How the Maldini dynasty changed the face of AC Milan

How the Maldini dynasty changed the face of AC Milan

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There is a hypnotically dynastic quality to the Italian strand of football that simply cannot be matched elsewhere. Of course, football has been a family tradition all over the world, but the concept of a high-achieving player becoming the father of an even higher achieving son tends to be one that only calcio can truly pull off. As a prime example, the Maldini effect has reverberated around the San Siro for 65 years now.

For a generation of football observers, Cesare Maldini was simply the granite-faced head coach of the Italian national team at the 1998 World Cup in France – and father of the obscenely talented Azzurri captain, Paolo Maldini. A missed opportunity in a European-dominated tournament, Italy exited France 98 at the quarter-final stage in a penalty shootout to the hosts. Maldini senior was accused of using old fashioned tactics, when a bolder approach may have seen his team progress to the semi-finals.

At Wembley, 35 years earlier, Cesare was the lynchpin and victorious captain of AC Milan’s first European Cup-winning team. The first team outside the Iberian peninsula to be crowned the champions of Europe, it was success attained at a stadium that was considered to represent the birthplace of the game itself, even if it was a stadium that was criminally less than half full. The Wednesday afternoon kick-off restricted the attendance to just 45, 715. A widely unappreciated classic of a European Cup final, the 1963 finale was a masterpiece, Milan coming from behind to defeat the holders, Benfica, 2-1. Five years earlier, Cesare had been part of the Rossoneri side that was narrowly edged out in the 1958 final by the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa and Paco Gento.

On that Wednesday afternoon at Wembley in May 1963, Cesare finally fulfilled the Milan prophecy, setting the club on a trajectory that would see them become genuine European royalty in the decades to come. Donning the all-white Milan away strip alongside the focused Giovanni Trapattoni, a burgeoning Gianni Rivera, the under-heralded Brazilian playmaker Dino Sani and the wonderful José Altafini, Cesare lifted the trophy beneath the famous twin towers after a stylish fightback from a goal down against a Benfica side that boasted the fearsome talents of Eusébio. Indeed, it had been the great Eusébio who had opened the scoring.

A lead that Benfica nursed until just shy of the hour mark, it was Altafini who made himself the hero, scoring both Milan’s second-half goals, the winner laced with a compelling hint of offside. Yet, it was Cesare’s close attention to Eusébio that was the foundation upon which Altafini was able to strike forth. Under one of the coaching deities of catenaccio, Nereo Rocco, Cesare was indoctrinated in the ways of the football pitch being envisaged as a chessboard. Cesare was Rocco’s trusted on-pitch director of operations, a general on the field of play to the visionary on the touchline.

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Aged 31 at the time of the 1963 final, an age at which English players were widely viewed as finished, Cesare continued to be Milan’s leader for a further three seasons, before departing the San Siro in 1966, ending his playing days with a season at Torino, where he again linked up with Rocco. He left Milan not only with a European Cup winners medal, but also four Scudetti, won alongside an impressive array of influences, inclusive of Lorenzo Buffon, Nils Liedholm, Gunnar Nordahl, Juan Alberto Schiaffino and, of course, Altafini, Trapattoni and Rivera.

It is remarkable to consider that Cesare shared a European Cup-winning Milan side with Rivera, a man who played his last game for the Rossoneri in a line-up that boasted the presence of Franco Baresi. Baresi, who would go on to strike up such a long-standing link with Paolo. There is a wonderful sense of only the merest of degrees of separation when it comes to linking the Milan playing days of Cesare and Paolo, despite almost two decades sat between Cesare’s last game and Paolo’s first. Even within this there is a sense of symbiosis, as Liedholm was a teammate of Cesare’s when he made his Milan debut, while the legendary Swede was head coach of the club when Paolo made his Serie A debut as a 16-year-old in January 1985.

We can then consider the type of player Cesare was, one who exuded a calm authority and elegance on the ball that took him to the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile. Comfortable in possession, often deployed as a libero yet adept enough to play anywhere along the defensive line and even as a deep-lying midfielder, his only discernible flaw was that he would upon occasion allow his confidence to get the better of him, to the extent that there would be the rare occurrence of him being caught in possession; mistakes that would sometimes lead to a goal and a reprimand from an Italian media that was never happy unless faultless perfection was attained. These sparse aberrations were eventually given their classification as being examples of ‘Maldinate’.

