As a footballing era culminated in Italy – a land esteemed in its heritage for boundless contradictions of the sport – on an unseasonably oppressive Milanese Thursday afternoon, a beauty, of sorts, again gave way to an increasingly prominent and turgid financial necessity. Disgraced former Prime Minister, or Presidente del Consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi finally cashed in on his 31 years as totalitarian Rossoneri chief in the wake of the most significant Chinese buyout in European sporting history, earning an immediate €740 million (as well as a further €90 million for his company’s operational costs) from the ‘Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux’ for his seemingly endless tenure at the helm of what was once a monolith of continental football, adorned with such dazzling decorations of international brilliance as Ronaldo, Kaká, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and Cafu. While these legends – not to use the term in passing – may have graced the San Siro with innumerable strokes of artistic, trophy-laden genius and moved to pastures new, one aspect at the club has remained throughout; the 99.93% ownership stake of Fininvest, Berlusconi’s financial holding corporation that itself controls a number of Italian televisual outlets. This company, throughout his 31 years of immeasurable involvement, has provided the legal route around the insignificant strife of being a three-time Prime Minister to own arguably the most historic national squadra di calcio for the insatiably and frivolously esteemed archetype of cringe-inducing casual sexism and racism that you, if unaware of the otherwise exemplary sentiment of a vast majority of citizens, could easily mistake as pervasive in Italian society.
Now that the 29 trophies – including eight scudetti, a Coppa Italia, seven Supercoppa Italiana, two Intercontinental Cups, a FIFA World Club Cup and five Champions League titles, each converted into a UEFA Super Cup gong – have been consigned to the history books under Berlusconi’s reign, however, are the San Siro-based outfit so steeped in history set to dawn again, in respect of their ravenous pedigree, so besmirched by recent tribulations? Having experienced an almost unprecedented lull of prolonged ineptitude, boasting the longest dry spell in their 117-year history, barring that from their formation to their first European Cup in 1962/63, on the international stage of 10 years, in addition to what will become, with another season of patience, their joint-fourth longest barren run in Serie A – lagging behind only the 44 years between 1907 and 1951, the 11 between 1968 and 1979 and the subsequent nine between 1979 and 1988 – Rossoneri fans desperately desire one thing; a return to such prominence. They thirst for the bittersweet piquancy of finely-crafted silverware that once graced the casciavit – literally screwdriver, a reference to the historically working class support base – mitts of home-grown heroes Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
It is not solely the accomplishments that Rossoneri fans mention, however, as much as the heavenly brand of fluid, press-heavy attacking football manager Arrigo Sacchi employed after having being specifically recruited by the visionary Berlusconi, who funded an escape from financial disaster in 1986 while also investing in a Dutch invasion of stars – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – the latter duo products of an Ajax side in the early 1980’s that followed in the Total Football footsteps of Rinus Michels’ Amsterdam exploits, and thereby ideal for Sacchi’s ideals for Italy. Fabio Capello continued this red-and-black striped philosophy into the early 1990’s, eventually contributing, alongside Sacchi, to the most successful nine-year spell in the club’s history, Maldini fortunate enough to be present at each of the five scudetti wins, four Supercoppa triumphs, three European Cup victories (the latter of which officially a Champions League after the 1992 rebranding), three UEFA Super Cup successes and two Intercontinental Cup conquests, or 17 trophy hoists, from 1987 to 1996. With Capello’s departure, however, appeared to come a drastic lack of Milanese direction, with a mere dozen further occasions of celebration taking them two full decades to accrue – an era, from 1996, that without Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure of 2001-09, would’ve produced just four successes in Massimiliano Allegri’s Serie A and Supercoppa-winning season of 2010/11, Alberto Zaccheroni’s Serie A triumph of 1998/99 and Vincenzo Montella’s recent 2016 Supercoppa victory, 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 result in the balmy December climes of Doha.
