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On a snowy day in 1985, a 16-year-old made his debut for AC Milan.

"Where do you want to play?" Nils Liedholm, then Milan's coach, asked him. Amazed at being consulted, the kid said he preferred the right. He was then still right-footed. He came on, and has hardly missed a game since.

In the Champions League final against Liverpool on Wednesday, a month before his 37th birthday, Paolo Maldini will probably win his fifth European Cup with Milan.

Maldini is brilliant, handsome and nice. Nobody dislikes him. Even Tommaso Pellizzari, a fan of Inter Milan who wrote a book critical of AC Milan called No Milan, admits: "In 20 years of football, he never did something you remember as bad or ugly."

Since many of us want to achieve eternal perfection, the question is how Maldini does it.

It began with his father. Cesare Maldini had captained Milan himself, and his son appears to have constructed his life around seeking the old man's approval.

"From the moment I first remember seeing a picture of him holding the European Cup," says Maldini junior, "I wanted to copy his success." Cesare had grinta - grit - and so Paolo, who had more natural gifts than his father, developed grinta.

When Milan moved him to left-back in his teens, Maldini achieved through grinta and practice something almost unfeasible for anyone older than 12: he made his left foot as good as his right. "He still surprises me every day with his quest to always improve and to look inside as well," says his father.

In the Champions League semi-final against PSV Eindhoven this month, Maldini threw his head in front of a Dutch striker winding up for a shot. He was kicked in the face and stretchered off. Within a minute or two, he had resumed work.

To maintain this level of grinta, you have to believe in the institution for which you work. Hardly any footballers love their clubs, yet Maldini actually seems to, even though he supported Juventus of Turin as a boy. No doubt this love is mixed up with love of father: at 73, Cesare still scouts for Milan.

Paolo turned down better offers from English clubs, and once, when Milan pleaded financial trouble, accepted a pay cut of 30 per cent. He often speaks about the meaning of playing in his city of birth.

Maldini has subordinated ego to club. This makes him a walking reproach to footballers who seek status through anything but performance. Wayne Rooney, who often seeks macho confrontation, got a pat on the head from Maldini. Robbie Savage, a Welsh footballer who before a Wales-Italy match chucked away a Maldini shirt on television, was not granted a response at all.

Yet none of this quite covers him. There is something supernatural about his body, as if he were a Greek god poorly disguised as a human. To remain a great footballer at the age of 36 - an almost unprecedented feat - you must always have taken perfect care of yourself.

Milan's training ground, Milanello, offers glimmers of an explanation.

This idyll on a hill above Lake Como comes alive a few minutes before 10 each morning, when a parade of people-carriers containing footballers pushes past the armed guards. Maldini has made this commute for 20 years. Between training sessions, he sleeps in his Milanello bedroom. He says: "It's almost as though all your worries stop at the gates. This is the ideal manner to get the best out of you."

It would appear so, for Maldini is not alone at Milan. The back-four likely to face Liverpool has an average age of 33, with 39-year-old Billy Costacurta in reserve.

This is because "Milan Lab", the club's medical team, has found the secret of eternal youth. The medical staff are always testing players' muscles, brains, hearts, breathing, psyche etc., and then analysing the data with computers.

Whereas other teams still run laps together, each player at Milan follows his own customised regime. It works, particularly if you are already a Greek god. Adriano Galliani, Milan's vice-president, reports: "Paolo's biological age is much lower than his actual age. The tests we have done now are better than three or four years ago."

As they say, it's partly a matter of how old you feel. Maldini believes that stress consumes energy. He tries to avoid it by not thinking about football outside work hours. He never reads the Gazzetta dello Sport, Italian soccer's daily pink bible, never appears on television or in gossip rags, never talks about soccer at home, and seldom even with his dad.

Should he ever retire, Milan Lab will presumably clone him.

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