Italy's Maldini: The great defender

He is the greatest left-fullback ever to play the game. For over a decade he has been the pillar of Italy's legendary defence. He strikes fear into the hearts of the most dangerous forwards.

He is Paolo Maldini.

In October 2000, the 33-year-old captain of the Italian national team announced he would retire from international soccer following this year's World Cup

Italy's most-capped player with 123 international appearances, Maldini has been one of the world's most dominant soccer players during the past 16 seasons with AC Milan in Italy's Serie A.

In over 600 appearances for the Italian club, Maldini has six Serie A championships to his credit and has won three European Cups, three European Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. He was also voted World Soccer Player of the Year in 1994, becoming one of only two defenders to be accorded that honour.

A product of AC Milan's youth system, there was never any doubt he would play for the Rossoneri. His father, Cesare Maldini, was AC Milan's captain in the '60s, leading them to a European Cup Championship in 1963.

The younger Maldini made his club debut in the 1984-85 season at the ripe old age of 16, and a year later he would become a regular starter.

He would go on to play alongside Italian legends Franco Baresi, Allesandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Marcel Dessailey, helping to form an impenetrable defence and the backbone of an AC Milan squad that was the most dominant and feared team in the world from the late '80s to mid-90s.

Maldini made his debut for Italy in 1988 during a 1-1 tie against Yugoslavia. He took over the captain's armband in 1994 following the retirement of former teammate Baresi. Ever since, he has been an automatic selection for the Azzurri, a testament to his talent and leadership.

But it takes more than talent and leadership to make a legend. So what makes Maldini one of the best defenders ever to play the game?

His versatility, for one thing.

Although he has been used mostly as a left-back by Milan and Italy, he's equally adept at playing other positions in defence. Whether as a right-back, a central defender, a sweeper, a wingback, a libero, a marking back, a stopper or a flat-four defender, Maldini simply adjusts with assurance to any defensive role assigned to him.

Maldini is the archetypal defender: strong, quick, composed, intelligent, and blessed with tremendous pace and a gift for reading the game better than most. His strong man-to-man coverage has shackled the most dangerous forwards and midfielders in the world (including the likes of Maradona, Zidane and Romario).

"I've played against Maldini a couple of times," English forward Teddy Sheringham told Four-Four-Two magazine in a recent interview. "He's good going forward, but more importantly a great defender. I've never seen him ripped apart by a winger."

Perhaps his finest individual performance came in the 1994 European Cup final against a powerful FC Barcelona side and the dangerous Romario. With Baresi and Costacurta suspended from the final, Maldini was switched from his left back position to central defence. The Italian had the game of his career, completing shutting down the Brazilian striker, allowing Milan to trounce Barcelona 4-0.

Maldini is a precise, clean tackler, who is superb in the air and famous for his enterprising and devastating runs into attack from his left wing-back position. His marauding runs down the flank made him a trendsetter, blazing a path for the likes of Roberto Carlos and other top defenders today to follow.

Maldini's defensive play, though, is textbook stuff: the way he closes down opposing forwards when they encroach on his zone, the way he organizes the defence in executing the offside trap or how he compresses the field in front of attacking strikers. Maldini has been studied and held up by coaches as a shining example of the quintessential defender.

Maldini demonstrates levels of technical skill, awareness and composure that have rarely been seen before in a fullback. Unflappable in the face of even the most daunting offensive rushes, he has pioneered and redefined his position.

He endowed his role with new dimensions thanks to his great ability to freely move and play all over the field. An impassable bulwark as a defender, Maldini is extremely effective as he makes his famous pillaging runs up field.

Therein is the wonderful dichotomy of Maldini: a fierce field general that commands and organizes his troops on the pitch, and the free spirit launching himself off on fantastic runs downfield. There's a mechanical precision to his play and skill, while at the same time a beguiling grace and beauty that captivates fans; an understated elegance with an assuredness and reliability.

But what makes Maldini so special is his undying passion for the game. A millionaire-superstar who became a legend in European soccer by the time he was 21, it's still all about playing the game for Maldini. International soccer is a big part of his life - a part he'll have a tough time bidding farewell.

"It is not an easy decision after 15 years with the national side," Maldini told reporters at Italy's training camp when announcing his international retirement last year. "I feel good here, and I enjoy myself. I only hope that once I leave I will be able to cope with the loss."

Like Baresi before him who handed him the mantle of leadership, Maldini will pass the Azzurritorch to the likes of Allesandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi.

Maldini has nothing left to accomplish on club level. However, the pain of numerous defeats at international level still runs deep.

"A major title win with Italy is the one thing I'm missing," Maldini once told reporters.

After close calls in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000, Maldini's last hope rests with the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. But Maldini does have the will and determination to lead Italy to the promised land and earn his first title in international competition.

And with Italy's 2-0 defeat of Ecuador on Monday, the last chapter in the career of Paolo Maldini is another step closer to a storybook ending.