In sport the term "legend" is thrown around far too often.
Every other season a new "legend" appears only to disappear off the radar the following year. Surely to become a recognised "legend" an athlete should be at the top of their respective game for several years.
When I think of football, several players fit this category. However some stand out all the more because they have dedicated their time to one club and continue to play at the highest level year in and year out.
I think of Ryan Giggs at Manchester United who was their best player last night against Derby County in the FA Cup. Another is Raul of Real Madrid, who has recently become the club's all-time top goalscorer.
However, most of all I think of AC Milan and Italian defender Paolo Maldini.
I will not lie, what you are about to read is a very personal and myopic view of Paolo Maldini.
As regular readers of this site are aware I am Arsenal through and through. However, ask me who my favourite Arsenal player is and I will reply with "am...let me think...Wright, no Bergkamp...no Henry", I am a muddle of indecisiveness.
Yet ask me who my favourite footballer of all time is and I don't even have to put my brain into action, I simply say "Paolo Maldini".
When people strive further and say "It must be Pele or Maradona", I say "No, it's Maldini".
Personally, Paolo Maldini is the greatest footballer to have ever taken to the pitch. People will argue that is rubbish, it is Pele, Maradona, Puskas, Best or Van Basten. Funnily enough the people that say this most often are my own age.
Pele may well be the best of all-time but I am not going to base my judgment on a few video recordings and stats. I didn't grow up with Pele, Maradona or Best, but I did grow up with Paolo Maldini.
My parents or siblings can't explain it but from the age of four or five I have been obsessed with football. Perhaps it is because the Republic of Ireland became good around then when we reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Italy.
Funny that it should become Italy as I fell in love with the Italian game before I did the English one. The first footballers whose names I learnt were Irish—Packie Bonner and Dave O'Leary.
After that it was Paolo Maldini, the third player I can remember as having an impact on my love of the game. A bit strange he should be number three in line.
For the 56th and most likely last time, Paolo Maldini took to the San Siro pitch last night for the Milan derby and as I sat watching the game on BBC3 it brought with it a wave of nostalgia.
I remember sitting on my sofa at home when I was barely bigger than a football myself watching the great Milan team of the early 1990s. So many big names—Baresi, Weah, Donadoni but of course the one that stuck out was the guy playing at left back.
For a reason I cannot explain, Maldini made me fall in love with football. It was as though he was creating art in his defending.
Since I have started following his career, all of 19 years ago, I feel that Maldini has never let me down. He is not a dirty player and has never had huge dips in performance—quite stunning for a man that has played over a 1,000 professional games.
Last night for the first time I saw and admitted that it may be time for him to hang up his boots.
The mind was still willing and the body still strong but the legs not able to take him. At times he struggled to keep up with Adriano but being Maldini he never gave up and often did enough to distract the big Brazilian.
It was clear for all to see Maldini still has the footballing brain. He could spot the runs being made and can still pick out that crisp pass. However, he is short that extra yard of pace now and at 40 years of age playing in one of the best leagues in the world that is of no disrespect to the man.
My favourite Maldini memory of recent times came in the 2002-03 season.
AC Milan were playing Real Madrid at the San Siro in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. AC Milan were ahead in the tie and Real were struggling to get back into the match.
Luis Figo, then at Madrid, collected the ball just before the halfway line and went dribbling down the right flank. Maldini gave chase. The Milan captain didn't lunge in to a tackle as many would have as last man back. Instead, he waited and waited until he saw the opportunity—nipped in front of Figo and just took the ball from the Portuguese midfielder. Such was Figo's annoyance he kicked out at Maldini who simply smiled.
AC Milan went on to win the Champions League that season, beating Juventus in a penalty shoot-out at Old Trafford. It was one of five European titles for Maldini.
Paolo Maldini has had a glorious career winning seven Scudettos, one Copa Italia, four Supercoppa Italia alongside his European victories. Sadly he never tasted sweet success with the Italian national side, going so close in the 1994 World Cup and again in the Euros in 2000.
It'll be strange next season seeing an AC Milan team without "3 Maldini" on the pitch. Such is his service to the Italian club that the No. 3 jersey will be retired until hopefully one of his two sons will take up the mantel.
Maldini is one of those players that is respected universally.
It was a great moment when he entered the pitch to see fans of bitter rivals Inter Milan holding aloft a banner that read 'Per 20 anni nostro rivale, ma nella vita sempre leale' (For 20 years our opponent, but in life always loyal).
Maldini applauded the Nezzazuri who responded with applause, a fitting tribute to a great player. I am sure several of the Rosseneri held back tears, I know I did.
Forza Maldini, Il Captaino per sempre.
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