“I hope they will re-emerge, behind us, this year,” he said.
There was, at the start of the season, every reason to think that would happen. When Milan and Inter meet in the first derby of the year this weekend — the game known as the Derby della Madonnina — both will be under Chinese control.
In 2016, the Suning group took control of Inter, and a year later, the entrepreneur Li Yonghong — supported by financing from an American hedge fund, Elliott Management — completed his takeover of A.C. Milan, ending Berlusconi’s 30-year tenure.
“The fact that both teams were sold to Chinese enterprises would have been unthinkable three years ago,” Fassone said. “It is something that is hard to imagine for a lot of Italians.”
Few, though, doubted it was necessary. Both clubs had been drifting for too long. This, many believed, was the start of a transformation not just for Milan and Inter, but for Serie A, too. Milan’s ambition, in particular, captured the imagination: This summer, it embarked on what Fassone described as “the most aggressive” transfer market campaign it could muster. Some 11 players arrived in the space of two months. The moves convinced the fans, and the country, that Li was serious.
“You can speak, but people only trust your project when they see, every week for a month, you are presenting one or two new players,” Fassone said. Suddenly, he felt an “enthusiasm that had been lost” returning to the club. A crowd of 65,000 turned up to watch the new-look team’s first game of the season, an unremarkable game in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.
“It was a symbol that they are with us,” Fassone said. “Now the fans are dreaming again.”
Fassone, who had worked for a host of other Serie A teams, including Napoli, Juventus and Inter, said he had never found it so “easy” to coax prospective signings aboard. “There is something that attracts them immediately,” he said.
His coach, Vincenzo Montella, has found crafting a team a little more difficult: Milan has won four and lost three of its first seven Serie A games, and his hold on his job is already under scrutiny. Last week, Berlusconi — content, now, to comment from the sideline — added his voice to the chorus of criticism.
Inter, still unbeaten under its coach, Luciano Spalletti, is faring better, but the road has not been smooth. Spalletti is Suning’s third manager in a year; one of his predecessors, Frank de Boer, lasted 85 days. Still, in the eyes of Aldo Serena, a former player for both teams, Inter is a “little further ahead” in its progress than Milan.
Serena, now a television commentator, holds out hope that Milan will find its feet, echoing the feeling of many that it would benefit not just the city, but Italian soccer as a whole.
“Italy needs a strong Milan and a strong Inter,” Serena said. “Italian football is worth much more in terms of television rights, internationally, with a strong Milan and Inter, because they have so many fans around the world.”
That, Fassone said, was part of the appeal to Li when he decided to invest in Milan, a club he believed was “the only one of the top five or six names in Europe that was available.” Milan, like Real Madrid, has a passionate following in China.
The worry is that the resurgence of Milan and Inter alone will not be enough to inspire a renaissance in Serie A; the change, Fassone said, must be much more sweeping than that.
This month, Infront Sports & Media, the company that arranges Serie A’s international television deals, held talks in London to discuss the next batch of rights, which will run from 2018 to 2021. For the first time, when those contracts are awarded, 4 percent of the funds raised must be allocated to stadium renovation across the country.
It is proof of a belated recognition that Serie A must modernize as a whole if it is to compete, that it cannot simply hope to piggyback on the success of Juventus or increased interest in Milan and Inter.
“We have many old stadiums that were built in a different age,” Fassone said. “There are athletics tracks, bad sight lines and in the last 10 rows of the bottom tiers, you see nothing.” That and the lingering threat of fan violence limit crowd sizes, restrict corporate income and afflict not only those in the stadium but how the league appears on television.
“Teams like Milan, Inter, Roma can build new stadiums,” Fassone said, noting Italy’s parliament is discussing a law that will make it easier. “I would say that in the next five years, most of the important clubs will have a new — or renovated — stadium. If we use them correctly, as they do in England or Germany, we can have three times our current income.”
That, however, is just the start. Fassone said there must also be an acceptance that Serie A must change how it negotiates its television contracts, how its executive board functions and how it reaches out to new markets.
A decade ago, Milan and Italy felt they were still living through their golden age. It will take a lot of work — in Milan and elsewhere — to bring back those days, to bring Italian soccer out of the museum.
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