If Milanisti thought no more nonsense could possibly engulf this club, what with the ongoing saga surrounding Carlo Ancelotti’s future, then Sunday forced us all to think again. What was meant to be a heart-warming farewell to Paolo Maldini, one of the greatest players in the club’s history, turned into something of a farce with banners unfurled containing some rather unsavoury messages for il Capitano that paid homage to former great Franco Baresi.
The banner pictured above reads as follows: “Thank you captain: on the field you were always a champion, but you lacked respect for those who made you rich.” Unfortunately, this was not the only show of dissent towards the legendary No.3: “For 25 years of your glorious career you have heard thanks from people you have called mercenaries and peasants.”
Naturally, this whole episode was instigated by the Ultra group Brigate Rossonere – the oldest surviving and largest such group associated with the club. Their figurehead, Giancarlo Capelli, who was not in attendance for the match as he is serving a ban from the ground, claimed on Monday that the demonstration was not a protest, but that they were simply highlighting their thoughts on some of Maldini’s comments towards the fans over the past few years (a statement supported by fellow Ultra member Giancarlo Lombardi). The Brigate further clarified their motives in a statement on their website, released on Tuesday:
“We would like to clarify that our banners were not in protest but that we wanted to point out behaviour that the player displayed several times during his career towards the fans. During the Milan-Roma match, songs were chanted only after disrespectful gestures and phrases were aimed toward the Curva Sud. We decided, in response to the provocation, to display the flag of Franco Baresi.”
It is all wonderfully petty, but the fact is that the Ultras, like Elephants, never forget.
So let us provide further detail on the behaviour the Brigate are referring to. The two banners mentioned in this article relate to a few incidents that have resulted in apparent eternal friction between the player and fans. During the period leading up to the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, there were reports that many members of the Milan tifosi were selling their tickets to Liverpool fans, for an increased price of course. This ‘touting’ of tickets did not go down to well with the captain, who criticised them for their actions. This is supplemented by a rather strong rumour that has only been confirmed as true by the Brigate in their statement. Upon arriving back at Malpensa airport after the defeat to Liverpool, the captain was approached by shocked fans (who spent nearly €800 to see their team in Turkey) demanding to know what had gone wrong. At this point, he allegedly responded by claiming that he “does not talk to poor peasants” (hence the rather specific choice of words in their messages on Sunday).
The 40-year-old further antagonised the Curva Sud’s inhabitants at the start of last season. In an interview he gave after the team’s win over Benfica in the Champions League group stages, he once again criticised not only the Ultras, but the fans in all parts of the stadium:
“I am very angry, as are my teammates. After all we have given, all we have won, we deserve better treatment. This attitude [the booing and whistling] began to return in the derby last year. With help from our Curva, we would not have lost that game [Milan were 1-4 down at home to Inter after 70 minutes, and lost the game 3-4]. Not only does the Curva not support us, the supporters of the other areas are quiet. Now we play away, or on neutral ground, never truly at home. I do not understand the whistles towards Dida and Gilardino. The whistles were always there, but here [at San Siro] they are going further. At San Siro you feel ironic applause for Dida when he is blocking an easy ball. San Siro was always magic, but now we are losing that magic.”
The UEFA Cup third-round, 2nd leg match, at home to Werder Bremen this season added the icing on the cake, and fuelled the Ultra annoyance only further. Having witnessed their team throw away a 3-1 aggregate lead in the final 25 minutes of the tie, and with it their place in the competition, the fans proceeded to boo and whistle once more, causing Maldini to perform the traditional finger-to-lips silencing gesture in response to the boos.
It is a sorry state of affairs, not befitting a player who will go down as not only one of the greatest in the club’s history, but also one of the best to have played the game. In saying that, it is clear that the relationship between the fans and Maldini did not genuinely scale the heights that some “outsiders” would have liked to believe. This writer has detailed only some of the issues that the Brigate Rossonere have with the five-time European Cup winner, yet many believe you can trace the friction as far back as Fabio Capello’s second stint as manager in the 1997/98, when Paolo Maldini first took the reigns as club captain in what turned out to be a disappointing season in which the club finished 10th in Serie A.
Of all the diatribes that Maldini has aimed towards the fans, his comments on the booing is perhaps where he may have overstepped the mark. In speaking about this, he conveniently ignored the fact that on many occasions it was more than warranted. You would be lucky to find an arena in Europe where the home fans would not express their dissatisfaction at being 4-1 down to their city rivals. These fans pay their money every single week to see the team, and in the Ultra’s case they follow them around Italy. The performances that they have had to witness for their €180 season tickets over the past few years have simply not been good enough. The amount of effort these groups put in to support their team (they often turn up at the ground over an hour before the game to set up), only to be rewarded with mediocrity that is not even close to winning a trophy, it is enough to drive any set of fans to express their feelings.
