Sunday evening, the San Siro was drenched in a sea of emotions, as Italian and AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini played his last home game for the club.
For his beloved club, for his only club.
There was not a soul on the field or in the entire stadium or in the entire red part of Milan, or in the entire realm of millions of Rossoneri fans, who was not overwhelmed by that moment.
Maldini, after playing a record 902 games for AC Milan, will finally bid farewell in a week's time when the Italian Serie A season comes to an end.
Where do I begin? How can I encompass his career, all what he did for Milan, all what he meant to Milan, in a shallow fabric of words?
What I will not do here, is copy-paste from some site his career statistics, the trophies won, the awards received, and all. This is not a "tribute" article written by just another sports journalist for just another retiring legend. Rather, this is an un-ebbed flow of thoughts of a passionate Rossoneri fan, for someone who has represented that Milan spirit since forever.
Maldini is AC Milan.
I remember, some years ago, the first sports jersey I bought from the pocket-money I had saved. It was of course a Milan jersey, with number three printed on the back, along with the words "MALDINI".
I still have that jersey, and also many memories. I remember cheering for him as a kid when he played for the Azzurris, remember the dozens of Maldini photos cut from sports magazines adorning the walls of my room as an inspiration, remember how endlessly the commentators used to say, "And there is Maldini again!" or, "You just can't get past this guy!"
No doubt, Paolo Maldini had immense talent. But what elevated him from a class of over-hyped, over-worshipped, "football rockstars" was his unadultared devotion to his club AC Milan, his tenacious ability to work ever so hard to nurture his talent, and his uncorrupted love for the game.
He had a presence on the field unlike any other. He was the defender who left worldclass strikers looking dismal and frustrated, he was the captain players look up to for inspiration, he was the player kids idolize and aspire to become.
I grew up in an utterly dysfunctional family, with no father-figure to look up to; a childhood nothing less than miserable. But sports was my way of being free, of hoping, of dreaming. This might sound silly, but Milan became my family, and Maldini that role-model.
Over the years, many a young and rising footballers have found their inspiration in Maldini, and why not! There were Baresis, and Costacurtas; there are Nestas and Cannavaros, but Paolo Maldini is a different brand altogether.
Maldini has won everything he could with Milan. Trophies, yes; championships, yes, awards, yes; name-fame-money, yes.
But over the past two decades he has won something far far more important and precious than all of that. The hearts of all the Rossoneri faithfuls.
So now, as we retire that No. 3 jersey, we bid you farewell. Quietly though, some of us bet over how many years from now we will see you back in San Siro, this time as a coach...Or maybe just wait for Christian to come through the youth team and mirror his father.
We say....Thank you Maldini, we will miss you.