Wounded Milanese giants pin hopes on Chinese medicine

As one of the great capitals of European football, the city of Milan continues to lick the deep wounds emanating from one of the darkest and most hurtful periods in its decorated history.

Maldini Zanetti

Paolo Maldini, left, and Javier Zanetti celebrate AC Milan and Inter Milan's Champions League triumphs in 2007 and 2010 respectively Source: Getty Images

AC Milan and Inter Milan are two of the giants of the world game but you would not know it by walking in the streets or visiting the bars of this stylish metropolis in northern Italy.

The city justifiably used to be very proud of its football - even cocky at times - but this does not seem to be the case anymore. 

You can just feel the despondency, resignation and apathy in the air.

Fewer people engage in heated football conversations these days, the city-based papers seem to devote more space to other teams than their own and you are more likely to see passers-by wearing a Juventus, Napoli, Barcelona or Real Madrid jersey than one of Milan's two big clubs that have hundreds of thousands of followers around the world.

Milan and Inter have won 10 European Cup/UEFA Champions League titles between them and shared no fewer than 36 Italian championships.

Not so long ago, any ambitious player from anywhere in the world would have yearned to call the ageing but still fabulous Meazza Stadium at San Siro his home ground.

The Derby della Madonnina, so called for the golden statue of Our Lady that sits at the highest point of Milan's Duomo, used to be one of the most eagerly awaited fixtures of the European season, nearly up there with Spain's El Clasico between Madrid and Barca.

However, it has been seven long years since the blue and black half of the city had something to cheer about.

That is when Javier Zanetti's Nerazzurri took a major step towards landing a magnificent Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble by beating Bayern Munich 2-0 in the 2010 final in Madrid.

Milan fans were able to celebrate an Italian league title a year later but they had to go way back to 2006-2007 for a continental honour - when Paolo Maldini's Rossoneri beat Liverpool 2-1 in the UCL final in Athens.

Subsequent years provided a litany of dismal debacles and colossal cock-ups as both clubs' common enemy Juventus became the undisputed leaders of the Italian game - winning the last six domestic championships.

As if this was not enough to illustrate that the famous football city clearly had lost its power and influence on the Italian game, regional side Atalanta from nearby Bergamo finished ahead of Milan and Inter for the first time in Serie A history and came fourth.

The two sets of disgruntled Milanese fans certainly are entitled to ask the 'George Best' question: where did it all go wrong?

Everyone in Italy has an opinion on Calcio, and the reasons for the gradual demise of Milan's glamour clubs are varied, but the most common one seems to be that the two organisations were let down by the two men who had made them great.
This also is the opinion of Paolo Condo, a senior columnist of Milan's La Gazzetta dello Sport, the famous 'pink one'.

"Milan and Inter have rested on their laurels and they are now paying the price," Condo told me.

"Previous owner Silvio Berlusconi used Milan to boost his business empire and political aspirations but times have changed.

"The presidency of the 'first' Milan made Berlusconi very famous and successful but when he stepped aside and the 'second' Milan was ushered in, his sons did not have the same lofty objectives and aspirations.

"The football department of (parent company) Fininvest was seen as a little hobby in the general scheme of things and investments in players were drastically cut. The team naturally became less and less competitive.

"Berlusconi's political career has been in decline for several years so much so that for today's younger fans he was synonymous with failure, someone who could not attract top players anymore, and they were even glad to see the back of him."

Inter's situation was slightly different but it had the same disastrous outcome.

"Inter's previous multimillionaire owner Massimo Moratti, a petroleum magnate who inherited a fortune from his father Angelo, is from the old school of football club owners but his model based on massive outlays of his own money was antiquated," Condo said.

"This family approach does not work anymore in modern times. Today's biggest clubs are owned by economic empires or even sovereigns ... look at Paris Saint-Germain, for example."

The fans of the two clubs would have every right to feel frustrated - even angry - but now that Milan and Inter are owned by wealthy Chinese groups there exists a glimmer of hope that finally the famous occupants of San Siro can live up to their name and become far more competitive on the domestic and foreign fronts.

Milan are now owned by Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux, a company linked to Chinese millionaire Li Yonghong, while Inter's new owners are the Nanjing-based Suning Commerce Group.

The two clubs face arguably the most important season of the next decade when Serie A kicks off in September.

With the Champions League eligibility rules amended to allow Italy four teams as from 2018-2019 (as long as Serie A is ranked in Europe's top four), it is imperative that Milan and Inter secure a spot that would give them an opportunity to reap the massive financial rewards that await all participants, especially the most successful ones.

Money breeds more money and a strong showing in the Champions League would set up both teams for the years to come.

Milan and Inter are part and parcel of the European game and the city that has hosted some of football's finest and most memorable moments simply deserves better football than is being dished out at the moment.

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5 min read
Published 2 July 2017 at 11:00am
By Philip Micallef in Milan