AC Milan is not just Silvio Berlusconi. They won much before he owned the club, and they suffered quite a bit, too, going 10 years at one point without a championship. They spent the money on Jose Altafini from Brazil and Juan Alberto Schiaffino, the stuff of legend in Uruguay, who were on the same attack.
And they made their own: Before Paolo Maldini was Gianni Rivera, who played with Milan for nearly two decades, and before Rivera was Gunnar Nordahl, the first of the Swedish trio "Gre-No-Li" to arrive in Milan the 1950s.
But Berlusconi turned Milan into something else: the winningest club in the world, a commercial enterprise beyond the shores of Italy, a global phenomenon with fans sprawling from Indonesia to the Middle East. With such lavish goals came huge expenses, and he bought players that thrived and others that did not.
It was a retirement home for some—think the midfielder Emerson—and for others it was a brief stop before a successful career elsewhere. There were great things coming out of Milan, but also great failures and experiments gone wrong.
Here are the 11 players to wear the red and black who only truly achieved the best with another club.
A man named Gabriel Batistuta ended the era of Jens Lehmann before it even began. Three goals conceded at San Siro in just the third day of the season in 1998—not to mention the back pass he handled in the box or the penalty he would later give away.
He played just five matches and left in the winter for Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga. Of course we know him from Arsenal, even though he sometimes charged out of his goal to intercept the ball and tackle the striker with him, even though he’d play with anger and even though he once stomped on the foot of striker on purpose.
But he was also clean. On the way to the 2006 Champions League final, he shut out Juventus and Real Madrid and went a record 853 minutes without conceding a goal in the competition. In that final he was sent off. He stands as the only goalkeeper to draw a red card in a major European final.
The left side was his domain and his left foot was a rocket, but Christian Ziege had little room to enjoy with Paolo Maldini occupying left-back. He left for Bayern Munich, where Ziege had the most success, and he did play in the derbies of Milan, Munich, Merseyside and north London, with his left foot the most universal part of his game.
He could send deep crosses, and he could take wicked free kicks. He won the Serie A with Milan in 1999, and he had German friends with him. Lehmann and Oliver Bierhoff were playing for Milan at the time, and Bierhoff was the only one to get much good of it.
Just as Milan had Swedish and Dutch before them, there were the Germans, relaxing on the couch at Milanello. It was a picture that didn’t last.
Really, the club for him was Manchester United.
Wrote journalist Simon Kuper in The Observer in 2001, “he had no intention of leaving Manchester United. He certainly wouldn't ever go to Italy. In fact, it seemed to be his least favourite country.”
He even developed, according to the paper, a bit of a Mancunian accent. It was one “quick” conversation, as the Daily Mail recites, in the middle of a petrol station that was “enough for me to leave that big club.”
Now there are reports in Eurosport suggesting he could return to Milan, where he played for two years, as a coach. He didn’t win anything of note with the Rossoneri. It was with United that he won the three league titles, the Champions League trophy and the FA Cup. But he never spent more than three years with any club.
Speaking to MUTV, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted his regret: “When I think of disappointments, obviously Jaap Stam was always a disappointment to me, I made a bad decision there.”
Milan spent a lot of money on Martin Laursen, but they spent even more on Alessandro Nesta—exactly €30.5 million. At this time there was much experimentation, and Laursen scored twice for Milan in his first season there as a defender.
He won pretty much everything: the European Cup, the Super Cup, the scudetto and the Coppa Italia. Those were the biggest trophies of his career. And yet he wasn’t really his own player.
Knee injuries robbed him of a longer career. It was when he moved to Aston Villa that he became a real stalwart, a team captain, a lion-hearted defender and a favourite among the fans. One season he scored six goals at centre-back, and he gave a speech to the supporters at Villa Park just before he retired.
It’s hard to discount the time that Gianluca Zambrotta spent with Milan. He won the Italian championship there in 2011, and after his final game with the club the next season, he had to hide his tears as he saluted the crowd. They all clapped for him, and it was like he played there for 14 years, not just the four.
The majority of his best days came with Juventus, where he had “seven beautiful and intense years,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Sky Sports) and where he won several titles. He left when they were relegated to Serie B after Calciopoli, and he was deemed a traitor. He played his best during the 2006 World Cup with Italy, and he scored in the quarter-finals against Ukraine.
It was with Milan that he did not feature regularly. A right-back for the first half of his career, he alternated positions on either flank to accommodate the needs of Milan, who already had Ignazio Abate as the starter.
He was club captain, his old team named the greatest in Premier League history after Arsenal went 49 games unbeaten. He won several trophies later with Inter Milan. Oh, and he played just twice for AC Milan. He is one of seven to play for Juventus, Inter and Milan.
