“Closing.” That English word has dominated the Italian sports pages for more than two years now: seven letters that became a shorthand for the day when Silvio Berlusconi would sell Milan. A good many people doubted it would ever arrive. The man they call Il Cavaliere was thought too proud to relinquish his favourite plaything: a football club that not so long ago billed itself as “the most titled in the world”.
Owning Milan had granted Berlusconi not only the chance to demonstrate his self-touted sporting acumen but important social and political capital as well. Was he really prepared to let all that go? Successive failed takeovers made it easy to believe he might not be.
First came an extended flirtation with Bee Taechaubol, the Thai businessman who had supposedly been willing to cough up half a billion Euros for a minority stake in the club. Then there was the talk of a US investment group and a mysterious “Chinese dame”.
Finally it was the turn of Yonghong Li, who made an initial €100m down payment towards purchasing the club in August last year. Yonghong Who? Well, quite. Gazzetta dello Sport sent reporters to China and struggled to turn up good information on the financier, the extent of his wealth or the identities of his partners in his Sino-Europe Sports (SES) consortium.
Nevertheless, a date was set for “closing” the sale in December 2016. It did not happen. A further €100m payment was madebut final settlement of the account was pushed back to February and then March. There was still no deal done by the start of this month but now SES has been dissolved and replaced by a new investment vehicle named ‘Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux’.
This was a turning point at last. Just when many fans had abandoned hope, Yonghong Li completed his takeover on Thursday, at a valuation of €740m including debts. His timing, in the end, felt rather perfect. The Derby della Madonnina was scheduled for Saturday – Milan taking on an Internzaionale team who were themselves bought out by the Chinese commerce giants Suning last June.
Not that the two ownership groups should be viewed in equivalent terms. Suning are one of China’s largest retailers, whereas Yonghong Li’s resources remain unclear. He is reported to have financed his deal in part through a €300m loan from Elliott Management Corporation, a fund with a reputation for investing in distressed debt.
Only with time will we know what Milan’s future truly looks like. Among the terms of the sale was a line stipulating that: “The buyers have confirmed their commitment to perform an important recapitalisation and strengthening of the assets and financial position of Milan.” Even with substantial investment, though, it would not be easy in the next 31 years to equal the five Champions League titles that arrived during Berlusconi’s equivalent time at the helm.
One thing we do know is that both Milan clubs’ new owners are looking towards their home country as a source of future revenue growth. It was no coincidence that Saturday’s derby should be scheduled for 12.30pm local time – putting it into a prime time TV slot back in China.
The hope was that this game might serve as an advert to win over new fans. And, as a spectacle, it delivered. Before a packed San Siro, Milan and Inter played out a helter-skelter game of variable quality but undeniably high drama. One not settled until its own improbable “closing” in the 97th minute.
Milan had started more strongly, forcing Inter on to the back foot with their high press. Gerard Deulofeu overran a through-ball inside the area but recovered to force a save from Samir Handanovic, and then later hit the post from close range. Suso forced the Inter keeper to tip away another shot at full stretch. And yet, somehow, the Nerazzurri went in at half-time with a two-goal lead. If Antonio Candreva’s opener, chipped home after a long pass down the right channel, had arrived against the run of play, then Mauro Icardi’s strike eight minutes later felt cruel indeed. This was ruthless counterattacking from Inter but only a mix of Handanovic’s saves and Milan’s poor finishing had kept them from falling behind.
The second half, though, would reverse the script. Ivan Perisic should have made it 3-0 to Inter but shot straight at Gianluigi Donnarumma when clean through on goal. Milan pulled a goal back through Alessio Romagnoli in the 83rd minute before equalising with the last kick of the game.
It was a goal that would once have provoked weeks of debate. A corner from the right was flicked on before being volleyed acrobatically goalwards by Cristián Zapata at the back post. On a first viewing it was not clear whether the ball had crossed the line but the referee, Daniele Orsato, received confirmation via the watch on his wrist. As Inter’s players arrived to protest, he held his arm out for them to see.
Even the late timing of the goal could be justified. The fourth official had signalled for a minimum of five additional minutes but Orsato made it plain he would not start to count these until Inter finished substituting Candreva with Jonathan Biabiany – a move which added a further minute. With the ball going behind for a corner at the end of the 96th, he ruled that this should be the final action of the game.
As San Siro reacted to the decision, cameras cut to the owners in the stands. First came the shot of a delighted Yonghong Li, cheering and hugging those around him. Then we cut to Steven Zhang, son of Suning’s largest shareholder, Zhang Jingdong, stony-faced beside Javier Zanetti.
These are the new faces of Italian football, standing where Berlusconi and Massimo Moratti once did. That will take some getting used to. Milan Ultras in the Curva Sud did not offer the most diplomatic of welcomes, with one banner (aimed at the league organisers, rather than the new owners themselves) protesting at the early kick-off by illustrating a man having money shovelled into his mouth by chopsticks under the words ‘all you can eat’.
In any case both new regimes will hope to have more significant appointments ahead. The draw felt like a victory to Milan, not only because they had recovered from two goals behind but also because it keeps them two points ahead of Inter in the table. But they are still only sixth, good for a spot in the Europa League third qualifying round.
The long wait for “closing” is over. What fans want now is a fresh start.
The Guardian Sport