Football in Italian is ‘Calcio’. In Italy, there is a saga of footballers who could well give their name to that term for what they have given to their country’s football. We are talking about the Maldini. Cesare, Paolo and now Daniel. Six of AC Milan’s seven European Cups bear his name. A saga written by the central Cesare, signed in golden letters by the great Paolo and now his son, Daniel, has the responsibility to continue an unrepeatable legacy. Grandfather, son and grandson. More than 1300 games wearing the rossonera. A whole life in Milan. Or rather three.
But the Maldini story does not begin in Milan. If not 400 km from the city of fashion. Trieste, a port in northeastern Italy bordering Slovenia, but which until the end of World War I in 1918 belonged to the imposing Astro-Hungarian Empire. In this context, the first of the Maldini family, Cesare, was born on February 5, 1932 in a multicultural and working class city where Italians and Slovenians lived together, still overcoming the ravages and consequences of the Great War and with fascism on the rise in Europe.
Trieste was the beginning of everything. In the midst of the cultural melting pot of the Adriatic Sea port, Cesare began his footballing career with the city’s club, Triestina, managed by Nereo Rocco (better known as ‘Il Paròn’ in Triestine dialect, ‘the Maestro’), the coach who would lead Cesare to lift Milan’s first European Cup ten years later.
It is in this context that the Italian government’s decision with the Trieste football club can be understood. Triestina at that time had just been relegated to Serie B but the Italian fascist government decided to keep them in Serie A sending a clear message that Trieste should remain Italian. And what is more important than Calcio in Italy?
Rocco, Bela Guttmann and the fate of Cesare
You can’t understand Cesare without Rocco. The Triestino coach was the creator of catenaccio and found in the young Cesare a diamond on which to build his football. Young, ambidextrous and skilful at bringing the ball out from the back. He gave him his debut and built the team around Cesare’s sweeper position.
«¿May the best man win? I hope not“One of the most recognizable phrases of the master Nereo Rocco.
But it was not Rocco who built the best version of the Italian centre-back. Rocco, who had a strong character, eventually left the Triestina and it was another legendary coach who took up the gauntlet: the globetrotter and one of the best coaches in history, Bela Guttmann. The Hungarian creator of a multitude of tactical models, who always won wherever he went and famously cursed Benfica, took over the club and did a great job at the club from the north-east of Italy.
Bela’s two great seasons coaching in Triestina brought him to Milan and his first request to the Rossoneri club was to take the first protagonist of our history Cesare to the club of his life. And to the life of his son and grandson.
Cesare made his Milan debut at the age of 22 in the famous Milan of the Swedes coached by Bela Gutmman and left twelve years later as captain, legend and living history not only of Milan but of Italian football. 412 games in the Rossoneri shirt and six titles including the famous European Cup in 1963 with Rocco as coach.
As captain of Milan in 1961, the paths of Cesare and Rocco crossed again. Cesare is already the reference centre-back of Italian football and Rocco comes from Padova to make Milan champions. The Milan of the catenaccio with Cesare Maldini as a reference and with a very young Ginni Rivera “El Bambino de Oro” being totally decisive.
In Rocco’s first season as coach, Cesare lifted Milan’s eighth Scudetto and in the second, Milan made history by becoming the first Italian team to win the European Cup, defeating the very Benfica team that Bela Gutmman had cursed years before in the final. Cesare was the first Italian player to lift it. No one could have predicted, least of all Cesare, that his son would end up lifting it five times.
Cesare finished his career at Torino before making the leap to the bench. He coached Milan at various stages but spent most of his coaching career with the Italian national team, where he spent almost two decades between Under-21 and senior level. In a national team where one of the greatest footballing figures that Italian football has ever produced, Paolo Maldini, Cesare’s son and the second protagonist of this story, was beginning to emerge.
Paolo inherited his father’s blue eyes and the number that brought Cesare so much success at Milan. The 3. And he made it his own. Cesare was a great defender in a defensive team. He came out of Trieste, out of poverty, in a context of wars. His son Paolo would be pure elegance. He was already Milanese.