Considering how the legendary Milan side of even 2005 – Dida, Cafu, Nesta, Stam, Maldini, Gattuso, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaká, Inzaghi and Shevchenko included, and managed by Ancelotti, the greatest manager, by statistics, in Champions League history – has deteriorated into its modern-day guise of incomparable mediocrity, left to feed off the scraps of other bit-part European pretenders, a fresh pair of eyes appears essential. This is perhaps further evident when condemning Gianluigi Donnarumma, Matteo De Sciglio and Carlos Bacca as the only real glimpses of Champions League-deserving quality, managed by Montella; the latest in an uninspiring line of five short-lived bosses under the age of 50. Three of these managers were likely hired for their sentimental value to the club’s ownership and support; Seedorf, Inzaghi and Cristian Brocchi – who made 99 appearances in seven seasons under Ancelotti, amongst tenures at three other of Italian football’s ‘Seven Sisters’ (Milan, Inter, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Napoli and Fiorentina) - proving the drastically dissipated vision that Berlusconi, amongst others, by this point retained. This has been especially prevalent during a two-year period in which, while results have resultantly degraded, ‘Il Presidente’ has tried repeatedly to flog his lame but much-loved horse, with obstacles preventing Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux investing previously, while a recently-acquired and significant financial loan presented the opportunity to finally close the deal.
With the outgoing Chairman receiving considerable acclaim for his three-decade spell and success within – visible in the countless ‘Grazie Presidente’ messages plastered across Milanese social media – you do wonder how much vaster the response would’ve been, or if he had ever relinquished control of the Rossoneri, had Allegri not departed for pastures new – the old lady of Turin, Juventus - in 2014. It was, perhaps, at this point in the considerable timeline of his embattled political and business life, having lost his Chamber of Deputies seat in the 2013 General Election and Senate seat in the fallout of a conviction for tax fraud a matter of months later, that his enthusiasm for the dolce vita of footballing presidency waned, banned from public office, his true passion, for two years and sentenced to community service.
As Allegri departed, following a period of three seasons where he lost vital squad figures in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Silva, while also suffering the accumulations of years of Seedorf, Nesta and Gattuso – who each departed to lesser nations – Berlusconi likely felt the culmination of what was so often a remarkably trophy-laden era of ownership, at this point withdrawing the funds he once would’ve happily poured into coffers. Leaving subsequent managers to only splash out on the likes of Giacomo Bonaventura, Alessio Romagnoli, Andrea Bertolacci and Carlos Bacca, the latter trio representing the sole examples of €10 million+ Rossoneri ambition in the last three years, Berlusconi halted what had once been a universally-usurping transfer charge by making his managers purchase from within Italian borders, with foreign acquisitions, Bacca and arguably Jérémy Ménez aside, only recruited past their peak or when drastically lacking any remnants of form. His fervour for football visibly dissipated, and so did the club’s, with his patience to complete this week’s eventual sale the only commendable feature of his latter reign for fans, who, despite their disdain in the post-Allegri years, greeted his departure in a starkly contrasting manner to those gathered outside the Quirinal Palace in 2011 at the point of his resignation from Italian office, reflecting ponderously on the years of attributable and unprecedented triumph rather than organising hostility as l’ultimo addio – the last goodbye.
Promising to invest a minimum of €350 million annually, the Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux – represented by Chinese/Hong Kong-based magnate Yonghong Li, a Chairman shrouded in mystery – and, in Li’s terms “lead this legendary team back to the summit of world football”, the Oriental investors certainly aren’t lacking the necessary ambition to deliver on the desires of a once-proud band of supporters. The funds to complete the deal? Merely the inconvenience that has disrupted the momentum of Li’s business partners in the past few years, though such an undermining aspect has been attended to now, with the reported €300m attained from American hedge fund Elliot, even if, at an 11% interest rate, such a loan will be have to be refinanced within 18 months – no mean feat considering the dwindling position of Milan prior to Berlusconi’s departure. Having calmed such financial fears with an announcement of their “commitment to undertake significant capital increases and liquidity injections aimed at strengthening Milan’s financial structure”, however, assumptions made, hopefully, should come to fruition in that the fate of Lux’s Milanese venture is not to collapse by October 2018, and will guarantee, for the foreseeable future, the security of the Rossoneri. Above all, the prime priority has to be plugging the financial footfall – which in the 2015 financial year, was announced as €89.3 million, with the club only making a small financial profit once – for 2006 - in ten seasons from 2005, leaving a debt of over €400m in the hands of the new shareholders.