Although Cesare left Milan as a player in the summer of 1966, it wasn’t to be his final dealing with the club. Within four years he had returned as an assistant to Rocco, who himself had taken the pilgrimage back to the San Siro in 1967 from Torino. The sorcerer and his apprentice reunited once more. Both Cesare and Rocco were born in the seaport city of Trieste, a location where Cesare had first kicked a professional ball in anger with Triestina, before Milan swooped for him in the summer of 1954. It was as if the path to Paolo’s greatness to come was preordained – from a shared place of genesis from both Cesare and Rocco, despite them being born 20 years apart. It was during Cesare’s exile from Milan that Paolo was born in 1968.

By 1971, Cesare had succeeded Marino Bergamasco as Rocco’s number two, and a year later he took to the role of head coach as Rocco became Milan’s technical director. Having learned extensively from the master, Cesare took to the top job with almost obscene ease. In the 1972/73 season, Milan retained the Coppa Italia, won the Cup Winners’ Cup in controversial circumstances against Leeds and fumbled the Scudetto on the final day, having held the advantage at kick-off. A dream campaign for his first in charge, albeit with a sting in the tail, Cesare went into the 1973/74 season with his stock high.

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Domestic inconsistencies were offset by a run to another Cup Winners’ Cup final. By the time Milan walked out at De Kuip to face FC Magdeburg, however, Cesare had been sacked, replaced temporarily by his former teammate Trapattoni. It was an insipid 2-1 defeat at Verona that brought Cesare’s reign to an end. A fifth successive Serie A loss – inclusive of a painful 5-1 reversal at the hands of Internazionale, in which they were 3-0 down in less than ten minutes – had proved to be the last straw. The tide had emphatically turned in mid-January, however, when Milan were beaten 6-0 in Amsterdam by Ajax in the second leg of the European Super Cup. It was as surprising a fall from grace as it was swift.

After spells in charge of Foggia, Ternana and Parma, Cesare was brought into Enzo Bearzot’s coaching circle within the national team, even travelling to the 1982 World Cup as Bearzot’s assistant, by which time Paolo was in the youth system at Milan. The younger Maldini’s rise to the first team was rapid. It was against a Zico-inspired Udinese that he made his Serie A debut, climbing from the bench to replace the injured Sergio Battistini. While Paolo wouldn’t add to that one appearance during the remainder of the 1984/85 season, he took the following campaign by storm, barely missing a game and showing a depth of quality and intelligence that should have been beyond his 18 years.

This was the pre-Arrigo Sacchi era, with Liedholm at the helm and the guidance of Silvio Berlusconi still a year away. The Milan side was a patchwork one, and the club continued to labour their way through a decade that had begun with the Totonero-provoked relegation to Serie B and was tormented by a further relegation in 1981/82, when they simply struggled on the pitch. Little did anybody appreciate it at the time, but this was a Milan side that was upon the eve of true greatness. Fast-forward to 28 February 1993 and Milan were at their all-encompassing best.

Reigning Serie A champions and comfortably on their way to retaining their title, they were facing Sampdoria at the San Siro. Leading 1-0 in the 27th minute, arguably the most Paolo Maldini thing ever to occur unfolded. Strolling upfield, he played an effortless ball with the outside of his left foot to the talented but cursed Gianluigi Lentini. Within a short few seconds, Lentini had swung in a vicious low cross that Jean-Pierre Papin converted with a stunning header, which involved the France international diving to the turf to get ahead of Des Walker to the ball. No less a goalkeeper than Gianluca Pagliuca was left beaten and utterly bemused by what had just happened.

This was a game that came within the first season of the iconic Football Italia. Working on the commentary that day was Ray Wilkins alongside the wonderful Peter Brackley, both of whom we have now sadly lost. Wilkins, a former Milan player himself, was so enamoured by the pass Paolo had played that he couldn’t initially identify Lentini as the man who supplied the cross for Papin to score. Wilkins had been in the Milan side on the day Paolo made his debut. Milan hadn’t lost a league game since May 1991 and the eventual 4-0 victory over Sampdoria was their 56th successive Serie A fixture without defeat, a run that stretched over the span of three separate seasons.

The passing of the role of head coach from Sacchi to Fabio Capello had been seamless. Ten points clear at the final whistle, Milan contrived to win only one of their last 12 fixtures. The title was still theirs, however, despite Inter’s best efforts. Having taken their foot off the accelerator during the run-in, it was a season which ended with a loss to Marseille in the Champions League final.

