AC Milan: The Decline of Italy’s Legendary Football Club

They’re the winners of 18 Scudetto titles, 5 Coppa Italia, 6 Italian Supercoppa and, perhaps most recognisably and impressively, have won 7 European Cups in their history. They sit only behind Real Madrid in the list of European Cup wins. Their trophy cabinet is a sea of red, black and silverware, their history is of a proud working class tradition and some of the most iconic players in the world have called this club home, including Marco van Basten, Franco Baresi and, of course, probably the face of the club, Paolo Maldini.

The club history isn’t entirely clean-cut, they have their scars to bear. Scars such as the 1980 Totonero scandal, 2006 Calciopoli scandal and the death of 17 year old AS Roma fan Antonio De Falchi in 1989 are the three that really stand out to me, but on the whole, the club has an iconic status around Europe which is evidenced by them being the most supported Italian club in Europe.

Look at the team since their last Scudetto win in the 2010-2011 though and it’s easy to think I’m talking about a completely different club. Every weekend I find myself asking the same question: just what on Earth happened to AC Milan?

The simple answer would be finance. The decline of the Rossoneri didn’t just happen overnight, it could be argued that the decline started to happen way back when Silvio Berlusconi bought the club back in 1986. Yes, this started a period of Rossoneri dominance, dominance that included winning the Scudetto in 1987 and winning two successive European titles between 1988-1990. Berlusconi spent big in Milan; he bankrolled a sustained period of dominance and used the club as his political platform. He once ran with the slogan Forza Italia, the rallying cry the Italian national team. Silvio Berlusconi was AC Milan, and AC Milan was Berlusconi.

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Both went about their business with an arrogance, a swagger, a personality that was easy on the eye and backed up in their professions. Berlusconi could go toe-to-toe with the toughest of politicians and AC Milan could trade punches with the biggest of football clubs. The financial clout of AC Milan allowed this to happen for decades, and to be fair, Berlusconi knew how to run the club. He knew how to make it tick. Hiring the likes of Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti to manage teams littered with talent such as Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Kaka. Sure, the club would go one or two seasons at a time without a trophy, but they’d be up there or there about. You feared the Rossoneri and you feared playing in the San Siro.

Now? The club is reeling, it can’t cope with the giants of Europe financially, it can’t cope with the legacy of teams gone by and the San Siro only seems to be full on derby day. Massimilliano Allegri unfairly shouldered a lot of blame, despite winning the league in the 2010-2011 season. It was in the Allegri tenure that Milan began to haemorrhage talent to bigger and wealthier clubs. Kaka was reluctantly shipped off to Madrid in 2009 (the season before Allegri arrived) and both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva headed for Paris, ironically to play for Carlo Ancelotti at Qatari-owned PSG.

Milan couldn’t cope financially, and the old guard who had served the club finely in the days of Ancelotti were beginning to show their age. Fillipo Inzaghi and Paolo Maldini retired, Alessandro Nesta headed for Montreal, Clarence Seedorf headed for Botafogo. Max Allegri decided to take his chances without Andrea Pirlo and let him go to Juventus. Hindsight is particularly wonderful with that last one.

Pirlo goal celebration
Image source: Padraig Whelan

Things didn’t look too bleak at one point. Alexandre Pato had the potential to be new face of AC Milan, he had the talent to emulate the likes of Fillipo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko, but literally didn’t have the legs for it. Injuries have ravaged Pato’s career – he left Milan in 2013 and he’s now playing his trade back in Brazil, last time I checked he was in Sao Paulo but he could be bouncing between clubs. Brazil is a lot like Italy in that sense.

After the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Stephan El Sharaawy relished his chance to step up. Sure, he’s nowhere near the kind of player that Zlatan is, but like Pato, he had the potential to help drag AC Milan back to the top. At 22, he could already be considered as injury prone and I personally have my own reservations as to whether El Sharaawy will ever reach his potential.

When Berlusconi was no longer allowed to splash on politics and players, the decline we know today really started rolling. Milan just no longer have the finances and the silverware to paper-over the irresponsibility. I have a lot of time for Max Allegri, he shouldered the blame of the mass-exodus and he did his job with very little fuss and did it well. I thought he was unfairly dismissed after the loss to Sassuolo, the tiny club who are more than holding their own and impressing in the Serie A. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially as Allegri is now dominating the league with Juventus.

Long gone are the big spending AC Milan, the Silvio Berlusconi era is all but over, as he is looking to sell the club, and now Milan has to cut costs. Free-signings and loans are the way forward. The club can still attract the likes of Keisuke Honda and Jeremy Menez, but they struggled to convince Marco van Ginkel to join on loan. About 10 years ago, a potential midfield pairing of Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien would have been a solid midfield partnership, but not now.

The bargain hunting for players can work, anyone who’s played Football Manager knows that, but it says something when you’re bargain hunting for managers. The club dumped Allegri and then went for Clarence Seedorf, who was still playing in Brazil at this point, and then they dumped him to bring in Fillipo Inzaghi. Under Inzaghi the team can play well but his job is now at risk and it’s debatable whether he still has the backing of the boardroom.

Inzaghi as manager
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But there is cause for some optimism, as the proposed takeover of the club by Asian businessmen could see the Rossoneri seriously challenge for the title again, or at least add some stability, and the plans to relocate to their own 48,000 seated Emirates Stadium shows a willing to move on.

It could be a lot worse for AC Milan, just look at Parma. Parma, UEFA Cup winners in 1999 and one of the top Italian clubs in the 90’s-early 00’s, are now officially bankrupt and had to be loaned money from the rest of the league to help them finish the season. Players haven’t been paid, two takeovers have come and gone this season and owner Giampietro Manenti was arrested last month on money laundering charges. They will almost certainly be relegated too as they sit bottom of the league, 13 points from safety.

The tide of football has turned, the Serie A is no longer the powerhouse it once was and there’s only one top tier club in Italy at the moment, Juventus. At the height of the Silvio Berlusconi reign, AC Milan represented everything good and bad about Serie A, so it is kind of poetic that when Milan decline, so does the league. For now, the Serie A will be looked on with the same derision that Ligue 1 was looked at in the days of Lyon’s dominance, and to an extent the derision that the Bundesliga is looked at: a one club league with no-one to truly challenge the top.

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