A vanished dream: the story behind Paolo Maldini’s bitter Milan farewell

It has become a familiar image in Calcio. The camera pans to the stand and picks out a legend of the club. But they are not there just to cheer on the side. They are there on official duty. Whether it be Javier Zanetti at Inter, Pavel Nedved at Juventus or Francesco Totti at Roma, the transition from on the pitch leader to club director and ambassador has been paved. Yet there is one man who seemed destined to take on that role at AC Milan but is now cast adrift from his beloved club. This story began to unfold at Malpensa airport early on a Thursday morning.

The 2005 Champions League final could not have started better for Paolo Maldini. Inside the first minute, he steered a volley home to give the Rossoneri the lead in his seventh European Cup final. By half-time it was 3-0. While Maldini has on numerous occasions since denied that the players were celebrating at the interval, it looked like he would lift the trophy for a second time in two years.

Despite the dramatic turnaround in Istanbul and eventual heart-breaking defeat, Maldini was proud of his players. “We played well, better than Liverpool,” Milan’s captain reflected “…but that’s football.” As the Milan players got off the plane back in Italy the following morning they were greeted by a small group of ultras. They did not share the captain’s view on the match.

An angry exchange followed. Although it is not certain, Milan’s ultras who were there claim Maldini labelled them as “mercenaries”. The ultras have never forgiven or forgotten this episode.

Two years later and Milan got their revenge against Liverpool in Athens. Maldini lifted the European Cup for a fifth time. It was a crowning achievement for the defender, one enhanced after after they beat a “great” Boca Juniors in the Club World Cup at the end of that year.

Yet things were beginning to unravel at Milanello. Domestically, the Rossoneri were struggling to compete with their cross-town rivals Inter. But it was problems off the pitch which were causing more alarm to Milanisti.

Banners began to appear in 2008, attacking owner Silvio Berlusconi for wasting his money. The general direction of the club was being questioned and as recent years have demonstrated, the ultras were right to be worried. It was under this cloud that Maldini began his last season at the San Siro.

Milan lost their opening two Serie A games to Bologna and Genoa. Given the imperious nature of the Inter side, boosted by the arrival in the summer of Jose Mourinho, the Rossoneri were up against it. Three wins followed though to give hope. The third win came against Inter thanks to a Ronaldinho header and a dominating display by Milan’s defence, led by Paolo Maldini. It proved that on their day, they could compete against the best.

By the time of the second derby came around in February, the pressure was back on. During the winter transfer window, Kaka had been on the verge of joining the new super rich Manchester City. Milan fans rallied around Kaka, begging him to stay and protesting against the owners for letting mounting debt dictate the club’s transfer strategy. Kaka did stay, and as Milan fans celebrated outside his apartment, the divide at the club had become clear.

Inter beat Milan 2-1 and effectively ended the Rossoneri’s title hopes. Weeks later they were knocked out of Europe by Werder Bremen and having had their Coppa Italia campaign ended by Lazio before Christmas, Maldini’s final campaign was in danger of being a complete shambles.

A fine run of form in March and April, solidified Milan’s position in the top three and qualification for the Champions League looked a formality. Milan only needed a win from their final two games against Roma and Fiorentina.

Maldini’s last match at the San Siro would be against Roma and it would also be his 900th for the Rossoneri. He had been just 16-years-old when legendary Swedish coach, Nils Liedholm, gave him his club debut at Udinese in 1985. Over the next 24 years, Maldini had helped Milan to five European Cups, seven Scudetti, a Coppa Italia, three Intercontinental titles and five European Super Cups. Everything that could have been won had been won.

