AC Milan fans have been hit with a painful double whammy after star midfielder Sandro Tonali was sold to Newcastle while they were still reeling from club icon Paolo Maldini’s sudden sacking.
Tonali was more than just a key man for Milan, he is a boyhood fan of the club considered a potential future captain who was the connection between the pitch and the San Siro stands.
He was also a player who had repeatedly said in the past that he wanted to become what the Italians call a ‘bandiera’, a symbol of the club like Maldini and Franco Baresi before him.
“I want to stay here as long as I can. If you ask me today I’d say for the rest of my career,” he said last winter.
“But it’s too early to make those sort of promises, desire isn’t the only thing that matters in our lives as footballers, there are a lot of other factors… you can’t make long-term predictions.”
The 23-year-old took a pay cut two years ago in order to stay at Milan following his deeply disappointing first season at the San Siro, on loan from Brescia.
It turned out to be a good decision for both him and Milan as he was crucial to them winning their first league title in over a decade in 2022 and re-establishing them as a force in Europe following a run to the semi-finals in the most recent Champions League.
A battering by local rivals Inter in the last four notwithstanding the mood at Milan remained optimistic, boosted by star attacker Rafael Leao extending his contract with the club until 2028.
But then technical director Maldini and his sporting director partner Frederic Massara, the pair who built the Scudetto-winning team, were dumped by Milan, sparking anger among fans and bewilderment among the players.
Tonali’s departure is another bitter pill to swallow for supporters after stars Gianluigi Donnarumma and Franck Kessie left as free agents in recent years, even if Milan will bank a huge sum that can be reinvested in the team (although Brescia will receive a reported 15 percent of a fee which could rise to as high as 80 million euros).
It’s also yet another sign that, like others among Europe’s old guard, the seven-time continental kings simply cannot compete with the financial might of the Premier League and a handful of other super clubs.
There is a hint of symbolism that Milan lose their golden boy not long after the death of Silvio Berlusconi, the man who made the ‘Rossoneri’ titans of Europe.
Berlusconi was in many ways the precursor to the state-sponsored teams of the contemporary era, someone whose massive wealth revolutionised a then-ailing club on the verge of bankruptcy and who used that success as polish for the political stage.
But that era has long passed and without Maldini — who was hugely popular among the players — Milan are vulnerable to being picked off by richer clubs.
Milan, who have replaced Tonali with Ruben Loftus-Cheek from Chelsea, are hoping that a Moneyball style of player recruitment will level the playing field of an unfair game in which Italy’s clubs can’t rely on the largesse of owners or big television rights money.
Serie A earned just over one billion euros from domestic and overseas rights last season, a tenth of what was brought in by the Premier League.
And last month Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis said that domestic broadcasters are offering less than half the sum clubs currently receive ahead of Monday’s key league TV rights summit.