Partly, of course, this stems from the city of Milan’s ownership of the San Siro – used, and called casa, by both Milan and Internazionale – and the lease both sides, in turn, have to pay to maintain their habitation of what I personally perceive as one of the more brutish, industrial grounds of the continental scene. Marco Fassone, the newly-installed CEO of Milan and a former bedfellow – as Chief Operating Officer in Turin and Managing Director in Naples and Milan – of Juventus, Napoli and Inter, has noted the crying requirement, under any circumstances, for a self-owned stadium, stating " whether it's San Siro or a newly built stadium, as long as the club can have its own stadium", implying the economic desperation of the cause, preferably, but unrealistically, within 18 months. A diplomatic arrangement with Inter, however, could be a possibility considering Fassone’s close cross-city ties – racking up three-and-a-half years in Nerazzurri (blue and black) -, in addition to the familiar nature of similarly Chinese ownership, as the Suning Holdings Group boast the majority stake in Inter, set to meet, coincidentally, for the first time in the Derby della Madonnina today (albeit before this goes up), as the two halves of the culturally rich Northern city collide.
Once the significant wrangling over the stadium situation is settled, if ever – considering Berlusconi originally planned an exodus to an extensively designed 48,000-seater stadium in the Portello area of Milan back in 2015 – then supporters, obviously, will survey competitive success with perceivably Italian tunnel-vision as the natural bi-product, and their most obvious means of ownership analysis. Despite the financial disarray at Casa Milan currently, home fans crave and anticipate, especially in the wake of this Chinese dawn, a return to Serie A power struggles, Champions League qualifications and seismic signatures at the very least, three aspects Montella, while adopting a more positive outlook with his youth-friendly and invariably successful 4-3-3 tactic, appears unlikely to ultimately deliver, with an uninspiring record at each of his employers to date - at the age of 42 a distant comparison to forefather Allegri, who had achieved Milan’s 2011 title only a year older. While Allegri, perennially the titan to cast an incomparable shadow on each Milanese successor, was renowned for his tactically fluidity and distinctively relaxed relationship amongst players of the quality of Pirlo, Ibrahimović, Seedorf, Thiago Silva, Mario Balotelli and Kaká, who as a collective – although not each in the same Rossoneri side – had the potential to be fatally volatile, Montella lies decidedly undistinguished in his tactical or man-management approach.
Smacking of a befuddled individual intoxicated by the stench of continental competition, befalling his mid-table quality in the substandard losses which repeatedly capitulate positive runs of form, Montella hardly appears a worthy successor. First evident in the embarrassing 3-0 drubbing at Genoa, which came directly after a heroic 1-0 defeat of Juventus in October, Montella’s side conspired to waste a spot-kick in a 1-0 loss at Roma in December after accumulating 13 points from a possible 15, also surrendering a creditable position in March with an added-time 2-1 Juventus blow after a similar five-match points tally. Dual defeats to boot against both Napoli and Udinese have defined their mediocrity under the former Roma striker and hall-of-famer, who represents the latest in an almost universal band of unfulfilled managerial dreams in Italy, unfortunate to have suffered at the hands of those earmarked for exclusive employment; Juventus or the national side, the latter of whom are unfortunately positioned between Conte’s reign and Allegri’s inevitable tenure, resorting to the Roy Hodgson-esque Gian Piero Ventura, who after a brief set of obscure playing exploits, has managed 18 sides, mostly of Serie B, in 35 years, without winning any silverware above Serie C level.
In Italy, to escape the pervasive clutch of catenaccio at lower levels, and subsequently the nullifying and mentally tiring repetition of Serie A, where little emphasis appears to be placed on the modern day ‘winger’ – instead employing varying arrays of 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 – managers need to showcase their distinct and divergent approaches in order to reach the top. Marking a risk-taking ability rare amongst the 16 Italian bosses (of 20 clubs) currently in Serie A, are three candidates; Allegri of Juventus, Luciano Spalletti of Roma and the unheralded Maurizio Sarri of Napoli, with a personal characteristic that separates the wheat from the chaff in a dynasty of outstanding sporting brains. As Allegri assumed Conte’s position at the helm of a seemingly unsinkable Vecchia Signora – Old Lady – little tactical tinkering was required, and other than reverting to a 4-2-3-1 in the event of an attacking Champions League or, more rarely Serie A, onslaught, and as such he has remained faithful to the 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 – other than for the past few months, where an enviable rotation of players has allowed him to experiment, particularly with Paulo Dybala at trequartista in a 4-2-3-1, and still stride to the title. Spalletti, in respect, has ushered in a brand of offensive calcio in the capital, which has delivered just the 24 league goals from Edin Džeko and eight assists from Mohammed Salah, usually opting for a fluid 3-4-2-1, which allows playmakers Salah and Radja Nainggolan sufficient freedom to roam, while Sarri, the revelation of the season, has instilled a fascinating 4-3-3 far better explained here than I ever could do justice.
