To look back over the international career of Paolo Maldini is to leaf through the pages of historical change, not just for Italy but for Europe, too. Marco Jackson looks back over his time in the Azzurri defence.
On 28th April 1999, some seventeen years ago this week, the Milan man gained his 100th cap in a draw in Zagreb against Croatia.
Compared to the beginning, the change is obvious. He made his debut in a city that falls in that same country now, but in 1988 Split was in Yugoslavia, before the country’s division in early 1990s. 11 years is a long time in football, but it has an effect on politics, too.
That first side containing Maldini is equally revealing. The most experienced Italian player in the game was Giuseppe Bergomi, gaining his 44th cap. His first game for Inter was as long ago as 1979.
Azeglio Vicini’s team were in transition. The heroes of 1982 were gone, their shadows still looming over the new generation. Their disappearance was intertwined with the importance of being ready to perform at a home World Cup in 1990. A new side was needed, and Maldini was to be a major part of it.
In Maldini’s seventh game for Italy, the Azzurri were eliminated from Euro ’88 by the Soviet Union; a 2-0 defeat. That was to be the last time he lost a knockout tie over 90 minutes.
Despite that loss, the Rossoneri man grew to be an integral part of the defence in the 1990 World Cup, playing every game, and conceded just two goals – the best in the tournament. Italy, despite a good showing, ended without a trophy.
Starting a trend, when Italy were eliminated, it was on penalties. Diego Maradona’s magic wand was not as potent as four years hence, but his light still burned brightly, and it burned the Azzurri.
The pattern was to repeat time and again for Maldini. He would shine in an excellent defensive unit, only for the Azzurri’s natural reticence and lack of firepower to see them fall short.
It is perhaps telling that during this period, when Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Giuseppe Signori were Italy’s leading strikers, the top clubs often imported their goalscorers. Marco van Basten and later George Weah were at Milan, Jurgen Klinsmann was at Inter, Fiorentina had Gabriel Batistuta.
Yet Maldini and his club and countrymates in defence were supreme.
In 1994, the same happened. Italy progressed to the final on the strength of a stubborn backline and the genius of Roberto Baggio. When Baggio faltered, Italy failed. Yet they only failed on penalties. Even when they didn’t score, they were hard to beat.
He played every game of Euro 96 as well. There was a slight difference in England as Italy were eliminated in the group stage. As one might have expected, Maldini helped the side keep a clean sheet in the decisive game against Germany but the game ended 0-0, and Italy were out.
When the World Cup came back to Europe, in neighbouring France, Maldini was the most experienced player in the side, the captain, and the first name on the teamsheet. Even then, the Azzurri were not immune from their old curses. They reached a quarter final with the hosts before history repeated itself.
The defence were well drilled as ever, keeping the French side at bay for 120 minutes. The attack were silent, once more failing to score.
When the pressure of the penalty shootout came around, Italy were found wanting again. Another 0-0, another elimination.
Soon after this tournament came Maldini’s 100th cap, making him the youngest Italian to achieve this mark and the first since Dino Zoff. He marked the game by helping Italy keep another clean sheet, the first of a run of four.
Three of those games were in the qualification campaign for the 2000 European Championship, Maldini’s last. With the spectre of penalty shootouts vanquished in the semi-final against the Netherlands, Italy met France in the final.
Once more, the two sides were level at full time, so they went to extra time. A new disappointment was to rear its head. David Trezeguet, soon to join Juventus, scored a golden goal. Maldini missed out on yet another trophy.
His last attempt was to be the World Cup of 2002. After progressing through their group, the Azzurri were awarded a Last 16 tie with South Korea. The game was, predictably, level after 90 minutes and went to extra time.
Three minutes before what was to be the end of the 33 year old Paolo Maldini’s international career, he allowed Perugia’s Ahn Jung-Hwan to climb above him to head home another golden goal. A rare mistake, but a fatal one.
The game was over, Italy’s tournament was over, and Maldini’s international career was over.
He had played in seven major tournaments and never lifted a trophy, going out three times on penalties and twice by golden goals. Four years later Italy were champions of the world. They won on penalties.