Can a Milan backed by shady Chinese money ever become a football capital again?

Can a Milan backed by shady Chinese money ever become a football capital again?

THE NEW SOCIETY OF AC MILAN doesn’t sound too far from something the iconoclastic Italian politician and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi would have dreamed up, but it is in fact the symbolic new beginning for the club. It’s another shot at life beyond the stagnant final period of Berlusconi’s regime.

The circumstances surrounding the Rossoneri’s takeover are unique. Not only has it cast a net of intrigue over the club, city and country, but it has highlighted all the cornerstones of Italian footballing culture – loyalty, heritage, passion and a quintessentially Italian sense of melodrama.

Dashed hopes and gentrification are part and parcel of being a football fan in the modern game. Barely a day goes by in the footballing world when there aren’t social media insights from the isolated fans of clubs regarding everything from rising ticket prices to fanzine closures. Football’s hasty evolution is leaving people behind.

In the face of tradition, modernity has wrapped its many tentacles around the beloved parts of the game; nothing remains sacred anymore. If that isn’t enough, the hyper-capitalistic structure of contemporary football means that mega-transfer deals are creating unrealistic expectations for players and managers. It instils the false belief that money directly equates to success. Still, we get used to these increasingly common changes – until a case like AC Milan this year comes along.

In the summer leading up to the current season, Milan’s long-term owner Silvio Berlusconi announced that it was time to sell his stake in the club after 31 years. “You know, since money from oil tycoons started flowing into football,” he commented, “any club who wanted to be at the level of Milan needs resources that one single family cannot provide, and that is why I was painfully forced to sell the club.”

The general consensus might be that he was selling the club for reasons pertaining as much to his own business endeavours as for those of the club, but nonetheless, his commitment to Milan has given fans some of the most memorable days of their lives.

Berlusconi’s time at Milan was often marred by drama but was equally defined by the club’s achievements. His tenure as owner and chairman saw the club win 29 pieces of silverware, including two European Cups and three Champions League trophies, most recently in 2007. Although Milan are a crestfallen dynasty, their reach in global football and their prominence in Italian football and society is still remarkable.


[divider]Early Movements in Milan[/divider]


Milan Foot-Ball and Cricket Club was founded in 1899 by Alfred Edward and Herbert Kilpin from Nottingham, who created the team to satisfy their desire to play football as they arrived in Italy, young and adventurous. The badge boasted their native Saint George’s Cross on a kit with red and black vertical stripes, which were symbolic to Kilpin. “Our colours will be red, because we will be the devils, and black, signifying the fear we will strike into the hearts of our opponents,” he defiantly explained.

The club, with their colours, identity and nickname, was born. Since then Kilpin, mainly forgotten, has become symbolic to many in the Curva Sud, the part of the stadium for the most hardened fans, as a figure that represents the club’s history and a statement against the monied world of contemporary football.

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At the time of the club’s conception, foreign players were banned from playing, causing an early schism, and consequently the birth of their rivals Internazionale. This departure of some of the players to Inter in 1908 would define them as the choice club of the ‘true Milanese’, whereas the more open Inter were attractive to a globalised audience.

What followed was a difficult time for the red and black half of Milan, as they struggled to make an impact in an increasingly popular Italian league. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the club played arguably their best football, that Milan as a city started to become known as one of the world’s footballing capitals. This was a reputation they held onto up until the last decade.

To list the great players that have been at the club in Berlusconi’s tenure, which began in 1986, would be an exhausting task. Amongst the very best have been Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Paolo Maldini, Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Kaká, Clarence Seedorf and Andriy Shevchenko – a breathtaking list of talent that made the jersey and the badge synonymous worldwide with footballing class. Berlusconi was never shy about reminding people of the more glorious times when the club began to struggle. Right up to the end of his time at Milan he romanticised about the empire that once was, like a war veteran or politician looking back at something that was more worth fighting for.

