A Milan Odyssey, from Chinese Boxes to U.S. Renaissance

Feature Photo: © AC Milan

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Winning at home, in Europe, and in the world. Collect Ballon d’Or-awarded champions, and all sort of star players. That was the credo of Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan since 1986 to 2012. But then his political commitments and legal troubles convinced President Berlusconi to put Milan aside, and start thinking about selling his beloved creature. That was the beginning of a troubled transition for the Rossoneri, whose results started to plummet, despite putting on the bench former key players like Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi, now turned into coach. The right people chosen at the wrong moment. Terribly wrong.

In May 2015, here comes the hypothesis of a minority shareholder willing to join Milan. His name is Bee Taechaubol. He is a Thai broker apparently open to purchase 48% of the Rossoneri’s value, for a total of 500 million euro. A short-lasting illusion, as Mister Bee’s interest vanishes after a few months.

President Silvio Berlusconi and Thai entrepreneur Bee Taechaubol, the first (short-lasting) pretender to the acquisition of Milan

The Chinese Boxes (August 2016-April 2017)

Yonghong Li and his trusted business partner Han Li come out of nowhere exactly two years ago. The two Chinese entrepreneurs suddenly appear with Berlusconi in a photo taken at the President’s villa in Sardinia. They seem to be willing to buy Milan. All of it. Berlusconi Family’s holding Fininvest, on the other hand, wants to sell the club, and wants to do it fast. But Milan are a prominent brand, despite the recent disappointing results, and it takes some good money to close the deal.

Berlusconi keeps reassuring the Rossoneri fans that he will only leave Milan in safe hands. Hands that can take the team back where it belongs, as the former most-winning-club-in-the-world doesn’t even seem to be able to qualify for the Champions League anymore. But in the meantime, Italian and international press start asking themselves questions about this mysterious Yonghong Li. Who is he? What are his sources of income?

The initial information gathered are not exactly reassuring. This entrepreneur seems to be little known even in his native China, and not even to those who work in football. Still, his takeover attempt on Milan continues. 2016 ends with the Rossoneri winning the last trophy of the Berlusconi age, an Italian Super Cup against Juventus. Milan are trained by Vincenzo Montella, and can feature some interesting young players like goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, defender Alessio Romagnoli, and Spanish winger Suso.

Italian fans start becoming familiar with the English word closing, meaning the official conclusion of a deal, which in the case of the Milanese club continues to be delayed week after week. But, on April 13, 2017 the much-awaited moment finally comes, and Milan officially become Chinese-owned. Yonghong Li assumes the title of President and he is the first Chinese one in the history of the club. However, the operation is facilitated by Paul Singer’s American investment fund Elliott, which lends Li 303 million euro, at a 9% interest rate, to close the deal. Doubts about the mysterious new Chinese owner don’t dissipate. On the contrary, they keep growing day after day.

The new Rossoneri management: From left to right, Executive Director Han Li, President Yonghong Li, and CEO Marco Fassone (Photo: AFP / Miguel Medina)

The Great Chinese Delusion (April 2017-August 2017)

The 2016-2017 season ends with Milan grabbing a Europa League slot after a three-year absence from international competitions. Historical CEO Adriano Galliani is replaced by Marco Fassone, a manager formerly with Juventus, Napoli, and Inter – something that the hardcore Rossoneri fans will never fully accept. Fassone chooses Massimiliano Mirabelli, who also has past experiences with Inter, as new Director of Football.

The Chinese Age has an electrifying start, and sees Milan being pretty active in the transfer market arena: Frank Kessié, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Mateo Musacchio all join the Rossoneri in the very first days of the summer session. However, the unexpected Donnarumma-gate promptly creates the first problems for the new management: The young goalkeeper, assisted by influential agent Mino Raiola, decides not to renew his contract with Milan, which is expected to expire the following year. His refusal sparks a one-month-long drama, during which Milan fans demand for the “traitor” goalkeeper to be sold right away. Coach Montella intervenes in person, and agrees to meet Donnarumma’s family to mediate and dissuade him from his idea of parting ways. In the middle of July, the stalemate finally unlocks, and Donnarumma signs a rich new contract for 6 million euro per season.

From then on, the Milanese summer turns into a crescendo of fireworks, culminating with the arrival of Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus. The Azzurri defender is welcomed with enthusiasm by his new supporters, and immediately appointed captain of Milan’s nuovo corso (“new deal”). The transfer market session brings 11 new faces to Milanello, the Rossoneri’s training center. Former player Gennaro Gattuso is appointed coach of the Primavera, the youth club. Vincenzo Montella is still the head coach, but his confirmation appears a reluctant choice. And indeed, as soon as the club start to lose their first Serie A games, the Neapolitan trainer is promptly put under discussion.

