On September 1, 2014, AC Milan sold Bryan Cristante to Benfica. The decision was, at the time, extremely controversial, one that seemed to include an unforgivable lack of foresight, a ridiculous short-termism and a lack of respect for the club’s fans.
Cristante had tasted Champions League football by the age of 16. At 18, he helped Milan to the final of 2013’s Torneo di Viareggio, a prestigious annual youth tournament, picking up the competition’s best player award in the process.
One year on, he had established himself as one of the most exciting prospects to have graduated from Milan’s Primavera in many years. He made just three Serie A appearances in 2013-14, but within that short space of time, he showed a physical maturity and technical prowess that marked him out as one to watch closely.
He was composed in possession, could pick out a team-mate with a long-range pass, and could break the opposition’s lines with a through ball. He was strong enough to retain control under direct pressure, fast enough to escape said pressure with possession intact, and tough enough to get stuck in to his defensive duties. In two starts, he scored one goal and set up another. From midfield.
In short, the future was bright.
But then, as 2014’s summer transfer window came to a close, it emerged that this bright future had suddenly evaporated. At least it had as far as Milan were concerned. Portuguese giants Benfica signed Cristante for €6 million. Milanisti were apoplectic; neutrals were befuddled.
Milan had just finished eighth, their worst league position since 1998, and to top it all off, they had allowed their crown jewel to move on for what was, and still is, in the extravagant world of modern football, a relatively paltry sum. Cristante, this 19-year-old speck of hope on the horizon amid a bleak, barren present, was gone without so much as a buy-back clause for comfort.
Club vice-president Adriano Galliani attempted to explain the reasoning behind the move, telling reporters that the youngster was angling for more game time. “Cristante asked to go because there are too many players [ahead of him],” he told reporters. “We would have liked him to stay […] I suggested he go on a loan move to another Italian side but he said he did not want to play against Milan.”
Exactly how much truth was behind this reasoning remains unclear, and to this day, Cristante’s departure stands out as a confusing affair, particularly when considering that it came at a time when Filippo Inzaghi, formerly the player’s coach at youth team level, had just been appointed head coach of the first team.
Any notion of a new, youthful Milan was conclusively punctured then and there. The futuristic ideal had been an illusion all along. And all that was left were scratched heads and angry voices.
Last Sunday, Cristante played at the San Siro, but not for Milan. Instead, he came off Pescara’s substitute bench on 56 minutes, replacing Alberto Aquilani—ironically also an ex-Rossonero—as the away side chased the game.
Now 21, there was an overwhelming air of melancholy pervading his introduction to a stadium he once, even if only briefly, was able to call his own. However, the feeling didn’t stem from some sense of what might have been. There was, after all, no real anxiety surrounding his return.
Rather, the overarching melancholy came from the possibility that, perhaps, the fans and pundits had got it wrong. That perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, Milan had been right to sell Cristante.
The midfielder did his best to affect the game and, to his credit, put in a decent performance during his time on the pitch. But it wasn’t enough to alter the outcome. Pescara lost, Milan won, and nobody mentioned the transfer saga that, just two years previously, had been widely considered as an outrageous misjudgement.
Giacomo Bonaventura took an unconventional route to Milan. The elegant and versatile midfielder signed from Atalanta in the hours following Cristante’s sale to Benfica on September 1, 2014, but earlier that same day, he had been close to joining the Rossoneri’s local rivals.
“In the morning I was an Inter player, it was all done and dusted. We left Bergamo […] to complete the deal. Inter were meant to sell Fredy Guarin to open up a space for me, but in the end (he) was not sold,” Bonaventura later told Guerin Sportivo (h/t Football Italia). “I imagined I’d be staying at Atalanta and there was nothing more to be done. At 20:30 (Atalanta sporting director Pierpaolo) Marino […] said he’d received a phone call from Adriano Galliani, so we were heading to Milan headquarters.”
Bonaventura concluded that unpredictable and emotional day by signing a contract with Milan. As he put pen to paper, he cried.
His signature was Milan’s most expensive of that summer, but it was by no means an eye-watering outlay. A modest transfer fee of €7 million plus bonuses sealed the deal; essentially, Cristante’s exit had facilitated Bonaventura’s arrival.
At the time, this sequence of moves accumulated felt, at best, like a step sideways by Milan. To sign a respected 25-year-old creator from Atalanta, they had sold their prized 19-year-old prospect. But, over the past two years, the whole thing has gradually come to make sense.
Bonaventura asserted himself upon Milan’s first team immediately and impressed in his debut season, before six goals and eight assists in 2015-16 saw him become the club’s most important player. And he has continued in the same vein this term, with his intelligent match-winning free-kick against Pescara the latest evidence of his quality.
Cristante, on the other hand, has failed to leave his mark anywhere since his departure from Milan.
While still technically a Benfica player, he has made just one league start for the club in his two years contracted to them. This period has also included two loan spells away; one with Palermo last season, where he made one start, and with Pescara this term, where he has made seven starts thus far.
According to Galliani, Cristante joined Benfica due to a combination of his search for regular football and an unwillingness to play against Milan for another Serie A team. Yet, in a cruel twist, in order to attain frequent game time, he has been forced to do just that.
Cristante’s career move has yet to work out, and his appearance at the San Siro for Pescara last Sunday was a confirmation of this. And Bonaventura scoring the winning goal in the same game further suggested that Milan’s decision-making two years ago was correct; that, in the coming and going of players, they had accurately calculated the upside of both individuals and chosen the right one.
The hope of youth
In football, especially in times of crisis, youth offers a certain amount of hope. Two years ago, this is what Cristante represented to Milan fans. Nowadays, however, their dreams rest at the feet, or in the hands, of other youngsters.
The 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma astounds more and more with every passing week. His reflexes have often been the difference between winning and drawing, or drawing and losing. And 18-year-old regista Manuel Locatelli has scored two sublime goals of real importance while slotting seamlessly into a key midfield role.
These are the players around whom Milan’s future now revolves. And there are others, too, including 19-year-old right-back Davide Calabria, 21-year-old centre-back Alessio Romagnoli and 21-year-old forward M’Baye Niang.
The youth project Cristante’s sale was supposed to have scuppered has become reality. His departure seemed like a watershed moment in the club’s history, and it was. But, instead of acting as an open rejection of homegrown or inexperienced players, it instead heralded the beginning of an exciting new era.
Two years removed from the anger, the questions and the social media protestations, it is becoming increasingly clear that Milan’s decision to sell Cristante was a sensible one.