Ask AC Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis who he supports in international football and he admits things can get a bit confusing. Born in South Africa of Greek descent, he grew up in Scotland and England and spent 16 years working in the United States, before becoming Arsenal’s chief executive in 2009, a tenure that lasted a decade. “I also have a Dutch grandfather … all of these are options available to me,” he tells ESPN. “In 2004 [when Greece famously won the Euros], I was Greek. Very Greek. It’s a marriage of convenience. “
Gazidis is joking, but his experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, as a former Deputy Commissioner of Major League Soccer and his time as CEO at Arsenal, where he was also on the executive committee of the Association of European Clubs, make him the candidate. ideal. positioned to influence the changing face of soccer.
December 1 will mark the second anniversary of when Elliott Advisors hired Gazidis to turn Milan’s fortunes on and especially off the pitch. Elliott’s plan was transparent: They acquired the club when the previous owner, Li Yonghong, who had borrowed some $ 350 million from them to buy Milan (with a total valuation of more than $ 800 million), defaulted on his payments. By definition, Milan was a struggling asset, but also a sleeping giant with a large fan base and one of the strongest brands in the sports world. They figured that with some investment and smart leadership, Milan could grow and perhaps sell itself for a sizable profit in three to five years.
It has been a bumpy ride. Since the arrival of Gazidis, Milan have had three coaches, and came one step away from appointing a fourth, Ralf Rangnick, while the bitter departure, in March, of football director general Zvonimir Boban, from the office main after nine months in charge of the cast. More doubts about the club’s progress. Meanwhile, Milan’s accounts show losses of more than 500 million euros in the last six years and it is likely that they will also suffer a big loss this season. Part of this is the legacy of waste before the Elliott acquisition; part of this is the new owners’ belief that you have to invest to turn the club around.
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“What we are doing in Milan is very clear, very difficult,” Gazidis tells ESPN. “We have to reduce our salary bill and at the same time increase performance and that is not easy to do.”
On the other hand, Milan had a good ending last season and, as of this moment, they are the first of Serie A. They have had three consecutive years of more than 50,000 spectators at San Siro (pre-pandemic) and Gazidis says, they have a global fan base of about 450 million. What that means, or how it is monetized, is another matter, but there is a sense that positive things are happening, not only in Milan but also throughout Serie A.
“Much of the success of the Premier League has been based on this global perspective, this internationalization,” he says. “It happened both in terms of football ideas and, more recently, in terms of foreign ownership and international management. And this mix of ideas, this diversity has been one of the driving forces behind its success.” In fact, 16 of the 20 Premier League clubs are foreign-owned (and one of the remaining, Burnley, is in talks with foreign owners). By contrast, Serie A has six foreign owners. These investors are there for a reason: opportunity. So are private equity firms competing for a share of Series A press rights.
“I think Italian football, clearly, on the field is international and our brands are international brands,” says Gazidis. “So all the elements are there. Look at the interest of the private equity groups. They are not stupid … they want to participate in the modernization and professionalization of Italian football, they know that there is enormous untapped potential. If we take the right steps , Italian football can go back to … the top of world football. I think that Serie A has the greatest potential of the five major leagues in terms of growth. And I believe that Milan has the greatest potential as an individual club. “
Gazidis is optimistic about Italian football, unsurprisingly, and the parallel with the Premier League is tantalizing. But a key difference is that the Premier League, especially during Richard Scudamore’s nearly two decades tenure as CEO, from 1999 to 2018, seemed to speak with a united voice, at least in public. League matches in Serie A have historically been close to gladiatorial affairs. “[Scudamore] he had the ability to hold all these different perspectives and agendas together, “he says.” In Italy, we don’t see such a strong sense of unity, this sense that clubs are competitors on the pitch and business partners off the pitch. It’s more about competition in
“One is that there is a change in the type of owners. I do not mean only foreign owners, also Italians. There are more owners who do not consider themselves only as personal benefactors of a club, but see it as a business as well. You have to have both to have a healthy environment.The other is that as income increases, so do transfer fees, salaries and costs, and it becomes less feasible to ignore the fact that clubs have common interests. So the clubs need to be on the same page. I think we’ll see more of this in Serie A, modeled on the Premier League. “
In recent weeks the discourse of a European Super League has resurfaced. Gazidis overheard the same conversation while at Arsenal. While he admits that the idea may have its financial attractions, he seems skeptical, possibly because the topic remains so undefined: some interpret it as an expanded Champions League, others as a separatist entity operating outside of FIFA’s control.
