San Siro send-off turns sour for capitano Maldini

It was a sunny afternoon in Milan last Sunday as Paolo Maldini led his team out onto the San Siro turf for the final time. The Milan captain was greeted by the fervent roar of home support from a crowd of over 70,000 that had gathered to cheer their hero one last time and to honor an extraordinary career. Each fan waved aloft a special scarf commemorating the occasion, and even the players of Roma, Milan’s opponents for the day, wore GRAZIE PAOLO t-shirts over their playing jerseys as they took to the field.

As the teams lined up, an emotional Maldini saluted his family in the stands, before glancing to catch teammate Andrea Pirlo wiping away tears: “Ragazzi, let’s not start now, eh?” Indeed: despite the celebratory atmosphere, there was a game to be won, and for the victor a potential spot in next season’s Champions League beckoned. Yet it was at this moment that the Curva Sud, the area behind the goal on the second tier which is home to Milan’s most fanatical followers, chose to have its say, by unfurling a large banner which controversially criticized the man of the hour:

“Grazie capitano: sul campo un campione infinito
ma hai mancato di rispetto a chi ti ha arricchito”

“Thank you Captain: on the pitch an ageless champion
but you have shown a lack of respect towards those who made you rich.”

The celebration had been marred by a small section of Milan supporters, who chose Maldini’s farewell home match to turn on their loyal captain. For one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, a model of service and fair play, it was a shocking reception.

The match kicked-off, and Milan came twice from behind before eventually losing 3-2, a defeat which has thrown their hopes of playing in Europe next season into jeopardy. At the final whistle, all twenty-two players ran to embrace Maldini, who then, at the encouragement of his colleagues, somewhat reluctantly embarked on a weary lap of honor. As he approached the curva, the same disgruntled fans took its second dig at their captain, unveiling a second banner.

“Per i tuoi 25 anni di gloriosa carriera sentiti ringraziamenti
da chi hai definito mercenari e pezzenti”

“For your glorious 25-year career you’ve received praise and thanks
from those you once defined as mercenaries and tramps.”

Spray-painted banners, known as striscioni, are a common sight in Italian soccer stadia, and play a significant role in ultrà culture. Gli ultras are Italian teams’ most die-hard supporters, the kind of people for whom being a football fan is a full-time job. Often topical and usually humorous (ultràs love a good play-on-words), striscioni can be used to great effect in rallying home fans or breaking the tension in an important game. If critical, they generally target the club’s upstairs management or a teams’s poor performances. Rarely do individuals come under personal attack. But in Maldini’s case, it was clear the milanisti had old scores to settle. To further rub salt into Maldini’s wounds, they even dusted off a giant red-and-black striped flag with a huge white number six, the shirt number (since retired) worn by former Milan legend Franco Baresi, from whom Maldini inherited the captain’s armband in 1997. The bitter disappointment was etched on Maldini’s face as he shot a sarcastic thumbs up to his critics on the second tier on the curva — he could even be seen mouthing the words “figli di puttane”, though after the game his only official comment was “I’m proud not to be one of them.”

“It’s my home — it always has been, it always will be.” This is how Paolo Maldini once described Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, more commonly known as San Siro after the area of the city from which its imposing twists of concrete spiral into the Milanese fog. For decades it has been home to both Milanese clubs, Milan and Inter, but far more than just a historic soccer ground, for Maldini the famous stadium has also been his place of employment for the past twenty-four years. Maldini made his Serie A debut for the rossoneri in January 1985; he has since pulled on the red-and-black number three shirt 901 times, collecting seven scudetti (the Italian league championship title) and five European Cups/Champions Leagues in the process. He also won 126 caps for Italy between 1988 and 2002, playing in four World Cup tournaments. Maldini’s berth in football’s hall of fame has been assured for some time. Famed not only for his success but also his longevity, today the Italian is internationally adored and universally recognized as one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game. After extending his contract for one final season in 2008, the Milan captain finally announced his decision to retire from playing at the end of this season, just four weeks before his forty-first birthday.

So why the sudden backlash, and from his own fans no less? Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport tried to get to the bottom of the affair on Monday, even reporting comments of members of those responsible. “We just wanted to make a few things clear to him,” said Giancarlo Lombardi, leader of Milan’s organised support. “Maldini hasn’t always been respectful towards us in the past.” Nicknamed “Sandokan”, Lombardi claimed to be on his way to a bar just yards from Milan’s administrative headquarters in Via Turati. With him was Giancarlo Capelli, also known as “Il Barone”, historic capoultrà of the Curva Sud. Neither man was at Sunday’s game since both are already banned by Italian law from attending sporting events, but their orders had clearly been carried out.

Their grievance goes back to May 2005, when Milan dramatically lost the Champions League final to Liverpool after a penalty shoot-out, despite having galloped to a comfortable 3-0 lead at half-time. On Milan’s return from Istanbul the team ran into a group of hostile fans at Malpensa airport, who told the players they should ask for forgiveness. It was at this moment that Maldini, who had scored the game’s opening goal after just sixty seconds, responded with his now infamous “tramps” remark.

