Domenico Quirico, the veteran war correspondent of La Stampa in Italy, wrote a column the other day about the significance of football jerseys in areas of conflict.
Some of the rebels and warriors and soldiers and fanatics don’t wear uniforms, Quirico reported, but instead wear the colours of their favourite football team.
He recounted a story of his capture in Tripoli in the last days of the revolution that brought down Muammar Gaddafi. He was brought to some hell-hole by fanatics still loyal to the doomed dictator. The soldiers were wearing camouflage jackets but underneath Quirico could see an Arsenal jersey on one of his captors, a Chelsea shirt on another and yet another wearing the colours of Real Madrid. These were the men he was convinced were going to kill him.
“Surrounding the pick-up truck, in which my execution was interrupted, was a man with darker skin than the others,” Quirico wrote. “He was a colonel from the African Legion and had followed the entourage after my driver was killed. Underneath his jacket I saw a shirt that I recognised all too well: white with red and black stripes, the jersey of my own team – AC Milan. This was like a sign from home, a ray of hope. In my trying to connect with his superiors, this united us. I tried to signal to him: “Nice shirt …” He looked at me and then, briskly, began to take off his ammo belt to show off the jersey. “You like it? Is it your team?”
Quirico survived and now says that the only way of communicating with these “ghosts and puppets” seems to be football. That’s a rather extreme story to illustrate the global reach of AC Milan, but it’s a powerful one all the same. AC Milan saved the correspondent’s life. He is sure of it.
Milan remain a universal brand and an iconic football club, but the outfit that will arrive in Glasgow next week for a key Champions League match with Celtic are a diminished lot. They are like an ageing Holly wood superstar; still famous but no longer easy on the eye. True, they beat Celtic 2-0 the last time they met, but those goals came late and only after Neil Lennon’s team had wasted a number of chances of their own.
They currently sit in tenth place in Serie A, 19 points behind Roma at the top and ahead of Cagliari, in 13th spot, only on goal difference. They have won just three of their 12 league matches this season and haven’t won in their last six in all competitions.
On 10 November they travelled to Verona to play Chievo, who are bottom of Serie A. The game ended in a drab 0-0 draw. Milan are now just four points outside of the relegation zone having made their worst start to a Serie A season in 32 years. All of this should be music to Celtic’s ears as they try to repair the self-inflicted damage of their non-performance in Amsterdam.
After the dreariness of Chievo, Massimiliano Allegri, the manager, came under renewed fire from the Rossoneri support, a fire that some of his players attempted to douse, with little success. Riccardo Montolivo, the captain, spoke up for Allegri and his decision to keep Mario Balotelli on the bench for recent games. Balotelli’s form has waned badly but the fans still want him out there. Better Balotelli than Alessandro Matri, their summer purchase from Juventus. They don’t like Matri, who has scored just one goal in ten appearances and has had only four shots on goal in all that time. A popular Italian website recently voted Matri centre-forward on Serie A’s waste of money XI for this season.
Matri stood up for Allegri as well, an endorsement the manager could probably have done without. “The coach cannot be blamed,” said the striker, in the style of a man talking to a wall. Directly after the Chievo let-down, Allegri said that “if Milan need another coach, they’ll tell me.” They haven’t yet, but that brings us on to another complication in Milan’s story at the moment. If there is bad news to be delivered to the manager, who delivers it? The legendary vice-president, Adriano Galliani, or the president’s daughter, Barbara Berlusconi, who is bidding for more power all the time at Milan? And seems to be getting it.
If Allegri is in trouble, then so is Galliani. Earlier in the week he told La Repubblica: “I’m not going anywhere. For as long as I’m involved in football I will always be with Milan. Silvio Berlusconi will be my president for life.” The feeling, though, is that at some point pretty soon Galliani is going to be carried out of Milan with his boots on, either at the club’s annual meeting in the spring or at the end of the season.
Galliani has been at Milan for 30 years. He was there with Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio. He was there with Andriy Shevchenko, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Andrea Pirlo. He was the consummate operator, the deal maker to beat all deal makers. Carlo Ancelotti was Galliani’s manager for a decade and recently said that Galliani was the Cristiano Ronaldo of the boardroom. Just as there are “players who belong in a different category,” said Ancelotti, “there are directors who stand out over others.”
And now Galliani is under threat from Berlusconi’s daughter who works down the corridor from him at the club’s new six-storey HQ, Casa Milan, and who reckons that a new way is required. This is a turbulent backdrop to Tuesday night’s contest in Glasgow, the gloom only broken briefly last Saturday when an experimental Milan side beat Young Boys (Bern) 3-1 in a friendly. “Finally, a reason to smile,” reported La Gazzetta dello Sport.
The problem for Milan is that they have been downsizing for quite some time. In recent seasons they have lost such luminaries as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the game’s best strikers, and Thiago Silva, arguably the world’s best defender, and Pirlo, the finest Italian midfielder for quarter of a century. Kevin Prince Boateng, an important force in their midfield, was allowed to join Schalke in the summer. Stalwarts of the glory days have moved on and have not been adequately replaced. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Rino Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta. They have haemorrhaged class and have used the proceeds of sales to try to balance their books. They have a jersey that can help save a journalist’s life, but they no longer have a team that can survive with the best in Europe.
Not at the moment. There is hope in their youth, hope that the 18-year-old midfielder, Bryan Cristante, is the real deal and hope again that the 21-year-old striker, Riccardo Saponara, will be the answer to their problems up front. Old heads in Milan will tell you that it’s not going to be Allegri that will watch over these boys for much longer, though. The drums are beating and the message is that Inzaghi could well be the new manager in a relatively short space of time.
What happens in Glasgow on Tuesday night might determine how quickly that happens, if at all. Milan have it in their own hands to finish second in the group, but they are also vulnerable in Scotland. Galliani is one who will remember what Celtic Park is like on a Champions League night. Celtic did themselves huge damage in Amsterdam but they have a second chance to get in the hunt for the last 16. Milan still demand respect, but not too much. While confusion reigns, Celtic have a chance to rule. It’s a chance they can’t pass up. For there is nothing to fear from Milan at the moment but their reputation.