“The direction of travel is for more European football, that’s not in doubt,” he says. “And that is why people are interested. But I think there are deeper questions that football does not ask enough. Football is a tremendous force, it is this common cultural language, it is something that unites us … it is a great way to communicate a fantastic vision of what the world could be. Well, I’ll get off my horse now. But I love this idea and I think this global aspect is something we really need to think about and lean on.
“The other question that I think is more of a threat is generational. Soccer has tremendous conservatism, which has served it relatively well. But unless we think very hard about the way people, especially young people, consume their entertainment. , about how they’re connecting with the content, it’s so radically different. We have to think about what they’re going to want five, ten, or fifteen years from now. I think they’ll still want this content, but they’ll engage with it in radically different ways. It’s a very, very big threat to the game, but also a great opportunity. “
Gazidis refers to Millennials and short attention spans, with fans not sitting for 90 minutes of live football in front of the TV, but instead watching on a small screen or on a phone as they come in and out, chat with friends, they play … it is not a rejection of football but to live the sport in a different way. “I think it’s a really complex issue,” he says.
Back to Milan. When Boban left, closing the door behind him, the Italian media spoke of the “two souls” of Milan. It was the new school against the old school. The “new school” was the belief in building through youth and analysis, buying low and selling high, while commercially modernizing a club that had been at the forefront 30 years earlier with Silvio Berlusconi. The “old school” stuck to the strategy that had brought success in the final years of the Berlusconi era: big names, big salaries, veteran players who seemingly stuck around forever.
Gazidis publicly denied that there were two “souls.” In any event, it’s pretty clear which mindset has the upper hand, albeit with a major concession to “old school.” Milan have one of the youngest teams in Europe, although their center forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 39 years old.
Ibrahimovic is the exception; Milan are committed to their new youth course, analysis, bravery signings and innovative thinking, though they don’t always get it right – think of Marco Giampaolo’s disastrous appointment in the summer of 2019, or the search for Rangnick who, given the club success, looks like a dodged bullet. For Gazidis, part of this is the natural conservatism of football culture, not only in Italy, but also throughout Europe.
“[Football] the culture is quite closed, “he says.” There are football people and anyone with new ideas other than a football person is seen as a threat. And the football community comes together to form an impenetrable barrier to self-protection, perhaps because it is suspicious of new ideas. They turn to tried and true clichés. “
The good news, he says, is that ideas, new and old, are put to the test every week in football. If you have the courage to do things differently, you will soon know if it is working. If you do, the status quo will change and others will follow suit. You’ve seen it before. Gazidis cites Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and in German soccer over the past 15 years as examples of “closed cultures” that were subverted by new ideas that were initially met with skepticism and occasionally mockery. Wenger was transformative in the Premier League, helping change everything from diet to training to tactics. Similarly, German soccer underwent a massive transformation prior to the 2006 World Cup, which would see the rise of a generation of talented managers and players.
“Soccer is an environment that challenges your prejudices,” says Gazidis. “I found out. Look at the changes in England, for example. Wenger played a big role in that. When you are successful, things change very, very fast because the results are there on the field.”
This is what Gazidis wants for Milan and why not? – Serie A. “As people see a clear vision, while our fans enjoy football, things can change very quickly,” he says. “And I think Italian football as a whole is an environment that is very mature for that and will take a big step forward. And they will do it fast. Surprisingly fast.”