Having grown accustomed to seeing their side at the top of the table and contending for silverware, the last few years have been extremely difficult for supporters of AC Milan, a period filled not with silverware but instead laden with broken promises and false dawns. From Silvio Berlusconi’s short-lived plan to rebuild the club using a talented generation of homegrown stars to the murkiness of Yonghong Li’s questionable financial status, they have been left tormented, lied to and disappointed by owners and directors alike.
Seeing their beloved team effectively repossessed this summer by U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management was the latest bodyblow, but all that changed on Sunday with six words on the club’s social media platforms. It was – alongside an accompanying press release – one of very few sentences that could have stirred so much emotion among fans of the Rossoneri.
“Paolo Maldini returns to AC Milan.”
Appointed as their “new strategic development director of the club’s sporting area,” the move marks the end of a nine-year hiatus by the former skipper, who had previously refused various offers of an off-field role following the end of his playing days in 2009. The brief announcement went on to call the 50-year-old a living legend in Rossoneri history for his exceptional class, talent, leadership, loyalty and record of success, which is unparalleled.”
That is unquestionably true, Maldini playing a club record 902 matches for Milan, winning seven Serie A titles and five Champions League crowns during a flawless 25-year career. However, his retirement as a player was marred by ugly scenes at San Siro, a small section of fans booing him for comments he had made a few years earlier when confronted by an angry group of ultras.
To outsiders it was a jarring situation, and many Milan supporters felt the same way, continuing to idolise him, angry at the Ultra group who had marred the memory of his farewell match and hoping to see Maldini back soon in any capacity he wished.
Yet despite various offers to do so, he continually refused. Neighbours Inter made Javier Zanetti their Vice President and Juventus did the same with Pavel Nedved, but Maldini was adamant he could not accept a role under Berlusconi’s stewardship. Asked at a press conference two years ago if he was open to working with Milan, Maldini responded by saying “with the current ownership absolutely not, because we have totally opposing views.”
Clearly unimpressed at the way the former Prime Minister was running the Rossoneri, he gave a startlingly similar answer last year shortly after the Yonghong Li takeover was completed when he was asked by Sky Italia if he would take up their proposition to become Technical Director. ”Absolutely not,” he said. “I made my decision a long time ago and I think it was right and well considered. I spoke to them in October and when the deal was closed a month ago, my doubts remained. Of course my love for the team always remains, even sadness due to the end of the Berlusconi era that led players and fans to incredible experiences.”
His fears over the legitimacy and sustainability of Mister Li proved well-founded, only for this complete about face once Elliott Management took control. They quickly dispensed with the services of directors Massimiliano Mirabelli and Marco Fassone, putting another former player – ex-Brazil international Leonardo – in charge of their transfer activity. Those moves convinced Gonzalo Higuain to join the side to spearhead the attack, promptly followed by Maldini’s appointment to the board.
“The situation is different now,” the iconic defender said at a press conference to confirm his new position. “I spoke with both Leonardo and Elliott, who explained the project to me. The role of Leonardo was fundamental as I’m a great friend of his. We’ll share this experience together as we did in the past.
“We have different roles, separate roles, but we’re friends and we’ll work together,” Maldini continued before going on to address the jeers he heard in 2009. “My relationship with the fans is fantastic. The fans love me and have always shown it, that incident can stay where it was left.”
In that same past, back when he wore the no.3 shirt and became the physical embodiment of classy, error-free Italian defending, Maldini led by example, a living, breathing testament to the greatness and prestige of the club he represented. Today, in becoming part of their management team, he has arguably done even more. Refusing to give his backing to either Berlusconi or Li spoke volumes, but in putting his name on the line for Elliott, he has given an instant legitimacy to this new project, a Rossoneri legend believing that the new owners are working in the right way to restore his club to where he feels they belong.
Having led them to glory on the pitch, he will now hope to play a small role in a return to success for a side who have spent the past few years mired in mediocrity. For the fans who always supported and idolised him however, simply having him back at the club in any capacity, is already a victory.
That feeling of triumph might also signal the long overdue end of their time stuck in mid-table, because Paolo Maldini’s return should usher in a comeback for the real AC Milan.