Silvio Berlusconi’s association with Milan has lasted for nearly three decades during which the club has tasted great success. But is the man himself leading the club to a contemptible future now?
Turn the calendars a few years back. Revisit the memories of Milan’s victory in the Champions League at Athens over Liverpool in 2007. The Istanbul nightmare was no more than two years in past. The formidable Milan juggernaut was nearing towards the fag end of its enviable European record and eventually the game would prove to be the last time Milan would reach that far in the Champions League for years to come – they haven’t gone past the quarter-finals since. The stakes were evidently high as the team was still adjusting with the Calciopoli aftershocks and winning the biggest prize in the very next season after the scandal being unearthed would make the biggest possible statement of intent.
Even bigger agenda was winning back the bragging rights that many felt were undeservingly lost to Liverpool on that incredible night in 2005. The Milan squad was nearly the same one and Liverpool too hadn’t overhauled drastically. The setup couldn’t have been more apt to exact the revenge for those blows that would otherwise have kept reverberating on the players’ minds for the rest of their lives. In the historical land of the Greeks, Milan started the better side but fans were ever so reluctant to start feeling good about things just yet and with good reason.
As the half-time approached, an Andrea Pirlo free kick deflected off Pippo Inzaghi’s shoulders inside the box. The shot’s direction was changed and Pepe Reina, who was already committed to the near post, was left stranded seeing the ball meet the back of the net. Milan took the lead and the entire fan-base erupted into celebrations. The atmosphere in the stands went absolutely electric but there was one man with sheer distinction in his persona sitting alongside the who’s who of World Football administration, who seemed least bothered with what was happening in front of him and the goal had hardly invited a change of expression on his face.
Not a single hint of exhilaration or ecstasy in reaction to a moment that one would assume was clearly delectable to him being the benefactor-in-chief of the team that just went in front. Adriano Galliani, his trusted second-in-command was completely ecstatic at the moment and that showed in his rhapsodic celebrations. FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino sharing the prestigious gallery too nodded their heads in appreciation and yet this man’s unchanged demeanour was clearly suggestive of an ever so lovable arrogance.
With his absolutely bland and controlled gesture, he was insinuating something very deep, something that was way beyond the scope of comprehension to the lesser mortals – that there was no reason being enraptured by the moment for it was nothing more than restoration of the order and that for a club like Milan, it better be an almost redundant and uninteresting routine rather than a joyous rarity. It takes real men to do the talking through their non-verbal manifestations, rendering words useless. But it takes nothing less than a Silvio Berlusconi to do the most effective talking by the lack of expressions. That’s the swagger of the man, that’s the charismatic aura of his and there’s a reason despite all the negativity he has been surrounded by for years, he still remains one of the most colourful characters in football management and far beyond on a global scale.
AC Milan practically owe their entire turnaround in fortune to Berlusconi as it was his takeover that allowed the club crawl its way back to the top after the prolonged mediocrity of the early 80’s – arguably the worst phase for Milan in over 100 years. Berlusconi’s acquisition of Milan is the single most important event in the club’s modern history where the Rossoneri have produced one competitive squad after another, winning every possible trophy in the process. In his reign, Berlusconi has overseen three very successful eras – Sacchi’s, Capello’s and Ancelotti’s – during each of which, Milan added considerable silverware to their illustrious trophy cabinet.
Although the consistency to deliver titles has often been sinusoidal, Milan have throughout remained a force to reckon with both in Italy and across Europe. A number of big signings could never have been envisaged without the unconditional support from Berlusconi’s purse. Starting from the likes of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit back in the 80’s, the trend of attracting the biggest names in Europe has continued as Milan have added names likes George Weah, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and more recently Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli to their roster.
However, on the flip side, Milan have also undergone several tremendously average seasons in the Berlusconi leadership and as is evident from the club’s transfer activities for the last two years, perhaps the lowest point in the modern era is closer than many imagine. That Milan are no more a powerhouse they once used to be in Europe is a foregone conclusion but the team’s inadequacy to contest even for the domestic honours calls for pressing a panic button or two. The arrival of Mario Balotelli midway in the last season, Stephan El Shaarawy’s individual exploits for the first half of the season and Riccardo Montolivo’s generally consistent performances saved Milan the blushes but the deeper problems at the club level can hardly be ignored anymore.
