Milan back on firm ground after reckless Li era
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
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.”
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