Paolo Maldini needs no explanation. Considered by many to be the best left-back in the world, even if he was right-footed, and one of the best, if not the best, Italian player in history. A player who only wore two jerseys in his life: that of the club of his heart, Milan, and that of his beloved Italy. 25 years wearing the rossonera. 26 titles. 5 Champions League. 7 Leagues. Player with the most appearances (74) in an Italy shirt. From a blue-eyed 16-year-old making his debut against Udinese in 1985 to a true legend of world football.
“I’d have to get fifteen players together to make one like him.” Roberto Baggio, Italian legend talking about Paolo Maldini.
It contradicted the defensive history of the Italian catenaccio. Fine and elegant. Fast, technical, skilful and with an attacking projection that until then had rarely been seen in Italian and European football. His ability to use both legs equally, since, like his father, he was ambidextrous, allowed him to go out, attack and defend on both sides. He also had an impeccable defensive quality, a privileged physique and a good header. He was the paradigm of the modern defender. His was the left flank of Milan, Italy and the world for two decades.
From Sacchi’s immortals to Ancelotti’s winning cycle
Paolo went through all of Milan’s youth ranks before making his debut in an official match at the age of 16. It was on 20 January 1985 against Udinese. And he did it at right-back. It was the first and the last time. Since the bulk of his career was developed in the left lane or in the position of central in the last years of his career.
Paolo soon earned himself a starting place at left-back in training for a Milan side under construction. In his first two seasons he made 40 and 37 appearances but Milan, coached by one of the legendary Swedes of Maldini’s father’s era, Nils Liedholm, were not at their best and finished a disappointing sixth and seventh.
Everything changed with the arrival of Arrigo Sacchi at Milan in 1987. He put together a fearsome team with a dream defence comprising Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti and a total front line led by Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s collective-based football created a perfect machine that conquered Italy and Europe.
This generation was called Sacchi’s immortals and won one Serie A and two Champions League titles, leaving matches to remember such as the semi-final where they thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 or the final against the previous champions of the competition, Steaua, which they beat 4-0.
Sacchi’s era came to an end in 1989, but not Milan’s victorious cycle. Sacchi’s Immortals became Capello’s Invincibles, with Paolo Maldini already established as one of the best defenders in the world. Capello’s Milan won their first Scudetto without losing a game in 1992. In the following years he would add three more league titles in four years and would once again play in a Champions League final against the mighty Barcelona of Johan Cruyff.
It was in Athens and Milan would win their fifth Champions League, Maldini’s third, defeating Guardiola and Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0.
Milan’s most successful decade came to an end with Capello’s departure in 1999 after a final few years that, despite winning yet another Serie A, began to show signs of exhaustion. The team had lost key players and was in the midst of construction. A construction that would come under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti and with Paolo Maldini, already wearing the number 3 jersey and carrying the captain’s armband from a central defensive position, as the cornerstone of the project. The 16-year-old was already the leader of the team of his life.
“If I have to make a tackle, I’ve made a mistake” Paolo Maldini
Under Ancelotti came Alessandro Nesta, “Pipo” Inzaghi, Andrea Pirlo, who would join Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko, who had arrived two years earlier, to form another team that would go on to dominate Europe and form Milan’s last great winning cycle. They won Milan’s penultimate Serie A title in 2004 and went on to win the club’s last two Champions League titles. The two that Paolo, already as captain of Milan, would raise to the sky as his father.
Maldini ended his time in Milan on 31 May 2009 after more than 25 years playing for and for one shirt. His and his father’s number 3 was retired and has never been used by any other player wearing the Milan shirt. Except in one special case: that a Maldini wears it.
And here begins the story of the third: Daniel Maldini. Son of Paolo Maldini. He made his debut in 2020 in a match against Hellas Verona and has already scored his first unofficial goal in the shirt worn for so many years by his father and grandfather.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Daniel moves in attacking positions playing in the trequartista line. Thin and elegant like his father, tall and slim like his grandfather, he stands out for his individual quality and, like his two references, in a constant defensive work for the team despite being placed in offensive areas.
66 years have passed from Cesare’s debut with Milan to Daniel’s debut in a Rossoneri shirt. His grandfather and father spent 37 years wearing the shirt he wears today. 32 titles have been achieved between the. The Maldini rebel has a tough challenge ahead of him.
The Maldinis have left an indelible mark and a legacy that will always remain in the memory of Milan in particular and world football in general.