“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.“ - George Bernard Shaw
On May 14th 2011, Andrea Pirlo made his final appearance for AC Milan as a half time substitute in a 4-1 victory over Cagliari. It was a match that signalled the celebration of yet another Scudetto triumph for the Rossoneri, their 18th in their illustrious history. Midfield regista Pirlo had been a vital part of the Milan team for the past decade, making nearly 300 appearances in the red and black and helping the team amass an impressive haul of silverware. Two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia, a Supercoppa, two UEFA Champions League titles, two UEFA Super Cups and a FIFA World Club Cup. Pirlo had become part of AC Milan history, one of their all-time greats, but as the celebrations continued at the end of the 2010/11 season a slight sadness hung in the air. Under new coach Massimiliano Allegri his playing time became limited, and both player and club came to an agreement that he would leave Milan on a free transfer at the end of the campaign. The assumption was that at 31, and with playing time dwindling, that Pirlo was approaching the end of his career and that his talents would decrease. This was to prove far from the case.
"Goodbye Andrea, thank you for everything" Milan fans hold banner aloft for Pirlo's final appearance in 2011.
With the league championship shining brightly in their trophy cabinet, and an early success in winning the Supercoppa against rivals Internazionale at the beginning of the 2011/12 season, it was felt that they would kick on into the future and go on to dominate the domestic scene. They had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Thiago Silva as star names, plus the experience of Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta. Young Italian talents Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy were also breaking through into the first team and things were looking good. However, towards the end of the season the cracks were beginning to show, things were not going according to plan and despite having a healthy 4-point lead at the top of Serie A on March 11th, an indifferent set of results saw Juventus overtake them and win the title with a 4-point margin of their own. A Juventus side that featured a recognisable face, one Andrea Pirlo. The man that was deemed no longer of value to the league Champions, had moved to Turin and taken the Scudetto with him. Further glory would follow for Pirlo at Juventus, three more league titles were won back to back, a Coppa Italia and two Supercoppa triumphs also. During this period of time, the once successful AC Milan side won nothing, the regression from Champions to also rans was unbelievable, it was almost as though they were cursed by the departure of the famous midfielder.
At the beginning of the following season Milan were rocked by a host of big name departures, experienced heads of Zambrotta, Seedorf, Nesta, Gattuso and Inzaghi moved on, and star names Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were picked up by the new big spending power of French side Paris Saint-Germain. Brazilian wonderkid Alexandre Pato had lost form and was sold back to Brazil during the mid-season break and any attempt by Milan to reclaim their title was gone as they desperately clung onto third place and another season in the Champions League. Poor signings were being made by the club in an attempt to replace their stars, players who were just not at the level required to wear the red and black. The form of established names was also suffering, Robinho’s goal scoring levels dropped dramatically and had it not been for Stephan El Shaarawy Milan could have missed out on European qualification altogether.
The reprieve was temporary, El Shaarawy was rocked by injury in the 2013/14 season and AC Milan fell to a disappointing 8th place in the final league standings. Only Mario Balotelli and the returning veteran Kaká could hold their heads up high in a season of huge disappointment. The performances cost Allegri his position as manager, and once again signings during the campaign, Kaká aside, did not improve the squad in any way. Michael Essien, Adil Rami, Kévin Constant, Adel Taarabt, Keisuke Honda and Alessandro Matri came in with limited success. Young French starlet M’baye Niang, who had been signed from Caen the season previously, was allowed back on loan to France and it seemed that not even the youngsters could catch a break at the San Siro anymore. Clarence Seedorf had taken temporary charge of the Rossoneri before handing over the responsibility to fellow Milan legend Filippo Inzaghi for the start of the 2014/15 season.
There were high hopes going into that season, despite the sale of Mario Balotelli to Liverpool, having Inzaghi charge of team affairs gave the Milan fans a chance to dream of a change in fortunes. This was furthered by the promotion to the first team of squad of teen prodigy Hachim Mastour, a YouTube sensation and a big favourite with hopeful Milan fans worldwide. However, performances on the pitch were poor, Mastour never broke through into the first team, and Milan slumped to their lowest position in years, finishing 10th. Meanwhile in Turin, Andrea Pirlo was playing in his final season in Italian football, helping Juventus to a league and cup double plus reaching the Champions League final. It was a kick in the teeth to Milan fans as the player who was a legend for their club, had been let go before his finest years, years in which he won silverware each season and went from a legend to an icon of the game.
