THE biggest player at AC Milan is not Kaka or Robinho or Mario Balotelli.
Neither is it Massimiliano Allegri, the coach, nor Adriano Galliani, the chief executive. It may not even be Silvio Berlusconi, disgraced owner – and former prime minister – who was handed a seven-year jail sentence in the summer. The strongest and most influential figure is fast becoming Berlusconi’s 29-year-old daughter Barbara, a philosophy graduate who finds herself at the centre of a power struggle that will shape the club for years to come.
When Celtic open their doors to Milan on Tuesday night, they will be confronted by a club in crisis. Before yesterday’s visit of Genoa to the San Siro, the Rossoneri languished tenth in Serie A with just three wins from 12 matches. They were 19 points behind leaders Roma, without a win in their last six. It has been their worst start since season 1981-82, at the end of which they were relegated.
Bleak though their prospects are on the pitch, circumstances are scarcely any better off it. “Soap opera” is a phrase too often used to describe melodramatic football clubs, but in this case, it might just be appropriate. The cast list of a club that has conquered Europe no fewer than seven times reads like the credits of an Addams Family remake.
Where to begin? How about with Berlusconi himself, convicted tax evader and “ringmaster of the bunga-bunga party”, as he was described in a court document released last week. The 77-year-old directed young women to perform pole dances and stripteases at his luxurious villa outside Milan, where he also paid for sex with 17-year-old “Ruby the Heart-Stealer”, pictured right.
Then there is Galliani, sometimes known as Uncle Fester. The bald-headed 69-year-old chief executive with bushy eyebrows and a lugubrious expression is under enormous pressure for bungling his way through the most recent transfer windows. When he recently revealed his impressive collection of gold ties by posting a photograph on Instagram, an angry fan demanded that he put as much effort into purchasing a defender. And yet, neither of these men, who together have shaped the modern history of AC Milan, can lay claim to its future. That distinction lies with the club’s Director in Charge of Special Projects, or Lady B as she has been dubbed by the media, who have followed her every, glamorous move since she was voted on to the board in April 2011. Since then, Barbara Berlusconi has bided her time, watching and waiting in the shadows – where she also had an affair with the team’s Brazilian striker, Alexandre Pato, until he joined Corinthians – before deciding now that a revolution is needed.
According to the Italian media, Lady B means business. She has denied telling dad that she wants rid of Uncle Fester, but she admits demanding that the club adopt a new philosophy, a new identity, an infrastructure that does not depend on the signing policy that has proved to be pitifully inadequate of late.
From Pato, Clarence Seedorf and Thiago Silva to Kevin Prince Boateng and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a wealth of talent has been lost to Milan since they won the 2011 title. Worse still, it has not been adequately replaced. Balotelli is frequently on the bench, Kaka and Robinho show only glimpses of their ability and the fans are frustrated that ¤11 million was spent on Alessandro Matri, the Juventus striker, when their real need was more options in midfield and defence.
This is new territory for Galliani, who was, and still is, regarded as the game’s deal-maker supreme. He was the man who bought Ibrahimovic for a third of the money Barcelona had spent on him 12 months earlier, the man who acquired Balotelli for considerably less than Manchester City’s asking price. Since 1986, when Berlusconi took over, Galliani’s work in the transfer market has enabled the club to win five European Cups and eight Serie A titles. Carlo Ancelotti, the former Milan coach, said recently that dispensing with Galliani would make no more sense than Real Madrid selling Cristiano Ronaldo.
That said, the football world has changed, certainly since the mid-1980s, when Galliani was instrumental in bringing in the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullitt and Frank Rijkaard. The power now lies with sheikhs, oligarchs and US-owned corporations. Silvio Berlusconi has spoken lately of attracting foreign investment, but he wants to keep his club in the family, by which he means Barbara and his younger brother, Paolo, a board member whose CV includes a conviction for fraud and corruption.
Lady B wants a new way, one that allows the club to acquire better players for less money. She wants a worldwide scouting network and a return to the days when the Milanello youth system produced the likes of Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, the three players who have more appearances for Milan than any others.
She also wants a transfer strategy that reduces the need for agents. Some, for instance, have accused Mino Raiola, who has six players on Milan’s books, of exploiting Galliani’s trust by persuading the chief executive to buy expensive duds.
In the shorter term, Allegri’s days are surely numbered. After Milan’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the San Siro, Lady B claimed that the result had been thanks to her father, whose tactics Allegri had taken on board. Before the return match in the Nou Camp, she conspicuously, and in front of the cameras, chatted with Filippo Inzaghi, the Milan youth coach, who is tipped to step up.
Clarence Seedorf is also being touted, as is Maldini, whose return would restore the long and beautiful relationship he had with the club before leaving in acrimonious circumstances four years ago. Whoever gets the nod, now or at the end of the season, it is likely to be “one of their own”, just as it was when Silvio Berlusconi chose Ancelotti, Cesare Maldini and Fabio Capello.
So far, Galliani has managed to keep Allegri in a job, but, when he goes, as he inevitably will, Lady B is expected to have a big say in the identity of his replacement. Which just about sums up the problem for her father. As he appeals against his jail sentence – which, by the way, he is unlikely ever to serve – the club is pulling him in two directions.
On the one hand is his loyal lieutenant of 27 years, a colleague to whom he has promised a role in his revived political party, Forza Italia. On the other is his daughter, already a director of his company, Fininvest, and so well connected that she is one of the privileged few permitted to drive in the city’s restricted traffic lanes, normally reserved for public transport, taxis and emergency vehicles.
There can be only one winner in this boardroom battle. If family has any bearing on the matter, as it invariably does with the Rossoneri, it is unlikely to be Uncle Fester.