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The severe fall from grace of AC & Inter Milan

Article written by: @yousef738

The city of Milan is known as a centre of fashion, but also for its two football teams, widely regarded as one of Europe’s traditional clubs. During the 1990’s and 2000’s, both Milan teams became powerhouses in Serie A, but importantly in European club competitions, whether in the UEFA Cup or the prestigious Champions League. In those two decades, AC Milan won the Champions League on three occasions while Inter won three UEFA Cups and one Champions League in 2010.

During that illustrious period, the San Siro, home to both clubs – was regularly a cauldron of noise where 80,000 fans willed their teams on. Whenever they played each other in the Derby Della Madonnina it was a full bloodied affair, where the passion regularly led to tempers boiling over, such as the notorious 2003 Champions League tie, but has also produced some great matches. Several brilliant players have donned the colours of the Rossoneri and Nerazzurri. The names read like a who’s who of football during the period: Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti, Franco Baresi, Esteban Cambiasso, Lothar Matthaus, Ruud Gullit, Ronaldo (for both clubs), Jurgen Klinsmann, George Weah, Hernan Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko.

However, this decade has been one to forget for both teams. Inter famously lifting the Champions League in 2010 under Jose Mourinho (as part of an historic treble) and AC Milan lifting the Scudetto (in Massimiliano Allegri’s first season in charge) during the 2010-2011 season proved to be the high water mark for both clubs. For the last three seasons the two teams have gone through (and still are) a steady decline and are not what they used to be. Sadly, there are several reasons behind the rot. Firstly, it stems from financial clout, or lack of it. To even sustain a football club among the domestic or European elite, ambition must be shown in acquiring the best players available, which benefits the team on the pitch. During those two decades, AC Milan under Silvio Berlusconi and Inter under Massimo Moratti, splashed the cash in trying to strengthen their squads so to challenge for trophies.

The fees in acquiring these players show the financial power these two clubs had. For example, in 1992 AC Milan broke the world transfer record twice, with the signing of Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille  and then two months later pay £13m to acquire winger Gianluigi Lentini from Torino. A move that was a step up for Lentini (before his sad fall from grace) but much to the fans’ abject fury in Torino. During the 2000’s, the Rossoneri continued their extravagance in their transfer dealings splashing out €43m for Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa from Fiorentina in 2001. Moreover, they paid €30m for Alessandro Nesta in 2002 from Lazio, taking advantage of the club’s financial problems.

Inter showed they weren’t afraid in splashing the cash either. In 1997, they brought in a deadly Brazilian striker, Ronaldo, from Barcelona for £17m. A few years later, the Nerazzurri went one better, forking out €49m for striker Christian Vieri, from fellow Serie A rivals Lazio. At the time, it was an astronomical figure – the equivalent of paying €94m for Cristiano Ronaldo or €100m for Gareth Bale. When news of Vieri’s fee was announced, it caused widespread shock in Italy, as even the Pope was amazed at the fee, with the Vatican’s official newspaper labeling the money paid to Lazio as “an offence to the poor.” Despite the excessive spending, it was seen as necessary so to compete for trophies. Moreover, the owners had the financial capability to sanction these transfer fees, as it was a time where Italy was seen as a viable football destination for the world’s top players.

But when the financial backing is curtailed then it’s hard to maintain those lofty heights. This is what Berlusconi faced at AC Milan. Assembling a squad full of top class players may benefit the squad but it will exhaust the wage bill. The problems facing Berlusconi in the summer of 2012 after Juventus’ famous undefeated league title was worrying. Juventus claiming the Scudetto off AC Milan meant fans of the Rossoneri wanted a response so to show the club meant business. However, Berlusconi knew he couldn’t sustain the high spending in the transfer market, which AC Milan did with aplomb. Instead of loosening the purse strings, there would be a tightening of belts, as Berlusconi decided the club had to cut costs, with restructuring the required course of action.

