For most of us mortals, keeping our hair in place for 24 hours is difficult enough. And yet, a beautiful beast of an Italian defender managed to keep his hair looking absolutely perfect1 for 24 years, through every lunging tackle and every towering header. How did Paolo Maldini do it?
Well, the first hypothesis we must explore is that he is not of the same world as the rest of us.
His football prowess already lends credibility to this theory, because we have never seen a finer defender than the Milan icon. One of the photos widely circulated on the Internet of the young Maldini is of him as a 12-year-old as a youth player at AC Milan, with a cup of a drink in his hand. It may be surmised that this drink is actually an essence that promotes and sustains the growth of his magnificent mane, still a growing dark tousle at that point.
Maldini Jr, whose grandparents had actually emigrated from Slovenia to Italy, made his Milan debut aged only 16, and his hair, then and up until his teenage years ended, fit the times — an almost-mullet, with small curls peeping out around the side of his facial profile, but cut short in the front. A young right-footed defender who was just so good that Arrigo Sacchi could use him even on the right, Maldini was both party and business at the back. As a member of perhaps the greatest 4-man-partnership (sorry, Beatles), Maldini started to make a name for himself at Milan and earned himself a starting spot for Italy at Euro 88, still only 19 but his mind older and his mullet, glorious.
But once Maldini turned 20, he was a man. He no longer wanted to look like an extra from the Last Christmas music video.
Maldini was starting to sharpen his game, just as his barber sharpened his blade and cut off the extra bits at the back. The result? A clean-cut hairstyle on a chiseled, contemplative face, which won consecutive European Cups and then went on to perform as one of, if not the best, defender at Italia ’90. He developed into a no-nonsense defender on pitch, but he never believed in the messy melee of ‘defending-at-all-costs’. Famously, tackling became a last resort for Maldini, whose ethereal ability to read opponents’ attacking moves and intercept was his preferred method of defending. And even then, his tackling was close to perfection.
As Paolone entered his peak years, he realised the true potential of his hair and its Flippability™, and thus grew luscious locks.
A second theory to be introduced at this point is that Paolo Maldini is actually Aragorn-incarnate. A year away from the 1994 World Cup, Maldini started entering Aragorn territory. He began growing his hair, leaving thick strands to fall around his face and staking his claim as the Heir of Baresildur, and the rightful King of Defendor.
It’s hard to pinpoint a peak in a career as long and illustrious as Maldini’s, but 1994 is a worthy contender. A leader figure on pitch, a fourth Scudetto after only conceding 15 goals all season, a third European Cup after demolishing Johan Cruijff’s Dream Team, flummoxing Hristo Stoichkov and Romário all night. A phenomenal tournament at the forefront of the Italian team and despite the loss in the final, a reputation as infallible as Mithril emerged. Maldini became the first ever defender to win the World Player of the Year Award, reigning above all and fulfilling the Aragorn prophecy (we’ll just assume the Ballon d’Or judges were corrupt Orcs).
The man, whose father was such a good defender that his errors-born-of-overconfidence led to a neologism (Maldinate), was himself the picture of elegance on the field. The Strider Incarnate would stride across the grass on the left flank with velvety grace, contributing in attack, as much as he did at the back. Made Milan captain after Mauro Tassotti’s retirement, Maldini, with his gentlemanly conduct, came to embody the club, even if it meant drawing the ire of some of the club’s more incendiary fans.
In May 1998, when Milan played Parma at the San Siro, on the cusp of a second consecutive disastrous season, the Milan Ultras flung various objects and flares onto the pitch, forcing the game to be suspended. Maldini came out to publicly denounce their actions and ever since, has never enjoyed their unconditional support.
As on pitch, he was never one for knee-jerk reactions or getting needlessly flared up. He was refined; Maldini at Milan was the model of a modern major general2, marshalling not only the back line but the whole ethos of the club, with panache and diligence.
Most people in most careers fade into the flanks as their best days become numbered, but Maldini — literally — moved from the wings and into the centre. At 34, Maldini was provided with the unremitting Alessandro Nesta as his partner in crime; a defensive partnership that ranks as one of the best ever. Collectively, they were Gandalf, and every opponent they faced was the Balrog.
As centreback, Maldini was not required to make lung-busting runs anymore, and with the unparalleled level of composure and anticipation he already in his head, his resources were even better spent on firmly thwarting attacks. Famously, he roughly averaged one tackle every two matches over his 24-year-career, (giving rise to the Maldini principle, that good defenders do not necessarily tackle often, as explained by Chris Anderson and David Sally) and still managed to maintain an impermeability to his backline, which if anything, stands testament to Maldini’s ethereal nature.
Maldini’s Aragorn-style hair accompanied him all the way to the end of his career, the dark curls forming a formidably captivating curtain around his face, increasingly weathered and roughened by years of experience and Italy losses. He took up the elder statesman role with refined gusto, and well into his late 30’s, remained a tour de force in defence. He masterminded clean sheets on numerous occasions without ever having to make a tackle himself.
As Maldini hung up his boots, put the Andúril back in its scabbard and retired, so did the Aragorn hair. But that did not mean the sheer resplendence of his tresses ever fades. The shearing of his long locks has paved the way to a neater, more modern undercut look; Paolo Maldini still shines with the timeless debonair look of an otherworldly being. But we’ve already established that he is.
1 – due mention here of the king of perfect hair, Javier Zanetti
2 – shout out, Lin-Manuel Miranda