AC Milan and Bologna in the Battle of the Fallen Giants

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AC Milan and Bologna in the Battle of the Fallen Giants
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The threat of relegation is not far away. Most recently they almost went bankrupt. They were one of the last sides from the provinces to win the Italian championship. But it wasn’t always a struggle for Bologna.

Way back in 1925, when they won their first championship, they played five games to do it—and one of them came for Bologna with a goal that never was.

There weren’t any penalty shootouts at the time, writes academic John Foot in the book Calcio, so they replayed the games, over and over. Earlier, fans of Bologna invaded the pitch.

By rule, Genoa were the winners of the game—and the championship—by default. To this day, Genoa have only nine titles, one short of a star. They were deprived of that indelible honour, worn on the shirts of Juventus, Milan and Inter. It is 90 years and counting since their last Italian championship.

Early in their existence they were the instigators. To keep the team playing at the top was not just a hope for fans; for one of them it was a project. A local party in 1930s backed Bologna, writes David Goldblatt in his book, The Ball is Round, a spell during which they won four Scudetti.

But it wasn’t just an act of charity. As Goldblatt recites, these were fascists, and the leader was a fan. Leandro Arpinati and his associates had the offices of the Italian football federation moved to the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, outside the traditional outposts in Milan and Torino.

They even signed one of the first oriundi—immigrants of native ancestry—to play in Italy. Michele Andreolo was born in Uruguay, and he won with Bologna, but he also fought in the war for Italy. These foreigners were extensions of fascist propaganda, writes Foot. They made Italy look like an empire, expansive, with strong colonies and rich history.

After World War II came the pains of reality on their own. They went bust and ended up in Serie C. The players fixed games, like so many other teams in the 1980s.

Massimo Pinca/Associated Press

It was clear: Bologna just wanted to belong. When the supporters got to watch Roberto Baggio play for them, they got a chance to claim a piece of one of the best Italians of all. He had already scored goals for Juventus and Milan. But there, in Bologna, he scored 22 in a season—his best ever.

For years they were mismanaged and used for political purposes. One president failed to pay wages to players for months in 2010.

That’s why the chance to play AC Milan is almost extraordinary. Bologna survived so much, and they just want to survive the rest of this season. Milan themselves have an owner who’s backed them for his own gain, a kind of refuge from politics.

There is Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Milan, and there is Silvio Berlusconi, convicted of tax fraud. He saved the team, and they won for him. He spent hundreds of millions, and lost that much, too.

As a team, they are struggling unlike any other time under Berlusconi. They made their worst start in 80 years and fired their coach. They are currently 11th and 18 points behind third place.

Relegation is not a threat, but it’s extremely disappointing for a team that started the season with the second-highest payroll in Serie A. “I have never seen Milan being run in a less serious manner than it is now,” Zvonimir Boban told Sky Sports Italia via Goal in December. He played with the Rossoneri for a decade when it was a “serious” club in his eyes. Now it is not.

Clarence Seedorf is not a saviour. He’s tinkered with a different formation, and he’s made substitutions, and he’s going to make mistakes as a first-time manager.

Against Napoli on Saturday, he got it all wrong. He deployed Ignazio Abate, usually a right-back, as an attacking midfielder. Mario Balotelli was replaced for just the third time this season. Michael Essien played beside Nigel de Jong, his friend from England, and Riccardo Montolivo, increasingly unaware of his role in the team, came off the bench for just the third time in the past two seasons.

There is work for Seedorf to do and undo. He’s had his men play dodgeball. He runs with them in practice. He wants them to bond and understand each other. He wants them to run and track back, and sometimes the fitness isn’t always there.

Usually the contests between Bologna and Milan spark goals. Milan haven’t lost to them since August 2008. Both teams are testing a new life: Bologna without Alessandro Diamanti, the creative influence for many seasons; Milan with Seedorf, the new man in charge.

A look back in time, and things weren’t so difficult.

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