When a club has to cut costs the first victim is  the wage bill, which  means selling players. The Rossoneri had to sell their two best players – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG. Berlusconi was forthright in his reasoning – “We save €150m in two years.” In addition, several players left the club, thus serving to ease the wage bill. What it served to do was hurt the squad’s capabilities. The departure of Ibrahimovic and Silva deprived the club of Ibrahimovic’s attacking prowess along with Silva’s defensive reliability. It didn’t help both players had been advertised as part of a drive to persuade fans to buy season tickets for the upcoming season – only for them to be sold days later. It wasn’t surprising refunds were demanded. As for Inter, they too needed to cut costs but their rebuilding phase wasn’t as drastic as AC Milan’s.

But the transitional period during the 2010’s is the second reason behind the decline of the Milan clubs. Not the fact both clubs underwent (and arguably still are in) a period of change, but that it has been so badly mismanaged.  Inter’s decline came about when Rafa Benitez replaced Jose Mourinho. It was clear the squad was ageing with several players over the age of 30. Normally, when a team comes off a successful season it’s good practice to strengthen in the transfer market especially if the squad consists of veterans on the wrong side of 30.

However, two things served to hinder Benitez during his short reign. Firstly, Moratti wasn’t willing to spend extravagantly in the transfer window, unlike the days of old. Moratti had spent too much in player expenditure but also wages. Furthermore, revenue coming in fell woefully short, unlike their growing European rivals over the years. Worryingly, spending so much meant debt within the club was growing. As a result, Inter were focused on bringing players back on loan such as Philippe Coutinho from Vasco da Gama and acquiring full ownership rights on Jonathan Biabiany from Parma.

The only real transfer activity Inter made in buying players was paying €6.5m in a co-ownership deal for Genoa’s Andrea Ranocchia, as well as sending Mattia Destro as part of the deal on loan – Genoa later bought Destro outright for €4.5m. Six months later in December 2010, Inter acquired full ownership of Ranocchia for a further €12.5m, making it €19m overall paid to Genoa. They had paid just €4m overall for him. Meanwhile the Nerazzurri’s limited foray into the transfer market only came about by selling Ricardo Quaresma to Besiktas for €7.3m but importantly selling Mario Balotelli to Manchester City for €21.8m. It also helped alleviate the wage bill especially those who were troublesome (Balotelli) but also had very few appearances (Quaresma) for the club.

Secondly, Benitez’s short tenure was compounded by a serious injury list during the start of the 2010-11 season. The Spaniard was without Julio Cesar, Maicon, Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta – players instrumental in the Nerazzurri’s triumph the season before. Therefore, when Inter jetted to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup, they were in 7th place in the league but did have two games in hand. But the Spaniard’s downfall was after his triumph in beating TP Mazembe for the Club World Cup trophy. Instead of using his post match press conference to proclaim how winning the competition could be used as a base for the second half of the season he went down a completely ill-advised path. His words (no doubt frustrated by having one hand tied behind his back in the transfer market) read like an ultimatum – back me or sack me. Moratti was alarmed at this belligerence and simply did the latter.

The reason why I’m giving such analysis to Benitez’s reign is because this was the start of instability at the club where it resembled a conveyor belt for managers. From 2004-2010 the club had just two managers – Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho. From June 2010 to October 2013 (when Moratti sold 70% of the club to Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir) Inter underwent six managers. Some lasted a few months while others had the fortune of a whole season. All the time Inter slowly declined, bowing out of the Champions League and performing meekly in the Europa League. Six managers is not healthy for the club and unsurprisingly the fans became frustrated and disenchanted with their team…

When that happens, attendance figures then start to drop. During the historic treble winning 2009-10 season, their average attendance was 59,484. The average for last season was 46,246 –  a drop of about 13,200. If one ticket was priced at €20 then the club would miss out on €260,000 per home game in ticket revenue and €4.94m a season.