He wasn’t just a cog in the wheel of the Juventus side that had won all before it since 2011, he was the engine that drove them forward, the key player. During his four seasons in Turin, where he was league Champion each season, his individual awards were piling up. Juventus player of the season 2011/12, Serie A Team of the year four times in a row, 2012 UEFA team of the year, 2012 Serie A midfielder of the year, three times Serie A player of the year. His record was phenomenal. His departure from Milan to Juventus had turned Italian football in a completely different direction, for every success enjoyed in Turin, further disappointment had hit the Milan side. In fact, Milan did not lift one piece of silverware once Pirlo donned the Juventus jersey, the Supercoppa triumph in 2011 coming before Pirlo’s official Juventus debut. Now as his Serie A career had finally come to an end, four years later than Milan had expected, Juventus were the champions, the team to beat and AC Milan were sitting in mid table with nothing but troubles ahead.
Nothing had worked for the Rossoneri since Pirlo’s departure, the experienced players had all gone, the promising youngsters had not progressed as planned. De Sciglio had stagnated, Mastour and El Shaarawy had been allowed to move to pastures new, Suso and Niang were not able to establish themselves in the team. Big names signings came and failed, experienced heads were brought in to make a difference but only succeeded in raising the wage bill. The results were getting worse year by year, managers had come and gone, failure followed failure and disillusionment surrounded the San Siro as the future looked bleak. Something was holding AC Milan back, the great team of the past was now a shell of its former self and fans feared as to how low their side could sink.
At the start of the 2015/16 season though a change was in the air, Andrea Pirlo, now a football icon, had taken up the challenge of Major League Soccer with the recently formed New York City side. Now with the regista out of the country AC Milan started to turn a corner under new coach Siniša Mihajlović, it was as if a huge shadow had been lifted from above them. They made bold moves in the transfer market, spending large fees on Andrea Bertolacci, Carlos Bacca and Alessio Romagnoli plus picking up the likes of José Mauri and Luiz Adriano. Out the door went Robinho, Muntari, Essien, Pazzini and Rami and the squad had a much fresher feel to it. Unlike previous years though the signings began to have an impact, the young players like Donnarumma and Calabria were improving and results reflected the changes. They still were a long way off being title contenders but Milan were back in the hunt for European selection.
Carlos Bacca celebrates a goal in the Milan derby victory.
Now as the season draws to a close, Milan are on the brink of a Coppa Italia final, although they’ll seemingly have to topple Juventus if they are to lift the trophy. On the pitch the football is improving, teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has been a revelation, in defence the high profile signing of Alessio Romagnoli looks to be a master stroke as the Italian Under 21 International oozes class and suggestions are that he could finally fill the legendary boots of Alessandro Nesta. Davide Calabria has shown real promise, and although De Sciglio is yet to rediscover his early potential, the improvement in his game is showing. Bonaventura and Bertollaci in midfield are proving to be quite effective and in attack the class of Carlos Bacca is there for all to see. Bacca may be a budget Sergio Aguero to some, but his movement and scoring ability is exactly what Milan need. Also the younger players who previously fell short are making waves, M’baye Niang has put in some exciting performances of late and Spaniard Suso is finally showing his early Liverpool potential on loan at Genoa. There is a real base now for Milan to push forward, this season has finally halted the slide and with some clever activity in the summer transfer window they could find themselves back at the top end of the Serie A table next year.
It would be strangely ironic, as Pirlo draws his career to a close that AC Milan finally reclaim some of their glory. It was not a curse, just a coincidence and a lesson for all clubs that age is only a number, maybe you should appreciate the class in front of you rather than look for something shinier and new. If Pirlo had remained at Milan in 2011 the football landscape in Italy would be vastly different, only now when his talents have left the Serie A arena are the Rossoneri getting themselves back in order. Italian football needs a strong AC Milan, after a hiatus of their own making, finally it looks like they are heading back to where they belong. The shadow of Pirlo is lifting from the San Siro, a lesson has been harshly learned, legends should not be taken for granted, legends last forever.