The Sad Decline Of An Italian Institution

For Daniel Storey, AC Milan represent the highest standard of football. But a man raised on Boban, Weah & Desailly can't cope with Bojan, De Jong and Bonera...

Last Updated: 26/09/12 at 13:14 Post Comment

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In a sport that dramatises and sensationalises, using superlatives at will, it's not a stretch to say AC Milan are a truly great club. Beginning one's footballing education in the early 1990s, for me they are Maldini and Baresi, Gullit and Rijkaard, Van Basten and Massaro. They are George Weah's wonder goal against Verona and Desailly's fourth goal in the demolition of Barcelona in the 1994 European Cup final. They are Gazzetta Football Italia, James Richardson sipping coffee in a piazza, and Sunday afternoons gawping at the brilliance of South American footballers, a new concept to the uninitiated. Winning Serie A three times in a row between 1991 and 1994, this was my first experience of a different ethos, a different footballing way of life.

Everything regarding the club is iconic. No other team has won more international trophies than Milan's eighteen, including seven European Cups, five Super Cups and the Club World Cup. Managers have included Nereo Rocco, Vittorio Pozzo, Bela Guttman and Arrigo Sacchi, among the most influential managers within the history of the game. I could wax lyrical for days but will end with this; of the fourteen players to be named the best player in the world, half have spent time at Milan, and no club have had more Ballon D'Or winners. In the 1990s, if you were a player and AC Milan came knocking, you went.

Unfortunately, Milan are now a much-changed beast. After four league games this season they sit in 15th position in Serie A, and a 0-0 draw with Anderlecht in the Champions league last week was watched by just 28,000 spectators. 55,000 empty seats in the San Siro is a sad footballing sight. Coach Massimo Allegri is under pressure already from supporters understandably concerned that their team is still to score a home goal. Whilst the current status quo is alarming, more worrying still is that such a decline was predictable.

The first critical error was allowing Andrea Pirlo to leave last summer, because the club did not feel that he warranted a contract beyond the following season. The midfielder was allowed to join Juventus on a three-year-deal, winning the Serie A title with the Bianconeri. His performances for Juve and Italy during Euro 2012 led to him being selected fourth in UEFA's Best Player in Europe award, and his departure on a free transfer from the San Siro will be detailed as one of the game's most significant recent blunders.

This summer, departures from the club reached an almost comical level. Between May and August fifteen players left the San Siro, and the fact that they shared a total of 710 international caps between them highlights the issue. Such a migration of experience, including stellar names of the last decade such as Seedorf, Gattuso, Zambrotta and Nesta has led to a significant shortfall in reserves of quality. The club's Milanello lab has become famous for the extension of professional careeers, but it is foolish to forget the inevitable passing of time. The departure of ten players aged 30 or above has ripped a hole in a squad that relied on the advantage of familiarity. The current first-team squad contains just three players that graduated from the club's youth academy.

It was two of the final partings that were the hardest for fans to bear. Over a period of three days during mid-July, both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva moved to Paris St Germain for a combined 62 million Euros. Forget that the fees were exhorbitant (although Ibrahimovic was steal at around £20m) and that the Swede had caused unrest with teammates; this was the best defender in the world and the league's top scorer leaving one of its showpiece clubs.

A banner was held up during the opening day defeat to Sampdoria: "We will wait with trust until August 31." Replacements were found in Giampaolo Pazzini, Nigel de Jong, M'Baye Niang and Cristian Zapata, but the recruits were of significantly lesser quality than those departed. Far more extended deadlines of patience may need to be issued. For now, AC Milan are treading water, and in modern football, staying still is moving backwards (something Serie A as a whole has found).

Footballing dynasties have always ended. The cyclical nature of the game dictates that clubs will undoubtedly encounter times of hardship and difficulty, and it is impossible for success to last indefinitely. Liverpool's current state is a mere shadow of the all-conquering side of the eighties, Inter Milan won one Serie A title between 1980 and 2006 and Nottingham Forest will never again win the European Cup. But the difference now is that modern football's staggering economics have accelerated such changes. Clubs can fall from grace and rise from relative obscurity in a comparative heartbeat (just look at Glasgow Rangers and Paris St Germain). It truly is all about the Benjamins.

Milan's financial difficulties are much-publicised. Owner Silvio Berlusconi's media empire Mediaset is decaying, forcing the club to forego the elaborate spending of recent seasons. Upon leaving for Paris, Thiago Silva stated that he did not want to leave Italy, but knew what he must do to assist the financial well-being of Milan. Discussing the two moves, Berlusconi stated: "We will save over 135 million Euros through the sale." For a man that has prided himself on bravado in an industry that worships status, it was a frank admission; Milan needed the money. Even the choice of business partner can be viewed cynically, given that Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), PSG's owners, are in talks to merge Mediaset with their own Al Jazeera. We all know Berlusconi as a self-centred egotist, but for the first time, his selfishness in terms of political advancement has led to the exclusion of il Diavolo.

Manager Massimo Allegri may well depart sooner rather than later. He may have won the title in his first season, but his selection and tactics have been consistently questioned in the Italian media. His teams lack creativity in the final third, and the continued selection of Daniele Bonera is bordering on ridiculous. But with a shoestring budget, what more can be demanded of his replacement?

Unfortunately, the opportunity for fanciful hope is over, and now is the time for grim realism. Little of the money gained from transfers will be reinvested as Berlusconi looks to offset the losses experienced by his companies. The club may have to look to its youth system to promote talents much like Udinese, Milan's conquerors this weekend. This may well be the cold winter of fans' discontent, and tough times should be expected at the San Siro. And since when did AC Milan become a selling club.

All of which gets me rather emotional. My football psyche simply cannot comprehend that AC Milan are having to accept hand-me-downs from Manchester City and Roma (Bojan Krkic). And my ten-year-old self wipes away the tears that PSG can be taken over by the Qatar Investment Authority, buy the French league and take away Milan's two best players, the club financially impotent to effect any meaningful resistance.

It only seems five minutes ago since Boban and Desailly, so I can't get excited about Bojan and De Jong. God knows what I'll do if Malaga (Qatari royalty) and Zenit St Petersburg (Russian oil) knock them out of the Champions League.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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