Financial challenges maybe, but AC Milan seem to be cautiously smiling again

THE MILAN derby was a personal triumph for fit-again veteran Zlatan Ibrahimović – two goals and victory over one of his former clubs, but it was also affirmation of the Milanese renaissance that appears to be  gathering momentum at the San Siro.

AC Milan ended Inter’s unbeaten run, their first league defeat in those crazy zig-zag shirts, and went two points clear at the top of Serie A. That’s four out of four for Stefano Pioli’s team – not bad for a club that recently announced it made a staggering loss of € 195 million in 2019-20. It should be noted, though, that AC Milan have been the best performing Italian club on the pitch since the lockdown ended.


The 2020-21 season has the potential to be the most open in Serie A for some time. Inter already signalled their intent last year when they finished runners-up to Juventus by one point, losing just four games versus Juve’s seven. With their expensive squad boosted by almost € 100 million of new signings in the last transfer window, including € 40 million on Achraf Hakami of Real Madrid, Inter sent another reminder to the rest of Italian football. The club’s Chinese owners, who have driven revenues up from € 187 million to € 400 million since 2016, want success and after going close last season in Serie A and the Europa League, the pressure will undoubtedly have been increased on Antonio Conte this past few months.

Ibrahimović may be 39 years of age, but the instinct is still there, even if he did get poleaxed by covid-19. He’s netted four of Milan’s nine goals this season. In typical fashion, Zlatan believes nobody can stop him even though he’s now pushing 40 and he thinks Milan can win their first Scudetto since 2011. Not everyone agrees with the confident Swede, though, and most pundits expect both Juventus and Inter to eventually finish above them. By the time Juventus go to the San Siro in January, the position will surely be clearer.

It’s good news for coach Pioli, who was expected to leave the club before the 2020-21 season got underway. Ivan Gazidis, the CEO who divides opinion among fans – “he destroyed Arsenal, now he’s ruining Milan” – wanted to hire former RB Leipzig coach Ralf Rangnick, a bold signing that would spearhead the kind of revolution Gazidis is looking for at Milan.


The San Siro project will be transformational for both Milan clubs, earning them € 70 million a year each. Both clubs have presented plans for the new stadium and the complete renovation of the surrounding area, a scheme that will cost in excess of € 1 billion but create 3,500 new jobs. Two architectural firms are bidding to handle the project.

The “cathedral” proposal by Populous aims to be one of the most sustainable stadiums in Europe, naturally cooled and topped by panels that generate electricity. The stadium is surrounded by 22 acres of green space and the entire district will be connected to a central heating and cooling system.

The second scheme, by manica/sportium is called “the rings of Milano”, a design that includes two rings, interlocked and set apart. This will also be part of a broader project that reimagines San Siro as a park and entertainment neighbourhood. 

There could be further benefits if the proposed link-up between Serie A and CVC Capital Partners and Advent International comes to fruition and devliers a new rights deal worth more than € 1.6 billion. Milan and Inter both voted in favour of the proposals which will see the private equity companies take a 10% stake in a new company managing the league’s broadcasting rights.

This could be a vital transaction because Italian clubs have had a rough time in the pandemic, as evidenced by losses generated by Roma, Lazio, Milan and Inter. Juventus owner Andrea Agnelli, said recently that European clubs could lose between five and six billion euros over the next two seasons. He envisages the full damage will not be known until the autumn of 2021. Juventus reported a loss of almost € 90 million in September 2020.


Milan’s deficit of € 195 million added to the problems inherited from the club’s previous ownership, said their official statement. They gained some mild consolation, however, in declaring that if the impact of the global pandemic is removed, financial performance has actually improved on 2018-19. The club insisted: “It will take time to transform AC Milan, but the club and the ownership share the same confidence in the positive path undertaken.” While the owners have underlined their support of the club to ensure financial stability, Milan has also launched a cost efficiency policy which includes a significant reduction in wages.

Against a background of strict financial management, can AC Milan maintain their challenge at the top of Serie A, or are they merely keeping the seat warm for Juventus? They have some key players who are involved in contract talks, so the club will have to handle things sensitively if they want to keep Ibrahimović, Gianluigi Donnarumma (a Chelsea target) and Hakan Calhanoglu (Juve and Atléti interest). 

