Italy look for some Milan magic

Italy look for some Milan magic
AC Milan’s museum sits on the ground floor of the club’s gleaming administrative headquarters, Casa Milan, in a smart district to the north of the city. It is a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of fans before most home games.

Those who visit shuffle past jerseys worn by some of the team’s legends, cluster around displays showing video of its most famous games and lean in for selfies with a scale model of a helicopter owned by its former owner Silvio Berlusconi.

The grand finale sits behind a screen. Every few minutes, it pulls back to reveal a circular room filled with glass-fronted cabinets, each one containing a trophy. The star attractions, the ones that catch the eye, are on the left-hand side: seven replicas of the European Cup, one for each of Milan’s victories. It all looks a little like something out of the “Indiana Jones” films, a hidden trove; you expect smoke to billow from the floor and ominous music to strike.

A few floors above, Marco Fassone, the club’s managing director, feels the pull, and the pressure, from below. In recent years, it has felt as if that is where Milan’s best days are: in the museum, relics of a time now passed. Fassone’s job is not just to add to that collection. It is to bring what he calls the club’s golden age into the present.

“It is not so far gone,” he said. “It is not in the memory of our parents: It is still part of the club. It is not a century ago. It is recent history: We won the European Cup 10 years ago. The majority of people here were part of it, and they want to be part of it again.”

In sports, a decade is a lifetime, if not more. Ten years ago, Italy were champions of the world, AC Milan were champions of Europe and Internazionale, their city rivals, were champions of Italy.

“They said Italian football was in crisis,” Gennaro Gattuso, the Milan and Italy midfielder, said after the 2007 Champions League final. “Well, the World Cup is here, and so is the European Cup.”

Italy could lay claim to being soccer’s greatest power, and the city of Milan was the engine behind it. Now, that seems like a scene from another world. In retrospect, 2007 was not the start of a new era for Italy, but almost the final salvo of an old one. Milan have won only one championship in the decade since. Inter — since winning a treble under José Mourinho — Serie A, Coppa Italia, Champions League — in 2010, have disappeared from view, too. Milan have not played in the Champions League since 2014. Inter last qualified in 2011.

That fading lustre reflects a broader decline. As Milan have waned, so too has Serie A: its finances paltry compared with those of the Premier League, Bundesliga and Spain’s top tier; its teams, Juventus apart, unable to compete; its stadiums crumbling and decaying.

Some see Milan’s clubs as a symbol of that decay, too. To others, their struggles are not just a consequence, but a cause. In the summer, Andrea Agnelli, then the president of Juventus, admitted in an interview with Tuttosport that his team’s archrivals had been “missed.”

“I hope they will re-emerge, behind us, this year,” he said. There was, at the start of the season, every reason to think that would happen. When Milan and Inter met in the first derby of the year last weekend — the game known as the Derby della Madonnina — both took the field under Chinese control.

In 2016, the Suning group took control of Inter, and a year later, the entrepreneur Li Yonghong — supported by financing from an American hedge fund, Elliott Management — completed his takeover of AC Milan, ending Berlusconi’s 30-year tenure.

“The fact that both teams were sold to Chinese enterprises would have been unthinkable three years ago,” Fassone said. “It is something that is hard to imagine for a lot of Italians.”

Few, though, doubted it was necessary. Both clubs had been drifting for too long. This, many believed, was the start of a transformation not just for Milan and Inter, but for Serie A, too. Milan’s ambition, in particular, captured the imagination: This summer, it embarked on what Fassone described as “the most aggressive” transfer market campaign it could muster. Some 11 players arrived in the space of two months. The moves convinced the fans, and the country, that Li was serious.

Milan coach, Vincenzo Montella, has found crafting a team a little more difficult: Milan won four and lost three of their first seven Serie A games, and his hold on his job is already under scrutiny.

Inter, under coach Luciano Spalletti, is faring better, but the road has not been smooth. Spalletti is Suning’s third manager in a year; one of his predecessors, Frank de Boer, lasted 85 days. Still, in the eyes of Aldo Serena, a former player for both teams, Inter is a “little further ahead” in their progress than Milan.

Serena, now a television commentator, holds out hope that Milan will find their feet, echoing the feeling of many that it would benefit not just the city, but Italian soccer as a whole.

“Italy needs a strong Milan and a strong Inter,” Serena said. A decade ago, Milan and Italy felt they were still living through their golden age. It will take a lot of work — in Milan and elsewhere — to bring back those days, to bring Italian soccer out of the museum.

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