It also does not help when the club buy players who simply aren’t up to the standard required. One or two can be forgiven but several in a short period of time is inexcusable. Players like Ricky Alvarez, Luc Castaignos, Ezequiel Schelotto and Zdravko Kuzmanovic have flattered to deceived. In conjunction, selling off promising young talent such as Davide Faraoni and Marko Livaja is a backward step. Yes, you may make money out of it, for example: Faraoni sold to Udinese for €7m and Livaja to Atalanta for €4m, but using players from their youth academy can be a way of not wasting much needed money on players who perform at a level of mediocrity. Although selling Coutinho to Liverpool (for less than £9m!), instead of flogging Ricky Alvarez is unforgivable.

In the end selling the club was the logical option for Moratti as he simply couldn’t sustain the levels of investment as he once did. By late 2013, the Nerazzurri in debt to the amount of €300m and lack of Champions League football meant the debt couldn’t be tackled, let alone solved. The only way was to slash the wage bill and selling players such as Wesley Sneijder, Giampaolo Pazzini, Coutinho, Goran Pandev and Julio Cesar.

For AC Milan their mismanagement is equally as bad as Inter’s. Initially it didn’t seem that way, as, they somehow managed to qualify for the Champions League. It was a remarkable achievement and credit must go to Allegri who utilised his players – notably young talent in Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio. The signing of Mario Balotelli in January played a factor during the 2nd half of the season as 12 goals in 13 games sealed that final qualifying spot for the Champions League.

Achieving qualification to the Champions League, pending a playoff they would win, warranted praise and respect from the fans but also from the owners – the Berlusconis. But during the 2012-13 season, talk swirled of Allegri getting the sack in the summer. However, although Berlusconi assured Allegri would stay in June 2013, it seemed they felt obliged because Allegri had given the club Champions League football. But merely six months later he was sacked after a poor run of form broke Silvio Berlusconi’s patience.

If the sacking of Rafa Benitez heralded anxiety and instability at the club then Allegri’s resembled similarities at AC Milan. Whenever a manager is relieved of their duties the key question is – who fills in the vacancy? Silvio Berlusconi’s choice was Clarence Seedorf, a legend at the club, but with little managerial experience. Though his arrival in January 2014 was hoped to bring new ideas after four years of Allegri it proved to be a difficult period. And during the last four months of the 2013-14 season, AC Milan displayed frustrating levels of inconsistency. To begin with, the Rossoneri did show some form during January and February, winning four out of six league games. But in March they simply disintegrated.

Firstly, the Rossoneri crashed out of the Champions League in the last 16, heavily losing 4-1 in the 2nd leg to eventual finalists Atletico Madrid. Secondly, they embarked on a horrible three game losing run in the league. They lost 2-0 at home to Juventus, narrowly away to Udinese 1-0, and torn apart 4-2 at home to Parma. It would be losing so heavily at home to Parma that broke the fans’ patience. Before the game, 300 fans protested over the club’s decline since winning the Scudetto in 2011. After the game, AC Milan’s fans met with Seedorf along with senior players such as Kaka and Mario Balotelli. It didn’t bring reassurance that after the game Silvio Berlusconi gave Seedorf his vote of confidence. By the end of the season AC Milan finished 8th and Seedorf was sacked. During his short reign, there had been rumours the Dutchman was to be replaced and gossiping only serves to undermine the manager – thus hindering the club’s progress.

Seedorf’s replacement, Filippo Inzaghi, is also currently finding the job hard going. He too has somewhat limited managerial experience: coaching the Rossoneri’s youth team. Currently they are sat in 8th place at this time of writing and the fans’ anger has shifted from the manager to the owner – Silvio Berlusconi. On the 21st March, AC Milan’s fan group, the Curva Sud, boycotted the club’s home game against Cagliari in protest at how the club is being run. And despite the fans desire for European football, unfortunately they are likely to be without it for a second season. They do not understand why Berlusconi again persisted with a inexperienced manager instead of a veteran. It is damning those linked with the job, like ex-Roma manager Luciano Spalletti, wouldn’t want to work with an owner such as Berlusconi.

