Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The House that Berlusconi Built


Over the past year, Milan has seen changes that are absolutely unprecedented during the nearly 27 years of Berlusconi’s ownership of the club. It has been called a “rebuilding” phase, but at this point, we are really pushing the use of that term. For example, when you want to rebuild a house, you don’t set fire to it and burn it to the ground. In fact, where I live, if you want to get a permit to call it a remodel, local laws require you to leave at least one wall standing. To apply this analogy to the team, we should not clear out all of the quality in less than a year. Some senatori need to stay to help with the rebuild. But will they? Does Milan management have an actual plan to rebuild? Or have they set fire to the house and are now letting it burn to the ground before they eventually rebuild?

Will the entire team be burned to the ground?

Berlusconi bought the team in 1986. The previous decade had seen Milan relegated twice, once to a match fixing scandal, the second because they were unable to sustain the team in Serie A upon their return. When he bought the team, it was in trouble again, on the verge of bankruptcy. He invested millions to change the club from extinction to top flight almost overnight.

Needing the team to be successful as he was planning to run for political office, and his party named “Forza Italia,” directly linking the football ties, Berlusconi bought the very best players that money could buy, hired the best manager available, and sat back to watch his campaign investments go from struggling team to a Scudetto winning team in just 2 years, and winning the Champions league the season after that (and actually the next one, too.)

Look what his millions have bought

This Berlusconi era, the era of “Champagne football,” conveniently coincided with both his political and financial successes. While no team can win them all, certainly the pieces were all in place to provide the best chances. The team always spent well on players and hired the top managers, too. Thus, Berlusconi owned the team during an unprecedented haul of international trophies. And it looked like it would continue during Allegri’s first year as manager, too, as Milan won their 18th Scudetto.

This guy was NOT a Berlusconi fan

However, on Berlusconi’s end, his approval rating in Italy plummeted. A man hit him in the face with a statuette. His laws providing immunity while in office for his own personal and business crimes were struck down. He was forced to resign from office. He was tried and convicted of tax evasion. Milan’s parent company, Fininvest, was fined a European record €560m. He is currently on trial on charges of sleeping with a minor, the trial which it was just determined yesterday will not be postponed until after the upcoming elections like he had requested. He had to put his villa on the market. His wife divorced him and he was forced to pay €36m per year to her in alimony. In essence, his personal house is nearly burned to the ground (even if he is still quite wealthy.)

Meanwhile, within his club, things were going sour, too. Milan’s average age was too high, which would contribute to the injury crisis the year after the Scudetto. The player exodus began with Pirlo, whom the club let go on a free transfer, but has since made the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or after transferring to a rival club. Injuries were blamed, Pirlo claimed he wanted a new challenge, but the truth, as recently shared by Berlusconi himself, that Allegri was the reason. With many also openly or discreetly at odds with Allegri, a total of 14 players left the following season, many having been benched or put on the injury list when not injured. The same was true of Pato, who just left the club this month, making the 15th player to leave in 6 months’ time. The two most galvanizing players having left the club of course were Ibra and Thiago Silva, both of whom were sold because management had mismanaged finances and bought players whose salaries were unsustainable. (Particularly when your parent company is eating a €560m fine.) That was like the fire that devoured the days of Champagne football.

How many more players leave before Allegri does?

Looking at this Scudetto winning team, in 18 months, only 12 of these players are left. Yet Gattuso, Pippo, Pirlo, Nesta, Thiago Silva, Zambrotta, Ibra, Flavio Roma, Seedorf, Pato, van Bommel, Cassano, Jankulovski, Merkel, Oddo, and Legrottaglie are all gone. That’s 16 of our Scudetto winners, just 18 months ago. While arguments can be made that many of the older players were overdue to leave, it is how they left, what they’ve said since they’ve left, and how the club has performed since they left that is damning. Consider Berlusconi’s choice to give Montolivo the armband in front of almost everyone else on the squad that is more deserving, based on tradition. Or how those who have been most faithful and are most deserving have been snubbed midgame if Ambrosini is subbed off. The President has no place making that decision, anyway, but then again, he has no place coaching, either. Considering that the few Scudetto winning players who are left are still leaving, trying to leave, or being benched or insulted despite having quality, I think I smell fire.

