Last Saturday, soccer fiends across the globe were licking their lips at the line-up of matches in Europe. There was a North London derby, a Merseyside derby, a Madrid derby, and over in Italy, defending champion Juventus was hosting Milan. The Merseyside derby was an unspeakably dull affair, but it was still not as disappointing as the showdown in Turin. It was hard to watch Juve-Milan without a tinge of sadness.
Milan — one of the most successful clubs in the sport, remember –wasn’t even at the races. This wasn’t just a case of Juve’s players being more motivated, or superior coaching, or even a one-off result for the ages. The bianconeri’s win over its once fierce rivals was much worse than a historic pasting. Sadly, the 3-1 win felt … routine.
If one big team is on the end of a hiding from another, it is supposed to be a big deal. Instead, Juventus never really got out of second gear, and despite Milan finding an equalizer mid-way through the first half, last Saturday’s result was never actually in much doubt. Despite the whining about offside calls in Milan this week. the rossoneri was simply swatted aside with ease – the worst kind of humiliation for a club whose history says it should be challenging for the title.
It’s all a bit like having the family dog die. Has it ever happened to you? Well, being a Milan fan in this decade is like that, except all the time. Imagine that your dog dies slowly, in unbearable pain, over the course of several years because Silvio Berlusconi comes over to your house every summer, kicks poor Fido in the ribs, and laughs in your face. The sorry excuse for a Milan team in 2015 is the result of chronically poor investment, bad managerial appointments, and even worse player recruitment.
Milan’s descent into abject mediocrity was no overnight disaster. A sudden, disastrous fall from grace — like say, Borussia Dortmund this season — would have almost been easier for fans to accept. It could be written off as a cataclysmic event; a lesson to be learned. Hit rock bottom, dust yourself off, make note of the reality check, then move forward as before. Instead, Milan’s fall has been a slow, depressing slide from relevance. From no longer being a serious contender in the Champions League (its win in 2007 seems like a lifetime ago), to no longer competing for the Serie A title, to now not even getting close to qualifying for any European competition. What the hell happened?
That Serie A has seen better days is no secret. The Italian top flight has found itself behind Germany, Spain, and England in overall quality for quite some time now. The league was once home to the most tactically astute teams and the world’s best players, but it is now a shadow of its former self. The teams at the top lag behind their European counterparts, and the biggest stars now see even the most prestigious Italian clubs as mere stepping stones.
In Milan, this decline is felt most keenly. A comparison of Milan’s starting XI on Saturday to the starting XI in the Champions League final 10 years ago is painful viewing. Virtually every member of Milan’s best team a decade ago has a decent argument for being called the best player of their generation in their respective positions. It was a remarkable team, but still in keeping with the kind of quality that Milan was famous for. Teams are more than just the sum of their parts, but a head-to-head comparison of that team to this one is enough to drive a Milanista mad.
If Alex and Michael Essien sound like a strong spine of a team to you, then welcome back from the coma you’ve been in for the last eight years. Sulley Muntari, a man whose best season came playing for Portsmouth back in 2007, was Saturday captain. Seriously, find the nearest Milan fan, and give her a hug.
Perhaps the future will be better, but the bad news is that, as pathetic as it is now, it could quite easily get worse. Club owner and alleged tax-dodger and sex-pest Silvio Berlusconi is either unwilling or unable to provide the team with the investment that it needs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to get in the way of his penchant for meddling. Though rumors of Chinese investment flood the tabloids, there’s no sign of a complete takeover on the horizon, nor are there any world-class stars to rely on. With a coach that may be overmatched, Milan may find itself in big club purgatory for the foreseeable future.
So if you see someone in a Milan scarf at a bar this weekend either weeping silently or wondering aloud what the fuck Keisuke Honda is doing out on the wing, offer to buy him another drink. He’s going to need it.