But in the transfer market, AC Milan have admittedly been inconsistent. Although there has been some astute buys (Diego Lopez and Jeremy Menez for free), the Rossoneri invested in several bad ones with the likes of Fernando Torres, Sulley Muntari and Giampaolo Pazzini quickly coming to mind. Inconsistency means the club hasn’t been able to strengthen the team adequately, which is quite clear in their league position.

As a result, the average attendance at the San Siro has dwindled (like Inter), while the club has declined. In their 2010-2011 title winning season the average was 53,916. Last season it was 40,083 – a drop of less than 14,000. As with Inter, if a ticket cost €20, then in match-day revenue AC Milan would lose roughly €280,000 per game and €5.32m per season. However, the club is looking to build their own stadium (like Juventus and Arsenal) in the next few years, which would bring in extra revenue. But for now they must focus on the present.

When the Curva Sud boycotted and failed to attend the game against Cagliari last month in protest they implored the ex-prime minister to show clarity: either to reinvest in the club or sell it so to give it a new lease of life. When you look at AC Milan they resemble a decaying giant. Costs have been cut to the extent they reportedly sold their team bus – much to the mocking amusement of rival fans. The Rossoneri are in debt to the tune of €250m (as of early 2014) and Berlusconi was rumoured in January to privately admit the club’s value had dropped by nearly €100m. Such is the level of debt, it’s no surprise rumours have surfaced that Berlusconi is looking to sell. Already talk has materialised of Berlusconi in negotiations with a consortium from the Far East. Should the club be sold then it would open a new chapter for the club. However, as Thohir is finding out at Inter, new ownership and investment doesn’t immediately correlate into success.

So to conclude, is there hope for both of these clubs? Well, Serie A is not the force it once was ten years ago, as the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga have well and truly pulled away. Italy’s declining co-efficient means there’s just three Champions League spots – only two guarantee qualification to the group stages. Therefore, it makes it harder for both Milan teams to reach the top 3, especially when in competition with Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Napoli, Fiorentina and surprisingly this season Sampdoria.

But there is hope for both clubs if they rectify the mistakes that have been looked at. Firstly, both Thohir and whoever owns AC Milan next season must be financially prudent so to benefit the club. Should they be under new ownership in the summer the Rossoneri will have money to spend. They can afford to be flexible in the transfer market or even embark on a commercial marketing drive into the Far East where they are popular in China.

For Inter their financial position leaves no such flexibility. The Nerazzurri have been investigated and listed by UEFA for breaking Financial Fair Play regulations. The likely financial and possibly squad sanctions means Inter will likely be restricted in their transfer activity. That means going on transfer sprees like in January where they buy players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Marcelo Brozovic will be curtailed.

From now on if the club wants to bring in a top player (like Mancini is thinking of doing with Yaya Toure) to comply with FFP the Nerazzurri would have to sell a valued player. Already, star goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, along with talented midfielder Mateo Kovacic and striker Mauro Icardi, have been linked with moves away. Should that happen the fanbase could vent their frustrations at the club in a less savoury way. The second step both clubs can take is not to mismanage the running of the team. The Rossoneri and Nerazzurri can take a leaf out of Sampdoria’s new owner Massimo Ferrero. Since taking control of the club last year Ferrero has enthusiastically shown his support for the club and thrust himself into the public eye.

Importantly, he’s given the manager Sinisa Mihajlovic his support, by making ambitious signings such as veteran Samuel Eto’o and the promising Luis Muriel. For a while, the Marassi was a cauldron of excitement, as fans dreamed of possible Champions League football. Although residing in 5th, seven points off 3rd placed Lazio, achieving Europa League is remarkable after being in the relegation zone 15 months ago. Support from owner to manager can go a long way in revitalising a club’s fortunes. Both Milan clubs would do to remember that.

At the moment both teams are far away from a place in the Champions League. But if they can learn from past mistakes then who knows – at least the fans will believe and be proud in their teams once again.

Article written by: @yousef738

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