For students of the game – and non-Juve fans – the reawakening of AC Milan and Inter is a good thing for Italian football. Although neither would admit it, they also need their rivals to flourish in order to spur them on. Milan is, after all, still one of the world’s great football cities.


Photo: PA

Football’s competitive issues: Predictability is not just a “big five” problem

PRIOR TO this disrupted and somewhat confusing campaign, the past two seasons saw the same league champions across the “big five” leagues in Europe – domination by the rich and advantaged, namely Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona. It was seen as affirmation the game had become predictable, stale and lacking in competitiveness.

Manchester City, for example, were being tagged the “best ever” Premier League side and although some pundits wondered whether teams like Barca and Bayern might be entering transition, the 2018-19 season induced a little yawn in many people. Meet the new champions, same as the old champions. It was the first time the five leagues had replicated their winners’ podium as a bloc in the modern era.

This season, there could be a 40% shift as Liverpool – the latest “best ever” Premier line-up –  have ended City’s run at the top and Real Madrid may well be La Liga champions. City were the only club to retain their title in England since Manchester United achieved that feat in 2008 and 2009. Since then, the past 10 years have seen the Premier become one of the most open leagues in terms of champions – five since 2010-11: United, City, Chelsea, Leicester and Liverpool. The Spanish league, for all its focus on the Barca-Real rivalry, has changed hands in six out of nine seasons, and if Real are successful in 2019-20 it will be seven in 10.

The real problem lies in France, Germany and Italy, where PSG, Bayern and Juve have won seven, eight and (most likely) nine titles respectively in 10 years. It’s not rocket science to work out the dominant clubs are also the richest, most influential and backed by wealth, power and muscle. It is a similar scenario in most countries across Europe.

Just look at the roster of league champions that have been crowned so far in 2020 – Red Bull Salzburg, Ferencvaros, Ajax, Zenit, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Slovan Bratislava, Shakhtar Donetsk, Slavia Prague and Dinamo Zagreb – these are all clubs that have retained their titles. In Portugal, Porto are about to dethrone Benfica, one of the few big leagues where the champions are not identical to 2018-19.

Not all climbing – an example of 50 years of gates

  1970 2020
Austria 5,113 6,322
Belgium 11,188 11,347
Czech Rep 7,682 5,690
England 32,113 39,349
France 7,636 22,526
Germany 20,698 40,842
Hungary 8,668 3,176
Italy 30,134 24,607
Netherlands 12,804 18,229
Poland 10,192 8,879
Russia 26,322 17,294
Switzerland 7,529 11,166


We hear many complaints about the way the big clubs from the top leagues are monopolising the European game, but is it really any different across any leagues?  Admittedly, it’s at a different level, but every country has its driving forces, from Linfield and the Red Imps in Northern Ireland and Gibralter respectively, to Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukraine.

The game has always been about winners and losers and the consistent victors have the cash, the strugglers simply do not have the resources. Imbalance has become part of 21st century football, but the enduring charm of the sport and its ability to produce shocks and setbacks and make people dream, retains the public interest. In this age of hegemony, crowds have rarely been better in some top leagues, but at the same time, the creation of uber-clubs and super leagues has left behind some nations’ domestic programmes, particulary those from former Soviet states and others in eastern Europe.

Number of champions in 10-year period

  61-70 11-20
England 7 5
Spain 2 3*
France 4 4
Germany 8 2
Italy 6 2*
Netherlands 4 3
Portugal 2 3*
Scotland 4 2


Notes: While English football has become polarised, the scale of the league has meant there are more candidates for success than other big leagues today. Spain, meanwhile, has become a three-club state rather than two and France has created its first super club. Italy has seen traditional giants struggle to move into the 21st century, with Juventus rising to the top once more. Germany has also become less competitive, with Bayern Munich’s dominance showing no sign of easing up. * League not finished in 2019-20.

Money buys success at all levels, from the humble non-league club that finds a way to pay extra cash to players without the burden of tax, to the big-time corporate club that uses offshore accounting and sophisticated financial tools to benefit its pampered stars. The current football world may have moved beyond the realms of the people’s game in so many ways, but at the end of the day, all clubs are on the same hamster’s wheel, all trying to be successful, all willing to push the boundaries, and all yearning to be the club that can attract star players. And, although many clubs will deny it, most secretly hope that one day, a rich man with deep pockets drives into their car park and offers them the world and Lionel Messi. That way, they can compete. It’s not necessarily right, but that’s football life.



Photo: PA