The longer time goes on, the harder it gets to shake off the feeling that there is something wrong with AC Milan's No. 9 shirt.
Since Filippo Inzaghi retired in 2012, the nine players who have worn his old jersey have scored 29 Serie A goals between them. By way of comparison, that's only two goals more than Lazio striker Ciro Immobile—Serie A's current top scorer—had netted in the six months before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The experience of Krzysztof Piatek, Milan's most recent No. 9, only served to fuel talk that the shirt is cursed. After a prolific start to the 2018-19 season with Genoa, Piatek joined Milan in January 2019 but was told by then-sporting director Leonardo that the right to wear the No. 9 jersey would have to be "earned."
With the No. 19 on his back, Piatek scored nine Serie A goals in the second half of the season and was rewarded with the No. 9 shirt. Then he stopped scoring. The Poland international notched only four league goals for Milan in the first half of the current campaign and was sold to Hertha Berlin in January.
The roll-call of strikers who have worn Milan's No. 9 shirt since Inzaghi hung up his boots eight years ago features both rising stars like Piatek, Mattia Destro and Andre Silva, and proven goalscorers such as Fernando Torres and Gonzalo Higuain. All have tried, and all have failed.
"I think there's something supernatural, a kind of spell," says Benedetta Radaelli, a Milan supporter and presenter on Italian television channel Sport Mediaset. "Since Inzaghi, nobody has had any luck. I think his body and his energy are still inside that shirt, because he loved the shirt so much. If I were AC Milan, I would withdraw it. It's so unlucky. Put it in some place where nobody can touch it or look at it."
The sorry tale begins with Alexandre Pato, the Brazilian prodigy whose sad, injury-triggered decline had already set in by the time he swapped his No. 7 shirt for Inzaghi's old number in the summer of 2012. After six injury-plagued months in which he failed to score a single league goal, he returned to Brazil with Corinthians.
Alessandro Matri, an August 2013 signing from Juventus, scored only one goal in 15 league games before being loaned out to Fiorentina the following January, never to return. Two players wore the No. 9 the following season—Torres in the campaign's first half, Destro in the second—but the pair amassed only four league goals between them. Inzaghi, back at Milan as head coach that season and exasperated by the lack of reliable options up front, ended up deploying French winger Jeremy Menez as a striker for much of the campaign.
Recruited from Shakhtar Donetsk in July 2015, Luiz Adriano wore the No. 9 without distinction for a single season before passing it on to Gianluca Lapadula, who had scored goals for fun with Pescara in Serie B but found the going a little tougher in Serie A. Highly regarded Portugal international Silva, signed as part of new Chinese owner Li Yonghong's chaotic €200 million transfer splurge in the summer of 2017, fared no better.
Higuain arrived on loan from Juventus in August 2018 and dismissed talk of a curse, declaring: "I have already worn a few shirts which carry a heavy burden, so the No. 9 shirt here isn't a problem." But after five months, and only six Serie A goals, he decided to re-join forces with Maurizio Sarri, his former Napoli mentor, at Chelsea. Enter (and then, swiftly, exit) Piatek.
Five Milan strikers have hit double figures in Serie A goals in the post-Inzaghi era—Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Pazzini, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Bacca and Patrick Cutrone—but none reached the 20-goal mark and none were wearing the famous number. Synonymous with goals in the days of Marco van Basten, George Weah and Inzaghi, the jersey now lies vacant, a sacred garment turned poisoned chalice. And with each new failure, the pressure to break the curse grows even stronger.
"The AC Milan shirt is so heavy, especially now," says Alessandra Bocci, who reports on Milan for La Gazzetta dello Sport. "They've been in crisis for many years, so every year it gets heavier and heavier."
Mark Hateley is not easily given to sentimentality, but on the wall of his study at his home just outside Glasgow he has mounted one of the Milan No. 9 shirts that he wore during his time at the club in the 1980s.
Signed from Portsmouth in the summer of 1984 to spearhead a Milan team being rebuilt after relegation two years previously, he swiftly endeared himself to Rossoneri fans by scoring a trademark header against Inter Milan that gave his new club a first derby victory in six years.
