Can AC Milan Survive as a Major Club?

It was just a friendly…

After watching Real Madrid dismantle Milan for 90 minutes last night, that’s pretty much the only thing a Milan fan can say. Last night’s game at Yankee Stadium marked the end of the latest World Football Challenge, and some of Europe’s best teams will now head back to their respective countries for the 2012-2013 season. For Real Madrid, they will head back to Spain confident that they will breeze through another La Liga season (except for 2 games). On the other side, Milan will head back to Italy as a wounded, vulnerable team that is in danger of losing its place in the Champions League.

AC Milan is on the decline. And the worst part is, everybody in Europe knows it…including Milan. In July, Milan was forced to sell its two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. The sale outraged many Milan fans, until they heard Berlusconi simply tell them the truth.

“The economic situation no longer allows for the shopping sprees of the early 90’s” he explained.

Statements like this are a death knell in today’s European game, where the balance sheet of a club is almost just as important as the lineup sheet. Milan’s current lineup sheet is full of question marks, now that prolific names like Nesta, Gattuso, Seedorf, and Inzaghi have past their primes and moved on. For the ‘new money’ clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, this would mean that it’s time to reload. But Milan simply can’t, and Ibrahimovic let this be known at the end of the season, saying “Milan’s problem is economic. There is no money to buy five players, or even the ones we need.”

In fairness to Milan, many Italian teams are holding a significant amount of debt. But over the last 5 years, Milan increased player salaries from 138 million pounds to 206 million pounds. Over the same time period, revenue decreased by 3 million pounds. This led to the sale of Silva and Ibrahimovic, and also the 5-1 drubbing that Milan took against the star-studded Real Madrid team last night.

But it was just a friendly…wasn’t it? Let’s hope so.

Is La Liga on the decline?

Remember when England was regarded as a rough and tumble, clutch and grab league? Even though the salaries were high, and there were some of the most creative players in the world, the EPL was always known for having more looked like there were more ‘soldiers’ than ‘artists’. Meanwhile, Spain was always perceived as the glamour league. The place where beautiful soccer was played. This perception was enhanced a couple of years ago when Fernando Torres proclaimed that the physicality of England was destined to take years off of his career (he was right, kind of).

On the surface, that perception seems to hold true. Barcelona and Real Madrid are in the top 5 in pass completion percentage across Europe, and they are also ranked 1 and 2 respectively when it comes to shots per game. But a glimpse past these two teams shows a decline in the beautiful, quick-passing game that Spain has become renowned for.

A glaring statistic in La Liga is that 11 of its teams are among the top 12 in cards acquired (yellow and red) across Europe. Only Cesena, a recently promoted club from Italy, breaks into the rankings at number 7. Perhaps worse is that the top 14 European teams in interceptions per game are from Spain. Of course, neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona fit into either of these rankings. So this means that when Real Madrid and Barcelona are not on the field, you are guaranteed to see a lot of cards and a lot of intercepted passes. Fantastic. *

Why is this happening? Part of the reason is money. As I mentioned in my Forbes article http://www.forbes.com/sites/sportsmoney/2011/11/09/should-feats-of-messi-ronaldo-get-an-asterisk-due-to-la-ligas-economic-disparities/ , the financial disparity between Barcelona/Madrid and the rest is growing on a continual basis. Unlike the EPL, the also-rans in La Liga are struggling, and the need to get results in order to earn more bonus money has infected the league. Meanwhile, Barcelona and Madrid are still contenders in the Champions League, and are poised to top the Deloitte Money League as well.

Time will tell what happens with La Liga. The EPL is a juggernaut, and with broadcast rights in over 200 countries it is becoming the NFL of domestic leagues. Meanwhile other leagues like the Bundesliga show great parity and financial stability from top to bottom. Barcelona and Madrid will always be there, but if things continue this way they might just focus on European dominance, and make La Liga a secondary priority. If they do, the rest of the world will follow.

* All data from http://www.whoscored.com