Berlusconi the person, is a tough one to deal with and more often than not he’d convince you with bewildering ease about the club being in the best of shapes and treading the right, progressive track. It will be foolish to suggest Berlusconi is unaware of the problem or even that he prefers living in a denial mode. He may come across as someone who chooses not to admit there’s a crisis as he continues to cajole the fans by insisting on how committed he is on rebuilding the squad and take Milan back to the glorious pedestals where it belongs. But deep down, Berlusconi clearly knows he is in no position to realize what he promises.
His personal troubles do not seem to end. In October last year, a verdict of imprisonment was pronounced against him in the case of a tax fraud that involved his offshore companies buying US film rights at inflated prices. And to add to the misery, his overtly colourful image has once again come into the fore as he’s been sentenced with seven years of imprisonment for allegedly encouraging underage prostitution. His divorce case is another major bottleneck as far as the liquidity of his finances is concerned whereas Fininvest group of companies has hardly seen profits of late. Amidst such convoluted circumstances, Berlusconi’s return as the President of the club after a gap of four years was only indicative of his intent on moving funds more swiftly across his companies. The mega sales of Milan’s superstars Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic doesn’t look a co-incidence when the financial health of Berlusconi’s companies is assessed.
At this rate, Milan fans might pretty soon need to come to terms with a situation where setting lower ambitions is no longer a choice. Attracting the big names in Europe is already a problem and the relatively recent failure in the market to secure the signature of Carlos Tevez has further confirmed this. Losing out on the Argentine to arch rivals Juventus will only make it harder to digest for fans since Juventus were nowhere to be seen near the player when he was first linked with Milan. Should the deals for Honda and Ljajic fail to materialize, Milan will once again fail to sign a single proven world class player and that makes this terribly thin squad even more vulnerable in the long season that it is going to be.
But the biggest factor here to consider is Berlusconi’s ego. That he cannot continue to bear the load of modern day expectations in football world with limited funds is not an easy realization on his part. After all, he has handled the operations of this club for nearly three decades and is someone who is obsessed with attention. He has the audacity to come out in public and state that it was his suggestion to change the on-field tactics to a 4-3-3 design that worked for Milan in the latter part of the season. It will not be foolhardy to assume Max Allegri has been extended a job security at the insurance of playing his game the Berlusconi way next season. The completely perplexing omission of club legend Paolo Maldini from any of the important management positions isn’t a simple co-occurrence as many would want to believe. At this stage, Milan do not look ready to challenge for the highest European honours – a trophy they particularly pride themselves for having won a number of times – for at least the next five years.
However, an instant inflow of Arabic cash is not the only means to reclaim success either. There are other models of better talent management and integrating youth more smartly into the first team along with buying more value based players. A more systematic approach in management is a pre-requisite, as can be seen in case of Juventus. But considering the complete mess that Berlusconi has made out of his personal and professional life, it takes no rocket scientist to conclude that the income generated from Milan’s success (howsoever unlikely) is only going to be diverted to rescue his other businesses before investing it back in squad building and club infrastructure. For as long as this continues, there’s no reason to believe in any sustainable success coming Milan’s way in foreseeable future. Whether Berlusconi entertains the option of selling even a small share of ownership still remains to be seen. So far, he has straightaway dismissed the idea but should the right market valuation be met, he might very well consider.
What’s pretty clear however is, there’s a dire need to run this club more professionally to even think of competing with the Real Madrids, the Barcelonas and the Bayerns of the world. One may no longer ignore the emergence of the Manchester Citys, the PSGs and the Monacos as well. To restore the club’s much savoured pride, some hard decisions are inevitable now. The sooner everyone realizes, or rather stops declining the obvious, the better AC Milan shall be off.