One Tuesday night towards the end of May, guests at the Magna Par hotels in Milan’s Tortona district stumbled on a reunion.
A group of guys in their 40s were eating dinner and goofing around, the vino flowing as naturally as the conversation. The noise emanating from the room made it feel like a dressing room after a cup final. To complete the image “We are the Champions” blared out of the speakers and a great big silver trophy stood on a table.
It was treated like a VIP. Everybody wanted a photo with it. “I’m taking it back to Venice with me,” said the man Sir Alex Ferguson claimed was born offside. Ten years after winning the club’s seventh Champions League, Milan’s class of 2007 gathered here reunited, together once more, after months of planning on Whatsapp, to reminisce about that famous night in Athens when they got their revenge for Istanbul.
The nostalgia wafting through the air was as strong as Acqua di Parma. There was Maldini, Super Pippo, Billy and Rino, Clarence, Jankulovski, Ambrosini and Serginho. Carlo couldn’t make it, nor could Pirlo. But there’s nothing modern technology can’t fix. Huddled around an iPhone, the FaceTime dial-tone bleeping away, a big cheer greeted Kaka, live from Orlando, as the last Ballon d’Or winner not called Messi or Ronaldo flashed up on screen. Those were the days, weren’t they? Milan fans aren’t the only ones to ask when will they be back.
In April, a heavy hearted Silvio Berlusconi brought the curtain down on the most successful era an owner has ever seen in this game. Milan won 29 trophies in 30 years under his patronage, including the Champions League no fewer than five times. Those are big Velascas to fill. Slipping into them is Yonghong Li, a 48-year-old man of mystery from Guandong, about whom so little is known even the Chinese whispers are feint. His CV could fit on the slip of paper found in a fortune cookie. There’s mention of a phosphorus mine, work in the renewable energy and financial services sectors, interests in packaging and real estate.
An investigation by Il Sole 24 Ore estimates Li to be worth €504m. Short of a few bob, he clearly isn’t and Li wasn’t launching a bid for Milan on his own. The preliminary agreement struck last August outlined that the management company buying Milan, Sino-Europe Sports consisted of Li, a state development and investment fund by the name of Haixia Capital, and other investors. Their identities remained hidden and besides when Beijing imposed restrictions on money leaving the country in December, it looked like the game was up. Li’s takeover seemed destined to go the same way as the Thai financier Bee Taechaubol’s who failed in his efforts to buy Milan in the summer 2015.
Confidence in the takeover had already taken a substantial knock after La Gazzetta dello Sport sent reporter Marco Iaria to China to do some digging into Li. Big hitters in sport and finance looked blankly when Iaria produced a photo of Li. They’d never seen or heard of him before. Nobody was home either when Iaria visited Sino-Europe’s registered address on the 15th floor of a changing office block.
The lack of transparency was one of the reasons Maldini rejected an offer to return as technical director. “I said ‘no’ because I don’t see the conditions for a successful project.” A statement issued by Sino-Europe Sport promised Maldini would soon realise his mistake and regret the decision, but when Li missed the first deadline to finalise the takeover in December and then the next one in March, the former Milan captain looked entirely vindicated.
Facing calls to walk away from the deal, what persuaded the Berlusconi family to persevere were the €100m down-payments Li continued to make to buy himself more time. Presumably there was an acknowledgement within the Berlusconi family that they also asking a very high price; a cool €740m, which didn’t even take into account the commitment included within the preliminary agreement to invest €350m in the team over the new three years. Their valuation supposedly scared off other buyers like Suning, the Nanking based e-commerce group that instead saw better value in taking an initial 68.55% stake in Inter last summer for ‘just’ €270m.
In the end, Li got the deal over the line with the help of Elliott, the US vulture fund that famously bought Argentine defaulted bonds on the cheap, and, after much legal wrangling, succeeded in getting them paid back in full for a return of over 1,200%. So you can see why some Milan fans were uncomfortable with Li turning to them for a €303m bridging loan at high interest to do his deal with the Diavolo.
What concerns supporters have about the financing of the project, though, have been allayed by just how well the new administration has operated since assuming control of the club. Chief executive Marco Fassone and former Sunderland chief scout, Massimo Mirabelli, the club’s new director of sport, have been working diligently behind the scenes for eight months in a government-in-waiting. Now operational, they’re not hanging around. Milan have signed four players for four positions, committing €99m in transfer fees, and it’s not even the second week of June.
The swiftness and decisiveness with which they’ve acted, as well as the way they’ve beaten the competition to some of these players, unpicking ‘done deals’, has conferred a credibility on the project that it hitherto lacked. The spree hasn’t been scattergun and nor have buys been impulse purchases. Each one has been targeted with the manager and system in mind, and will be at Vincenzo Montella’s disposition from the first day of training camp. In short, best practice.
Mateo Musacchio, the centre-back, was a member of La Liga’s second best defence last season. Ricardo Rodriguez is a left-back whose name has been on the lips of Europe’s elite for some time. Franck Kessie backed out of a move to Roma and turned down offers from the Premier League to go to Milan. And then there’s Andre Silva, one of Europe’s most promising young strikers.
Milan mean business and aren’t done yet. A right-back, deep-lying playmaker and a winger are next on the list, although the priority remains the contract extension of goalkeeping wunderkind and big Milan fan Gigio Donnarumma. Like Maldini, his agent Mino Raiola has his doubts about Milan’s new owner and wants to protect his client with a get-out clause should the team fail to qualify for next year’s Champions League, which will be harder now Serie A has four spots again.
Another concession from UEFA regards the relaxation of FFP two years ago, which allows clubs a period of accelerated spending as long as they present an affordable business plan. Last week, it emerged UEFA want clarification from Milan on a couple of points by October before signing off on it. Rather than slam their foot on the brakes, Milan are pushing ahead regardless, confident that their projections are right and not unrealistic. And besides, they have to make the Champions League next year. Serious questions remain but for now at least, enthusiasm is building and with it the hope that Milan are back.
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