Paolo Maldini: Lion Heart

By Salvatore Bono

In the late 60s, a group of A.C. Milan ultras started calling themselves “Fossa Dei Leone” which translates to “The Lions Den.”

They are the ultras at the Curva Sud inside Milan’s San Siro that will unleash like a pack of savage lions if the team is playing like amateurs, if the referees are not doing their job, and also they will simply harass the opponent.

They are also the members of fans who will whistle at their own players, which in Italian soccer signifies you are not doing a good job and need to step up.

As thousands of players have come through A.C. Milan since the creation of the group, one player captivated their hearts more than anyone else. One man, who was never whistled, only praised and is constantly looked at as the benchmark of success — Paolo Maldini.

Generations

From 1954 to 1966, Cesare Maldini played for and captained A.C. Milan and won the Scudetto three times with the red and black.

In 1970, he became an assistant manager to the team and two years later was promoted to the hot seat as the main Mister. He lasted two years before returning for one season in 2001. Cesare Maldini’s legacy is one of class, resilience, dedication and hard work. It is something he taught his family, particularly his son, Paolo.

In 1985, Paolo began his A.C. Milan legacy at 16 years old. The fresh faced, wide-eyed player was the youngest to ever play for the team – that changed in 2015 when Gianluigi Donnarumma started for the team at 16 but a few days younger than Maldini was.

20/1/1985 First game in serie A with AC Milan , best memory ever wearing these colors ❤️🖤

A post shared by Paolo Maldini official (@paolomaldini) on

“I was already playing in the first team at just 16 years of age. Everything happened so quickly I didn’t have time to realize what was going on,” he told FIFA in 2005. “I’m proud to have been at this club since I was 10 and proud to be the only player here born in Milan. For someone born and bred in this city, playing for Milan is really special.

“Of course, at the beginning I had to prove that I wasn’t here just because of my surname, even if it wasn’t always easy being Cesare’s son. Quite a few times in my career I’ve found myself in the same situation as him, but we do share the same line of work after all. I hope that my life can follow the same path as his again in the future.”

Il Capitano

Maldini began a new era for the Rossoneri as his inexperience but ability to keep up with guys twice his age caught the attention of fans and the front office straight away.

Arrigo Sacchi would then manage young Maldini in the late 80s with a team that featured Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and of course, the human wall himself – Franco Baresi. Sacchi’s Milan has been hailed as one of the greatest teams ever assembled and to some, like the author of this piece, the best squad of all time in the history of the game.

Thanks to Maldini and Baresi’s communication and ability to understand each other, they created one of the greatest defensive trusts the game has ever known. Nothing could get past them. If you were a goalkeeper for Milan back then, your job was easy.

As the power within Milan’s management shifted and players came and went by the 90s, one thing was constant – Maldini.

In 2002 with the arrival of Alessandro Nesta from Lazio, Maldini and his new teammate locked up the back for keepers like he did with Baresi a decade before.

With offers from around Europe coming in, the player would not leave. Milan’s office even made him captain and it secured his place until retirement.

Maldini played for A.C. Milan until 2009 when he retired at 36. His stunning eyes were filled with tears and Milan fans around the world were crestfallen, as their hero would never put on the jersey ever again. It was the same season Milan lost another club icon – Kaka to Real Madrid.

Maldini’s No. 3 was retired and can only be used again if his sons, Christian and Daniel, both of whom are in Milan’s youth academy come up to the Serie A and play for the club.

Auguri AC Milan !!! Buon 117esimo compleanno alla mia seconda famiglia ❤

A post shared by Paolo Maldini official (@paolomaldini) on

National Treasure

It wasn’t just A.C. Milan where Maldini was king. He represented Italy in four World Cups and became a finalist in 1994. He was a hero to the Azzurri.

Putting on the iconic blue shirt gave a chance for the country’s best to link up with him instead of against him. Guys like Alesandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon – marquee players from other clubs who idolized Maldini and hated playing against him, now got to be with him. It is simply a damn shame that he, of all players, could not be apart of the 2006 World Cup winning Azzurri in Berlin.

His style was all his own. He was like a coach on the field screaming his lungs off for players to create certain plays. He commanded his locker room with a discipline and professionalism that players acting up and out of line were seldom seen. He wasn’t just playing the role of the captain – he lived it.

The colors of A.C. Milan are red and black, which represent the blood and passion of life. The colors of Italy’s blue jerseys represent national pride. For Maldini, it was the gasoline that made his engine run.

In his 24 years with Milan, he won seven Scudetti and five Champions League trophies. Along with countless other awards, the defender is not just as a Milan icon, not just as an Italian icon, but as one of the greatest defenders ever to play the game.

Bittersweet Symphony

After Maldini called it quits from playing, many believed the superstar and God-like figure would be given a front office position like a director. It is something that Inter did with Javier Zanetti, Juventus did with Pavel Nedved, and Manchester United did with Ryan Giggs.

Maldini got nothing.

In fact, there was no farewell tour, no celebration of career. It just a special patch worn on his last home match in May 2009 which featured his face, his number and the phrase “Always in our hearts” written in Italian. Fans were outraged and rightfully so. Maldini, being the humble guy he is, never made a fuss.

Years have gone by and Maldini has been invited to matches and fans go crazy when they see him on the jumbotron inside San Siro. The club also honored his father who passed away in 2016 with a pre-match ceremony.

Then in the fall of 2016, as a Chinese consortium began the closing and takeover of the club from Silvio Berlusconi, who has owned the team since the first day Maldini began playing, the soon-to-be new owners asked the icon if he would play a role in their front office. He turned it down.

In a statement, he said: “I can’t accept it (the job), I need to respect the values that have accompanied me for all my life, I need to respect the many supporters who in these years have identified with me because of passion, willingness and commitment.”

In 2015, he purchased the NASL club, Miami FC, who had their first season last year. He hired his close friend and defensive partner, Nesta, as their head coach.

The lion who once roared in San Siro still hears his calls crying out as his spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of fans and the trophies inside the nearby club museum.

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