The decay has been slow and painful. From Europe’s most regal club — where even practice was sufficient occasion for the players to turn up in fine suits and ties — to these last, crumbling days of a dynasty, AC Milan have a lot of rebuilding to do if they are to recapture their place atop soccer’s food chain.
For a decade or two, it had seemed unfathomable. Since winning the UEFA Champions League for a seventh time in 2007, AC Milan has reached the European quarterfinals just once. They have also been Italian champions just once since then. Worse still, they came eighth in Serie A last year. The red and black — or the Rossoneri — are no longer imperious.
Milan’s rise and fall coincided with that of their president and benefactor, Silvio Berlusconi. As he and his media empire rose to prominence in the late 1980s, so did the club he saved from the brink of ruin and poured many of his spare millions into. Off its success, he gained fame and credibility, which he then spun into a political career that made him Italy’s prime minister.
But lately, there have been scandals, legal troubles and potential prison sentences weighing Berlusconi down. His money has either dried up or been channeled away from soccer. And the club has suffered. Like just about any Italian club not called Juventus, Milan are not self-sufficient financially; they don’t own their venue, the palatial San Siro, resulting in a serious revenue leakage; the stands, meanwhile, are half-full most of the time, owing to the weak results.
For years, Milan was one of the world’s few buying clubs, picking up stars entering their prime. That changed when Kaka was sold to Real Madrid at 27 in 2009. He didn’t want to go, but the club couldn’t pass up on the $87 million offer. And so he went. For a time, big names were still joining the club, albeit on loans, at discounted fees or in loan-to-buy arrangements that eased the financial burden, like in the case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For the first time, Milan were buying off the rack.
But in the last few years, even that has pretty much stopped. Ibrahimovic was pawned off to Paris Saint-Germain, as was star defender Thiago Silva. Since Kaka’s sale, just one player cost more than $10 million: Mario Balotelli. And he might soon leave, if rumors are to be believed.
This summer, Milan signed three players on a free; paid nominal fees for five whom they had previously co-owned; and bought only Valencia’s Adil Rami for some $5.5 million, of which he apparently paid a chunk himself.
Coaches have been swept up in this downward spiral, as the quicksand shifts rapidly below their feet. Massimiliano Allegri, the man who led Milan to their last title, was dismissed in January. Clarence Seedorf, the stately playmaker who had long served the club, was asked to end his playing career with Botafogo in Brazil and take over. A Berlusconi protege, he was promised time and resources to rebuild. He was fired in June and replaced by another club veteran, Filippo Inzaghi.
"Pippo", as the manager’s nickname rings, now willfully steps into this morass, hoping to overturn a momentum pulling much harder towards mediocrity than a restored dominance. He has some young Italian players of promise at his disposal, like Balotelli (23), Stephan El Shaarawy (21) and Mattia De Sciglio (21). "The club knows my priorities," said Inzaghi earlier this month. "We are missing something to get to the level of Juve, Roma and Napoli."
But with the club’s veteran core now gone completely and that once-gilded identity, continuity and culture cast adrift, there is so much to set right. Sometimes empires are rebuilt. Sometimes not.