AC Milan is in a time of transition. Only Real Madrid has won more European Cups, but Milan isn’t the great power it once was. The club enters this season after finishing seventh in Serie A last year—shockingly, an improvement from 2014–15, when the team finished 10th. For the third straight season, Milan won't participate in the Champions League.
In June, Vincenzo Montella became the club’s sixth manager since Massimiliano Allegri was sacked in January 2014. He takes over a sleeping giant that could soon be under new ownership, as longtime owner Silvio Berlusconi is in the process of selling the club to Chinese investors.
Over the next two weeks, AC Milan will play three games in the United States as part of the International Champions Cup. On July 27, Milan will face Bayern Munich in Chicago, and on July 30 the team will play Liverpool in Santa Clara, Calif. Milan will close its U.S. tour with a match against Chelsea in Minneapolis.
As the club prepares for its 2016–17 campaign, SI.com caught up with Milan executive director Umberto Gandini, who has worked for AC Milan for more than 20 years. Gandini, who is also the vice chairman of the European Club Association, discussed Milan’s efforts to grow its global support, his views on soccer in America and how Milan can regain its former status as one of the world’s elite teams.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Stanley Kay: Some of the teams you’re playing in the ICC this year include Chelsea and Liverpool. Those clubs have pretty big fanbases in the United States, and so does AC Milan—but is it hard to compete with some of the English clubs because of the language barrier?
Umberto Gandini: I was in the U.S. with the club two years ago, and we played Liverpool in Charlotte, N.C. And probably two thirds of the stadium were wearing red jerseys in support of Liverpool. And this was a very clear consequence of the [popularity] that the English Premier League has in the United States thanks to the NBC deal. The Italian league has been very good in the past, but all the changes in the TV landscape in the U.S. has probably penalized the Italian league, which is now no longer No. 1. You have the Spanish giants who are carrying La Liga, and then you have the Premier League teams.
So it’s a bit difficult for Italian clubs in general to have the opportunity to calculate a stronger fanbase. We come from history, we come from tradition, we come from a successful 30 years of [Silvio] Berlusconi ownership. And all this silverware that we’ve brought back home gave us the opportunity to be recognized in the U.S. market. But […] yes, it is very difficult especially with the competition from English clubs.
The language is an advantage [for the Premier League]. The ability to watch games on NBC is another big advantage. And you also have historical brands, especially like Liverpool and Chelsea, that can compete with AC Milan on the traditional ground.
SK: There’s so much money flowing into English football right now because of all that new TV revenue. How has that affected the way you do business with Milan?
UG: Well, it does affect not just Milan but it does affect European landscape, because there’s always the European giants, it’s safe to say—the Bayerns, the Real Madrids, the Barcelonas—they feel the competition but they can afford to stand up to the competition. The problem we are facing now thanks to the new TV deals in the Premier League is that it’s not only the giants of the Premier League—the Man U’s, the Liverpools, the Chelseas, the Man City’s—that can be aggressive in the transfer market, but also the average teams are now starting from €120, 150 million just to be part of the Premier League. And these clubs are paying a lot of money for the average players on the market. And this is a competition that is becoming difficult.
We still work on the fact that AC Milan is still a big brand even if we don’t come from a successful spell in the last three or four years. But we still have a strong brand, especially among the players—the players understand what it means to be an AC Milan player—and there is still a good list of players who wish to come to play for AC Milan.
SK: How do big club executives like yourself view Major League Soccer?
UG: Increasingly with a level of attention. It is a very interesting proposition. It is growing—the soccer fan base is growing in the U.S. I think I remember back in 2003 we played the Italian SuperCup at Giants Stadium, and the audience there were not totally up to the game. Coming back to the States 10 years after, thanks to the efforts of MLS, the U.S. Soccer Federation, the national team, or the international matches that are now constantly available to U.S. viewers, now the people in the stadium understand the game very much. They are passionate about the games, they are following the pitch much more than they did before, and it is very, very attractive also for the players themselves to play in front of a U.S. audience.
I think the MLS is a big part of the responsibility for what is happening. The league is improving, physically it is a highly demanding league. Maybe technically it is not yet to the level that it needs to be compared to maybe the European games or to the games that are available on the TV screens to the fans. But it’s growing. I think that business–wise it is an excellent proposition for the owners. Technically speaking, there are still steps to be taken in order to become more and more attractive for the players to come.
SK: What did you make of Sebastian Giovinco coming to MLS a couple years ago?
UG: The guy was obviously very good in Italy, but not at a level to be a superstar. He was a very very good average player, and he played his career in good teams like Parma when Parma was successful, and in Juventus. But he never cracked the top lines in Italy.
I think it’s been successful for Toronto and MLS itself. The fact that the players who are coming out to the U.S. are players that are not just coming to play two or three years, the last years of their professional lives. They are coming seriously to play, to have an opportunity to have a different lifestyle—look at Nigel de Jong, who went to the Galaxy, he had a three-year contract with AC Milan and he decided it was a big challenge for him to go and play for the Galaxy. And it’s a different ambience, different pressure maybe as well, but on the pitch it’s becoming a more competitive league.
Players like Giovinco, like Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, you know them, they are proving that it’s a serious league. It’s not a league where you go and relax. There’s a lot of travel, there’s a lot of training, maybe there is not very very gifted players, but they are big, fast and strong. So it is a different game, and you have to be prepared to come over from Europe to play in the U.S. according to your expectations. If you think you can go to a summer league, you are on the wrong assumptions. You have to be prepared and fit to play in the MLS nowadays.
