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With his illustrious career set to come to an end next weekend, Gil Gillespie wonders why this legend among legends never picked up the games' most celebrated individual award.

On January 20, 1985, a tall, chiselled, 16-year-old left-back made his debut for Milan when he came on as a half-time substitute for the injured Sergio Battistini in a game against Udinese. Nearly 25 years later, Paolo Maldini is set to retire as one of the greatest defenders to have ever played the game.

In his astonishing career, the Milan legend won seven Scudetti, five Champions Leagues, five UEFA Super Cups, one FIFA World Club Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Coppa Italia. He is also Italy's most capped player of all time, with 126 appearances for the Azzurri.

All of which makes it almost unbelievable that Paolo Maldini never won the FIFA World Player of the Year award or the European Footballer of the Year award, the Ballon d'Or.

During an interview with the great man on the Milan Channel this week, a certain Mr. Alessandro Del Piero from Turin phoned in to offer his compliments.

“You are the number one!" enthused the Juventus and Italy striker.

"There are great players and there are world class players. Then there are those who manage to go beyond that term. Paolo is the perfect example.”

“Maldini is the symbol of Milan and has done even more than [Franco] Baresi and all the other greats who preceded him," continued ‘Pinturicchio’.

“He has reached incredible heights in his career and at the same time managed to become a unique presence in his team, in Italian football and on the international stage.”

Some observers say that you can truly judge a player's greatness by asking those who performed alongside him and, if this is the case, then Del Piero's testimony puts Maldini right at the very top of the tree – one of the greatest defender to ever pull on a pair of boots and one of the best players of all time.

Maldini, you see, had it all. As well as boasting the sort of impeccable two-footed technique not usually associated with most strikers, let alone a defender, the Rossoneri's most famous No. 3 had enormous strength, a brilliant football brain and the kind of pace that makes gazelles feel a little bit nervous on the starting grid. No winger, not even wingers of the super-quick variety like Marc Overmars, could beat Maldini for pace. They'd try, like Finidi George did in the Champions League final of 1995, but they'd always fail and always abandoned the idea long before the final whistle.

So why did this most celebrated and decorated footballers never win the Ballon d'Or, an award dreamt up by France Football magazine and voted for by Europe's supposedly most cultured watchers of the game: journalists?

The answer has more to do with the nature of the modern game than anything else, the desire to concentrate on the activities of those who provide and score the goals at the expense of the folk who try to prevent them going in at the other end.

Apart from Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and Italy's World Cup winning captain, Fabio Cannavaro, in 2006, defenders have always been overlooked when it comes to handing out this 54-year-old prize.

Giacinto Facchetti, often seen as the left-back who paved the way for Maldini, finished in second place in 1965 and Maldini himself ended up in third position after lifting the European Cup in 1994 and then again in 2003, but other than the this, defenders have not really figured at the top of the list. This must be seen as an embarrassing oversight on the part of the continents' football writers.

Why, for example, did the admittedly phenomenal Hristo Stoichkov pick up the award in the same year that Maldini's Milan utterly destroyed his Barcelona side in the European Cup final of 1994? And why was this oversight not recognised and remedied the following season when the Ballon d'Or went instead to the over-rated George Weah?

When he plays for the final time, against Fiorentina next weekend, Paolo Maldini won't spend even a second looking back at his career and wondering why he was never fully appreciated on a personal level.

But for everyone else, the addition of a World Cup and a Ballon d'Or would have just rounded off his legendary status a little more perfectly. Maybe FIFA or UEFA should invent a lifetime contribution award in his honour?

Gil Gillespie, Goal.com

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