Saturday 5 June 2021

On Milan's Return To The Champions League

I'm the type who twins his life's course with his football team's.  Doing so is a tacit acceptance that your daily rituals are inadequate to shape an amorphous sense of time, especially during this pandemic.  You look to the structure of the football week, the rounded edges of rote formations, the clockwork of kick-offs, as your team plays out your life in parallel, on another exhilarating plane above you.

There can then never be a moment without significance this way.  You score any personal success as your team's, and your team's failure as your own.  Just as certain songs comprise your life's soundtrack, your football team's successes constellate your memory, like glowing hooks on which you hang summers.

As Franck Kessie converted the second penalty against Atalanta on Sunday, May 23, he not only booked Milan's ticket to the Champions League after seven years of suffering, but he also opened up my summer to a possibility.  That is all I needed: to be on the cusp of something better.

Nothing focuses your club's rank and relevance in the football world like a Champions League Final.  Despite the thinly peopled stands, the dreamscape of Chelsea vs Manchester City--its stakes, its sheen, the exquisite shades of blue-- felt removed many times from my football possibility.  The last time Milan played the Champions League Final was in 2007, a triumph filtered through standard definition, calibrated necessarily by the mind's eye into speckless brilliance.  

It was as if I need to be roused to be able to register last week's Final, as if the absence of my own team from the competition has cob-webbed my faculties.  In February, I had written of the Scudetto dream; that fell away definitively by March.  What was left was not just the original goal of Champions League qualification, but also a more fundamental question of survival.  Financial health.  The ability to plan on a tight but at least not moneyless budget.  Sporting Director Paolo Maldini materialized whenever my fears would, whenever the league table started to look dicey, grim, reassuring in every interview that even without Champions League football, the project would continue.

But you knew you couldn't be satisfied with another disappointing season spun as success.  More pragmatically, you knew that renewals and loan options hinged on qualifying for UEFA's showpiece event. 

In the end, Milan finished second. They managed to beat every team in their peer group (Inter, Napoli, Atalanta, Juventus, Roma, and Lazio) at least once, including a thumping 3-0 win over the defending champions in Turin.  They managed 16 out of a possible 19 away wins, which is a league record. 

There are so many players, so many numbers, so many people to consider when discussing how a team with the youngest average age in Europe, assembled through bruising negotiations and pennies (relatively speaking), comprised of loanees, an almost 40-year-old Ibrahimovic, managed to do what it did this season.  The fanboy in me wants to answer with one name as being responsible for it all, Maldini; others will say, Ibra.  But there was much more to it.

For me, it was not crucial to write about each element that contributed to the success, but only the crescendo of success itself.  To know that if my team is headed in the right direction, so am I.



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