People are encouraged by the success of a few youth players. Allegri is being praised by fans for his handling of them and for their success. But who else would he even field? He had these players before and refused to play them because they were too young and he didn’t trust them. Now that they have actually been given playing time and an opportunity to show their worth, he is suddenly great with youth? He won the Scudetto with an average squad age of 29.3 years old. This year he’s managed a team with losses at home to lower table clubs like Atalanta and Sampdoria, with an average squad age of 26.7 years. Are you really trying to have me believe that with the same management, but with younger players that he doesn’t trust (“Niang is a player for the future,”) he can rebuild Milan? With such a long list of crimes against the dressing room, team unity, player motivation, and not-so-secret fights with many different players? He is going to have to do something more convincing than scream “Dai Dai Dai!” for me to believe.

Pull out the royalty,  all you have left are numbers

How long will it take to rebuild? That depends on whether or not management actually do stick to the plan. If they keep Allegri, my money is on the fact that doing the same things you’ve always done will get you the same results you’ve always gotten. Except with most of the champions having left, now it will be the new players who will leave. Milan have reportedly set a salary cap of €4m max. So what if, in a couple of years, a club with more funds comes along and offers El Shaarawy a €10m salary? A player like Balotelli, who is also young, already makes €16m. At some point, don’t you think our young phenoms would want a decent coach, a chance to win something, and a salary like that? Milan say they are planning on youth for the future, but I have yet to see what they are doing to keep these players at Milan. If players like Ibra and Thiago Silva can be sold for “an offer we can’t refuse,” who would stay loyal to the Milan shirt, knowing they might be next to line the President’s campaign wallet?

In this Milan, everyone has a price, according to management

I have yet to be convinced of Milan’s commitment to youth. De Sciglio is the first player to come through the Milan youth sector and be promoted straight to the first team without going on loan since Paolo Maldini. That was 28 years ago. So now that the President has gotten himself into all kinds of financial and legal troubles, we are meant to believe that the plan all along was to burn the house to the ground and start over with mere babes? If we keep all of the Scudetto winners that are currently in the squad and slowly phase them out a couple per year as we phase in new players, then maybe, we can return to glory within the three years Berlusconi has said we would. But if we keep letting Allegri bench or push players out and poison the mentality of the squad with his bizarre lineups and tactics and poor interpersonal and motivational skills, then it will take much longer. If Berlusconi keeps publicly coaching the squad, telling Allegri via the media what formations and players to use, then we’ll be even worse off, too many cooks in the kitchen. And if Galliani keeps criticizing Allegri and some of the players publicly, then we may as well throw some gasoline on the fire and watch the house burn.

This pic is not so much to drive home the metaphor, but because fire is so mesmerizing

It’s Berlusconi’s house, he built it, I guess he gets to decide how it goes down and if and when it gets rebuilt. But what he’s forgetting is that the fans built it, too. We bought the jerseys, went to the stadium, worshipped with fervor and also our pocketbooks. That’s right, our millions of euros went into the club, too. Just because we are not worth billions of euros individually doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve better. I mean, of course we don’t expect to return to winning ways this season, or even next. But at the very least, we have a right to speak our minds about what is happening at the club. And it would be nice if maybe they actually listened. But at this point, I’d accept them sticking to their plan, now and into the future. Even if Berlusconi said just yesterday that he has been nagging Galliani every day to make some purchases in the mercato, although the plan is to decrease the squad before we do that. It may be the House that Berlusconi built, but for some of us it’s a sacred house of worship, too.


This post inspire by the music of The Violent Femmes


Our next match is
Milan vs. Bologna
Sunday, January 20 • 15:00 CET (9am EST)