World Soccer
Thursday May 21st, 2009

On Sunday, AC Milan's Paolo Maldini will play his final match in front of the home crowd at the San Siro. The 40-year-old defender is hanging up his boots after a legendary 24-year career that includes five Champions League titles and seven Serie A crowns while with Milan, as well as participating in four World Cups and three European Championships with the Italian national team. World Soccer's Paddy Agnew recently caught up with the Italian icon.

World Soccer: How hard is it going to be to finally hang up the boots?

Maldini: I've been very lucky. I played all my life in Milan, for a very good team, and I've always had my family around me. Everything has been perfect. Everything that I wanted to do in my career, I did it.

World Soccer: Is your body telling you the time has come and that you have pushed it far enough?

Maldini: Ironically, I'm much better this year than for the last three seasons. After my two knee operations, everything is much better and I am training regularly. I could keep on playing, but I don't want to. This year I thought I would be playing just a few games -- and here I am playing in them all.

World Soccer: So there's no way we will see you back here for the start of next season?

Maldini: No, no, I am stopping all right. I mean, when I look at my career, I have really stretched it as far as you can go. I started in Serie A at the age of 16 and here I am still playing at 40.

World Soccer: You say you have no regrets, that you have done everything you wanted to. But surely the 2005 Champions League final loss to Liverpool in Istanbul hurts a bit?

Maldini: Why would that be a bad memory? That was one of the best finals I ever played in. We played really well, much better than Liverpool, and we really deserved to win much more than them. But that's football. That defeat, though, meant that when we met them two years later, again in the final, we were really keen to get our revenge. The second final maybe wasn't a great game, but it was real proof of how determined we were -- and then we went on to beat Boca Juniors [in the Club World Cup] just to prove the point that we really were a very good team. We played better than Liverpool in Istanbul and we deserved to win but, you know, that's life. I won a lot of things in my career. I can accept a defeat. We did our best.

World Soccer: Is there any game that you regret? One that you wished you had never played?

Maldini: A game I would happily not have played in was our European Cup quarterfinal return match with Marseille [in 1991]. That certainly did not end the way I would have liked. [With the score at 1-0 that night, and with Marseille winning the tie 2-1 on aggregate, Milan was clearly on its way out of the competition as the match went into to injury time. Then the floodlights failed, offering what seemed like a lifeline to Milan director general Adriano Galliani. In a distinctly unsporting move, much criticized in Italy, he marched the team off the field and refused to play out the last three minutes of injury time. The Milan ploy was obvious: It would argue that the game had to be replayed because of the floodlight failure. UEFA, however, took a rather different view and banned Milan from European competition for a year.] It's one thing to do your best and get beat, that's too bad. But to walk off like that... [Shakes his head ruefully.]

World Soccer: With 126 caps, you are the most-capped Italian of all time. Given your long career with the Italian team, was it difficult to watch it win the World Cup without you in 2006? After all, you had played in every World Cup and European Championship finals tournament from '88 through to '02.

Maldini: I was in America for the '06 World Cup, a long way away, so until it got to the semifinal stage, I saw hardly anything. I saw the final all right. I was very happy for them but disappointed for myself because we had gone so close so often when I played. But, you know, I've had so much out of life that I cannot complain.

World Soccer: Did losing in the semis to Argentina at the '90 World Cup in Italy not hurt? Should Italy have won that tournament?

Maldini: Italia '90 was a great experience, even if a disappointment. Maybe we weren't destined to win it, but we should at least have made it to the final. Remember, we got to the semifinal without having conceded even one goal.

World Soccer: Any other World Cup memories?

Maldini: The '94 tournament in the U.S. was strange. I remember our opening game against Ireland in Giants Stadium game when they really caused us problems. We were expected to win that game, but defeat really started our World Cup on the wrong note. Then in our next game, against Norway, our goalkeeper was sent off. Oh dear, dear, what a traumatic start. We ended up in the final, losing on penalties. That's football.

World Soccer: Is there any one game that you recall above all others?

