The meeting took place inside the trophy room: He wouldn’t let me leave Milan without a glimpse at the famous cabinet, in front of which players like Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko signed their contracts. It is the mantle that proves AC Milan’s greatness: There are the seven European Cups, standing together in a row, and directly underneath them lay the Super Cups, the European trophies that the club prides itself on.
But the silverware, on all four walls, are reminders of the past. We met to talk about the future. And not just Milan’s future. There’s a lot more on the mind of Umberto Gandini, AC Milan’s director, who has to worry about more problems than the common executive in football usually does.
With Milan for decades, Gandini also fights for European clubs, club football and the teams in Europe that develop and pay the players that make the big bucks and participate in the biggest leagues. He is the vice-chairman of the European Club Association (ECA) and he is a lawyer by trade, so, naturally, when he returned from Geneva a couple of days before our interview, he spoke fondly of the city. “It’s where I feel at home, in my political life,” he says. There he was reappointed, and so his say in the world of football remains strong. And when he speaks about the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar, he talks with a European bias — an important perspective, too.
Gandini doesn’t know where he will be that year, but there are things to resolve right now. “We have two years to think about 2018, 2022,” he says. “Now the fact that FIFA is rushing everything, it’s not really nice and it’s not properly thought about thoroughly. It’s just, again, they have their own agenda. … They talk about expectations, but in reality they just want to do what they want.” For such an authority, he is candid. There is no game to play: There are things he likes and dislikes. The words are refreshing to hear in an industry that is full of deceit, from the agents to the presidents angling for their own gain. Not with Gandini, who is fair, insightful, open and simply easy to speak with. He is a casual man in an important position.Slowly, he uncovers the layers of problems with Qatar.
It’s hot in the summer, and so they want to play in the winter, and Gandini believes, “if it has to be a one-off it would be possible.” He doesn’t know how they will do it, but he does think they will do it. We already know why they will do it — it’s too damn hot — but there are consequences that don’t meet the eye. To consider, there are, he says, “the players, the players who are not involved, the leagues belonging to the nations that don’t qualify for the World Cup, the competition as far as sponsors are concerned … and therefore the investment of those who bought the rights two years ago with the expectation to have the World Cup in June and July.”
For one, Fox Sports, which paid US $425million for the rights to show the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the United States, could face a situation where the world’s biggest event clashes with another behemoth: the NFL. Both could happen at the same time. Two people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg last week that the network opposes any plan to reschedule the World Cup.
It’s something Gandini understands, but, adamantly, he says “we are not going to change our calendar or our schedule just because of the World Cup. We have to defend the Champions League, we have to defend the competitive balance.” Now, the 54 countries under UEFA agreed in principle to play the tournament in the winter, but “what the 54 countries do not want FIFA to do,” FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce has said, “is to make a decision yet on exactly when in the year it is going to be played.”
A team like Milan has a lot of sway. They don’t just care about their own problems and ignore the rest. “We have a responsibility for Europe,” Gandini says. But at some point they do have to think about themselves. “Look at teams like Juve and Milan: They probably have 10 players going to the World Cup. How about them at the domestic level when the World Cup is over and the players come back? How will be their competitive efficiency? Those things have to be taken into consideration, and it’s not all things that can be covered by money.”
For what it is worth, FIFA won’t compensate anyone if they switch the summer for the winter. There is nothing about insurance. They hate the idea. And then there are the teams below Milan and Juventus, the teams with players who won’t necessarily play in the World Cup. Even if he works for a big club, Gandini cares about the little things, and he does some simple math for us. “Those teams will have to pay players for two months and the players won’t produce. You don’t have gate receipts, you don’t have match-day revenue because you don’t have matches.”This is all nine years away.
It is distant and yet close. Gandini is in the middle of a great debate that affects the future of a tournament AC Milan does not directly compete in. The reach of Gandini is extraordinary — professionally, he’s colleagues with Sandro Rosell, president of Barcelona, and on Twitter he connects with Milan fans from all over the world — but he is Milan through and through. He is, rightly or wrongly, the gatekeeper of all that is right and wrong with the team. He is not afraid of criticism, and he is not afraid to criticize his club, too.
The current form of AC Milan is clear: After four games, the Rossoneri have collected just four points. Last year, they recorded their worst start in 80 years. But, as the team likes to preach, we spoke about the future, the Primavera, Milan’s youth team. A former player, Filippo Inzaghi, is now coaching the under-19 squad, and it is important to have coaches who know what it means to be Milan. “The problem with a club like AC Milan,” Gandini says, “is that we’ve always been careful of developing talent but we never have enough patience to wait for the talent to develop.”
Case in point: Alessandro Matri, developed as teenager, cut loose, and bought from Juventus this season for roughly €11 million. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, sold by AC Milan to Saint-Étienne in 2012, is now scoring goals in Germany, recording a hat-trick on his debut with Borussia Dortmund. “Some of them [at Milan] are actually doing well — Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate, just to name a couple.” But it isn’t enough. In this era of financial austerity, after selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in 2012, Gandini would like to see more players come through the ranks. It is much cheaper, he says, and they grow up within the team, learning the spirit of the team. “Again, you have to be lucky to have the right bunch of kids. A guy like [Paolo] Maldini comes once every 25 years.”
And so it was within a room full of the past that we spoke about the future. The trophies will always be there, and for Gandini, there will be many more battles to win — in the boardroom with his colleagues and on the pitch with AC Milan.