The send-off clearly affected the Azzurri’s most capped player. He did not speak to the media after the game, and cancelled a press conference that was scheduled for the next day until after the Fiorentina game. Interestingly, he appeared somewhat infuriated by the club’s technical director Leonardo after the game. The seemingly omnipresent Brazilian strolled onto the pitch after the game to join in the mass staff congratulation of the defensive legend, only to be rejected when attempting to embrace Maldini. Quite what the reason for this was is anybody’s guess, but Leo’s hand gesture towards the Curva Sud suggests that his words could possibly have been in defence of the fans.
The Ultras may not have been “protesting” against Maldini, but they left us all in no doubt as to what they thought of patron Silvio Berlusconi. “For years you have bought rubbish” and “you sell Kaká to rehabilitate the club so you don’t have to spend any more of your millions” were just some of the messages against the Italian Prime Minister. These were rather amusing in their contradictory nature, as at the same time as they were on display, messages in support of Andriy Shevchenko were also in view: “Sheva is not for sale” read one banner – the fact that the Ukrainian is a prime example of some of the “rubbish” that Berlusconi has acquired in recent years was clearly lost on these individuals.
Whilst criticism of the quality of his purchases is justified in broader terms, to extend that to his willingness to spend from his own pocket is a bit unfair. Undeniably, he is rich, but he is no Roman Abramovich, with those bottomless pockets of money. Selling Kaká simply to obtain money for transfers would, in this writer’s humble opinion, be the wrong strategy. However, we must therefore accept that the club is not going to start throwing large amounts of cash around this summer, as it simply is not there. Milan is not a member of a league that generates massive amounts of income, and expenditure on wages is much higher than in England or Spain, as Silvio himself highlighted on Monday: “For a salary of €100m in Spain, they spend €130m or €140m. For us, a salary of €100m, we spend €200m.”
The tax rate in Spain is similar to that of the UK. People can earn a certain amount, in both countries, that is tax free. In the UK, this figure is £6,475. Money earned from this figure up to £37,400 of an individual’s salary is taxed at 20%, with everything above this figure taxed at 40%. Spain has a similar system, with the exception that their high tax rate is set at 42%. In Italy there is no personal allowance (no figure that an individual can earn tax free), and the high tax rate is set at 43%. This results in a higher portion of a footballer’s salary being lost to tax in Italy, and because the club’s incorporate this loss into the contract, they have to pay more to any given player in wages.
The new UK high tax rate, set to be introduced next year, may level the playing field. Money earned above £150,000 per year will be taxed at a huge 50%, and naturally footballers will be one group hit by this. It may be a case of Milan, and indeed all Italian clubs, simply biding their time until this comes into force in 2010.
For now, the club will have to look for value and ensure signings are cost effective. Two players who could return for free in the summer are Massimo Oddo and Yoann Gourcuff, who have spent the season on loan to Bayern Munich and Bordeaux respectively. Bayern Munich have confirmed that Oddo will not be making a permanent move, whilst Adriano Galliani has stated his desire to see Yoann Gourcuff return to the club, although Bordeaux do have an option to buy him if they cough up the €15m required.
Full-back Oddo seems the least likely to be at the club come the start of next season, as his position in the team can be covered by Gianluca Zambrotta, Daniele Bonera, Luca Antonini, Mathieu Flamini and Felipe Mattioni (if his loan move from Grêmio is turned into a full transfer). As such, he is an easy option to cash in. Fiorentina, who have not been able to settle on a right-back this season with Gianluca Comotto and Luciano Zauri both having opportunities, are reported to be interested. Failing this, chances are the World Cup winner will be used as a makeweight in another during the summer, what with the Rossoneri’s penny-pinching approach of late.
Frenchman Gourcuff provides perhaps the biggest conundrum facing Ancelotti when it comes to rebuilding and remoulding the squad. The talented midfielder has carried Bordeaux to the top of Ligue 1, and assuming they get the point required away to Caen on Saturday, to their sixth league title. Playing behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1, or behind two of them in a 4-3-1-2, he has bagged 12 goals and created a further 10. If he was not already owned by Milan, he would surely be on their list of targets. He is young at 22-years-old, he is immensely talented, and has demonstrated he can display these talents at both international level, and in the Champions League. He fits perfectly into the systems Ancelotti prefers to deploy, yet he does not want to return because he is fearful he will not get first-team football. His problem is Kaká, whose presence means that he is likely to have to adapt to a deeper role in the midfield. Whether he is able to do so is a question that remains to be answered.
The shenanigans regarding Maldini’s farewell have shrouded what was an inept defensive performance against a Roma side that have been distinctly average this year. Jérémy Menez’s goal highlighted, as if we needed any reminding, how badly pace is needed in the centre of the defence. It also epitomised why Giuseppe Favalli must be jettisoned from the squad. The man finds defending as difficult as a rhinoceros does giving birth. It makes Paolo Maldini’s (yes, him again) belief that Favalli must be kept on in the centre of defence to educate Thiago Silva all the more shocking.
I shall refrain from detailing each and every error from the game, as next week’s Club Focus will review the season as a whole seeing as the season comes to an end this Sunday (Milan is away to Fiorentina, and providing the Rossoneri do not lose by more than one goal, they will keep their automatic qualification spot into the Champions League), allowing the opportunity to dissect every error made by the club this season in great depth. Until then.