As soon as he left Milan, he thrived and it took him little time to adapt to England. It’s as if he was freed. He knew how to manage the space around him, when to time the run and when to make the pass. Milan gave him no time, and it’s perhaps fitting that he did so much when he was given it.
Arsene Wenger was his compatriot and his manager, and there was an understanding at Arsenal that he didn’t have at Milan. Usually it’s the Rossoneri who elevate players from the basement of their careers—think Andrea Pirlo, saved from Inter—but Vieira’s lowest point was Milan.
Not much was gained during his short spells with Milan: He scored twice and he went there to prove to Fabio Capello, then the manager of England, that he could still compete at the highest level before the 2010 World Cup. There, however, he ruptured his Achilles, and he could not even play for his country in South Africa.
“Even when I was playing in Milan, it wasn’t easy as my family was in LA, with the kids at school there,” he told Matthew Syed of The Courier Mail. “There was one time when they were leaving to go back to America and the younger boys were hanging off my leg. They just didn’t want to go.”
Milan’s vice president, Adriano Galliani, said Beckham gave up a “mountain of money” (thought to be $3 million) to split time between the Galaxy and the Rossoneri in 2009 and 2010. It was a “dream.”
He did pick up something new in the city. Beckham now does most of the cooking in the family, and it’s partly because of a six-month culinary course that he can make “real ragu and fresh pasta,” as he said. “I was obsessed with perfecting risotto because it is difficult: you have to constantly stir and add ingredients.”
The name in lights, the bravado and the ego—Edgar Davids wanted, and had, all of these things. The goggles and the dreads made him easy to remember. He was all about the show.
The boy was crazy. A team official with Ajax took him to Milan and Juventus “to show him how good life was for the players who made it big,” wrote Simon Kuper in Soccer Men. He would play for both, even if Milan gave up on him. He joined a team with Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane, and he was finally among the stars.
Davids broke his leg while playing for Milan. He won nothing with them.
Juventus was always the “cool” club for him, as Kuper recites, and it was there that he won the scudetto. He lost to Milan in the Champions League final of 2003 but he was finally a regular. Marcello Lippi called him “my one-man engine room” in FourFourTwo magazine. It was like a “gift from heaven” when he made the move to Juventus from Milan.
“I was happy because I've followed Juventus all my life and at that moment they were second in the league and AC Milan were eighth,” Davids said. “A lot of it was down to Lippi. He had confidence in me, and when he has confidence in someone he puts them in straight away.”
There is a mural of Roberto Baggio on a wall lining the way to San Siro. He’s playing in the shirt of the Azzurri, with a ball at his feet. He played for Milan, and later Inter, but he came to the city at a rocky time for the club, where managers went in and out.
He won the Scudetto in his first season there—the first such player to win back-to-back championships with two different teams in Italy—but he argued with Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi.
With Milan he scored some of the fewest totals of any given season in his career, even if one of them was a penalty that clinched the title for Milan in 1996 against his former team, Fiorentina. He ran to the corner flag, took off his shirt and lifted it to the crowd, like a warrior after battle. It was a brief connection with the fans.
At one point Milan had a scary lineup: Andrea Pirlo, David Beckham and Ronaldinho all hovering over the ball before a free kick. (He wasn’t in the picture, but Kaka was there, too.) There is no lesser of those three evils. There were reasons to wonder whether Ronaldinho was finished. In 2007, Samuel Eto’o said that the Brazilian attended “eight of every 50 training sessions.”
Ronaldinho went clubbing, and Pep Guardiola, only at the beginning of his unbelievable stint as manager of Barcelona, wanted him out. Milan bought him for €21 million.
It wasn’t a disaster. He did score a hat-trick, and he had more assists (14) in the 2009-10 Serie A campaign than any other single league season in his career. In one game against Fiorentina, Ronaldinho was the target of fouls, and he nut-megged and lured defenders and escaped them in one sweet move. Flashes were there.
The team was Brazilian: Leonardo was the manager, and even Pato, the young one, formed a brief and productive partnership with his mentor.
That season-and-a-half wasn’t great for Ronaldo. He signed for the club in 2007, but he had already played for Real Madrid in the Champions League, and he could not enjoy the triumph over Liverpool in Athens with the rest of Milan. The trophy wasn’t his. He never won the European Cup.
He achieved something only Zlatan Ibrahimovic has done: Ronaldo scored in the Derby della Madonnina for both Milan and Inter. But he was heavy. In a fateful game against Livorno, Ronaldo jumped and landed, immediately grabbing at his knee, writhing in pain. It was the end of his career, really.