The second incident was before the 2007 Champions League final, in which Milan got their revenge over Liverpool, winning the match 2-1. A large portion of the curva ran into problems with the law in Athens, and did not appreciate Maldini’s decision to distance himself from the issue. As a consequence, the following August the entire curva refused to support the team at the 2007 European Supercup in Monaco, even preventing the more casual fans to cheer as the rossoneri ran out 3-1 winners against Sevilla. The surreal atmosphere continued at Milan’s home games for several months during the 2007-08 season.

“I don’t know why they decided to dredge up these things now,” said Maldini, recalling the incident in Wednesday’s Gazzetta, his first interview since the Sunday’s controversy. “I’ve never had a close relationship with the fans,” he told Giovanni Battista Olivero, “But not out of snobbery — with my last name I always had something to prove, and so I wanted to be judged solely by what I did on the pitch.” Maldini was referring to his father, Cesare, who captained Milan to its first European Cup success, over Benfica at Wembley in 1963. “I guess there are those who interpret this as arrogance or disregard.”

Asked about his strong comments immediately after the match, the Milan captain stands by them. “It was an instinctive response to an act which had been premeditated for days, months, maybe years. I didn’t have the chance to think. I was a wounded man.”

More than the attack itself, what hurt Maldini most was the silence of the club itself. “I don’t like the way they haven’t taken any position on the matter,” he explained. “There hasn’t been one comment. From the president down, not a word of solidarity towards me. Call me an idealist, but I believe that a club like Milan should disassociate itself from certain episodes.”

* * *

Italian fandom, like Italian politics, is an extremely complex world, both nationally and within the confines of a city or club. So complex in fact, that most outsiders (including the majority of the foreign press) too often resort to fulfilling lazy stereotypes rather than trying to fully understand the socio-cultural make-up of a club, city or nation. Though not a violent incident, Sunday was the latest poor advertisement for Italian fan behavior, in a week when Manchester United fans travelled for the Champions League final to Rome, dubbed “Stab City” by the Times of London. Of course, these same knife-wielding thugs are also responsible for the intricate and spectacular choreography common in Italian stadia, and so admired across Europe.

For several years the positions taken by Milan’s organized support have become increasingly unpredictable, and its relationship with the club’s management evermore turbulent. The notorious Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den), the first ultràs group founded in Italy, was dissolved in 2005 almost overnight, following political disagreements with other fan organizations and an alleged collaboration with Digos, a special operations branch of the state police. The inner-politics of the various curva groups and their relationship with the club and the team has been strained ever since. The ultràs‘ biggest gripe, perhaps justifiably, has been Milan’s reluctance during recent transfer campaigns to invest in younger talent, instead opting repeatedly for established stars on the wrong side of thirty. This policy is perhaps harder to take given the fact that since the late-1980s until recently Milan — under the financial backing of media tycoon and current Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi — had spent large sums of money each summer on some of the world’s finest players, resulting in the most sustained period of success in the club’s history.

Maldini himself has faced criticism before. “It’s not the first time the fans have turned on me,” he recalled. “During the 1997-98 season, I’d been captain for six months when they began suggesting I wasn’t worthy of the armband. They even painted a banner outside my house which read, ‘Less Hollywood, more hard work.'” (Hollywood is a famous discoteca in Milan, and a popular hotspot where footballers, models and stars of TV can rub shoulders. Ironically, Maldini, his wife Adriana, friends and teammates spent the evening at the nightclub after Sunday’s game.) Perhaps due to his stature at Milan, and within the sport as a whole, Maldini has the mental capacity to render himself impervious. “These things make you grow,” he said. “I’ve developed an intellectual freedom and a freedom of expression which I’ll never give up.”

Over the course of the week the international football community has been quick to leap to Maldini’s defence. On Thursday, the morning after Barcelona’s Champions League victory over Manchester United, Barça coach Pep Guardiola dedicated the triumph to the Milan captain, saying, “He has all of Europe’s admiration.” The same day Milan’s general director Adriano Galliani officially responded to Maldini’s criticism of the club’s handling of the affair and lack of support towards him in the form of an open letter, which appeared on the club’s official website:

I read your interview and I understand your sadness: as you know, I’ve been under escort for the last two years because of the very same people who contested you.

It was me who took the decision to remain quiet: not just because I’d been advised, but because I believed, and still believe, that silence is the most effective weapon, and I did not wish to give these people further exposure after what happened on Sunday.

Maldini has routinely stated that he does not plan to go into coaching following the end of his playing career. Having played under his own father for both Milan (2001) and the Italian national team (1996-98), he has witnessed first-hand what effect that job can have on a man and his family. Paolo’s eldest son Christian is currently working his way through Milan’s youth ranks, and has by all accounts already developed many of his Dad’s signature defensive attributes. Milan have already made public their plan to resurrect the number three shirt (set for retirement along with Paolo) should another Maldini make the first-team squad.

Some feel that this final ugly act may push Maldini even further away from the game. He certainly has other interests outside of football, most notably the popular casual clothing line Sweet Years, which he founded with former Inter striker Christian Vieri in 2003. Though inexorably associated with one city and one club, Maldini clearly sees a world beyond the confines of Milan, both the team and the city. He has often expressed a desire to live in the United States –- he already owns a vacation home in Miami and is a regular visitor to New York.

On Sunday Maldini will play his last ever professional game against Fiorentina, a match which essentially has become a play-off for third and fourth place in Serie A and an automatic Champions League position. Whatever happens in Florence, Milan will begin next season with a new coach, the Brazilian Leonardo, a new captain,


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