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AC Milan Is Coming Back

After a couple of years of being on the outside looking in, Milan look set to make a run for the Champions League. With the signing of superstar Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, along with a bevy of deals for young talent, one of soccer’s sleeping giants might have finally woken up.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Not too long ago, playing for AC Milan meant you were among the best in the world.

From 1990 to the turn of this decade, the following players arrived at the San Siro: Brian Laudrup, Marcel Desailly, Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio, George Weah, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Oliver Bierhoff, Andriy Shevchenko, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi, Rui Costa, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Rivaldo, Kaká, Cafu, Jaap Stam, Hernán Crespo, Christian Vieri, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva, David Beckham, Robinho, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

During that stretch, Milan won seven Serie A championships, but more memorably and more impressively, they dominated Europe, winning four Champions League titles and finishing as runners-up three more times. They were the ubiquitous club of the ’90s and the early 2000s: Any time Milan got knocked out of Europe, it always felt more like a temporary reprieve from a creeping red-and-black tide rather than a changing of the guard. Milan were the mountain; everything else was just weather.

The financial crisis didn’t care for narratives of natural supremacy, though. Owned by legendary pervert and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Milan wasn’t a self-sustaining business in the way that Manchester United or Real Madrid were. Rather than extending their marketing reach into Asia or signing up with an official neck pillow sponsor, the club relied on the largesse of ownership. When the crisis hit, Milan was saddled with a roster of aging and soon-to-be-overpaid stars. Normally, they could afford those salaries and build for the future, but with suddenly tighter margins, they could no longer do both. With no takers for a bunch of former stars on the wrong side of 30, Milan had to basically sit tight while the rest of the league, and Europe, passed them by.

After winning the league in 2010–11, the club sold its two true superstars, Silva and Ibrahimovic, to Paris Saint-Germain in a £53-million-plus deal. Since then, they’ve consecutively finished second, third, eighth, 10th, seventh, and sixth. Meanwhile, Juventus have won all six Serie A titles since — by an average of 10 points — and also appeared in two Champions League finals. Italy has become Europe’s foregone conclusion.

The key to Juventus’s overwhelming dominance has been a thudding defense that’s never allowed more than 27 goals in a Serie A campaign over that stretch. At the center of the defense was center back Leonardo Bonucci, who signed with the Turin club in 2010 at 23 and developed into the best Italian player alive.

So, if there’s one reason to hope for something new in Serie A at some point soon, it’s this: Bonucci plays for Milan now.

Bonucci’s £35.70 million switch to Milan was the shock of the summer, and it’s hard to think of any other move that’d surpass it. Even a Cristiano Ronaldo transfer would be less surprising. It’s not Bonucci leaving Juve came out of nowhere; both Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Antonio Conte at Chelsea would seemingly be willing to sell a kidney to get him in their side at this point. The shock came from him switching teams but staying in Italy, and that he was OK with moving to a club that finished 28 back of his former employer.

The story behind the move hasn’t come out yet, but it seems likely to be something like this: Bonucci had a falling out with Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri in February, then things settled down for a few months before fracturing during the Champions League final loss to Real Madrid. Bonucci decided he wanted out but also didn’t want to leave Italy, his agent had connections with Milan, they put in the highest bid among Italian clubs, and here we are.

Although he’s 30, that deal is a steal for Bonucci — especially when compared to this list.

In an era of ultra-sophisticated and -coordinated attacks and high-pressing defenses that try to shrink the field, the job of a defender is veering ever closer to impossible. As such, managers and clubs seem unable to properly evaluate defenders, since their performances often can’t be divorced from the scheme they’re playing in. If there’s a handful of surething center backs in the world, Bonucci is one of them.

He’ll literally punch you in the face if you try to steal his watch at gunpoint, then drop a 60-yard line drive over your best defender’s right shoulder:

The reason Milan were in position to grab one of the best defenders in the world as soon as he became available is that they’re no longer owned by Berlusconi. After a prolonged and confusing process that began with a strange €100 million deposit last June and has been characterized by a constantly changing cast of backers, Chinese businessman Li Yonghong completed his takeover of the club in May. It’s still unclear exactly how wealthy Li is — he took out a €300 million loan from Elliott Management, an American private equity fund, to help pay for the club — but so far this summer, Milan have spent more on transfers than any other club in Europe.

Their biggest non-Bonucci move of the offseason was to re-sign 18-year-old keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Despite being born in 1999, Donnarumma’s already played 68 games for Milan; he is the most hyped goalkeeping prospect since Iker Casillas, who went on to play 510 games for Real Madrid and 167 more for Spain. After Donnarumma suggested he wouldn’t sign a new contract earlier this summer, Italian fans dumped fake dollar bills on him during a game at the European under-21 championships. Presumably, they’re over that, as Donnarumma’s locked up for five years with a hefty release clause.

During the Juve Years, most of Milan’s incoming transfers have been for players who look good if you squint — but only if you’ve squinted so hard that you eventually passed out and fell into the kind of heavy dream-daze that’s disorienting enough to convince you that Fernando Torres still has it. Milan didn’t have Champions League games to offer, nor did they have competitive wages, nor did they have the ability to pay transfer fees that might overcome either of those things. But rather than buying young or developing any kind of team-wide identity — with Vincenzo Montella, they’re on their sixth manager in three years — they would often pay for players with recognizable names — Carlos Bacca, Luiz Adriano, Torres, Michael Essien, the return of Kaká — that no one else wanted anymore.

This summer, though, they’re signing young players with potential, pedigree, and some proven ability, too. Ricardo Rodríguez (£15.30 million from Wolfsburg) has been a favorite of statheads since the 2014 World Cup. Franck Kessié (£23.8 million from Atalanta) was a target for Chelsea. At 21, André Silva (£32.30 million from FC Porto) is one of the better young hybrid center forwards in the world. Hakan Calhanoglu (£18.70 million from Bayer Leverkusen) was suspended for the second half of last season, but the 23-year-old is one of the best free-kick takers you can find. Right back Andrea Conti (£21.25m from Atalanta) won’t score eight goals on 34 shots ever again, but he’s still just 23 and his defensive output is very high. And while 26-year-old Mateo Musacchio (£15.30 million from Villarreal) hasn’t played more than 23 league games in a season since 2013–14, his potential as an aggressive, offensive center back is worth the risk.

Of course, that likely won’t be enough to catch Juventus just yet. The Bianconeri are still the smartest team in Italy, if not the world, and even without Bonucci, they still have the best roster in the country and probably the best manager, too. Plus the financials behind Li’s takeover are murky at best; AC Milan needs to boost revenue, and it appears that “buying good players” is one of the avenues they’re hoping will lead to profit. Manchester United can do this because they have money to burn and a TV deal from heaven, but Milan doesn’t have those luxuries. On the field, It’ll take more than one good summer for Milan to win a title, let alone catch Roma and Napoli, two teams whose clear and cohesive attacking styles got them within four and five points of Juventus, respectively, last season.

For the first time in seven years, though, the fourth-place team in Serie A will qualify for the Champions League. We’re 10 years removed from Milan’s last European title, and four years from their last appearance in the competition. Those red-and-black stripes still mean something, and Milan’s legacy hasn’t faded beyond recognition, but as players even younger than Donnaruma start to cycle into the professional ranks, the club’s successes aren’t far from becoming “a thing my parents told me about.”

This summer, though, is the first big step toward making sure that doesn’t happen. With Bonucci leading the way, Milan looks ready to finally get back to where they used to belong.