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Arrivederci Paolo: A Tribute To A Legend
19.6 || scharatz

Italian hearts worldwide are still crying, and I am as numb as I have ever been. The tears in my eyes are accompanied by the haunting feeling in my heart that someone has died. But, I have to live with it…I have no choice! I also have to live with the fact that the whole world seems to have turned against Italy and cruel jibes are the only condolences being offered. But, I cannot live with the fact that this is the last I have seen of Paolo Maldini in that beautiful "Azzurra" shirt.

At a time that can only be described as bizarre, I implore fans all over the planet to step aside from their prejudices, beliefs and perceptions of the "Squadra Azzurra" and spare a thought for the legend…the warrior…the symbol of defensive genius: Paolo Maldini.

"It is not an easy decision after 15 years wearing the Azzurra shirt," he had said earlier this year when he made public his decision to quit international football after the World Cup 2002. "It has been a long, rocky ride." And, how true his words were. Sent on as a substitute versus Yugoslavia in Split on March 31, 1988, Maldini made his debut at the tender age of nineteen. His club debut came at an even earlier age (sixteen) when Nils Leidholm decided that it was time to give the son of legendary defender Cesare Maldini a shot on the big stage. An astonishing 16 years later, he is recognized as perhaps one of the greatest defenders of all time and definitely one of the finest left-backs ever to grace the green.

But, for the man who has won everything imaginable at club level, things have not gone right internationally. In a career littered with 6 Scudetti (Italian championships), 3 European Cups, 4 Italian Super cups, 3 European Super cups and 2 World Club Championships, all Maldini has to show for his record-breaking 126 Italy caps are two losing finalist medals (World Cup 1994 and Euro 2000).

He was the youngest Italian at both Euro 88 and Italia 90, and until recently claimed that the saddest moment of his life had been the shoot-out elimination at the hands of Argentina in the semi-final of Italia 90. But, how things have gone sour for him over the years? First the despair of the shoot-out loss to Brazil in the World Cup final in 1994, then a similar disappointment versus the hosts in the quarter-finals of France 98, more recently the heart wrenching last-gasp defeat to France in the Euro 2000 final, and now the humiliating expulsion from World Cup 2002 at the hands of South Korea.

"If I had won today, I would have retired," said a notably subdued Maldini in an interview hours after going down in the Euro 2000 final. "It is strange how the Maldini family (his father Cesare, and he) have won so much at club level, yet have nothing to show with the Italy shirt," he lamented. Of course, victories are not dependent on the credentials of one man or on the sum of all the individuals in the team for that matter. World Cups and European Championships are won through teamwork, luck and a touch of inspiration. However, one look at this charismatic leader tells tales of how wrong it is to see him go this way.

When David Trezeguet put the ball in the back of Toldo's net and took off to celebrate what was the best moment of his career, few had a chance to see the expression on Maldini's face. It was that of a man who had been stabbed in the heart. He stood there with the grieved look that not even a widow mourning over her husband could have emulated. Tears streamed down the eyes of the veteran who had seen his team come within eight seconds of what would have been a deserved winners' medal, but in the blink of an eye, it was all lost!

Yet, in the minutes that would follow, the world was to witness the most amazing sights that one could ever conjure. A disconsolate Maldini was asked to lead his team on to the podium to receive the runners-up medals. And before my eyes, he stepped forth, looked the presenter squarely in the eyes and gave him his broadest smile. He accepted the medal with grace, firmly shook hands and acknowledged a few words of consolation. And yet, as he stepped down from the podium, one could see the smile disappear and the distraught expression return to his face. He was broken, but he didn't share it. Such was the class of this warrior!

With perhaps the best Italian team available since 1982, many thought that this was going to be Italy's year. It was not meant to be. But the piece of the puzzle that seems most awry is not that Italy have followed in France, Argentina and Portugal's footsteps and gone home, but the fact that the good Lord didn't spare Maldini even in his last game. As Ahn Jung-hwan rose to head the winner that would send Korea through and Italy home, Maldini watched from barely a foot away as his international career was brought to a sudden halt in the most cruel of ways. It should have ended differently, it could have ended differently, but it didn't.

San Paolo is done with international football, and considering his luck, he's probably glad that he is. Thankfully, we can still witness his prowess in defense and his renowned forays down the left for a few more years in Serie A, but what a shame that one of the true legends of Italian and world football, has to go in this way.

All we can hope for now is that he finds solace in the one place that won't let him down: his family. And who knows, fifteen years or so from now, two more Maldinis shall rise as Christian and Daniele Maldini will take the field to represent their country. And an old man by the name of Paolo Maldini will watch from the stands with pride as they do what he was not able to do: win something with the Azzurri.

Arrivederci San Paolo, and God bless!

AUTHOR: Lo Scrivano

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