so I read now, but then when I was first introduced to him through newspapers and television I didn’t quite realize the significance of this man.

For the uninitiated, Paolo Cesare Maldini (born 26 June 1968) is a former Italian footballer who played as a left or central defender. Not that I was completely aware of his commitment to his club AC Milan but I hear, that he spent all 24 seasons of his career at Serie A club Milan, before retiring at the age of 41 in 2009, becoming a symbol and a legend of the club. During that period, he won the Champions League five times, as well as seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups.

I knew him as the Olive skinned Italian footballer who was droolworthy to the 18 year old me. I can’t boast that I knew much about him till the year 2000. And the truth is by the time I truly came to understand his greatness as a sportsman, beyond the drop dead gorgeous looks he had already retired from him National side. In fact, he played for 14 years for the Italian national team, making his debut in 1988 before retiring in 2002 with 126 caps, three European Championship participations and four World Cup participations. Although he did not win a tournament with the Italian National team, he reached the finals of the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000, and the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1988.

Many years after his retirement when my knowledge of football came to a level where I could appreciate the skills that were showcased in this game, I read and more and more about Maldini and how he is regarded to be one of the greatest defenders of all time. He played at a world class level for his entire career spanning two and a half decades, and won the Best Defender trophy at the UEFA Club Football Awards at the age of 39. He came second to George Weah for the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1995, the closest a defender had ever come to winning the award until Fabio Cannavaro won the award in 2006. He was chosen as a defender on the FIFA World Cup Dream Team, and in 2004 was named as one of the Top 125 greatest living footballers as part of FIFA’s 100th anniversary celebration.

What was a sad coincidence for me is that it is from 2002 FIFA World Cup that I began to take a personal interest in the game and of course I supported Italy. For those who cannot remember,  Italy was eliminated in the 2002 World Cup round of sixteen, by a golden goal, to co-hosts South Korea, Maldini retired from international football, as Italy’s most capped player. It was a heartbreak for him as well as for me.

Of course, there has been a lot of debate over his decision to retire from the National side, but the sentimental part of me feels it came after his failure to bring home the Cup for Italy. In his International career, playing for Italy, Maldini appeared in four editions of the FIFA World Cup. In 1994 World Cup, he was the Vice – captain of the team, and lead the team in matches against Mexico, Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria, in the absence of the injured Franco Baresi,  helping to lead Italy to the final, playing both as a centreback and as a fullback. Maldini helped Italy keep a clean sheet in the final against Brazil as the team eventually lost on penalties. In the next edition, in 1998 Italy went out in the quarter-finals to hosts and eventual champions France, on penalties. I have already reminded the readers of the fateful third edition in 2002 which saw Italy lose yet again.

Like a friend said on Maldini’s birthday this year, he ruined Men for so many of us. But as I read an article on FIFA’s official website I realize yet again, how little I appreciated the Man as a sportsman but I at least now through this post I can thank him for introducing me to the Game that he loves and generating interest in the technical aspects of this game.

Yet there is more, much more to the legend of Paolo Maldini than just trophies and caps. Immaculately behaved on and off the pitch, he has always been a role model. Such is his stature in the game that even the Inter tifosi paid tribute to him in the last Milan derby he played before his retirement. “It was a wonderful surprise,” he later said. “On a human level, I think it’s one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever experienced.”

The ultimate professional and the most selfless of team-mates, Maldini has always remained loyal to his principles. Discreet to the last and reluctant to bow out with a big farewell, he opted to bring the curtain down on his career with a “low-key” party, as he himself put it. “A bit like me really.”

– Excerpt from FIFA.com, Paolo Maldini, an icon and a gentleman

I may be repeating myself when I say this, Maldini is considered to have been one of the greatest defenders of all time, and has been described as an icon and gentleman of the game. He has been known for his calm and correct behaviour on the pitch, preferring elegance and intelligence to physicality and aggression when defending. He was the first defender ever shortlisted for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, finishing second in 1995.He has won the UEFA Defender of the year, the Serie A defender of the year, the Bravo Award and the World Soccer Player of the Year Award.

In the wake of the recent Suarez controversy I can’t help mention a trivia that caught my attention, Maldini despite being a defender, expected to tackle a few opponents only picked up a single red card throughout his footballing career, in a friendly match.

Need I say more?

Paolo Maldini will always remain a special man to me.

THE END.

Reference Sources: Wikipedia, Fifa.com thegaurdian.com, espnfc.com

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