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A year later, Capello’s thirst for perfection took Milan to a third successive Scudetto and Champions League glory, courtesy their mesmeric 4-0 dismantling of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in Athens. Paolo, by the time of the 1994 final, already had two winners medals in his possession, won against Steaua Bucharest and Benfica in 1989 and 1990 respectively. That he would go on to collect two more, in 2003 and 2007, was a testament to the way he remained the perfect professional, with an incredible 18 years separating his first and last successes on European football’s most elevated stage. To this haul, he added seven league titles, totally eclipsing the achievements of his father a generation earlier.

This was also translated to the international arena. Whereas Cesare was restricted to a solitary World Cup – one in which Italy failed to progress from the group stages – during an Azzurri career that stretched to just 14 appearances, Paolo’s international endeavours extended for 14 years, 126 appearances, four World Cups and three European Championships, having also lost a final in each tournament. It was at Paolo’s third World Cup, at France 98, that he and Cesare were thrown together.

Cesare’s importance to the national team grew rapidly after accepting his role within the Bearzot era. When Bearzot was succeeded by Azeglio Vicini after the 1986 World Cup, Cesare was asked to take control of the under-21 side. It was a position he would hold for the next decade, until he was promoted to head coach as the replacement for Sacchi in 1996. Over the course of his time in charge of the under-21s, Cesare led Italy to three successive European Championship glories between 1992 and 1996. The first of these wins had come at a time when the senior side had failed to qualify for their version of the tournament in Sweden.

When Sacchi’s Italy fell at the group stages of Euro 96, the call was sent out for Cesare to take over, fresh off the back of his third and final under-21 success. The 1996 winning squad he had named was noticeable for some of the key components who would go on to win the World Cup a decade later in Germany.

When the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup began, Cesare and Paolo were reunited in footballing terms. Paolo had been a part of Cesare’s under-21s for the first two years of his leadership, before breaking into the senior squad a few months prior to Euro 88. By the time Cesare succeeded Sacchi, Paolo was the Azzurri captain, a job he had been bestowed with after the international retirement of Baresi in 1994. Father and son were now in tandem, head coach and captain of the Azzurri, a stunning familial achievement which perhaps has no peers to speak of, at least at the highest level.

Caught in a web of caution in France, the 1998 World Cup could have been Italy’s had it been for a few degrees of extra flexibility. An unwillingness to be bold and field both Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero in attack left a sense of what might have been for Cesare in what was his biggest moment in the dugout, perhaps in the wider game.

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From here, he relinquished his job, finally returning to Milan to head up their scouting network. Competitive coaching would lure him back to the touchline, however, even enjoying a spell in temporary charge of the Rossoneri, during which he led his team to an incredible 6-0 victory over Inter in May 2001. He would eventually return to the international game, taking in another World Cup in 2002 at the helm of Paraguay, who he took to the last 16. Ironically, the very same tournament marked the international retirement of Paolo after defeat at the same stage.

Paolo’s longevity was such that he would serve Milan for a further seven years beyond ending his international career. He made an indelible contribution to the Azzurri but was denied the winners medal his efforts deserved, firstly by Brazil at USA 94 and then by France at Euro 2000, both by the most painful methods: a penalty shootout and a golden goal. The benefits of walking away from the international game brought Paolo those two extra Champions League medals, plus one last Scudetto, finally calling time at the end of the 2008/09 season.

An ever-magnetic pull to the Maldini family, Paolo has again returned to Milan as their current – if somewhat under siege – technical director. Milan are a club desperately in need of inspiration in contemporary terms and while he lacks the experience for the role he occupies, it would be a brave person to definitively write him off so soon.

A dynasty like no other, when Cesare sadly died in 2016, he did so have seen Paolo’s two sons represent Milan at youth levels – firstly Christian, followed later by Daniel. While it hasn’t worked out for the former, there is still hope that the latter can walk in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him into the Milan first team one day. Daniel, however, is already older than his father was when he made his senior debut. When Paolo walked away, his iconic number 3 shirt was retired by Milan, under the provision that it would only be reactivated for another Maldini, should one rise to the first team.

Like father, like son, just as Cesare could operate anywhere along the defensive line, the same was applicable for Paolo, yet it is as a left-back that he is most remembered. Perhaps he was the greatest left-sided defender of all. Either way, whether Paolo’s current position at the club bears fruit, or if Daniel can make the grade or not, it is hard to imagine a Milan that doesn’t include the name Maldini.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

Art by Luke Walsh @LukeWalshDesign

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