By the time the final whistle blows on the Serie A season this Sunday, the odds are that AC Milan will be without European football next season. There is a chance they can jump a few clubs into sixth, but they do not control their own destiny. Already the blame is being assigned and fingers are being pointed as usually happens when Milan fails to win any trophies. This year, more than ever, those fingers need to be pointed into the boardroom and at Silvio Berlusconi.
Regardless of your political beliefs, AC Milan has benefitted greatly from the club presidency of Silvio Berlusconi. When he bought the club, it was in absolute doldrums. Earlier in the decade, they had been relegated due to involvement in betting scandals and then, once they fought back into Serie A, were relegated again due to being a terrible team. They churned through managers and staff; with the president immediately prior to Berlusconi needing to flee the country to avoid tax troubles. The club of Rivera, Rocco, and Liedholm; the first Italian club to hoist the European Cup; the team that made catenaccio big (yes, before Inter) was a shell of its former self.
Undeniably, Berlusconi immediately put the club to political purposes and used its history and fans to prop up his own political fortunes. He also invested heavily in the club, not just to win scudettos but to win in Europe. He hired the best staff and players along with making large improvements off the field. Under Berlusconi, MilanLab was created which was credited with identifying key acquisitions based on physical science and extending players’ careers. His valuable TV and media networks expanded Milan’s fanbase and reinforced club coffers, especially at a time when many other clubs bought by business magnates began to fail in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The results were grand – men like Sacchi and Capello exceeded the already incredible heights Milan had traveled and turned the Rossonerri into European royalty. Maybe the best visual to represent this was Paolo Maldini lifting the Champions League trophy in England forty years after his father had done the same for the same club. Milan were elite and even though Juventus and Inter challenged them, Milan were consistent contenders.
However the cracks have been showing for years. At the end of the 2011-2012 season, Milan sold off some of their world class players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and replaced them with players of a lesser quality. They still contended in Europe and Serie A, but management told the press the club would begin to strengthen its youth teams and try and develop players from within. Milan had always had a good youth system, but the code words were there to suggest that this was being done to cover for a lack of transfer spending. The MilanLab began to be replicated by other clubs and the luster came off as the Milan injury sheet grew longer. Alexandre Pato even claimed in an interview that MilanLab treatments exacerbated his injuries.
This year seemingly the wheels have come off the bus. Massimiliano Allegri was fired after Milan slumped to 11th in the standings and was six points off the drop. Club legend Clarence Seedorf came in and stabilized the club, but the pressure is on as the board has not issued many statements of support for the manager (which they constantly did for Allegri). If Milan does fire Seedorf, they will again have to go searching for the next great manager.
The new manager would be a band aid over a gaping wound. The real source of concern for the club lies at the top. Berlusconi’s political and personal capital is spent; while resurrections happen often in Italian politics it is hard to see how Berlusconi personally can rise to the level of power he had in the 1990s. That also means the wealth he poured into the club is diminished, which means they are unable to chase the top talent that flocks to clubs in England, Germany, and Spain. A financially weakened but management smart Milan can win domestic cups – Juventus itself has some financial problems – but they would be unable to staunch the decline of Italian club football in Europe.
If he truly loved Milan, Berlusconi would set aside his pride and sell the club (at a massive profit) to an investor who knows calcio and would invest to bring Milan back to the top.