Maldini: My first-ever Serie A game. I knew then that I could be a Serie A player. Our coach [Nils] Liedholm was probably the perfect coach for a youngster. He was very calm and encouraging. He didn't add to my stress, which was good because I was already all worked up on my own.

World Soccer: Your own son, 12-year-old Christian, is currently attempting to follow in his father's awesome footsteps. Have you encouraged him to go in this direction or were you tempted to suggest something else to him?

Maldini: Football has given me so much, why should I not let him have his chance? My father [ex-Milan captain and former Italy coach Cesare Maldini] let me have my chance.

World Soccer: Talking of your father, was it difficult to captain Italy with him as the coach?

Maldini: No it wasn't difficult at all. In fact, it was actually rather special.

World Soccer: Did you talk to your father a lot after training and after matches?

Maldini: Not any more than a captain would normally talk to the coach of a team.

World Soccer: Have you any specific plans for the future? In the past you have said you absolutely do not want to coach. Is that still the case?

Maldini: Definitely. I am not going to coach. It's a great job but very stressful and it involves some of the things that I like least in football. At the end of a game, I see [Milan boss Carlo] Ancelotti do seven different interviews, answering the same questions seven different times. Also, I wouldn't be at ease having to go to Coverciano [the Italian federation's technical center] to be taught about football, just to get my coaching badge. I have two business interests that I intend to follow up more closely. I have a clothing line with friends and we also have a company that does house restoration. But, apart from that, I simply do not have definite plans and I don't want to say I will be doing this or that when at the moment I don't really know.

World Soccer: What about a career in journalism, or maybe even acting?

Maldini: No way.

World Soccer: Has your boss at Milan, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, ever asked you to step into politics and join him?

Maldini: Never. I think he's happy with what I do here. I wouldn't want to get into politics. It seems to me like always trying to do something with your hands tied behind your back. It's very difficult to put your own ideas into action. As for Berlusconi, if you want him, if you need him, you can find him. He's always available.

World Soccer: What will you miss most when you retire?

Maldini: My best moments have probably been here at Milanello on the training ground. That's what I'm going to miss most, being on the pitch or in the dressing room with guys from so many different places. That atmosphere, I'm going to miss that.

World Soccer: You are retiring at a particularly delicate moment for Italian football, when the star of the national game would seem to be decidedly on the wane, at least judging by the last two seasons of the Champions League. Is Italian football in crisis?

Maldini: No, but the investment gap with the Premier League is now enormous. Then, too, you've got to acknowledge that English football has developed greatly, foreign coaches and foreign players have helped...

World Soccer: As a defender, does it annoy you that Italian football is labeled as defensive?

Maldini: When I see Manchester United or Liverpool play away from home, these are the most defensive sides I've ever seen. They play the entire game in their own half. But they have started to get results in Europe now, they have learned to be defensive. People tend to look down their noses at teams that work hard in defense, yet that's what's missing from a lot of the best teams around today. To get your defense right is not as easy or as negative as it might sound. Sure, fans always want you to play attacking, spectacular football. But to get four guys in defense to play well together, to move together, is definitely not easy.

We've had that "defensive" label in Italy since the 1960s. We've had teams that have played well in defense but which also attacked much more than other teams. If I think about the Milan sides I've played in -- and I am not just thinking about [Arrigo] Sacchi's Milan [with Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard], but right down to the present -- we've always had good players, often small creative players with attacking fullbacks and everybody willing to attack ... too much so sometimes, I think!

World Soccer: Who were the best of all the opponents you met and of all your Milan teammates?

Maldini: Diego Maradona was the best. He was so talented and he was a great guy. Among teammates, technically speaking, the best was probably van Basten, but the one from whom I learned the most was Franco Baresi.

World Soccer: How would you like to end your career? What sort of last game do you want?

Maldini: There was talk that I might end up playing one final time for Italy and I have spoken to [national-team coach] Marcello Lippi about this. But I don't want to be a nuisance and get in his way as he's busy preparing for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup qualifiers. I like the idea of ending my career as I began it, in Serie A, in a real game that could well be decisive as far as Champions League places are concerned. I don't like the idea of something special being set up. I prefer a real game and then, after that, whatever will be will be.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.