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Paolo Maldini: The Heart and Soul of Italian Soccer
by Francesca Di Meglio
JANUARY 23, 2005 - Today is a special day for Italy - and soccer fans everywhere. Today Italian defender Paolo Maldini celebrates his 20th anniversary with the football club A.C. Milan. What's most surprising about Maldini's longevity isn't the numerous accolades or championships. It's the fact that a professional athlete in this day and age has chosen to stay with one team for his entire career. But that's only the first of many reasons we should thank Maldini. Here are the others:
He's a wall. No attacker wants to face Maldini because virtually no one gets by him. Even at 36, he's still one of the best players in the world. Although he's been denied personal recognition, like World Footballer of the Year honors, even the youngest hot shots see Maldini as a serious threat. Since he's been on the team, A.C. Milan has won seven league championships, four European Cup or Champions League titles, two InterContinental Cups, four European SuperCups and the Italian Cup.
He also has 126 caps with the Italian national team, more than anyone else. The most notable part of his national team career was his ability, even when he wasn't the official captain, to helm the team in the worst of times - from Roberto Baggio's missed penalty kick in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil to his last day on the team when Italy controversially lost to South Korea in only the second round of the 2002 World Cup. The mark of a true captain and outstanding person is his ability to get himself and those around him through the trying times. All hail Paolo!
He demands respect. I was privileged enough to stand a few feet away from Maldini on the pitch at Giants Stadium in New Jersey when A.C. Milan took on Juventus for the Italian SuperCup. I was taking photos for another Italian American publication, and I couldn't help but overhear him with his teammates. In just a few hours, it was obvious that Maldini is part father, part friend, part legend and all leader to his teammates. He walks as though he is no one special. But he runs down the field and blocks everything in his path with an unmatched confidence.
He's dreamy. Maldini's statuesque body, muscular made-for-soccer legs, chiseled face, flowing dark hair and glorious light eyes make him look more like an Armani model than a professional athlete. Every woman - and even a few men out there - is grateful for that. It makes the game that much more interesting!
He's loyal to his family, too. In an era when fans are used to professional athletes who father numerous children with different women, cheat on their wives, or have drug problems, Maldini is a throwback to simpler days. He's been married to Venezuelan model Adriana Fossa for more than 10 years and they have two sons. Rumor has it that their sweet love story came to fruition thanks to Maldini's persistence; he wanted to prove to her that she was the one and he wasn't like all the others. Baggio might be the only other who compares. And that's the difference between role models and mere sportsmen.
This is only the beginning. Maldini has said that he will continue to play soccer because he still enjoys it and can keep up with his teammates. As he ages ever so gracefully, he gives us all hope. If only he'd come back to the Italian national team. They sure could use him.
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