All this considered, then, will it ultimately be the fault of Milan’s ‘Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux’ if results don’t pan out the way they perhaps envisaged, or will it simply be the case of the right place at the wrong time? Is there another Italian managerial prodigy yet to blossom for AC’s benefit, preferably in the next season or two, to finally sustain the promise of a title charge, or will Montella, with the potential investment of up to €100m in transfer strategy in the summer, finally come good, rising the Rossoneri from a string of sixth, seventh and eighth-placed lulls? Does Europa League qualification this season, providing they can counteract the charge of Inter or usurp the miraculous Atalanta effort over the final seven game weeks, represent a success worthy of such trusting investment from the new ownership syndicate? For the forlorn and impulsive fans, certainly, but in the long-term fortune of the club, perhaps funds would be better spent on the potential stadium, writing off Berlusconi’s debts and securing a sustainable groundwork from which to make a true resurgence in two or three seasons, rather than mustering a false charge on what will only, in the realistic hope that with the signatures of a quartet of in-form, peaking players, constitute the Champions League places amongst Roma and Napoli. Fortunately, perhaps, that is not for us to quarrel over, rather the responsibility of Li, David Han Li, a fellow Chinese magnate, and Fassone, amongst others, each assured financial technicians with defined ideals for their purchase, though visions that may come into conflict with such aforementioned economic intellect, as Berlusconi’s tenure came to represent during its latter stages.
Lastly, what will the implications of this sale, two years in the making but still an era-defining event, be on Italian and European football? Marking the most significant auctioning of a majority club stake to Chinese investors in sporting history, yet only arriving in the extended wake of mass Oriental takeovers at each of Birmingham’s top four - West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City -, Milan’s Derby della Madonnina rivals, Slavia Prague, ADO Den Haag, Sochaux and Espanyol (of the Czech Republic, Netherlands, France and Spain, respectively) and partial investments in continental giants Manchester City and Athletico Madrid, does this handover represent a true changing of the guard in European football? Will successive clubs competing for Champions League qualification and domestic titles in prime nations like England, Spain, France and Italy, follow this partial trend, will it cause a backlash to the unlikely extent that these areas instead adopt German or Catalonian policies, de jure and de facto respectively, of fan ownership, or will very little, in the wider perspective, actually alter on this front?
The sands of time will tell, naturally, but it seems genuinely improbable that Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea will be relinquished from the financial claws of their entirely satisfied current owners, as the only investments to date, at a majority level at least, have been made in debt-ridden, unsustainable models of inopportune disenchantment and deterioration, even if the keys were handed over in many cases by locals, not loved but admired by fans, whose passion for their hometown projects will forever go unrivalled. In truth, I can now honestly understand why the droves of Rossoneri tifosi – fans – emotionally declared their consenting but grief-tinged arrivederci’s to Il Più Grande Presidente, as it is the passing of a turbulent but heartfelt and intimate era in Milanese, Italian and even world football, consigning Berlusconi to the history books as, while not, ultimately, the discernible saviour of Italian politics, certainly a hero in Lombardy, who can be fondly remembered for delivering the unthinkable glory days. Even if Yonghong Li and co. managed similar, there surely would be nowhere near the adulation or stereotypically Italian partiality to rejoice, and, at this point in time, even that line of events seems improbable at best. To challenge Juventus, Roma and Napoli in the next three seasons even seems testing, but entirely dependent on whether Montella lingers, consolidates or is toppled from his precarious position, if sufficient funds are available to regain competitiveness and whether the club’s significant debts are chalked off. A monumental task, I’m sure you’d agree, and one that appears drastically different to that which posed Berlusconi upon arrival in 1986. The goalposts have changed; whether the collective Rossoneri can react sufficiently is a challenge that will define Italian and European football in the ensuing generation.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!