Images: LaPresse and Getty
It was cold in Udine on January 20th 1985. In fact, it’s always cold in Udine in January; the positioning of the city high in Italy’s northeast, with the Alps to the near north, the Slovenian border 30 minutes to the east, and the Adriatic Sea visible to the south, leaving it open to all types of meteorological variables. But on that day, it was especially cold—freezing or thereabouts. You could see it on the pitch—recently cleared of snow, slick with mud and ice. The paint used to mark the lines barely hanging on without a blade of grass to cling to. It was there in the faces of the crowd, spidery veins pulsing purple, mouths belching out unfiltered cigarette smoke and cold breath, the blue of the former meeting the grey of the latter and drifting towards the substitutes, themselves wrapped up in blankets and rubbing gloved hands together.
Milan, behind 1–0 at the break, made a single injury-enforced substitution. On to replace Sergio Battistini is a tall, slender, 16-year-old with piercing blue eyes. He takes his place at right back wearing number 14. For now, he’s a curiosity. Variations of the same question floating into the ether.
“Is that Cesare Maldini’s boy?”
All things considered, Paolo Maldini is an anomaly. The progeny of world-class footballers rarely make it as top professionals, let alone surpass the achievements of their father. Kasper Schmeichel has won a Premier League and an FA Cup without ever getting close to his dad. And even though clips of Kai Rooney and Cristiano Jr scoring outrageous goals for Manchester United youth teams are increasingly regular, the offspring of the very best footballers either end up as a travelling circus in the lower leagues like Diego Maradona Jr, rely on nepotism and Instagram to play for their father’s MLS franchise, or simply and wisely decide to go into something else. Genetically, they have won the lottery, but the personal drive required to make it often gets lost in the privileged lifestyle that their father’s talent has afforded them.
Make no mistake, Cesare Maldini was a giant of Italian football, a world-class player with bags of talent. In 1963, he achieved iconic status when he strolled up the Wembley steps to become the first captain of an Italian club to lift the European Cup, Milan coming from behind to beat Benfica 2–1, five years after Real Madrid’s Paco Gento had scored deep into extra-time to seal a 3–2 victory and break Rossoneri hearts. Cesare oozed class as a footballer. An artisanal stopper who became an artistic libero and could pass off both feet like a number 10. One who, despite his slavish devotion to the tactical approach of manager Nereo Rocco, couldn’t help but on occasion grease the lock and slip the catenaccio, galloping upfield to join in the fun. Four scudetti. Team of the Tournament at the 1962 World Cup. One European Cup. World Class. A giant.Based on empirical evidence, our own experience and those of people close to us, we know that father and son relationships can be challenging. And in case we ever manage to forget our own shortcomings, there is always culture. From the ancient allegorical stories of Odysseus and Telemachus and Daedalus and Icarus to more modern in your face illustrations like Homer and Bart Simpson or Tony and AJ Soprano, we are reminded that that being a son can at times be like walking through a minefield blind, and being a father is a high-wire act that requires balance, intelligence, and constant imperceptible readjustments to ensure the worst doesn’t happen.
Cesare Maldini was a giant of Italian football, but more than that, he was an incredible father. Tiptoeing along the tightrope above and providing just enough shade for Paolo to move through life’s obstacles without ever allowing the shadow of his achievements to make success impossible. When Paolo was born in June 1968, Cesare had been retired a year. His mantelpiece should have been heavy with trinkets, his hallway bearing at least one image of him lifting a trophy. Nothing.
“I always dreamed about being as good as my dad, although I knew very little about him as a player,” Paolo told Gazzetta dello Sport in 1998. “I only learned through looking at three albums of press cuttings that had been collected by a friend. They were the only records we had in the house. I knew that he was a great player, but he never explained to me how he played. When I was a boy, I used to look at those albums a lot.”
Like all good fathers, Cesare encouraged his son to do things he loved, and Paolo loved football. He played as a goalkeeper at school for a while, but when he began showing athletic and technical promise aged 10, Cesare offered to take him for a trial. Aware of the problems his name could cause around the dusty pitches of Milanello, he gave Paolo the choice between Inter and Milan. There was no pause. He wanted to be Rossoneri, like his dad. It’s what he had always wanted.
“From the moment I first remember seeing a picture of him holding the European Cup, I wanted to copy his success,” Paolo told World Soccer magazine years later. “I think he was harder with me than with the other players in the youth teams at Milan. But I know that was only because he wanted to make sure no one could accuse him of showing any favouritism. In the long run, that made me try harder to succeed. I wanted to do it for myself, but I owed it to him.”
By the time Paolo entered Milanello, skinny, tousle-haired, a walking, tackling, cajoling mini Cesare, his old man had won a Cup Winners Cup and a Coppa Italia as the Milan manager and had recently taken up the role of one of Enzo Bearzot’s Italy assistants. Imagine how easy it would’ve been for him to get it wrong, what with his CV and who he was. But rather than force too hard or hold back too much, he nailed it. He’d drive Paolo to training and study him nervously, chain-smoking as his boy made the same tentative steps he had decades earlier. He’d talk to him about where to be and the work required and the goals you needed to set to make it, and he watched with pride when Paolo was gradually sucked backwards from the right wing to a place in defence from where he could ooze his class, show his tactical discipline, and occasionally gallop off up the flank to join the fun.
Cesare Maldini had no training in being a father, who does? He was the son of a fisherman, raised mainly by his mother while his dad was away doing what fishermen do. He made it as a young player at Triestina who Milan snapped up after 32 appearances in the same way he made it as a father—hard work, talent, humility, and a bit of luck.
Paolo Maldini didn’t make it as a footballer just because he won the genetic lottery, but because he got the bonus ball on the emotional one. He wouldn’t go onto double his father’s career appearances because of his family name, nor win all those scudetti and European Cups because his dad was a world-class footballer. He did it because Cesare nurtured him and gave him the tools to do it. He became a player known for fairness, longevity, and resilience because his old man helped him navigate the minefield.
Back in Udine, midway through the second half, Franco Baresi is caught out of position, and the Zebrette try a quick ball through the middle. The crowd moves as one. For a second, they forget the cold as their hearts pump faster; the sound that only a football crowd can make when something good might happen hangs in the air. Without any fuss, on a pitch that cattle would simply refuse to have anything to do with, the tall, slender kid with the piercing blue eyes makes a recovery run from the flank, slides in from the side and takes the ball cleanly, keeping it under his control as the forward sprawls in the mud. The crowd sits back down. Spidery veins in their faces throbbing, clouds of angry breath and exasperated cigar smoke joining together to float down towards the bench.
There, sits manager Nils Liedholm. A giant of Italian football, a former teammate of Cesare’s, and the captain of the Milan team that lost to Real Madrid 3–2 in the 1958 European Cup Final. He bangs together his gloved hands, half to keep the cold from his bones, half to clap the boy he has given his debut. More than a curiosity now. Different versions of the same answer floating into the ether, louder as the confirmation passes around the stadium.
“It is him. That is Cesare Maldini’s boy.”
The above is an excerpt from our Issue 22 cover story, The Chronicles of Paolo. That's sold out now, but you can subscribe to MUNDIAL so that you never miss out on an issue again here.If you're not ready yet, sign up to our free weekly newsletter here.