Stefano Pioli could feel it, even if he could not quite define it.
In the nicest possible way, Pioli has made several journeys around the block as a soccer manager. At 57, he has been coaching in the volatile, capricious world of the Italian game for two decades. His current job, at A.C. Milan, is the 13th of his career. There is very little, these days, that counts as new to him.
The couple of weeks leading up to and surrounding Milan’s Champions League quarterfinal against Napoli last month, though, were different. Quite what it was is difficult for him to identify. It manifested not just in the atmosphere in the stadium — unique, Pioli called it — but in an energy that infused the club’s inner sanctums, too.
He came to understand it, eventually, as a sort of institutional muscle memory. For a long time, Milan’s present has felt just a little unworthy of the club’s past. Milan has felt, in recent years, like a club diminished, almost a relic of another age. Only Real Madrid has won more European Cups than A.C. Milan, but for 16 years Milan had not so much as made a semifinal. That is, technically, not quite a generation. In soccer time, it may as well be the Pleistocene.
The mere promise of a return, though, brought everything flooding back. For Pioli, as for most of his players, it was virgin territory. For the fans, for the staff, for the directors — among their number the likes of Paolo Maldini, seemingly barely aged from his playing days — it was reassuringly familiar.
It manifested not as a mass, Pioli said, but a force. For those games against Napoli, he said, the pressure of history “gave us more faith, more strength, more conviction.” The idea that a soccer club, with its ever-rotating cast of characters, might have some sort of vestigial memory baked into its bedrock is not poetic fantasy. “It exists,” Pioli said. “This club is used to these moments, these emotions. It knows how to be a protagonist.”
For Milan, this is the stage on which it belongs. Its return represents a revival, a restoration of its grandeur, blurred but never quite lost in the tumult of the last decade or so. Even the opponent that lies in wait — its city rival and current San Siro housemate, Inter — brings the memories of how things used to be flooding back.
The clubs have been here before: They were paired together in the semifinals in 2003, and again in the quarterfinals in 2007. (The auguries are good for Milan — on both previous occasions, it progressed — but not great for neutral observers: none of the four games, all home and away and yet held on precisely the same turf, could be described as a classic.)
And yet the rivalry’s return is not testament to how little has changed, but how much. The Milan that took the field in 2007, on its way to winning its seventh European Cup in Athens, was the last incarnation of the club’s imperial phase: Maldini and Alessandro Nesta in defense, Andrea Pirlo in midfield, Kaká and Filippo Inzaghi upfront. It was still, recognizably, the team that Silvio Berlusconi had built, the fruits of the first modern superclub: experienced, authoritative, impossibly glamorous.
The Milan that will face Inter at San Siro on Wednesday, and then again six days later, is quite different. Milan’s time in the doldrums — the years in which it was sold by Berlusconi, bought by a mysterious Chinese investor, salvaged by an activist hedge fund, and eventually purchased by an American consortium — have necessitated a complete change of approach.
Where once Milanello, the club’s training facility, was famous for its ability to eke a few more years out of aging stars, the focus is now on youth. It is with great pride that Pioli points out — more than once — that his Italian championship-winning team of 2021 was “the youngest squad in history” to claim the title. That Milan returned to the pinnacle is the most important thing. But how it got there matters, too.
Inter, notably, has refused to countenance such a switch of focus, rejecting the idea of abandoning its long-held status as one of Europe’s handful of destination clubs. “Inter is a very strong club, which rarely sells its best players,” Inter’s chief executive, Giuseppe Marotta, said last year, seemingly affronted by the idea that players might use it as a way station on their journeys to Real Madrid, Paris St.-Germain or the Premier League.
Milan, by contrast, has bowed to reality, and sought to use its new place in the pecking order to its advantage. Under successive owners — first Elliott Investment Management, the activist fund, and now RedBird Capital, backed by Gerry Cardinale — it has adopted a data-infused approach, based around locating the underappreciated and overlooked and burnishing them to a sheen.
The midfielder Brahim Díaz came from the ranks of Real Madrid’s stand-ins. The versatile Malick Thiaw was plucked from Germany’s second tier. The defender Pierre Kalulu was playing for the French club Lyon’s second team. Milan has accepted that the world has changed. “A club has to have a project,” Pioli said. “Ours was very clear: to invest in young players with talent, and then give them time to grow.”
A sprinkling of stardust remains, a ghost of the old glamour, in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — now largely an immaculately-dressed cheerleader — and the ageless Olivier Giroud, but they have been scattered judiciously through the squad, given a role that is, at least in part, pastoral.
“The club was smart in making sure there was a mix,” Pioli said. “That’s why we have been able to get such good results in such a short space of time. Sometimes, a coach can say something and it has an impact. But sometimes, when it is a teammate, a champion, it helps, too. It is all done with the same aim in mind.”
That aim has, broadly speaking, been an act of restoration. For most clubs, winning the championship would have been enough. Milan, though, belongs to that slim category of teams — along with Real, Bayern Munich, and to some extent Liverpool — that draw their identity less from domestic affairs and more from continental triumphs. The semifinals of the Champions League, and beyond, is where Milan, historically, feels at home.
The place looks very different these days, of course. For all the mounting frenzy, the churning anxiety in Milan at the prospect of a winner-takes-all derby unspooling over the next week, received wisdom has it that both are playing for a silver medal. Whoever wins, the overwhelming favorite for the final will be whichever team emerges from the meeting of Real Madrid and Manchester City in the other semifinal. Unfeasible as it would have seemed in 2003, Italian soccer is an underdog now.
Pioli, though, is undaunted. Economically, the teams of Serie A can no longer compete with even the small fry of the Premier League: Milan found itself outbid by Bournemouth, no less, when both were chasing the Italian midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo in January. Italy’s shine has faded, and its power has dimmed. This Milan is not a reprise of the glory days when Serie A towered over the world, but something closer to a requiem for them.
“But when that is true, you have to be innovative,” Pioli said. “With ideas, with quality of work.” Necessity, he said, has been the mother of invention. “It has become an undervalued championship, in my mind,” he said. “There are lots of different ideas, different styles, lots of confrontations with teams and coaches who have different systems of play or how they interpret games.”
That, in turn, has helped the new breed of Italian teams — their squads diminished, perhaps, from the days when they acted as a roll-call of global superstars — to begin to make up for the financial shortfall.
They may not have the best players any more. They may not have the luster they once did. In the bright, harsh light, a team as grand as A.C. Milan might even come to look like a minnow. But they have, Pioli said, a “knowledge” rooted in the variety of challenges they encounter domestically, one that means they are “prepared” for whatever Europe can muster.
“Calcio has suffered for a few years,” he said. “But now it is ready to be a protagonist again.”