It does not always feel like an especially beautiful game.
The final weekend of the Premier League season brings dread, recrimination and no little schadenfreude. Then, once tomorrow is out of the way, the agents will start sending their strumpets back onto the street corners for the summer – some of them, no doubt, mutually persuaded that "this is the opportunity you deserve to take your career to the next level"; others, flagrant in their rapacity.
And that, make no mistake, is just the way some people like it. They find a comforting symmetry between the grotesque wealth of football, and the vulgarity of its undeserving beneficiaries. For who then remains as the true custodians of a club's legacy? These preening mercenaries on the pitch? The latest bunch of carpetbaggers in the boardroom? Or the stoical fans, whose loyalty becomes more marvellous with each new betrayal?
Eating from football's tree of knowledge, however, does tend to make you somewhat dyspeptic. You see a young lad in Torquay or Thailand wearing his Ronaldo replica shirt and identify another naive victim of some huge, cynical machine. Poor kid, you say. He little knows that football lost its innocence long ago. Sooner or later, he will have to do the same.
Well, not so fast. Tomorrow afternoon, one of the most luminous footballers in history makes his final home appearance for a club he has served since before Cristiano Ronaldo was even born. Paolo Maldini was 16 when he made his first-team debut for Milan, in January 1985. Against Roma he will be making his 900th subsequent appearance in the same cause, excluding friendlies. In the meantime, he has won the Scudetto seven times, and the Champions' League five times from eight finals. He is also Italy's most capped player, having played 74 of his 126 games as captain.
Now, just a month short of his 41st birthday, il Capitano is finally yielding to the creaking knees that apparently rendered him accountable for both goals in a 2-1 defeat at Udinese last week. Tomorrow he takes his bow at a tearful San Siro; then, a week later, there will be one last appearance, at Fiorentina. After that, this miracle of footballing monogamy will finally dissolve into the daydream he has made incarnate for so many of us, for so many years.
For women, of course, that daydream was seldom especially monogamous. Even now he remains the most impossibly seraphic of men. It was a face such as this that taught Renaissance artists how to paint the soul into the eyes of Christ, or St John. But for those of us who became resigned to sudden gasps of interest, from otherwise apathetic witnesses of the game's greatest dramas, there were still more grievous jealousies to bear.
Very few have caressed a football quite like Maldini, and surely no other defender. He learned from the examples of his father, Cesare, another stalwart of club and country; and Franco Baresi, the cornerstone of the inviolable Milan back four completed by Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti. But he seemed to owe his own touch to Eros himself.
The foundations of his game unquestionably lay in power and pace, as there would otherwise have been little point to his panache. But no left-back has ever been able to slide into a tackle with the same blend of precision, grace and purpose; or rise to his feet in the same supple, seamless moment, already sensing where to curl the ball next. In most formidable defenders, you have a sense that the engine is driven by furious pistons, but Maldini's engine purred like a Ferrari. Zinedine Zidane himself admitted that he would always end up seeking sanctuary on the left side of the field, so exasperated was he to find a defender equal to his every feint.
Maldini gilded even the most physical of footballing duties with the tenderness of genius. And there are other, no less pleasing paradoxes. For in the modern game no other player could be more readily pardoned the vanity that besets so many of his inferiors. Yet Maldini has always had impeccable humility, has never been seduced by flatterers or sirens.
One beautiful woman was enough, he reasoned; likewise, one beautiful club. He has always called Milan "la mia famiglia" and the common dynasty may well be sustained, with his 12-year-old son already featuring in the club's academy team. (Milan plan to retire his No 3 shirt, and will only restore it should his son make the senior squad.) Once, when the club was in financial trouble, he volunteered for a 30 per cent pay cut. Naturally, he could have named his price to any of the great clubs of Europe. But as Sir Alex Ferguson once discovered, Maldini has never needed the ingratiation of the transfer market.
Lesser players might argue that one who declines fresh challenges must be complacent, or even timid. But it is they who lack ardour and conviction. Their self-regard is constantly in need of renewal – whether it takes a stupendous transfer fee, or a less uxorious profile in the scandal sheets.
Maldini is one of those rare players whose greatness seems a due benediction. Life is not really like that, of course. And some will duly ask what kind of paragon would serve a master as worldly as Silvio Berlusconi. Yet Maldini's career credibly persuaded many of us that there was some corner of a foreign field – a football field, no less – that is forever Eden. The beautiful game will be rather less beautiful, without him. But Maldini was never a mere daydream, and nor is the enchantment he distilled. Addio, Paolo. E grazie.
Waste no time shedding any tears for top flight's fallers
The only guarantee about tomorrow's relegation cliff-hanger is that it will end with television close-ups of fans sobbing in disbelief as they contemplate a trip to either Scunthorpe or Millwall next season. But they cannot pretend their fate is undeserved.
Not one of the endangered teams has come close to matching the spirit that salvaged Fulham last season. Those that go down will do so for the best of reasons. Nor can they be remotely complacent about hastening back against the likes of Swansea, assuming they can keep the best young manager in the land, or Ipswich, who will presumably head for one extreme or another under their new regime in a hurry.
As for those they pass on the stairs, no disrespect is intended to Sheffield United in remarking that Burnley deserve to become a Premier League club. Their shattering cup schedule would have left few Championship squads with any hope of the play-offs. But their talent is clearly underpinned by fortitude, which is more than can be said for those they will be replacing.
Could Binga swing the Ashes?
When the tour party announced this week is reduced to a first XI, they say the Australians may no longer have room for Brett Lee. He is 32 now, after all, only recently back from injury, and facing plenty of competition from the young bucks. But anyone who witnessed his contribution to the last Ashes series here – as one of the most wholesome, whole-hearted competitors in all sport – will surely be hoping that "Binga" earns a swansong. If it happened to get as close as last time, after all, his courage and experience could yet swing it.Reuse content