SK: Getting back to Milan: You finished 10th two seasons ago and seventh last season. What are the biggest challenges for the club to regain its status as a top club?
UG: We went through a very difficult time, for various reasons. We changed in a way that we never did in the previous 27 years. We lost a little bit of our culture, and we became impatient to regaining right away our status. Don’t forget that we won the league in 2010–11, and we played Champions League in 2013-14 the last time—we were knocked out against Atletico Madrid. And then we failed to qualify through domestic league twice in a row.
With anything in life, and especially in sport, there are cycles. Over 30 years, during the 30 years of Mr. Berlusconi, we won 28 trophies. Personally, I was part of the team in six Champions League finals, with a 50% record. Every big player came to AC Milan. A lot of things changed. The Italian league is no longer a destination. The economy in Europe and in Italy has not been very solid and this has affected the possibility of investing for the owners. If you look at our neighbors for example, Inter Milan, [Massimo] Moratti sold the club when nobody expected him to. The club has been sold already to other Chinese investors. As far as we are concerned, we are going through the same process, which might get completed by the time we’re going to be in the U.S. And also Mr. Berlusconi is selling the club after 30 years to a Chinese fund.
These are probably the best answers to the fact that we think we will be able to regain our status, the sooner the better. Naturally, you need investors, you need the capital, you need fresh investments in the squad. We think that now with Vincenzo Montella as the coach, the way he plays, the way we’re going to work, it’s going to have us regaining the positions that we lost over the last three years.
SK: You mentioned that the club is in the process of being sold to Chinese investors. Do you have any expectation for how that might change the club?
UG: Well, it will definitely be a cultural shock I think in a certain way, because this has been a club owned by the same family for 30 years and a few months. It has been always a family club, it has always been a big family, and the culture and the tradition that we developed over these 30 years with Mr. Berlusconi. […] Now we have to face new shareholders, new owners, hopefully new capital investments and new ideas.
[We’ll try] to regain with new investments the position that we think we belong to in the Italian and European landscape. We still need to learn what the new shareholders would like to implement. We know there is going to be very strong investment plan into the squad and to the management, commercial side, where new revenues are going to help the club regain position within the league. But the sale is just in the process, it is not signed yet and therefore the information there is not enough to allow us to really describe what’s going to happen.
It’s promising. Nobody could expect four years ago that Inter was going to be sold to Indonesian investors, as no one would expect Mr. Berlusconi’s family to sell the club after so many years. But in order to compete within this European scenario, you need to have big pockets. You are competing against monopolistic giants like Bayern Munich in Germany, clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have the best players in their rosters. And then Paris Saint–Germain the Qatar investment, the Abu Dhabi investment in Man City, the Russian investment in Chelsea, American investors in Liverpool. So the world has changed over the last five to 10 years, and it will probably change much more in the next two years.
SK: What are your expectations this season for Milan?
UG: We do expect, frankly speaking, to come back to the places we belong. So qualifying for the Champions League on a regular basis, which we used to be apart from the last two seasons. And to have the opportunity to really expand the brand with domestic and international success. When will we be able to compete at those levels? As I said, it will really require massive investments, and hopefully we have the potential to do so.
SK: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about the fight between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and American international Oguchi Onyewu.
UG: It was part of a game in practice. Oguchi was playing too aggressive, Zlatan didn’t like the way Oguchi was defending and marking him and so on. But you know, it was a fair fight […].
SK: Oguchi was on the American back line for a while, so that incident caught a lot of American eyes.
UG: He did fantastic in the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009. That performance that he had in those games was the performance that earned him his spot with AC Milan. Then he got injured, and he didn’t adapt to the game—it was, unfortunately for him and for us, not the best match.
SK: When you heard about the fight between Oguchi and Zlatan, what was your reaction?
UG: Nothing special honestly. Zlatan is an alpha man, he is a dominating player, he is a dominating personality. Oguchi is physically very, very built […]. It was a classic shuffle that sometimes happens in practice. Honestly, not a big deal—it became a big deal because it became public.
SK: As you know, soccer is growing here. A lot of Americans want to support a European team, but they aren’t really sure where to start. Make your case: Why should an American pick Milan as their team?
UG: This is an interesting conversation. First of all, American fans are looking for heroes. And we have so many heroes over the years at AC Milan. There have been many, many top players who have come to AC Milan—some of them have retired, some of them play in different leagues. Kaka is playing in Orlando, for example.
The problem I think for American fans is that yes, they follow the MLS, some of them. But they don’t have heroes within the MLS. They don’t have local heroes. You mentioned Oguchi before—we were talking many years ago about the fact that the young American players in soccer are looking for inspiration, and when they look for inspiration, they obviously look at the top players in European teams. They don’t look at the best player in the MLS. And when American players have become good enough, they travel to Europe: [Michael] Bradley, Oguchi, [Clint] Dempsey, you have many others who came over to establish their career, Tim Howard, and then they come back to the U.S. at a later stage in their career. So it is difficult for American fans to get passionate about the game, if not their local teams because of local loyalties. But they don’t have heroes within the MLS, yet. And until you have American-born players who are successful within the MLS and become very dominant at the international level, I think it would be natural for young American fans who are now playing FIFA 16 or the other video games to get much more attracted to the top European teams with the history and tradition and the level of play that we have now than to the American teams.
AC Milan, as I said, is one of the historical brands. It has won seven European Champions Cups, won 18 Italian titles, had so many top players who came through its ranks.
SK: I think you make a pretty good case.
UG: I have a degree in law.