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AC Milan Restores Hope
Victory helps Italian soccer redeem itself and gives legend Paolo Maldini the respect he deserves
MAY 27, 2007 - You may have noticed that I haven't written about soccer in a long while. The truth is, like many fans, I had been disgusted and disillusioned after the match-fixing scandal that shook Italy's Serie A just before last summer's World Cup tournament, which Italy gloriously won on its own merits and without cheating or bribery. Although the World Cup victory was sweet (not to mention necessary if Italy ever wanted forgiveness), the thought that clubs were bribing refs and possibly rigging games didn't sit well with me.
But as the punishments rolled in and people got back to playing soccer - real, pure soccer - a beautiful thing happened. Italy rediscovered the beautiful game - and its teams started to shine, culminating with AC Milan capturing the Champions League title, the most prestigious club honor, on May 23. Sometimes, cleaning up your act is all it takes to get back to good.
I could wax nostalgic about Italy's World Cup triumph for hours. But there was one thing missing last July 9 when Italy beat France in the final in penalty kicks, which had vexed the team so many times before. Paolo Maldini, arguably the greatest defender in Italian history, wasn't in the lineup. He wasn't even on the bench. He declined to participate despite being asked - more like begged - many times to rejoin the squad if for no other reason than to be an inspirational presence in the locker room. In his late thirties, he had had enough of national team competition. Who could blame him? The man had lost a World Cup final on penalty kicks, a European Cup on a golden goal and witnessed firsthand as a participant the most humiliating loss in the nation's history (against lowly host nation South Korea in the second round of the 2002 World Cup).
With club team Milan, Maldini had seen brighter days - numerous league titles, championships, and individual honors. With Milan, he would continue to play. A month away from turning 39 and in need of a major knee operation, Maldini took the field last week in search of redemption on two counts. One because he wanted to show that an old horse can still carry the load. Two because the team's Champions League rival Liverpool had beaten Milan in the final of the same competition in 2005. It was the most brutal loss for him personally, Maldini has said. Milan had squandered a three to nil lead at halftime and ended up losing to Liverpool the worst way possible - on penalty kicks.
From the start of last week's game people were saying Maldini deserved a win more than anyone. There's no question that he is no longer the Maldini of yesteryear. Undoubtedly, he has aches and pains because he has been playing injured. But - despite faltering once or twice - he played his heart out and his teammates (bravo SuperPippo Inzaghi, who scored in the 45th and 82nd minute) helped him bring home the cup with a two to one win at Greece's Olympic Stadium. (Milan let one goal get by it, but two is more than one so who cares?)
The sun shone down on Maldini's Milan. When he raised the cup over his head, you couldn't help but think that Italy might be out of the soccer storm. Still, forgiveness doesn't come easy. The Gulf Times, a newspaper out of Qatar, reported that many soccer officials didn't think Milan should have been in the competition. The team had been deducted points for its part in the Italian scandal and was not automatically entered into the Champions League tournament. In the end, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, decided to let Milan into the competition but only because UEFA had “insufficient legal basis in the regulations.” Since then, reports Gulf Times, UEFA has changed its rules, so the group can choose who's allowed to enter the tournament.
Maybe next time Milan won't be so lucky and won't be allowed to play. Or maybe the Italians will learn to always play fair. I think that would be the happiest ending of all to this fairy tale.
For more information on all things Italian, you can visit www.francescadimeglio.com.
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