Six weeks can be an eternity in soccer and in politics. On July 20, AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi showed up at the opening of the club's training camp and made one blunder after the other. For a man who is usually such a natural and effective communicator, it was an all-out debacle. Witness his pronouncements:
• On Ronaldinho: "He's the greatest player in the history of the game."
(Maybe he hasn't seen Pele or Diego Maradona.)
• On new coach Massimiliano Allegri: "He's a handsome man. He could be a movie star, but he'll look great on the Milan sidelines."
(Unlike CarloAncelotti, who is not exactly George Clooney, but delivered two Champions League titles)
• On central defender Thiago Silva: "He was outstanding at the World Cup."
(Outstanding at what? Table tennis? Thiago Silva did not play a single minute.)
Milan fans greeted him with insults and urged him to either spend some money to strengthen the squad or sell up and leave. Berlusconi replied that he was the most successful president in the history of world football (which, strictly speaking, isn't true -- legendary Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu won more trophies) and that he had spent nearly $1.5 billion since acquiring the club in December 1986.
Berlusconi, who is normally more accustomed to unquestioned adulation, kept a low profile for about six weeks after that appearance. But he resurfaced this week, in the last 48 hours of the transfer window, just in time to sanction the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, for a combined fee in the $50 million range.
It was vintage Berlusconi. He sensed the changing mood and seized the moment to pull off two transfers that instantly restore buzz to the red and black half of Milan. And it may not be entirely unrelated to his day job -- that of Prime Minister of Italy -- either. For the past few seasons Berlusconi cited the recession for Milan's understated transfer campaigns: How could he ask the country to tighten its belt if his own club continued to be profligate in its spending? But if you want to be cynical you could conclude that voters (and certainly Milan fans) prefer a powerful owner who delivers superstars and, hopefully, titles to a guy who, in difficult times and in the name of integrity, makes the same tough cuts in his club that he makes in his government.
That, perhaps more than anything, explains Berlusconi's newfound interest in the club: a need to quickly generate buzz and flex his muscle. Because if the idea was to invest with an eye to success in the medium term, perhaps his choices would have been different.
As it stands, there's plenty of eye candy there, though how well it's put together remains to be seen. The vibe coming out of Milanello is that we won't see too much of the fabled front four -- Ibrahmimovic, Robinho, Pato and Ronaldinho -- on the pitch at the same time. That's a positive, because sustaining a foursome like that -- especially when you have Andrea Pirlo, rather than a workaholic holding player, in midfield -- is extremely difficult. Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Ronaldinho contribute very little when not in possession. You'll rarely see them track back or even press. Pato will work hard, though asking the young Brazilian to run himself into the ground when you also want him to be fresh and prolific up front is probably not the best idea.
Instead, Allegri more than likely will implement some kind of rotation and stick to the 4-3-3, with Robinho and Ronaldinho (and to a lesser degree Pato) alternating most of the time. That makes more sense, not least because Milan is chock-full of central midfielders -- Massimo Ambrosini, Rino Gattuso, Kevin Prince Boateng, Clarence Seedorf, Mathieu Flamini -- and this way two of them will get a game alongside Pirlo.
There are still concerns, of course. Socratis Papasthatopoulos and Mario Yepes add depth to the defense, but they're hardly A-listers. There's a grab bag of fullbacks -- most of whom have seen better days -- from which to choose. But if Alessandro Nesta can have another top-notch season, his partnership with Thiago Silva would remain one of the best in the world. Up front, following the departures of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Marco Borriello, things look a bit thin. Pippo Inzaghi, 37, is the first guy off the bench, which tells you all you need to know. But Ibrahimovic is quite durable and you figure that, should he be unavailable, Pato can do a job at center forward (he's surprisingly good in the air).
All told, regardless of why, Milan has improved considerably. It may not have the top-to-bottom depth and quality to win Serie A, but it could make a splash in Europe. Which, if history is anything to go by, is how Berlusconi prefers it anyway.