AC Milan, one of Europe's most successful soccer clubs, could soon be set to become the latest Italian club in foreign hands, with growing reports that longtime owner Silvio Berlusconi is close to selling a controlling stake.
Speculation has long been rife that the club will follow in the footsteps of neighbors and arch rivals Inter Milan, who were purchased by Indonesian billionaire Erick Thohir 18 months ago. Last week, those rumors got significantly louder when Italian news agency Askanews claimed that Berlusconi had a meeting with Hong Kong businessman Richard Lee, after which he stated that the sale of 75 percent of his shares in Milan was a “done deal.”
Further details remain unknown, with even suggestions that the Chinese government is playing a major role in the takeover. Meanwhile, Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol and the sixth-richest man in China, Zong Qinghou, have also been mentioned as prospective buyers. While Zong has denied his interest, Bee has made his intent on purchasing the club known.
But, fittingly for a man whose activities in charge of Milan have so regularly been intertwined with those in his political life, any sale by Berlusconi could be heavily influenced by an upcoming election. Despite a myriad of legal troubles and political setbacks, Berlusconi remains at the helm of the Forza Italia party, which will be involved in regional elections in Italy scheduled for May. 31.
In recent years it has appeared that the media mogul’s focus has increasingly turned to fighting his legal battles, which have included convictions for tax fraud and paying for sex with an underage prostitute. Meanwhile, Milan have fallen on hard times.
Berlusconi arrived to save Milan from bankruptcy in 1986 and quickly instigated a dramatic turnaround in the club’s fortunes. Having won their first Serie A title in nine years, Milan then won back-to-back European Cups between 1988 and 1990. The Rossoneri have been crowned champions of Europe three more times since, and their haul of seven titles puts them behind only Real Madrid. Yet that success makes their current predicament all the more bitter a pill for their fans to swallow.
Milan last won a league title in 2011, but their decline, and indeed that of Italian soccer, had begun before then. While the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, involving undue influence on referees, hurt the league’s reputation, it has primarily been outdated stadia and declining attendances that have left Serie A some way removed from its days of being the unquestioned top league in the world through the 1990s. Milan embody much of those problems. Along with Inter, Milan remain in residence at the 90-year-old San Siro. While the famous arena can hold 80,000 people, Milan’s average attendance last season was less than half that, meaning their match-day income remains a fraction of current European giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
While in the past such a scenario wasn’t necessarily an impenetrable barrier to success, the recent introduction of financial fair play rules has meant rich owners like Berlusconi can no longer subsidize their clubs at a huge loss. For Milan the decline truly took hold when a famed generation of talent that lifted their last Champions League crown -- including Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Cafu and others -- finally had to bow out, only not to be replaced. World Player of the year Kaka was sold to Real Madrid in 2009, while in 2012 the final nail in the coffin came when their last two genuine star players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, were cashed in to the nouveau riche force of Paris Saint-Germain.
The current lineup is not flattered by memories of the greats who not so long ago made Milan the world’s best. Last season was Milan’s worse in 16 years as they finished eighth in Serie A and missed out on a valuable place in the Champions League. Massimiliano Allegri was dismissed as coach during that campaign, but, as has been shown by the subsequent firing of returning hero Seedorf, the coach is not the problem. Under another former player, Filippo Inzaghi, Milan sit eighth in Serie A this season.
Without fresh investment and plans for a much-needed new stadium finally coming to fruition, there is little reason to expect a dramatic upturn in fortunes. The impact of a shiny, modern home can be seen at Juventus, current Champions League quarterfinalists and on course for a fourth straight Serie A title since leaving behind the relic of the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin.
Meanwhile, Roma have been similarly revitalized since coming under new ownership. In 2011, the club from Italy’s capital was purchased by a U.S. investment group led by James Pallotta. Last season, Roma finished second and now have plans to move into a new stadium of their own.
Not that Milan will have to look too far to realize that a new owner is no guarantee of, at least immediate, success. Internazionale, Champions League winners just five years ago, have not qualified for Europe’s premier competition since 2011 and currently sit below their neighbors in the Serie A standings. For Milan, though, something needs to change. And, in order to bring about the kind of rejuvenation his arrival sparked nearly 30 years ago, that could mean the end of Berlusconi’s eventful reign.