Tonali Exit Confirms the End of the “Bandiere” Era – But Don’t Point Finger at Players

“A mixture between Pirlo and Gattuso” – For most footballers, getting likened to one iconic star would be more than enough. Yet, there was something special about Sandro Tonali that warranted the double comparison between himself and two strikingly contrasting, yet, equally formidable Milan legends.

While the hairstyle and the Brescia link made the comparison to Pirlo almost inevitable, the young man insisted that he shares the same grit and tenacity of the unyielding Calabrian warrior.

Boyhood Passion

In the summer of 2020, the then-19-year-old Brescia Golden Boy was heavily linked with a switch to Inter. But eventually, the self-proclaimed Rossonero fulfilled his dream by signing for his beloved club.

A boyhood Milan supporter turning down Inter to join the club of his heart. For the Diavolo supporters, the writing was on the wall even before the player kicked a ball in the famous Black-and-Red jersey: Tonali has all the makings to become the club’s next “Bandiera“.

The main question at the time was whether the youngster had what it takes to make it at the top level.

A Blossoming Idol

While his transition from a relegated provincial side to a Serie A giant was problematic at first, it proved to be a mere adjustment period, perfectly normal for a young man who’s making a major step up in competition.

The Italy international eventually flourished at the San Siro, proving to be an instrumental member in last season’s Scudetto-winning squad.

Even amidst the club’s troublesome 2022/23 campaign, Tonali was at times the last man standing at Milan, refusing to raise the white flag when the cause was evidently lost. After all, this is what the fans expect from a Bandiera-in-the-making.

In an era characterized by ups and downs, swift arrivals and even quicker departures, the Rossoneri faithful thought he could always rely on the comforting presence of the well-rounded midfielder.

EPL Calling

But sadly for Calcio, this is no longer the country for Bandiere, and Tonali’s imminent transfer to Newcastle United is just another unnecessary confirmation.

Long story short, Milan need cash while Newcastle have it. Milan possess a quality midfielder while Newcastle are longing for one. A simple equation that only football purists would struggle to solve.

For this section of nostalgic fans, the Bandiera element should be enough to hinder the whole equation, leaving it meaningless. Moreso, no sum should be enough to sway away a club symbol (or one in the making) from his natural habitat.

In the splendid Italian language, “Bandiera” means “flag”. In Calcio, this term is reserved for players who become symbols or icons by valiantly serving a single club for at least a large portion of their playing careers.

Some viable examples would be the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi at Milan, Javier Zanetti and Giacinto Facchetti at Inter, in addition to Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi at Roma, plus Antonio Di Natale at Udinese and Giancarlo Antognoni at Fiorentina.

A Bandiera doesn’t necessarily have to be the club’s captain. After all, his grand status among the supporters would exceed any prestige symbolized by the armband.

But although Tonali still had a long way to go before cementing himself as one, he appeared to be one of the few remaining candidates for such elusive recognition.

The End of the Bandiera Era

But in the age of the Premier League, a scintillating Serie A star is unlikely to dwell in the Italian peninsula for too long, not when he’s good enough to feature in the strongest and richest domestic league in the world.

So while Tonali’s departure indicates, once and for all, the death of the Bandiere era, football fans must not point the finger at the players or blame their greed for the extinction of club icons.

Yes, a footballer’s playing career is relatively short, so most players attempt to monetize on it as much as possible before fading into the wilderness of retirement. But in most cases, it’s the clubs who are the more eager party to cash in on their prized assets and register financial gains.

This most probably applies to the Tonali affair, with RedBird displaying a lack of interest in the passionate side of the game. Selling the star midfielder for a whopping 70 million is good business, and convincing the Milan owners otherwise would be a futile attempt.

Moreover, the lack of gratitude displayed by a large section of clubs towards their Bandiere should be telling enough for the young generation. Now surely the club’s faithful would idolize you for the rest of your days, but this hardly pays the bills, especially with hierarchies consisting of individuals whose loyalties solely lie with the balance sheet.

The Maldini Testament

So if Paolo Maldini, arguably the greatest captain in Milan’s history and the technical director who oversaw the recent revival, was shown the door in such brutal and unceremonious fashion earlier this summer, Tonali must have been left wondering whether the “Bandiera” tag is worth all the sacrifices.

Maldini isn’t alone in the category of club icons who were, directly or indirectly, pushed out of their beloved clubs. We all remember how Roma forced Totti into retirement in 2017 before offering him an unimpactful managerial role. He eventually decided to end the charade and cut his ties with the hierarchy, even his remains the most scintillating icon in the Eternal City.

For his part, Del Piero also didn’t leave Juventus on his own terms in 2012. Instead, it was former club president Andrea Agnelli who put a halt to 19 years of majestic service with a bluntly unilateral announcement. The iconic Number 10 hasn’t held a significant post at the club ever since.

A gentleman never leaves his lady behind” – this is how Del Piero justified turning down offers from some of the biggest sides in Europe to stick by a wounded Serie B club in 2006.

But as we can conclude from the testaments above, these gentlemen are seldom properly rewarded for their loyal long-lasting favors by their ladies, or at least those looming in the shadows.

So had Tonali somehow resisted the chance to move across the English channel, perhaps he would have gained additional support and appreciation from the Milan fanbase, for whatever that’s worth.

But in an industry where everything could change in one fell swoop, the “Bandiera” moniker offers little to no guarantees, as it slowly fades into the darkness like an outdated fashion trend.

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