Cesare Maldini: The Italian who turned defending into an art

A football match lasts 90 minutes but the memories can stay with you for a lifetime.

Cesare Maldini: The Italian who turned defending into an art

Half a century ago, on February 16, 1965, AC Milan were in London to play Chelsea in the third round of a tournament known as the Fairs Cup (subsequently the Uefa Cup, now the Europa League).

To say the match was eagerly awaited is putting it mildly. It was Milan’s first visit to London since their victory against Benfica at Wembley in the 1963 European Cup final.

That team was in transition — more properly in decline — but core members remained.

Gianni Rivera, the golden boy, Milan’s handsome playmaker was one. Another was Giovanni Trapattoni, the hunter-killer in midfield.

And then there was Cesare Maldini, the captain and master of defence.

They were a fine attacking side. As well as Rivera they had three South American strikers including the brilliant Amarildo, Pele’s stand-in for Brazil with three goals in their 1962 World Cup triumph.

What made them stand apart, however, was implacable, sometimes ruthless, defensive organisation, and captain Maldini was both the heart and the brains of it.

In that Wembley final against Benfica they were a goal down, with Eusebio tasting blood and the captain Mario Coluna dominating the midfield. Maldini became the manager on the pitch, relieving the beleaguered Peruvian, Victor Benitez, from the duty of marking Eusebio and instructing Trapattoni to mark him instead.

The switch changed the game. The whole side began to harry and tackle and win the ball, sometimes by fair means and sometimes with fouls. One bad tackle effectively reduced Coluna to a passenger.

Maldini controlled the back, Trapattoni prowled, and Milan became the first Italian side to win the European Cup.

Two years later it was a different story. Maldini was not at his best in that match at Stamford Bridge. It was his final season at the club.

A couple of slip-ups put team-mates in trouble — for a time he even gave his name to such errors, which the media chistened ‘maldinate’.

But even in defeat he was a man whose presence and personality shone through, just as it did when he stopped playing and became a manager, both for Milan and for Italy.

Over the years, in victory and in defeat, Cesare became Cesarone — Great Caesar — and perhaps the best-loved character in Italian football.

His son, Paolo, inherited his father’s qualities both on and off the pitch.

It seemed meant to be when the two of them, father and son, manager and captain, joined forces in the 1998 World Cup. Against the hosts in the quarter-final Italy stood firm at the Stade de France but couldn’t score.

And so it went, inevitably, to penalties. Zinedine Zidane was on his knees in the centre circle when Laurent Blanc smashed his one home, which left Luigi Di Biagio needing to score to keep Italian hopes alive. Three paces, another thunderous shot, but his effort smashed into the crossbar rather than the net.

Di Biagio, no softy, was in tears then, and again earlier this month when Italian football paid tribute to Cesarone at his funeral in Milan.

“Every time we met I apologised for not giving him the chance to become champion of the world because of that penalty that hit the bar,” said Di Biagio. “And every time he gave me a hug, and smiled.”

Nearly all the stories about Cesare Maldini as a man, and a manager, mention his kindness, and a gentle attitude to others which is quite at odds with his ruthlessness as a player.

He was second-in-command to Enzo Bearzot in the 1982 World Cup when Italy were very much the underdogs and then triumphed thanks to Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick against Brazil and 3-1 win against the Germans in the final.

Claudio Gentile, Italy’s toughest defender in that tournament, was another who paid tribute to a true great.

He said: “All of us who were involved remember him with great warmth. When Italy weren’t doing very well and we were a bit tired of things, it was he who helped those who were under the most criticism. He always had an affectionate relationship with us and for me he is one the architects of that victory.”

“Always kind and supportive, a lovely person,” said Clarence Seedorf.

Andriy Shevchenko described him as a father figure for all the players as well as a great coach.

“An incredible thing happened when he died,” said Maldini’s daughter Donatella, “We’ve been swamped by messages of affection, not routine ones, which described him in an incredible way, just as he was to us.”

Maldini’s legacy to Italian football is significant for several reasons. Perhaps more than any other single player he embodied the idea of defending as an art, and not only as a dark art, but also as an essential part of the game.

When Milan beat Benfica at Wembley it was a disappointment to ‘purists’, as well as the Portuguese. Coluna was especially unforgjving about the foul that put him out of the game. For decades he blamed Trapattoni rather than the real culprit (the relatively unknown Gino Pivatelli, a winger by trade not a defender).

Significant, because it was the way Maldini reorganised the side and gave Trapattoni the key role, while directing the counter-attack, which took the game away from Benfica.

With this Maldini inherited the mantle of his manager, the fearsome Nereo Rocco, an authoritarian type who Jimmy Greaves always called Nero after his brief spell at the club.

Maldini holds the European Cup after AC Milan’s 2-1 win over Portugal in the 1963 European Cup final at Wembley.
Maldini holds the European Cup after AC Milan’s 2-1 win over Portugal in the 1963 European Cup final at Wembley.

Rocco is often credited, if that’s the right word, with responsibility for the rise of ultra-defensive play or ‘catenaccio’. In fact it was more his opposite number at Inter Milan, Helenio Herrera, who adopted that approach, whereas Milan under Rocco, and subsequently with Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello in charge, have combined strong and flexible defence with exciting attacking play.

Maldini’s second great moment at Wembley, in 1997, was also symbolic.

There was still an inferiority complex about taking on the English in their home stadium, where Italy had never won a competitive match.

It was a 1-0 victory turning on a breakaway goal and based on well-organised defence that ended that hoodoo.

Yet Maldini’s biggest achievement was with Italy’s youngsters. His record of three consecutive European trophies with the U21 side in the 1990s is unlikely to be beaten. He was an extremely shrewd judge and coach of young players.

Obviously his own son was one of them, but other great names who prospered under his influence include Carlo Ancelotti, Francecso Totti, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Pippo Inzaghi and Gigi Buffon.

The manager’s role wasn’t an easy one for him. “I will never become a manager,” said Paolo Maldini recently, “I saw what my father had to put up with.”

But the legacy continues, with two of Paolo’s children now playing for Milan youth sides. That continuity is something that Italian football badly needs — and also the character, honesty and sense of fair play represented by Cesare’s career in the game.

Although maybe opinions are a little bit different in Lisbon.

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