The AC Milan Story- What do you do when you come up against an indomitable wall which you know you can scale but are afraid to approach it at the same time because the very wall had prevented you to best it on the previous occasion? The prospect is daunting as doubt creeps into every fibre of your being and you are left to ponder what if the results are the same again and you are thrown into the abyss from where you have worked so hard to get out of for the past two years. Before the 2007 Champions League Final at Athens, this was the condition of seven AC Milan players who could not help but remember that fateful night at Istanbul two years ago.
They had full control over Liverpool scoring three goals in the first half before an almighty comeback from the Reds left them hollow as Liverpool ran away champions on penalties after staging one of the biggest comebacks the world had ever seen. Paolo Maldini, Dida, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Ricardo Kaka were unusually quiet in the moments leading up to their rematch against Liverpool at the Olympic Stadium.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti also knew what was at stake as Milan were already reeling from the Calciopoli Scandal and this final was to be the only shining light in their entire season. All of them were facing two battles that day, one was the immediate match while the other was to leave that night at Istanbul behind. But being the indomitable Rossoneri, they did rise to the cause as two goals from Filippo Inzaghi was enough to earn salvation for Milan avenging their 2005 loss with a 2-1 scoreline. But this victory signalled the end of an era as after this, the seven-time champions of Europe entered a declining slope as they lost their footing and lost their place as an elite team of the Italian top-flight.
Let us now cut straight to the main reason for Ac Milan’s unprecedented fall from grace, the one and only Silvio Berlusconi. But let it not be forgotten that Berlusconi was also the harbinger of the golden age of Milan. He led Milan’s revolution that culminated in the club winning five Champions League titles, five UEFA Super Cups, one FIFA Club World Cup and a total of eight Scudetto. Berlusconi and Milan were riding high as the powerhouse of Italy. Acquisition of players like Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit in addition to managers like Arrigo Sacchi and later Carlo Ancelotti made AC Milan the team to beat towards the end of the 20th Century.
The players who played the 2007 final against Liverpool were stalwarts in their own right and were a testament to the unstoppable force that was AC Milan. But Berlusconi ignored a very simple yet underlying problem in the 2007 squad and that may have been because of the success the team achieved. As it is said ignorance is bliss, but when that ignorance is overlooked as something minor it can turn against you in the most vulnerable ways until it is too late to correct what has gone awry. The main thing that left Berlusconi’s grasp was the average age of his current squad and this was the chink in the armour that grew until the whole armour collapsed in the coming decade.
It must be assumed that Berlusconi knew that Maldini was 39 years old when he lifted the Champions League trophy in Athens that night but somehow chose to ignore this fact when he set out to build a team for the later years. Equally bizarre was the fact that he chose to ignore the age of many of his current squad like Inzaghi (34), Seedorf (31), Nesta (31) who were nearing the twilight of their respective careers. Only three players from that squad were under 30 years of age including the charismatic Kaka (28). But although this team oozed experience of the highest calibre it was very clear that the same group of players would not be able to keep up with the fast-paced nature the game of football was slowly developing. Thus the seed for Milan’s demise was sown by their owner and this seed later grew into a tree that harboured demons that would slowly drag Milan away from Italy and Europe’s top clubs in current times.
Another reason for AC Milan’s great demise would be the financial conundrums that Berlusconi and Co. went through during this period. Berlusconi had to spend mountains in his early years to make Milan the powerhouse during that time but this expenditure soon caught up to him and he was starting to go into some serious debt. Debts incurred over ten years weighed heavy on the club straining them of the previous financial resources they were able to enjoy. The club’s finances took an even serious hit as the management tried to build a new stadium leaving their tenancy at the San Siro.
Add to this the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and the Calciopoli Scandal just before that laid bare the financial integrity of Silvio Berlusconi. At the same time, the Serie A was falling behind the flair and competitiveness of the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and it was evident both on and off the pitch. This led to TV revenues for the league going downhill and brands like Adidas and Nike were ending their contracts with the Italian teams. And to top it all off Berlusconi’s entry into the country’s political scheme hugely diverted his attention as AC Milan was left all but secondary to him in his greater scheme of things.
After he forayed into the political empire, Berlusconi was still Italy’s richest man. He could easily have spent on bringing marquee players to the San Siro but his political advisors did not let him pursue the idea as it would look superficial and wasteful in the face of his campaign. As Berlusconi focused more and more on the political scene, Milan lost favour and was subject to several budget cuts. They had to bring in mediocre players to keep the ship afloat but in this process, Berlusconi lost votes of both fans of Milan and the people of Italy in general. Berlusconi was found guilty of tax evasion in 2013 and along with the lawsuit against the club’s chief investors, Finnivest, the financial prowess of AC Milan was dented beyond repair.
