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World Cup Is Last Hurrah for Veterans

June 30, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Paolo Maldini turned 34 on Wednesday, but whether he celebrated the occasion is uncertain.

These are difficult days for Maldini, just as they are for all the leading players who during this World Cup have stepped off the international stage for the last time. Saying goodbye is never easy, in sport or in real life.

Korea/Japan '02 marked the swan song for many players. Most never rose above the crowd, but others, like Maldini, became household names wherever the game is played.

The blue-eyed, dark-haired defender had been an automatic selection for Italy since 1988, when, as a 19-year-old, he made his debut for the "Azzurri" against Yugoslavia in what is now the Croatian port city of Split.

He played a record 126 games for his country and appeared in four World Cups. For more than a decade, he was recognized as one of the finest at his profession, which he once called "the art of defending."

Note his choice of words: "art," not "job."

Maldini made it look easy, playing with the grace that comes not only from years of experience but from an almost intuitive understanding of the game. On the club level, in the red and black colors of AC Milan, he won the Italian championship six times, the European Champions Cup three times and the Intercontinental Cup twice, among other honors.

But--surprisingly and sadly--he won nothing in the blue shirt of Italy.

He was on the Italian team that finished third in the 1990 World Cup that Italy staged. He was on the Italian team that was beaten on penalty kicks by Brazil at the Rose Bowl in the final of the 1994 World Cup.

He was on the Italian team that made it to the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup in France, and on the Italian team that lost to France in the final of the 2000 European Championship.

For Maldini, it was always a case of coming close but falling short. Korea/Japan '02 was to be the tournament when he at last made that final leap.

But he again fell short.

When South Korean forward Ahn Jung-Hwan outjumped Maldini to head home the game-winning goal against Italy in overtime of a second-round match in Daejon, South Korea, on June 18, Maldini's final chance was gone.

Italy was eliminated and Maldini's international career was over. He had played in 23 World Cup games, only two shy of the record held by Germany's Lothar Matthaeus. Had Italy reached the final, he would have broken that record.

Unlike his father, Cesare, who coached Italy and Paraguay at the World Cup level and was an assistant on Italy's 1982 World Cup-winning team, Maldini will not go into coaching. When he hung up his boots, it was for good.

Other stars of equal magnitude have joined him in international retirement.

Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's all-time leading goal scorer, also has called it quits after a glittering career in which he scored 56 goals in 78 games for his country. Ten of those goals came in the World Cups of 1994, 1998 and 2002, leaving him only four shy of the 14-goal record held by Germany's Gerd Mueller.

Like Maldini, "Batigol" also left on a sad note, in tears after Argentina was eliminated in the first round when it failed to defeat Sweden.

Batistuta, 33, spent 11 years on the international stage, after making his debut against Brazil in June 1991, and will be remembered as one of the brightest of South America's many stars, a player far more personable than Diego Maradona, whose goal-scoring records he eclipsed.

Another giant figure to step down at this World Cup was Fernando Hierro of Spain. At 34, the Real Madrid defender was one of Spain's all-time greats, but his third and final World Cup also ended on a bleak note, a loss to co-host South Korea.

That quarterfinal game was Hierro's 89th and last for Spain. He leaves the stage with 29 goals, more than any other Spanish player.

"I'm leaving with good feelings," Hierro said. "No one can take away my pride at having worn the national team shirt."

Ireland striker Niall Quinn, the player whose shirt was virtually ripped off by Hierro in a second-round game, thus giving the Irish a late penalty kick that tied the match and sent it to overtime, also has hung up his boots.

Quinn, 35, scored a record 21 goals in 91 games for his country.

Teammate Steve Staunton, 33, made a little bit of history by becoming the first Irish player to appear in three World Cup tournaments, but called it a day after a 14-year career.

The list of top players slipping into the wings also includes Croatian striker Davor Suker, who was the leading scorer at the France '98 World Cup with six goals as Croatia finished a deserving third.

Suker, 34, had said he would try to repeat the feat at Korea/Japan '02, but appeared in only one match and ended his international career with a Croatian-record 45 goals in 68 games.

The world's most-capped goalkeeper also called it a day. Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Al-Deayea finished with 165 games to his credit and played in three World Cups.

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