A picture of Italian decline

The fall of AC Milan and Internazionale capture the plight of Serie A these days

Almost as if the fans had gone to San Siro Stadium to summon the past, a banner emerged in the AC Milan stands before the start of the derby against Internazionale.

It pictured Mark Hateley, the former Milan center forward, towering over Inter defender Fulvio Collovati to head a goal in October 1984. That victory by Milan broke a five-year domination by the blue half of city.

Flash forward to the present, and AC Milan was once again struggling against its crosstown rival. After the ball was hoisted into the penalty area, a head rose above the crowd to power through the opening goal for Milan in a 3-0 victory over Inter.

It may sound familiar, but these are changed times at the San Siro — home of both Inter and AC Milan — and changed times for Italian soccer. The head that scored the opening goal on Sunday was the shaven scalp of Alex, the 33-year-old Brazilian defender who over the last few years has battled injuries and lost a step or two. The player he beat, Davide Santon, is a fullback who is by no means comparable to Collovati when it comes to aerial skills.

These are depressed times, at least economically, when it comes to Serie A. No longer do Italian barons astonish the world by buying any player who takes their fancy. The Moratti family that poured money from its oil fortunes into Inter sold the club more than two years ago to a consortium led by Erick Thohir, an Indonesian who also owns the MLS club DC United.

Silvio Berlusconi still owns AC Milan, but he also is looking east for a buyer. Berlusconi’s media corporation once tried to redesign the Champions League so that his club, which has won the European crown five times during his 30 years of ownership, would be guaranteed a lifetime presence in the tournament. That would be handy this season, with the club way off the pace for qualification.

Long ago, when the two Milan clubs were the kings of soccer, Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Juventus, talked about it all. “I spend more than I should on all these players,” he said, pointing to Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek. “But he,” he said, meaning Berlusconi, “he is paying more than anyone should afford. It is almost vulgar.”

Berlusconi, now 79 but looking not a day over 39, was back at the San Siro for the derby. He was again the cheerleader of the fans, again the man the media flocked to for postgame comments about the players and again the salesman trying to revive deals for someone to buy his club.

Some while back, Berlusconi was hoping that investors in China would pay the bulk of the $1 billion that he valued AC Milan at. Now he is waiting for the Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol, who has been nibbling away at a takeover of Milan for two seasons.

“We are still looking at things with Mr Bee,” Berlusconi told reporters Sunday. “The market crisis has had an influence on the agreement we had put together with Chinese groups. Deadlines? They do exist and they are close; the aim is to have the resources available for a great future.”

When Berlusconi was in his prime, he brought in the Dutch players Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard and blended them with superb Italian defenders to give his country a team that was wonderful to watch as it outplayed most of Europe. Now, his team is fielding a 16-year-old goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and attempting to rebuild the club with older players, free transfers and players on loan, like Mario Balotelli. The result? His team is in sixth place.

“A club cast adrift, with no ambition,” read another banner in the stands on Sunday. “A mediocre team with no champions.”

AC Milan’s coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, is a former Inter player. He has no assurances that he will be given the time to rebuild Milan, though his makeover this season is starting to come together.

“Compliments to the coach and the team tonight,” Berlusconi said, airing his views on which players pleased him. “We haven’t started to think about next season yet. Just like any other coach, Mihajlovic depends on results. Let’s see what the team can now achieve. There is still hope of qualifying for the Champions League.”

His rival, Inter, is closer to that hope, though it is starting to fall away from the two clubs at the top, Napoli and Juventus. Inter at least was able to sign, albeit on loan, the striker Eder from Sampdoria in the January transfer window.

The market reflects the decline in what the Italian barons can afford to spend compared to the (mostly foreign) owners who control the biggest English Premier League teams. Premier League clubs spent 175 million pounds on transfers last month, according to Deloitte. That pushed the total spent by English clubs on transfers this season to more than 1 billion pounds, or about $1.45 billion, a record.

Italy started this system decades ago  when rich benefactors filled the coffers in Turin and Milan. Today, Serie A is like the abandoned child who looks longingly into the shop as American, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern owners buy whatever they desire.
What goes around doesn’t necessarily come around again.

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