As the son of a celebrated striker (his late father, Tony, played up front for Notts County, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Liverpool, among others), Hateley knows more than most about unhelpful comparisons. He says he embarked upon life in Milan without giving a thought to the players that had worn his shirt before him.
"I've never gone into a team and thought, 'Who's gone before?'" he tells Bleacher Report. "You can only be as good as you can be, so just go and be your best."
Silvio Berlusconi's arrival as owner in 1986 propelled Milan into a new dimension, and Hateley, who left San Siro a year later, says the golden era that followed under the management of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello created a burden of expectation that dogs the club's players to this day.
"It's about being in the right place at the right time," says the former England striker, who now works in a business development role at his old club Rangers. "The expectations of Milan go back now to the days of Van Basten, [Ruud] Gullit and [Frank] Rijkaard, Paolo Maldini, [Alessandro] Costacurta and Franco Baresi. The heady, European days. You go to a football club that has been really, really successful and that's what the fans will always crave. You see a No. 9 running around now, and they probably can't emulate what was happening back then. It's out of your control."
Milan's fans may still expect the best, but economic realities mean that the club can no longer compete for the world's most sought-after players. Where once Milan led the way in the transfer market, setting four world transfer records between 1954 and 1992, they now find themselves sidelined by the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City. Milan have never spent more on a single player than the €42 million they shelled out (unsuccessfully, as it transpired) to prise Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus in July 2017. When it comes to spending big, the modern superclubs have left them behind.
In an increasingly competitive market for an increasingly small group of elite centre-forwards, Milan have often been obliged to take punts on unproven young strikers—Silva, Piatek, 2019 recruit Rafael Leao—who have not delivered. It has not helped that the strikers that have come in have joined unsuccessful squads fumbling around for an identity, rather than the battle-hardened, trophy-winning lineups of years gone by.
"If you join a mechanism, a group, a system that works, it's different," says Bocci. "[Andriy] Shevchenko was a phenomenal player, but it was easier for him because he was playing with Rui Costa, Maldini, [Alessandro] Nesta, Jaap Stam and players like that. Pato was very young but arrived in a good system with very big players. Rafael Leao is not Pato, of course, but he joined a poor Milan."
If the gulf between Milan's past and present continues to yawn, there is one player who straddles both eras. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, emblem of Milan's last Scudetto success in 2011, has scored three goals in eight league outings since returning to the club from L.A. Galaxy on a six-month deal in December, and although he was wearing the No. 21 shirt prior to the season's suspension, there are those who believe he could be the solution to the No. 9 hex.
"If someone scored with the Milan No. 9 on his back, then I am happy," Inzaghi told Sky Sport Italia in January. "So let's end this 'curse'. It's not right to retire the No. 9, because someone must always wear it, but I hope that Ibra—if he stays—decides to take it on, because he's got broad enough shoulders to carry it off."
Ibrahimovic, now 38, has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and with a career average of 0.56 goals per game in the No. 9 shirt, which he has previously worn at Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona, Manchester United and L.A. Galaxy, it does not seem like an assignment that would give him sleepless nights.
In the meantime, speculation is beginning to mount over the identity of the next player who will be invited to don the ill-fated jersey. Milan have been linked to Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik and Mauro Icardi, who is currently on loan at PSG from Inter. However, Jean-Pierre Papin, another former wearer of the red and black No. 9 shirt, has urged the club to make a move for Edinson Cavani.
As far as Hateley is concerned, Milan's No. 9 shirt is not a millstone to be avoided but a prize to be seized with both hands.
"If I was going to Milan right now, I'd be thinking, 'Right, I'm going to be the best No. 9 that has been here for a long, long time,'" he says. "And that would drive me to be that No. 9 who could be part of folklore forever. That's the sort of mentality you have to take going into big clubs. You have to have broad enough shoulders to carry the expectations."
For now, the curse of the No. 9 shirt endures. But someday, surely, somebody will succeed in pulling the sword from the stone.