Another glowing reason for AC Milan’s decay was the woeful transfer policy adopted by the club post-2007. In an attempt to replace the waning legends, the only bit of business conducted by the club for the 2007-2008 season was bringing in Ronaldinho who was deemed as excess to requirements at the Camp Nou under Pep Guardiola’s new regime. What followed were acquisitions of players who were well past their prime and it dumbfounded everyone as Gianluca Zambrotta, David Beckham and Andriy Shevchenko were brought in for the following season.
The holes in Milan’s set-up were starkly visible and the team was also laid bare on the pitch as they finished 3rd in the league and were eliminated in the first round and round of 16 in the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia respectively. Legends Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo all left the club and Milan lost their most prized possession in Kaka to Real Madrid with Klaas Jan Huntelaar coming to the San Siro along with Brazilian defender Thiago Silva.
Season 2010-11 saw the backs of David Beckham and the flop Huntelaar. Berlusconi momentarily stepped up his game as he made some better signings in the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kevin Prince Boateng, Manchester City reject Robinho and promising young talent Alexander Pato. injuries in the squad led to the further acquisition of Antonio Cassano and Mark van Bommel but none of them was brought in keeping the future in mind. Astonishingly, the trio of Zlatan, Robinho and Pato combined and provided the much-needed impetus that was missing at Milan and ended their three-year trophyless run by delivering the Scudetto to the San Siro under the guidance of Massimiliano Allegri (their first league title since 2004). But this was to be the last meaningful success that Milan tasted (apart from the Supercoppa Italiana in 2012 and 2016) before plunging into the depths of the abyss that they had knowingly or unknowingly created for themselves.
Come the 2012 season everything went downhill for AC Milan and this year is branded as apocalypse by the AC Milan faithful. Andrea Pirlo had already bid adieu to the club with nothing but a Cartier Pen in his hand (a truly disgusting memento in the face of a decade long service) and in 2012 an exodus ensued. Massimo Oddo and Inzaghi called it curtains on their career while Zambrotta, Nesta, van Bommel, Seedorf all left for free leaving the club fanning for money.
To top it off Ibrahimovic, Pato and Thiago Silva left for a combined fee of 78 million Euros which was nothing compared to the predicament that the club was facing. After the mass exodus, the players brought in to shoulder the responsibilities of this great club did not instil a shred of confidence in the fans. Players like Riccardo Montolivo, Stephan El Shaarawy, Christian Zapata, Bojan Krkic, Mario Balotelli and Nigel de Jong were mediocre at best and could never throttle Milan back into the limelight as the team slowly but gradually made a place for themselves in the mid-table of the Serie A.
Five years after these string of incidents came the news that Milan fans were dying to hear. Silvio Berlusconi had finally decided to sell the club and investors jumped at the opportunity. The club was bought by Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux in April 2017 in a deal that reached €740m. The owners, Yonghonh Li and Han Li did not hide their intentions and started their project on making Milan into the force of old that ruled over Serie A.
The 2017 summer transfer window was fruitful for Milan as players like Leonardo Bonucci, Hakan Calhanoglu, Mateo Musacchio, Lucas Biglia and Andre Silva were bought along with many others to contend for the title. Manager Vincenzo Montella was brought in to lead this new-look team and he did deliver by winning the Supercoppa Italiana.
He could not keep up good performances and eventually received the sack after just 18 months in charge only to be replaced by another club legend, Gennaro Gattuso. But financial problems crept in again as Yonghong Li lost the ownership to Elliot Morgan Corporation after failing to keep up with the loan investment plan that aimed at refinancing a €303m debt and hence it proved far too costly for him to keep hold of the club.
In the midst of all this, Milan was handed a ban from participating in the Europa League due to their breach of the Financial Fair Play rules but it was withdrawn later following an appeal. Gattuso tried his utmost best to lead the Rossoneri to past heights with his firm and unwavering mentality and arguably did a great job up until 2019.
The appointment of Marco Giampaolo backfired heavily as Milan won three and suffered four defeats in their opening seven matches leading to his sacking just four months into the job. Stefano Pioli is the current manager of AC Milan but positive signs are yet to be seen in the side that last played in Europe’s elite competition six years ago.
The problem with Milan lies very deep and the footballing structure at the club needs to be turned inside out with proper planning and execution if they ever hope to scale those unimaginable heights they did before the end and start of the previous century. The Diavolo need to shake out of their slumber and announce to the world that they are still out there and just biding their time for the right moment and opportunity to strike and make everyone fear the red and black stripes once again. It will be a long and difficult road but with the right people at the helm and the right mindset of those who matter, it is a feat that is not as impossible as it seems.
Author- Aditya Sreevatsa