Commanding at the back and a revered captain, Maldini always put the team first. He never sought personal accolades even though his ability warranted them. Despite all this and his family’s history at the club — his father Cesare was the captain of the Milan team that beat Benfica to win the 1963 European Cup — some parts of the Rossoneri faithful never took him in.

silvio berlusconi trophy

Silvio Berlusconi: AC Milan’s great conductor

He was the player, the leader and bandiera that every supporter dreams of having in their side. Never in the papers for the wrong reasons and the longest serving one-man player in Italian football. Throughout his playing career, Maldini always acted with the club in his mind and this caused friction with the ultras. When a player was either struggling on the pitch or not behaving off it, Maldini would always leap to their defence regardless of fan opinion.

When Milan’s ultras caused a match against Parma to be temporarily suspended for more than five minutes by throwing objects on to the field during their miserable 1997–98 season, Maldini was the first and only player to publicly criticise their behaviour. When Milan won Serie A the following year, he refused to celebrate with the fans, quickly retiring to the locker rooms with Alessandro Costacurta. Towards the end of his playing days, he stuck with Berlusconi even though public opinion had long shifted.

Despite this somewhat uneasy with relationship with the ultras or at least some groups, heading into the match against Roma, nobody expected what was to unfold.

It was an incredibly hot day. Temperatures soared to 36°C in Milan. As Maldini led his team out for the last time a San Siro, the place as one got to their feet. Roma’s players came out alongside the Rossoneri with t-shirts reading “Grazie Paolo, grande capitano“. That was about as good as it got.

Milan lost the match 3-2 as their chance to seal second place slip through their hands, but it was in the terraces where the real drama unfolded. The usual anti-Berlusconi banners were in full force, but in parts of the Curva Sud others emerged:

For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers.

Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion, but you had no respect for those who made you rich.

Maldini Banner

Ultras in Milan’s Curva Sud making their thoughts known during Maldini’s final home game against Roma

The scenes left a bad taste. But there is still some dispute over the banners. In the days after the match, it emerged the ultras had arranged an elaborate choreography to pay homage to their legendary skipper, but the club wanted to take control of proceeds and rejected their requests.

Boos descended down from the stands at the final whistle. Maldini was in tears as he went on a lap of honour. It was an appalling way for Maldini to exit the San Siro and he did not hold back in the post-match press conference. “I am proud to be nothing like them.” On the same day 20 years ago, Maldini claimed his first European Cup with Milan. How times had changed.

A week later in Florence, Milan secured their place in the Champions League with a win. Kaka scored the decisive goal in his final match for the club. In injury time, Maldini was subbed off to a standing ovation. It was a fitting send-off and a stark contrast to the previous weekend.

Nearly nine years later and Maldini has not been back to the San Siro in any official role. After his final game, he was offered the position of the club’s new technical director but he declined given the limited scope of the role. A stand-off also developed between Maldini and vice-president Adriano Galliani.

Maldini was close to re-joining the club, when Leonardo requested the former captain, but Galliani vetoed the move as he believed a director of sport was not needed in the modern game. Galliani felt Maldini personally attacked him when the Milan legend told La Repubblica in 2012 “I have never seen a club run by one person (Galliani) like this…I can destroy this myth that I am ‘one of the family’ at Milan… they don’t particularly want me there.

This was made clear when Massimiliano Allegri wanted Maldini to be a conduit between the coach and players, but the former full-back was again made to feel unwelcome by the club hierarchy.

Maldini has had brief discussions with the current Chinese owners of the club but does not believe in their ownership and financial model. He thus does not believe he can add anything to the club. He has stayed true to his mantra of putting Milan first.

It is a shame. He would be the perfect ambassador for the Rossoneri, with his international status as one of the greats and his ability to speak three languages. The current Brand Ambassador is Franco Baresi. During the Roma game, Milan’s ultras sang Baresi’s name and declared him as the true captain of the club.

The whole experience still stings Maldini. A lengthy Facebook post from his personal account, posted during the torrid time sums it up, “The bitterness remains from these last few days. A dream has vanished…

Whilst the majority continue to celebrate their ex-captain as a club legend, this bitter taste will remain an uncomfortable memory for Maldini and Milanisti.

Words by Richard Hinman: @richardhinman