As the next instalment of one of Italian football’s fiercest rivalries, this Sunday’s clash between AC Milan and Juventus is hardly in need of a talking point or two to grab the attention. But one in particular will already be on the minds of both sets of fans long before the players take to the field: the first return to the San Siro of Leonardo Bonucci, the Juventus defender who spent last season at Milan in one of the strangest transfers in recent Serie A history.
Recruited as the flagship signing of a new era under owner Yonghong Li, Bonucci would return to Turin barely a year later with dreams of reviving Milan in tatters.
His move in July 2017 was a seismic shock to Italy’s footballing order, a bolt out of the blue that saw a mainstay of Juve’s dominance switch allegiance to one of the country’s sleeping giants. Bonucci’s emergence as one of the world’s foremost centre-backs had coincided with the Bianconeri’s return from the wilderness, with the former Inter and Bari man forging a feared defensive partnership alongside Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli as a lynchpin of six consecutive title-winning sides.
Yet things soured slightly for Bonucci at Juventus, exacerbated by an expletive-laden row with Max Allegri during a game with Palermo, and the defender admitted that, after “an intense seven years with Juventus,” his relationship with the club in the last season was not what it had been. “In the last part of the last season, this bond had faded a bit on both sides,” he conceded. Milan capitalised on the defender’s itchy feet in Turin and enticed the 30-year-old with the captaincy and the prospect of spearheading the club’s rise from the doldrums. “From now on,” Bonucci vowed, “I’ll think only of Milan.”
Widely regarded as a steal at £37m despite his advancing years, Bonucci was the crowning piece of Milan’s ambitious restructuring. Li had spared no expense to bring in the likes of Mateo Musacchio, Andrea Conti, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Lucas Biglia and André Silva that summer, but Bonucci was the undoubted icon of the new Milan – a signing that was as symbolic as it was strategic. “Technically, I think that he and Sergio Ramos are the strongest central defenders in the world,” gushed the club’s manager Vincenzo Montella. “Coaching him is a dream come true.”
But Montella wouldn’t have the chance to coach Bonucci for long. His side misfired almost immediately, its deficiencies laid bare in a 4-1 humbling by Lazio in September, and the axe was to fall on Montella in November. By that stage Milan had already racked up six league defeats, and as Bonucci’s former side clicked smoothly through the gears at the top of the table, his new club languished in mid-table obscurity. Milan’s “project” was not going well.
By January, the defender already seemed to be thinking twice about his decision to leave the stability of Turin for the chaos of Milan. “Leo lives for challenges and he needed to reignite that fire with a firm, unpopular decision,” his friend and former teammate, Gianluigi Buffon, commented. “I respect it, but I was sorry – and I think that he’s also very sorry about it now.”
Worse, Bonucci seemed traumatised at the prospect of his previously immaculate legacy at Juventus being tarnished. The defender had taken out a full-page advertisement in La Gazzetta dello Sport after his departure to thank the club’s fans and players for his glorious spell with the Bianconeri – conspicuously omitting Allegri – describing his time in Turin as “a beautiful story.”
He was shocked and hurt, then, by the vicious reception he was afforded by the supporters who used to sing his name when he returned to the Allianz Stadium with Milan in April – compounding the situation by celebrating exuberantly after scoring the 28th minute. “You could all hear the way in which I was greeted back here,” he told reporters afterwards. “Before the game, I was in doubt as to whether I should celebrate or not, but in the end I decided I would.
“It did hurt me a bit, because paths can divide during your lifetime,” he continued. “It happens even with marriages. But there should always be a minimum level of respect.” Tellingly, though, the incident had failed to drive a wedge between the defender and his former club. “Juventus still have a place in my heart,” he insisted.
With Milan’s financial future under Li shrouded in uncertainty, the club limped to a sixth-place finish, and Bonucci looked on enviously as his former teammates clinched a seventh consecutive Scudetto. Yet the centre-back’s turbulent history with Juventus was to have another twist, and amidst reports of interest from Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain over the summer, it was announced that Bonucci would be back in black and white for the 2017/18 season – just 377 days after he had departed to lead Milan into their new era. “Leaving was a difficult choice, taken in a moment of anger,” he declared.
Allegri, despite an often-fractious relationship with the defender, is likely to have viewed his return as a no-brainer for its promise of a world-class centre-back already familiar with the system and its players. The club has made no secret of its desire to win a long-overdue Champions League title, demonstrated by its hard-headed pursuit and capture of Cristiano Ronaldo, and Bonucci will play a key role in that charge – with the player having noted, in his 2017 farewell letter to Juventus fans, his “great regret” at leaving without winning the European Cup.
If Bonucci thought that he would be welcomed back with open arms by all Juventus supporters, though, he was swiftly proven wrong. Arriving back in Turin for training in August, he found himself confronted by an irate fan who asked repeatedly, “When will you apologise for the betrayal of last year?” Juve fans who travelled to Chievo jeered Bonucci but, despite another frosty reception at home to Lazio, he appeared to win over many naysayers after the game by approaching the Curva Sud, bastion of the ultras, with palms raised in an apparent gesture of contrition.
For Milan fans, meanwhile, Bonucci’s year at the San Siro is likely to go down as a surreal and vaguely bemusing memory. The blow of their former captain’s abrupt departure was softened somewhat by the favourable terms of the deal that sent him back to Turin, with the Rossoneri securing the proven goalscorer they were crying out for in Gonzalo Higuíin as well as promising Italian centre-back Mattia Caldara. Li’s short-lived reign has ended, too, with new owners Elliott Management instilling a measure of calm by naming Milan icons Leonardo and Paolo Maldini to prominent executive positions.
The strength of the invective Milan fans hurl at Bonucci on Sunday remains to be seen, but the unflappable defender is unlikely to pay them much heed; for now, he remains focused on winning back the hearts of the Juve faithful. “The whistles have become applause, and I hope to continue like this,” he noted recently. “I know it was a difficult year for them as it was for me, but I will do everything I can to convince them on the field… I’m settled down [in] a place that I can call my home again.”
By Fergal McAlinden @fergalmcalinden