Monza is a massive part of Formula One history, having hosted Grand Prix races on the iconic circuit for more than 70 years. But the city, situated on the river Lambro, nine miles north of Milan, could be on the brink of writing its name into Italian football folklore too.
AC Monza were founded in 1912 but have never reached Serie A; until now perhaps. Having achieved promotion from the third tier last season, they are making what could be a quick pit-stop in Serie B, racing into second place after a 19-year absence.
The club have been backed by former AC Milan supremos Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani. The pair led the Rossoneri to eight league titles and five European Cups during three decades of glorious success between 1986 and 2017. Now Galliani, who was born in Monza in 1944, and the notorious former Italian Prime Minister have joined forces once more at Stadio Brianteo.
“It's no joke with these guys,” Monza striker Christian Gytkjaer tells The Sportsman during an exclusive interview. The Denmark international is Lech Poznan's all-time top foreign scorer and was the leading goal-getter in Poland last season with 20 strikes. Keen to test himself further, he was enticed by the Biancorossi’s lofty ambitions.
“They mean business,” he says of Berlusconi and Galliani. “You see it all over, a rich guy comes in with a lot of money but these guys really know what to do. They have the experience from their time at AC Milan. They know where to prioritise and what to do with the money. They have big hopes and it's an exciting project.”
Berlusconi owns the club while Galliani is chairman, with the latter making headlines in 2019 after completing 30 transfers in just one month, signing 16 players and selling 14. He even tried to land Kaka but the former Milan playmaker did not want to leave his sons and Sao Paolo in his native Brazil.
"I take care of the club with the same enthusiasm I had at Milan,” Galliani told Gazzetta dello Sport after the flurry of activity. “I met directors and presidents at my house as I did before. When I called [Cristiano] Giuntoli of Napoli for [left-back Armando] Anastasio, Carlo Ancelotti passed me on. We joked, I told him that once we talked about Andrea Pirlo and Kaka.
“I had several offers from other clubs, but I always refused,” he revealed. “I could not betray Milan. I was on loan for 31 years, now I'm back home."
Home is where Galliani’s heart is and his approach to landing big names is now bearing fruit. Former Tottenham and Portsmouth midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, half brother of Germany international Jerome, won Serie A with Milan in 2011 during an initial three-year spell and returned for a five-month stint in 2016. These days he is among the Monza ranks, while former Italy international Gabriel Paletta, once of Liverpool, joined two years ago.
“We've created a great squad,” Gytkjaer says. “Growing up, you want to achieve things and play with great players and for sure Boateng is one of them, he’s had a big career. Balotelli is another one…”
Ah yes, Mario Balotelli. The eccentric former Manchester City attacker is another showman who has been brought in to turn the Monza dream into a reality. Released by Brescia in the summer after reportedly missing several training sessions, the 30-year-old’s past indiscretions have been well documented. Finding himself without a team in November, the ex-Inter and Marseille forward was left to train with Serie D side Franciacorta while Championship Barnsley reportedly enquired as to his availability.
Now though, Balotelli has been granted another chance, signing a seven-month deal with Monza in December and linking up with his former Milan bosses. He scored with his first touch after only four minutes in a 3-0 victory over Salernitana, and later nabbed the winner at Chievo. It seems he is getting his head down.
“I know there's been a lot of stories and stuff before but he's just a funny, happy guy,” Gytkjaer says of Balotelli. “I have nothing bad to say about him, he’s just a good kid and a great guy to have around the dressing room. The quality and experience these guys bring is helpful and brings us forward. Everyone is doing their part and I think we have a great future.”
The club has been managed for the last two-and-a half years by former Milan and Lazio midfielder Christian Brocchi, who also coached the Rossoneri as well as Brescia. Gytkjaer insists such experience on the touchline and behind the scenes can only stand the team in good stead.
“That's the thing about Monza, everyone has experience,” he says. “They’ve done what we want to achieve before so that will help us. They have brought in the right people and that brings confidence to the squad. We know we're going in the right direction. The people leading us know what to do, they have all the knowledge, so it’s a good combination.
“Berlusconi has been here a couple of times recently but Galliani normally travels with us for the games and watches everything. I think he's maybe more involved with it on the ground, while Berlusconi pops in once in a while. Both of them seem really enthusiastic and are really serious about everything.”
Gytkjaer, who was driven across the famous race track on the team coach for his unveiling last summer, scored from the penalty spot in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Pordenone to put Monza back into the promotion places, and he says he is really enjoying his football. “The Italian life suits me well,” he laughs. “There’s good food and I live in Milan currently which is a nice city.”
However, Gytkjaer confesses Monza the football club were not on his radar until they made their interest known. “To be honest with you, I only knew Monza for Formula One,” he admits. “It's a new project and outside of Italy maybe it’s unknown. It’s the same reason you're calling me now, it’s new to everyone. I had to double-check and see everything, but as soon as you meet the people around the club and hear about their history you know it couldn't be a bad decision to come here.”
Monza played a friendly at San Siro in September and the aim is to play at Italy’s best grounds competitively next season. Away days at places like the Stadio Olimpico, Allianz Arena and Stadio Diego Armando Maradona are the aim.
“Galliani and Berlusconi won’t stop until we achieve these things,” says Gytkjaer. “That’s the big goal for everyone. It’s no secret, there’s no whispering. We speak out about it and they’re not scared of putting it out there.”
Gytkjaer has excelled in Poland, played in his homeland, the German second division and in Norway. He and his brother Frederik also enjoyed a trial at Liverpool in 2007. Now, though, he is ready to test himself in one of Europe’s big leagues.
“It’s a big goal of mine to play at as high a level as possible, and Serie A is one of the greatest leagues in the world. That would be a great experience.”
Born in Roskilde, 20 miles west of Copenhagen in May 1990, Gytkjaer was a young boy when the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane starred in Serie A during its lavish and exhilarating Nineties pomp. Now he believes it is close to emulating those days again.
“Serie A was absolutely huge. I remember Michael Laudrup at Juventus and Lazio, that’s what we heard about.” he recalls of his younger days in Denmark. “Eh?” says Gytkjaer, as someone in the room interjects to remind him of another compatriot. “Ah, Jon Dahl Tomasson at Milan, of course! Before my time we had Preben Elkjaer at Verona. I think Serie A was at its height when I was maybe a little too young to be fair though.
“I think it's growing now,” he continues. “Inter are doing well, Milan are coming back… and so I think Italian football has a great future.”
The classic clubs of northern Italy are on their way back to the top but they could be joined by new kids on the block with some old heads next season. Monza now need to make it past the Serie B finish line and see that chequered flag waving.