The rumours and hushed movements at the club this summer didn’t take long to translate into a publicity whirlwind that started to sweep up the players – none more so than Gianluigi Donnarumma. As speculation began to circulate about the talented young goalkeeper’s next move, his Machiavellian super-agent Mino Raiola didn’t take long to exploit the mess to work in his client’s favour, flirting with the rumours linking him to Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid, and eventually settling for a high-valued contract extension. The Donnu-Drama unfolded daily in the world’s sporting press like a scandal in high-office.

Opinions raged. ‘He’s only young. He’s greedy. He’s being played the puppet in a high-stakes game of ego. It’s all his agent’s doing.’ After the chronicle came to a resolution, there was a wound left by the turmoil and betrayal the player and his agent had caused, but in the club’s manager Vincenzo Montella, there was promise that they could leave it behind them. A man known for his ability to build strong relationships with players seemed like the prescribed antidote to the sourness that was left in the mouths of the club and its fans.


[divider]The Rumours Come To Light[/divider]


In April 2017, after months of a rumoured takeover, news broke of the confirmed investment in the club coming from China. In the days leading up to the 2-2 Derby della Madonnina in the same month, the deal had been completed.

The cynics amongst the Italian footballing press were quick to interrogate the deal with what little evidence they had. This opened up a door of uncertainty for the club and its fans. Traditionally in Italy, all levels of club representatives make themselves visible and open to the public, a trait that’s not often associated with the shadowy billionaires that have been buying up Europe’s largest clubs over the past decade. The fans were left confused, looking for more information, unable to make up their minds. It was a breeding ground for conspiracy and speculation.

As mentioned, transparency is a highly valued quality in Italian football. The psyche of the fans has been shaped by the recent corruption scandals that rocked some of the country’s biggest teams. Relegation or financial penalties are no longer an option in their minds. They want the whole truth from the very beginning. The initial hope of a promising New Society was starting to seem further away than ever before.

The nature of the new owners brings to mind the question of whether God created us in His image, or whether we created God in our image. Have the press and fans projected their fears of unfulfilled dreams onto the new owners prematurely, a symptomatic rejection of contemporary money-orientated football and years of mediocrity? Or are the fans and media exactly the consumers that the new owners anticipated, people who pay money and generate hype, are involved but generally unquestioning if on-field success is delivered? Have they made the owners into scapegoats, or have the owners made them their consumers?

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There had been early reports from the tail end of 2016 speculating that the new owners would be a Chinese consortium, but there wasn’t much more than that. Li Yonghong was the name that came to official light when the deal broke. Where his money was coming from, though, was a little more opaque. The Italian media again dug deep and again weren’t able to find a clear-cut answer. The die of doubt had been cast.

Upon finalisation, some more information came out. The money was from a holding company in Luxembourg called Rossoneri Sport Luxembourg and the takeover was valued at around €740 million, buying up 99.93 percent of the club, the majority of which was from Berlusconi’s Fininvest. This included a debt burden of €220 million, as well as the knowledge they were buying into a club which looks set to incur substantial losses for the initial phase of the investment.

Some important details did manage to be exposed by the Italian journalists covering the deal. It nearly fell through twice due to delayed payments from an alleged lack of funds. The water was muddied further when the group, seemingly unable to raise the capital on their own as they had planned, was bolstered by investments from the tax-haven of the British Virgin Islands.

Li Yonghong became the club’s new chairman and former Inter, Juventus and Napoli CEO Marco Fassone was named as both CEO and GM. In no time, the media found out that Li had already been arrested for illegally raising funds and was well known to have purposely obfuscated business transactions in the past. To the fans of the club this deal seemed all too familiar, and to many more, too good to be true. It was a bittersweet period in footballing purgatory.

It’s not difficult to see why investors would be interested in the club. They are buying into something that has global appeal, a strong market and intrinsic value. All of these offer massive potential for the Rossoneri, but the fan’s concerns never seemed to go away. The club had no choice but to make an early statement in the transfer market. Milan hardly spent a week without making a signing in the summer.