The arrival of seasoned defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus was the highlight of Milan’s lavish market campaign in the Summer of 2017 (Photo: Lapresse / Francesca Soli)

The Autunno Caldo (“Hot Autumn”) of Milan (September – December 2017)

After winning a few games, Milan plummet into a somewhat heavy technical crisis. Montella has changed the team’s structure radically, switching from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 lineup, but the new module doesn’t convince anybody, and results keep proving him wrong. The Devils lose to Lazio, Juventus, Inter, Napoli, and Roma – all direct contenders for a Champions League slot. In November, after a disappointing draw with Torino, the management opt for a change: Montella is sacked, and Gattuso is promoted to head coach.

However, the new trainer has a rough start too. In his debut match, Gattuso manages to have Benevento snatch their first Serie A point in their history, after 13 consecutive losses. This false start is followed by two heavy setbacks at the hands of Verona and Atalanta. At Christmas time, the Rossoneri deserve no gifts. Still, the last match of the year gives Milan at least one reason to smile, as they prevail in a Coppa Italia Quarter Final against city rivals Inter. Patrick Cutrone’s lone goal gives a temporary break to his side, but more disappointments await the Rossoneri in 2018…

The zenith in Milan’s disappointing last season was winning against city rivals Inter in a Coppa Italia Quarter Final Match on December 27, 2017. The Rossoneri, now trained by Gennaro Gattuso, prevailed with a lone goal by Patrick Cutrone (Photo: Getty Images)

Milan’s Double Challenge (January – May 2018)

Gattuso’s boys somehow start to win and climb the Serie A ranks, and Milan supporters timidly regain some hope. The Rossoneri win over Roma and Lazio in the campionato, and reach the Coppa Italia Final. But right when they seem to have gained a good momentum, their performance decline again due to fatigue, as the end of the season approaches. Gattuso’s band must suffer a painful defeat to Juventus, and an even more shameful one at the hands of bottom-ranked Benevento. And still, the Chinese club manage to defend their 6th place in the league, which means a new qualification to Europa League. The last game of the season corresponds to a disastrous loss in the Coppa Italia Final, again with Juventus.

But if the results on the pitch are decent enough for the Rossoneri, the situation with their management board is far from being clear: Milan have been on UEFA’s radar since their gargantuan transfer market campaign from the last summer, and the European football board keeps looking with suspicion upon their enigmatic Chinese management. When Yonghong Li and his gang start delaying some of their payments due to Elliott, the U.S. fund begins to gain a more central role in the destiny of the club.

In May, Milan fail to reach a settlement agreement with UEFA to fulfill the financial fair play conditions. Among the possible consequences, the Rossoneri risk being excluded from the next season European competitions, a real shame for the most winning club in Europe. By now, supporters have had enough of Yonghong Li and his mysteries.

The 2017-2018 season ended in a bloodbath for Milan, which were trampled 0-4 by Juventus in the Coppa Italia Final…

Big Trouble In Milan-China and the New American Age (June – July 2018)

In June, the worst-case scenario fatally fulfills, and Milan are banned from European competitions. The Rossoneri still have the chance to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but their Chinese proprietors have no longer any credibility whatsoever. At the end of the month, Elliott contributes to a necessary capital raising with 32 million euro. Yonghong Li has 10 days to repay this last loan, not to mention the 303 million due by October 2018. But, as expected, nobody hears from him anymore. The Chinese entrepreneur vanishes in the air, and the American fund officially takes control of Milan.

The first test for Paul Singer and his staff is the appeal to the TAS, which eventually results in the Devils to be readmitted to Europa League. It’s an encouraging start for the new U.S. manager, and Milan supporters celebrate just like they won another Champions League. Elliott move fast: Fassone and all the Chinese board members are quickly dismissed. Paolo Scaroni, the former CEO of Italian energy company ENI, and a long-time Rossoneri lover, is appointed new President. Brazilian Football Director Leonardo, also formerly with Milan both as a player and a coach, is chosen to replace Massimiliano Mirabelli.

Leonardo presents himself finalizing a maxi-transfer deal that brings to Milanello striker Gonzalo Higuain and defender Mattia Caldara from Juventus, in exchange for the comeback in Bianconero of Leonardo Bonucci. Another key figure from the golden years of the Berlusconi presidency, General Manager Umberto Gandini, is called back to re-join the red-and-blacks, and even Rossoneri legendary defender Paolo Maldini eventually decides to join the new project.

The new Milan arise in the sign of continuity with their shiny past. That same past that their supporters, who in the past two years must have felt like Ulysses looking for his Ithaca, hope to relive soon. It should be about time.

The future of Milan, which just transitioned from a somewhat mysterious Chinese management to an American board, restarts from a few familiar faces like Leonardo and Paolo Maldini…but also from Gonzalo Higuain, who just arrived from Juventus (Photo: © AC Milan)

Translated by Matteo Carnevale