They have the same air of elegance and confidence, whether it’s on the field--in the case of Italian World Cup defender Paolo Maldini--or on the sideline, where his father, Cesare, reigns as the Italian team’s coach.
Paolo Maldini, one of the best left backs and most polished players of his generation, is very much his father’s son in his knowledge of the game, his poise and the grace of his movements. And Cesare, hair parted in the middle and combed back in two brown wings that somehow looked dapper even after he was drenched by rain during Italy’s 2-2 draw with Chile last Thursday, is very much his son’s father. He is a player’s coach, pragmatic but cognizant of players’ need for expression, a philosophical balance that has helped make the Italian team one of the favorites here.
Under Cesare Maldini, who succeeded Arrigo Sacchi in December 1996, Italy has returned to its traditional reliance on defense but without suppressing players’ offensive gifts. In his first news conference, he was asked if he might be the “savior of the land,” summoned to rescue Italian soccer from the depths of despair. He scoffed at such thinking. “Please, please. We’re not at the United Nations,” he said.
His healthy perspective and new approach have been great gifts for Italy, which faces Cameroon today in Group B play at the Stade de la Mosson. But Maldini, 66, long ago gave the team an even greater gift--his son, Paolo, the Italian captain and field general.
Paolo, who will be 30 next week, has succeeded the venerated Franco Baresi as the mainstay of Italy’s defense. A prodigy who made his debut with Milan in Italy’s Serie A at 16, he made his first international appearance at 18 with Italy’s under-21 team, coached by his father.
“The situation was embarrassing because for better or worse, there were always people willing to say that I was a favored son,” Paolo has said. “I’ve always tried to forget that the coach is my father. But since those early days, things have changed and people don’t make certain accusations anymore.”
Paolo unquestionably earned his spot on the national team, and he proved himself as a player and captain before his father took over. With Milan, the only club whose colors Paolo has worn, he has won the Italian League championship five times, the Champions Cup three times, the European Super Cup three times and the World Club Cup twice.
He has far outstripped Cesare’s commendable accomplishments as a player. Cesare was a sweeper and spent 13 years with Milan and one with Torino, winning the Italian championship four times and the European Champions Cup once. When it was suggested Paolo might play sweeper for Italy, he laughed and said, “If Dad explains to me how it is done, then no problem.”
Cesare apparently never boasted about his playing days. “I always dreamed about being as good as my dad, although I knew very little about him as a player,” Paolo told the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. “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, though.”
Paolo is building mountains of press clippings himself. A smart and tenacious defender, he’s also capable of starting offensive forays, as he did against Chile with a long pass from the left flank to Roberto Baggio, who fed Christian Vieri for Italy’s first goal. Maldini, who has made a team-high 89 international appearances--third in Italian history behind Dino Zoff and Giacinto Facchetti--is also an ideal finisher on set pieces because of his ability to win battles in the air.
Paolo’s resemblance to his father is obvious. They have long, lean faces, lithe builds and dark coloring, and Paolo’s chiseled features once inspired clothing designer Giorgio Armani to say he would make an ideal model. In addition, father and son are able to put aside their family ties when it comes to something as serious as the World Cup.
When Paolo was injured during a game against England last year, Cesare sent in a replacement without being overtly solicitous toward his son. And Paolo habitually refers to his father as “the coach,” as he did Tuesday in discussing Italy’s strategy against Cameroon.
“Against Chile, our defense left very little space for the Chilean strikers, but they nevertheless scored two goals. [Alessandro] Nesta and [Fabio] Cannavaro, despite having their critics, remain in favor with the Italian coach,” Paolo Maldini said. “We have a lot of respect for the team from Cameroon, which includes players who are both physical and skillful. If we need to change our tactics, we will do so as the match progresses. Our coach won’t hesitate to make changes, as he has shown in the past.”
But it’s clear that Paolo, the fourth of Cesare and Marisa Maldini’s six children, admires his dad.
“My father taught me everything. 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. “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 favoritism.
“In the long run, that made me try harder to succeed. I wanted to do it for myself, but I owed it to him.”
If Italy’s draw with Chile signified a slow start, that’s nothing new. Italy struggled to get out of the first round in 1982 and 1994 but reached the final each time (winning the former); it struggled in qualifying play and earned a World Cup berth only by winning a home-and-home playoff with Russia. Before the tournament, Paolo Maldini anticipated another slow start and cautioned against panicking.
“We are used to sufferings in the early stages of the competition,” he said. “We may have overcome the most difficult period. We are looking forward to repeating the deeds of the previous editions.”