[divider]The Tricky Reality of Expectation[/divider]


Italian football journalist Cristiano Ruiu was nonplussed at the choice of players. “For a team who started from sixth place in the championship, it is unacceptable to start the season with the maximum goal of getting third or fourth.’’ Especially, he notes, after spending that amount of money.

That’s not to say these signings themselves lack ambition or that they weren’t thought through, just that key areas of the squad are still lacking in depth. Considering the strength of the club’s primavera or youth squad, they could have made their new signings with this in mind, rather than a speculative €38 million gamble on 21-year-old André Silva, who has so far failed to impress, leaving the squad severely lacking in firepower.

Having said that, landing Leonardo Bonucci was nothing short of stunning for the fans or the players. Arguably one of the best defenders in world football, he had been the pillar of two of football’s best defences – Juventus and Italy. So far this season, though, Milan have looked shaky at the back and Bonucci has come under strong criticism for his part in it. The added pressure of his instant captaincy upgrade by Montella was a move that baffled former owner Silvio Berlusconi: “They gave the captain’s armband to a player who was a symbol of Juventus for years,” he seethed. “Montolivo is there, the armband was entrusted to him.”

As much as fans were happy to see the back of Berlusconi, his old-school strongman appeal and his calls of honour and loyalty seem to strike a chord with disgruntled fans. Whether Bonucci’s true value will shine through is yet to be seen, but the Ballon d’Or-shortlisted defender has come to epitomise the difficulties of the Rossoneri; if he can’t hold the team together, who can?

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Although their struggling campaign is still in its infancy, as if on cue, more news about the Chinese owners made its way into Italian headlines in early October. Asian Sponsorship News confirmed the fans’ worst nightmare that there had been governmental intervention on behalf of Li. To what extent remains unseen, but it indicates that the club has been spending cash they don’t have, placing them at the mercy of the Chinese government, an embarrassing and tricky position in which to be found. The increasingly dire situation was compounded when Reuters reported that Li was actively looking for new investors.

To add to the financial woes, Milan are under pressure to qualify for the Champion’s League, otherwise Financial Fair Play regulations will make their life difficult with potentially heavy sanctions. The pressure is two-fold. It’s not only the club that face embarrassment if their finances begin to crumble, but the Italian Football Federation will also be left red-faced by their failure to carry out the necessary due diligence when vetting the club’s new owners.

Match-fixing scandals have already plagued the country in recent years, hitting the footballing community hard. Fans began to see football as dirty and corrupt, and held it in the same disdain as their political system. If the Milanese house of cards begins to fall, the patience of the fans will surely be quick to wear thin.

There’s no question that 81-year-old Berlusconi wanted out quickly. His daughter Barbara had become the face of the Berlusconi family’s presence at the club over the final few years. To them, she was merely a stand-in figure. It deeply hurt fans to acknowledge that they weren’t the club they had once been and that their owner who was slowly abandoning them thought sending his daughter to cover for him would be the answer.

As if solely to add insult to injury, Barbara was romantically involved with then-Milan player Alexandre Pato. This seemed to influence his stay at the club, regardless of his poor form. When their relationship ended, so too did his time with Milan.


[divider]The Official Position[/divider]


One or two bad seasons can be forgotten about over time, but a sustained period of mediocrity is catastrophic to a club’s heritage. Every result under the new ownership will now be heavily scrutinised and any dropped points will be damning for the players, the manager and the club’s image. Because the takeover is so evocative of a true Italian political maelstrom, it will continue to make the pages of newspapers not usually reserved for sports.

The most recent derby ended 3-2 to Inter. In a cruel twist of fate, it was by an 89th-minute penalty that they finally succumbed to their rivals. Milan showed promise in the second-half, but Mauro Icardi’s inspired performance proved too much and pushed the Rossoneri down to mid-table. Their performance will have given fans some confidence moving on, but the fact that it was a derby makes it that much harder to take. While it hasn’t been a terrible start, Milan are a side with a great distance yet to come in a league filled with teams that have gelled over recent years, teams that are beginning to set their sights beyond just domestic success.

