Mi­lan back on firm ground af­ter reck­less Li era

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - ED AARONS

HIS name, as one journalist put it, is now “just a sad and bad mem­ory” for Mi­lan sup­port­ers. Less than two years af­ter Li Yonghong signed a pre­lim­i­nary agree­ment with Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni to take over the club which once mar­keted it­self as “the most ti­tled in the world”, an eight-sec­ond video clip of the Chi­nese busi­ness­man at a fam­ily bar­be­cue went vi­ral in Italy last week.

It was the first time Li had been seen since he de­faulted on a €32m loan to help Mi­lan re­solve a prob­lem re­lat­ing to UEFA’s fi­nan­cial fair play reg­u­la­tions at the end of last sea­son. El­liott Man­age­ment, the Amer­i­can hedge fund com­pany which had pre­vi­ously pro­vided an­other loan of €300m to al­low Li to com­plete his €740m takeover last year, im­me­di­ately moved in and as­sumed con­trol in July, promis­ing to in­vest more than €50m in an at­tempt to sta­bilise the seven-times Euro­pean Cup win­ners.

“Fi­nan­cial sup­port, sta­bil­ity and proper over­sight are nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­sites for on-field suc­cess and a world­class fan ex­pe­ri­ence,” read a state­ment from the com­pany’s founder and joint chief ex­ec­u­tive, Paul Singer. “El­liott looks for­ward to the chal­lenge of re­al­is­ing the club’s po­ten­tial and re­turn­ing the club to the pan­theon of top Euro­pean foot­ball clubs where it rightly be­longs. El­liott also strongly be­lieves in the value-cre­ation op­por­tu­nity at Mi­lan.”

So far, at least, they have been as good as their word. Less than two weeks af­ter El­liott as­sumed con­trol, the former sport­ing di­rec­tor Leonardo re­turned to the role he first oc­cu­pied in 2008, be­fore the Brazil­ian took over as man­ager for a sea­son in 2009. The 1994 World Cup win­ner was joined this month by Paolo Mal­dini as the sport­ing strat­egy and de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor — a coup given the le­gendary former de­fender turned down a sim­i­lar role last year un­der Li’s own­er­ship — while Kaka, the 2007 Bal­lon d’Or win­ner, is also set for a role at his former club, po­ten­tially work­ing un­der the

Gazidis.

Mi­lan have spent al­most €100m on new play­ers this sum­mer, in­clud­ing Gon­zalo Higuain of Ju­ven­tus, as they strive to re­turn to the Cham­pi­ons League for the first time since los­ing in the last 16 in 2013-’14.

The post­pone­ment of the game against Genoa in the af­ter­math of the Mo­randi bridge col­lapse meant Gen­naro Gat­tuso’s side had been kept wait­ing un­til last night to be­gin their Serie A cam­paign, at Napoli. But de­spite the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the club as it en­ters an­other era of own­er­ship, the Arse­nal chief ex­ec­u­tive Ivan mood is con­sid­er­ably more pos­i­tive than this time last sea­son un­der Li.

“If we see the re­cent moves in the mar­ket, then the Mi­lan fans should be op­ti­mistic,” says Pippo Russo, a so­ci­ol­o­gist from the Univer­sity of Florence who spe­cialises in foot­ball. “The worst mo­ment in their his­tory has now passed. But, of course, it will be on the pitch that they will be judged. In the case of Mi­lan I don’t think El­liott is there to act as a ‘vul­ture fund’ but more of in­vestors who want to max­imise the as­sets and the brand of the club.”

El­liott, es­tab­lished in 1976 by Singer, is thought to be worth around $35bn and has in­vested in com­pa­nies as di­verse as Sky and Costa Cof­fee in the UK. But El­liott’s ten­dency to in­vest in fail­ing com­pa­nies be­fore sell­ing to the high­est bid­der means it has been var­i­ously com­pared to wolves and hye­nas, as well as vul­tures. Bloomberg de­scribed Singer as “the world’s most feared in­vestor” be­cause of his ruth­less ap­proach to busi­ness, in­clud­ing im­pound­ing a ship be­long­ing to the Ar­gen­tinian navy in 2012 in an at­tempt to call in a debt from the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment.

Yet although many feared the worst when El­liott took charge, the early signs are it is in for the long haul when it comes to restor­ing Mi­lan to former glo­ries. “For the last three or four years it has been very un­set­tled,” Russo says. “At the mo­ment it looks as if they are think­ing of stay­ing for a cou­ple of years at least. Then we will see who is in­ter­ested in buy­ing the club.”

El­liott has yet to re­spond to ques­tions over its long-term in­ten­tions, which in­cluded a re­quest for more in­for­ma­tion about Li’s rea­sons for de­fault­ing on his loan. But while the chief ex­ec­u­tive, Marco Fas­sone, and the sport­ing di­rec­tor, Mas­si­m­il­iano Mirabelli, were re­moved from their roles af­ter the takeover, Paolo Sca­roni, the former chief of the Ital­ian en­ergy com­pany Eni and a close ally of Ber­lus­coni, is the new pres­i­dent, hav­ing also been on the board last sea­son.

“In my opin­ion he is the key ac­tor in this story,” Russo says of Sca­roni. “He is a man of in­ter­na­tional fi­nance who was El­liott’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the pre­vi­ous board. He rep­re­sents the con­ti­nu­ity in all of this. Some peo­ple have spec­u­lated that through him Ber­lus­coni still has re­la­tions with the club but we don’t know for cer­tain and prob­a­bly never will.”

What is for cer­tain is Li’s ill-fated reign is firmly in the past. Re­port­edly, late at­tempts to sell his stake to Rocco Com­misso, an Ital­ian-Amer­i­can ca­ble TV bil­lion­aire, and the Rick­etts fam­ily, who own the Chicago Cubs base­ball team, came up short, with the 48-year-old Li con­ced­ing de­feat when the in­ter­est on his loans with El­liott rose from 11 per cent to an eye-wa­ter­ing 24 per cent. “I made a mis­take and only dis­cov­ered it to my great detri­ment dur­ing my ten­ure,” he wrote in an open let­ter to sup­port­ers on the eve of the takeover. “El­liott showed it­self from the start to not be the part­ner I imag­ined but a lender to­tally dis­in­ter­ested in the com­plex man­age­ment of a club of Mi­lan’s stand­ing, de­spite its con­trol of the team’s board.

“El­liott’s con­duct has al­ways proved to be care­less and preda­tory: in short, the typ­i­cal be­hav­iour of a ‘vul­ture fund’, as it has of­ten been de­scribed in the past by the in­ter­na­tional press. I would like to men­tion, by the way of ex­am­ple, that at the mo­ment El­liott ap­pro­pri­ated my shares in Mi­lan, I was of­fered the sum of €2 as com­pen­sa­tion for my to­tal in­vest­ment! I am ready to fight and I will do it to safe­guard my rights and give as­sur­ances to the Mi­lan share­hold­ers, whom my beloved club de­serve.”

That was the last any­one heard of him, un­til this past week. Sport­ing a white T-shirt with blue shorts, Li looked re­laxed for a man who claims he has lost more than €500m in lit­tle more than a year.

“We still don’t know any­thing about him,” Russo says. “The Ital­ian press and Mi­lan sup­port­ers never men­tion him any more. It’s like they have agreed it is bet­ter we don’t talk about him any more. His is a story that must be for­got­ten im­me­di­ately, whereas El­liot are now seen as the saviours.”

Mi­lan have spent al­most on new play­ers this sum­mer

Spec­u­la­tion is rife in Italy that Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni still has links to AC Mi­lan

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