BATA, Equatorial Guinea (AP) – Paolo Maldini is locked out of the place he calls home. "Milan don't wish to take me back," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport last week. Two and a half years after his retirement the player who made 902 appearances for the club and spent 12 seasons as captain between 1985-2009, winning 26 trophies, including the Scudetto seven times and the Champions League on another five occasions, is apparently unwelcome, a persona non grata to those who should be ever grateful for his service.
This awkward standoff separating the previously inseparable has played out for some time now, though much like a shameful family secret, it's a subject that has been met with a knowing silence when mentioned at the dinner table. Better to ignore it and hope it goes away. Except Maldini isn't going anywhere. He'll always be there. That, however, shouldn't be taken for granted. Indeed, what brought this all back to the surface was the suspicion that Maldini will work for someone else.
Ten days ago, Maldini was spotted in the stands at the Parc des Princes with Leonardo watching Carlo Ancelotti undertake his first league game in charge of Paris Saint-Germain against Toulouse. He was invited as a guest of the club, at the behest of his former colleagues at Milan, and revealed to L'Équipe he felt at home. Maldini paid a visit to the dressing room before and after the match had dinner with PSG's president Nasser al-Khelaïfi, who he had first become acquainted with in Qatar.
The speculation mounted as to whether a job offer had been made. Ancelotti had asked Maldini to join him at Chelsea in 2009, but seeing as he had just retired he graciously declined the opportunity. The New York Cosmos had called too, only to be turned down. Maybe this time, he would accept. Leonardo did little to discourage such talk in an interview with Canal + later that weekend. "Maldini is curious," he said. "He is already close to us. His vision of football is very complementary."
Maldini, however, chose not to lead anyone down the garden path. Asked if he had received a proposal, he replied: "No, no..." adding that if one were to arrive in the coming months, he'd evaluate it like any other, but whether he'd take it or not is a "question I can't answer." So for now, at least, it seems like Maldini is to stay retired. He takes his two boys to training, boxes with Ibrahim Ba and Angelo Carbone, plays tennis then seven-a-side every Saturday morning when "after a lifetime in defence" he positions himself "strictly in attack".
Still, the prospect of Maldini working for anyone other than Milan got people talking. La Gazzetta dello Sport followed up the story and it was then that the full extent of his disappointment at not being asked to return to the club became evident. "Berlusconi has spoken clearly about it and even Barbara has mentioned my name," he sighed. "The reality is that I have not been offered anything. Leonardo first asked me to return, then Allegri and finally some of my former teammates. But they have always found a door closed by the club."
The exact reason why remains unclear, though it is assumed that there are people within Milan who, considering his name and what it represents, see Maldini as a threat to their own power, in particular Adriano Galliani, the club's vice-president. Relations between the two have been strained since May 24, 2009, the day of Maldini's final game at San Siro before his retirement. Milan lost 3-2 to Roma on a scorching hot afternoon. But what really burned, however, was not so much the result as how a small, but vocal, section of the 70,000 fans ruined his farewell party.
"Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion but you had no respect for those who made you rich," read one banner draped over the railings in the curva sud. Another stated: "For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers."
Paolo Maldini acknowledges the fans at his final home game for AC Milan, a match his side lost 3-2 to Roma. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
If it weren't already clear enough that their ingratitude knew no bounds, a giant replica red and black shirt with the No 6 on its back was the next to be unveiled. It carried the words: "There's only one captain, [Franco] Baresi."
Cut to the core, a hurt Maldini, consoled by Leonardo in the dressing room, hit back at the Ultras. "I'm proud not to be one of you," he retaliated. Everyone of course expected the club to take a stand too.
But the silence from Milan was deafening. They didn't leap to their captain's defence, nor did they slam the Ultras. Maldini was, quite understandably, disillusioned by the whole business and expressed his frustration in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I didn't like how they didn't take a position," he said. "There wasn't even a comment - from the president down, no directors said a word. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I believe that a club like Milan should disassociate themselves from certain incidents."
In an open letter of apology printed in the same paper the following day Galliani revealed that no reaction had been forthcoming because he didn't want to dignify the Ultras with a response. What was interesting about it was how the message had been conveyed - through an intermediary. Were Maldini and Galliani not talking to each other anymore? Perhaps, but it could also have been a necessary piece of PR. By that point the club needed to justify its reasons for inaction to the world at large.
Maldini insists that there is no rancor "on my part", but "on his, I don't know." Further to that he claims to have no agenda, no ulterior motive. He is neither going hungry, in need of money or publicity. "I have always counted on myself. I have always walked on my own two feet. I am lucky to be in an enviable position: I enjoy my family, I don't have financial problems and I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to think I could teach someone how to do their job. Milan are in my heart and I'd like to repay the club."
Happier times: Maldini attends AC Milan's clash with Atalanta on February 28, 2010. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
Even so he has one condition - that the "intellectual independence" he has acquired in recent years is not curbed. Maldini has no intention of becoming Milan's smiling "Yes Man" like Leonardo once was [and regrets] at the club. "I've broken with my nice guy image," he told La Repubblica in December. "Football is not a utopia and I am not a candidate for the Nobel peace prize."
Maldini thinks that way too. If something needs saying, he'll say it. Why do you think the Ultras were at odds with him? Because he had the courage to stand up to them. They have never forgiven him for the time he refused to apologize at the airport on Milan's return from Istanbul for the defeat in the 2005 Champions League final and for going public with his criticism of them after they made a point of not supporting the team while intimidating those who did in a protest at the 2007 European Super Cup.
"I'm not afraid to tell it like it is and maybe that's also a problem," Maldini admitted. Regretfully, a solution is yet to be found. These have been a harsh and unforgiving few months for the legends of the game in Italy with Juventus announcing - as anticipated though rather abruptly - that this would be Alessandro Del Piero's final season at the club, then the news in La Repubblica this morning that Inter intend to complain about the unsympathetic commentary on their games by no less than Beppe Bergomi on Sky Italia.
It seems nothing is sacred anymore. No one is bigger than the club. Maldini, with his sad eyes, remains out in the cold.