Regardless of the loss, the club remain solid in their conviction that everything is part of a long-term plan. After the Inter loss, the club’s third league defeat in a row, Marco Fassone stood united behind Montella, offering his unequivocal backing: “Now that we see the first positive signs, Montella will absolutely have the time to keep working.”

It’s clear that there is still a great deal of optimism within the club. “Maybe we are not a team yet,” Fassone conceded, “but we will become one.” They realise that these things take time, but whether they still feel like that when the pressure continues to mount remains to be seen. For other teams that have undergone such dramatic takeovers like Monaco, Manchester City and Chelsea, the wait has been worth it. Fassone’s statement seemed like an extended hand to the fans – show us patience and you’ll be rewarded for it.

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The new owners, through representatives, have made their long-term intentions clear too. They plan to build a new stadium, moving the club from the iconic San Siro. Currently the club, alongside Inter, rent the 80,000-seater stadium from the city council. This limits the economic potential that the club can reach. Their own stadium would provide them with new opportunities to maximise ticket sales, utilise valuable advertising space, and market the stadium appropriately through tours and events. It would be a big step in turning the football club back into being a brand, a necessity if they are to compete at the highest level.


[divider]What’s the big idea?[/divider]


City rivals Inter are also majority Chinese-owned by Suning Commerce Group and the media rights to Serie A are currently underwritten by Chinese entertainment and property giant Dalian Wanda. China have a tight grip on Italian football now, especially in Milan. The heavy investment in the city could be a strategic move into the national market, not just the club.

Since investors can’t buy religion or family, they settled for the closest thing in Italy – football. The huge investments may be as much about developing China’s business interests in the country as their newfound passion for football. China’s President Xi Jinping is eager to acquire wealth overseas that can be used to grow China’s burgeoning economy, as well as for businessmen from the country to open doors to people in positions of political, economic and social power. Who better, then, than Silvio Berlusconi?

After Suning, with Inter seemingly failing to flex any influence in the new market, the Chinese media have begun to report that they were using the club to launder money. This seemingly baseless and provocative behaviour has been interpreted by Professor Simon Chadwick, a sports business specialist, as a threat. “What Suning are now expected to be doing is generating a positive financial gain for the Chinese state and demonstrate that it is repatriating those funds. Otherwise, it needs to start connecting into Milan, to major trade and infrastructure projects. This is why I think AC Milan is particularly important. If you want to get anything done in Italy, Berlusconi knows who to talk to. Essentially, in buying AC Milan, the Chinese were not just buying a football club. They were buying their way into the economic and political heartland of Italy.”

It is telling that the singularity of the investments – two takeovers of two clubs in the same city, has raised eyebrows further afield than Italy or China. The big question is, what does the future hold for the club and the city?

Carlo Ancelotti, Milan’s coach of heart, is now free after being sacked from Bayern Munich at the end of September, and this has raised interest amongst certain parts of the support to bring him back. The thing is, as a manager who has won everything with the club, it would be a risk to return and damage his outstanding legacy. The board is adamant that Montella is the man for the job, and it’s hard to argue with that for now. In his short managerial career, he has found relative success and displayed an intricate knowledge of the Italian game, not to mention the occasional moments of truly inspiring football that Milan have produced under his guidance.

The squad still lacks depth, but with the club looking to bring in Torino’s Andrea Belotti and Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, the problems concerning their attack might finally be put to bed. Until then, it’ll take time for the players to gel and for the newcomers to Italian football to find their rhythm in the league.

As for the city, the proposed development of a new stadium might only be the tip of the iceberg. Milan stands to gain from new jobs, new property and a renewed vitality to their tourism industry if the spending on the two major sides continues. The city has long been regarded as one of the world’s fashion capitals, but it has been some time since it has been regarded as a footballing capital too.

If there can be a positive resolution for the seemingly tenuous finances, and the new owners choose to integrate into the society and culture of the club, it may not be too long until Milan makes its return to the top of world football 

By Edd Norval  

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