When it comes to traditional footballing superpowers, very few clubs can match AC Milan.
With seven European Cups, 18 Serie A titles and a glorious history packed full of legendary players and coaches, the Rossoneri have for decades been feared and respected by opponents.
The purchase of the team by billionaire media tycoon and future Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 1986 took Milan to even greater heights as it formed arguably the best club side ever in the late eighties and early nineties. This golden age, funded by Berlusconi and led by the shrewd management of Adriano Galliani, Ariedo Braida and others, resulted in a glut of silverware for the best part of two decades.
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Success on the pitch was augmented off it by Milan’s positive public image. This was a club that always placed great emphasis on dignity and class, the ‘Milan family’ as Galliani calls it — promoting coaches from within and treating former players and opponents with respect. It was a setup the club’s own fans took great pride in, and one rival supporters envied — despite the many non-footballing scrapes in which Berlusconi found himself.
Sadly, this is no longer the case.
Milan is a flickering shadow of its former self in every way possible. Woeful decisions at boardroom level by the same men who masterminded the club’s success have, in recent times, led to disastrous sporting and financial results, an unrecognizable squad, three coaches in six months, and further PR own goals through the treatment of club legends Paolo Maldini and Clarence Seedorf.
In the transfer market, it has become reliant on free transfers and scraping the bottom of the bargain bucket by signing aging rejects such as Fernando Torres and Michael Essien.
Absent from European football for the first time since 1998-99 after finishing an embarrassing eighth last season, the club once again opened itself up to ridicule at the weekend. Milan organizing director and vice chairman of the European Club Association, Umberto Gandini, pleaded with UEFA to give historical clubs such as his wildcard entry into the UEFA Champions League.
"I think we have to look at ways of improving the Champions League," Gandini commented. "I would like to see opportunities for wildcards or different routes for clubs who have the ability, the prestige or the size to compete in the Champions League. Every season you have a fantastic run by underdogs who, say, get to the quarterfinals. This is good for football. But, on the other hand there are more and more important clubs — important because of history and size — that miss out."
The suggestion is insulting.
Atletico Madrid reached the final last season having not played a game in the tournament since 2009 but, under Gandini’s dream scenario, it might not have earned that chance. Nottingham Forest has won the European Cup more times than Atletico, Chelsea, Roma and Arsenal put together, but how ludicrous would it be to give a token entry to a club wallowing in midtable mediocrity in England’s second tier? Has Milan fallen so far and is the team so desperate that it is now prepared to return to the elite by any means necessary?
Gandini’s comments also reek of an upper-class snobbery which has no place in football. It is true that wildcards are handed out in tennis and golf, but in doing so these sports use a tour ranking system based on tallied tournament performance. There’s no such system in football that is ever applied for competition qualification — the FIFA ranking is for seeding purposes only — and even if it was used here Milan has reached just one Champions League quarterfinal since its last success in 2007. It likely wouldn’t even qualify as a wildcard.
Thankfully, this desperate pitch has not turned heads at UEFA, which for all the criticism it regularly receives has followed up last week’s welcome Champions League seeding change by shooting down Gandini’s idea.
"There is no chance that a wildcard will be applied in the context of European competitions," the general director of European football’s governing body, Gianni Infantino, said last week. "It will never happen. The European Cup is not an affair of playoffs and wildcards, but of competitive and sporting merit."
Gandini’s remarks are particularly a shame because new Milan coach Filippo Inzaghi appears to have the Rossoneri going in the right direction this season. With 11 points from their first six games, they are fifth in Serie A and just three points off the Champions League places. But if they are to return to club football’s greatest tournament, then it must be on merit.
Milan fans might not be accustomed to being Champions League spectators, but even the most loyal followers will agree that Gandini’s bleating is delusional. Sadly, it is just the latest example that the Milan board is completely out of touch with reality. And it raises more questions over whether these seasoned directors can turn around the fortunes of one of football’s great clubs.
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