Longevity is an increasingly rare commodity in football. Successful coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho get itchy feet after only a few seasons, while players swap clubs as frequently as their sports cars. There are some exceptions of course, but it is widely accepted that the ‘one-club man’ concept now belongs to a bygone era.
How AC Milan fans would love to be transported back to that era, particularly given the club’s current malaise. A time when loyalty and success went hand in hand, when Milanese royalty like Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta ruled at home and in Europe.
Those three defensive icons offered Milan a combined 65 years of service between them, with Maldini leading the way. During 24 years at the San Siro, he lifted 26 major trophies. Since his retirement in 2009, however, the club has had a sole Scudetto (2010-11) to celebrate. And of that title-winning side, just one player remains – Ignazio Abate a long-serving anomaly of modern Milan.
“It’s not so easy anymore,” Maldini tells Sport360 ahead of his participation in the Abu Dhabi Summer Season. “I was born in Milan and I found everything with the club of my city. It’s not very common. Different players have different goals. When I started it wasn’t so common for an Italian player to go and play in another country. Now it’s changed and that is almost the norm.
“I believe if the right people find the right club at the right moment it can be unique. There are a lot of former players like Franco Baresi [20 years] and Alessandro Costacurta [21 years] who played their whole careers for AC Milan. For us it was much easier because our winning era was so long that nobody wanted to leave the club.”
So what is the secret to playing at the pinnacle of your sport for two-and-a-half decades?
“First of all, genes from my father and my mother for sure,” Maldini explains, smiling. “After that, it was all about dedication and passion. I was also lucky not to have any really bad injuries in my career. That’s why I was able to play for 25 years for AC Milan.”
The current Milan side is a shadow of those great teams for whom Maldini was such a stalwart. But with Silvio Berlusconi set to end his 30-year reign as Rossoneri owner, there is hope that Milan may emerge from the doldrums after successive Serie A finishes of 8th, 10th and 7th in the past three years. Maldini, though, is keen to temper any optimism.
“I think the time is right for Mr. Berlusconi to sell. He doesn’t want to invest more money. He doesn’t have the time to follow the team as he did,” Maldini says. “Still, Milan will always be in his heart – he really does love the club. But probably, yes, this is the right time to sell.
“The new season is not going to be very easy. We still don’t know who is going to be the new owner; we still don’t know if they will want to buy 100 percent of the club. We are nearly at the start of the season so I don’t think there will be a lot of new players coming this year either. There are a lot of question marks.”
One new face already at the San Siro is former Roma and Italy striker Vincenzo Montella, who has taken up the coach’s job. It has been something of a poisoned chalice of late, with Montella the eighth man to lead Milan since Carlo Ancelotti – and Maldini – departed in 2009. But Milan’s legendary No. 3 feels Montella represents a solid appointment.
“As a player he was incredible, he was really very hard to play against. And as a coach his teams usually play very good football. They like to play the ball. We will have to see who is going to be in the squad and what he can do but I think it’s a good move from Milan.”
“To go from a player to a coach is a big step – you have to be ready, and Conte has always been ready. He is one of the younger coaches who is going to write history in this sport.”
Maldini is well used to seeing former opponents in the dugout, with ex-Juventus midfielder Antonio Conte another who has forged a successful path as a coach. Having also encountered him as a team-mate at international level with Italy, Maldini is not surprised at all by his progress, and believes it is only a matter of time before he prospers at Chelsea.
“Usually midfielders like Antonio Conte, like [Carlo] Ancelotti, like [Frank] Rijkaard – they are born to be coaches. To actually change your life and go from a player to a coach is a big step – you have to be ready, and Conte has always been ready. Since his first team in Serie B he has shown something different. He is one of the younger coaches who is going to write history in this sport.
“As a player, he never gave up and he always wants the same from his players. There were a lot of problems with Italy before Euro 2016, especially because of the midfielders missing through injury but he didn’t seem to worry and he was right.
“I hope that he will be successful at Chelsea but the Premier League is a different world – I think he will need to try and understand the league and to make the players understand what he wants; it’s not easy but I think he will do well there.”
Coaching is not something that has ever appealed to Maldini, who is now simply happy to watch his sons Christian and Daniel play for the Milan’s youth teams. Christian captained the Under-19 side earlier this year shortly after the death of grandfather Cesare, and should he ever reach the senior team, he will pull on his dad’s iconic No. 3 shirt.
“Christian didn’t play too much the last two years because he broke the same knee twice,” Maldini says. “For a young kid like him it’s not easy to come back. That’s why they gave him the captain’s armband. It makes me very proud when I watch them.”
BEST DEFENDER IN THE WORLD AT THE MOMENT?
Thiago Silva. Even though he didn’t play so good in the last year, I still don’t understand why he hasn’t been in the national team because he is still the best for Brazil. He has everything – good positional awareness, skill, very strong, he can jump well. He has everything needed to be the best.
BEST PLAYER YOU EVER FACED?
Diego Maradona for sure, and also Ronaldo when he was playing for Inter Milan. He was very tough because he was a huge guy, more than 80kgs, fast like crazy and great skills too. He had everything.
TOUGHEST OPPONENT IN TRAINING?
I remember in 1994, Ruud Gullit was playing on the right wing in training and I was on the left – he didn’t usually play there in the first XI but it was very hard to play against him. A great player.
DO YOU STILL WATCH MILAN PLAY?
I love watching football. I’ve never been a football fan because I have been a professional but yes I still love it. And when I have the chance to go to the stadium, yes I really like to watch Milan games, particularly the big games.
YOU’RE A TENNIS FAN, WHO’S YOUR FAVOURITE PLAYER?
My knees are not too good but I still like to play tennis with friends now. In terms of players to watch Roger Federer I love. Even if Djokovic has been very good recently, Federer is still brilliant.