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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for and and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


Milan – Cut-Price Magpie Rather Than Thieving

Written by on January 6, 2011 | 5 Comments »
Posted in Milan

The Italian Serie A season got underway again on Thursday. Much of the focus will be on Milan as league leaders.  A very interesting transfer strategy also means that controversy, bickering and out of control egos may be a plenty at the San Siro.

Throughout history the magpie has been assigned mythical qualities by many cultures. Many of the beliefs are contradictory. Some regard the sight of a single magpie as a sign of pending misfortune; another that a single bird perched on a roof indicates that the house will never fall. A singing magpie in China is seen as a foreteller of good luck; Native Americans consider the bird to be a friend and helper. In Scotland the magpie was for many centuries believed to have carried a drop of the Devil’s blood.

It is thought by many that the magpie features so often in cultural and superstitious beliefs because of its intelligence and chatter that can be mistaken for human speech. In Italy the bird is known as “gazza” and the Italian word for newspaper “gazetta” is derived from it.

One of the commonly held beliefs is that magpies are attracted to shiny objects and often steal and hide them. Nearly two hundred years ago an Italian composer took that idea and turned it into an opera. Rossini wrote La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and it debuted on May 31, 1817 at the Teatro all Scala in Milan.

Now 194 years later in the same city, AC Milan seems intent on putting together a magpie-like collection – of players. Perhaps not as shiny as they once were but nonetheless these players still carry some sparkle and lustre. Antonio Cassano has become the latest in a line of slightly tarnished attacking and creative players to make their way to the San Siro in cut-price deals.

Where in years past, Milan would operate at the high-end of the market and sign the best and the brightest (for example Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Weah, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko) and pay accordingly; but now the club appears to be one of the first to realize that the current economic climate offers up some very interesting bargains for careful and strategic “shoppers”.

Barcelona and Manchester City forked over hefty transfer fees for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho but they quickly found out the meaning of buyer-beware. As it became patently clear that the moves were not going to work out they soon discovered that the market for such players is very limited. They also discovered they were never going to fully recover their investments or even come close.

And that is where Milan’s strategy comes into play. The Italian club has rapidly become a haven for high-maintenance mercurial talent in need of another “nest.”

As an alternate home Milan ticks many of the boxes that any self-respecting narcissistic soccer superstar is looking for. One of the world’s great teams in one of the world’s great soccer cities, renowned stadium, passionate fans and an owner who has a knack of hitting the headlines whether he wants to or not.

In fact a move to Milan is now almost enough to cover the tracks of failure and to soothe any damaged ego – no matter the size.

Milan’s Magpie-Like Signings

Ronaldinho signed for Milan from Barcelona for a fee of around $21M in 2008. Not a lot of money when you consider Milan got a former World Player of the Year and he was still only 28 at the time. It looks certain that Ronaldinho will be leaving San Siro (perhaps as early as this week) before the transfer window closes at the end of this month.

David Beckham signed two deals with Milan that took him on-loan from Los Angeles Galaxy. The last one was cut short with an Achilles injury suffered while playing for Milan. Beckham will not return to the San Siro for a third straight winter.

Robinho joined Manchester City in the summer of 2008 from Real Madrid for a British record transfer fee of around $50M. There were flashes of genius but they were few and far between. Attitude and a lack of application allowed Milan to sign the Brazilian star for about 50% of what City paid to get him from Madrid.

They may well turn out to be one of the greatest teams ever, but for Barcelona, the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2009 was an extremely costly gamble that failed. Ibrahimovic’s move from Inter to Barcelona is commonly accepted as the second highest transfer fee of all-time once the move in the opposite direction of Samuel Eto’o is factored in.

However, Barcelona found that a deep discount was necessary if any club was to rid them of the troublesome Swede. Milan stepped in to strike a very lucrative, risk-adverse and potentially game-changing deal to acquire the services of Ibrahimovic.

This season he is on-loan at the San Siro with an option to buy for $32M – about a third of the estimated 2009 fee – this summer.

The latest “burnished” object to land at the San Siro is Antonio Cassano. A decade ago he moved from Bari to Roma for around $40M – the relationship lasted five years and often stretched the patience of manager Fabio Capello (Roma 1999 to 2004) to breaking point.

When he refused to sign a contract extension Roma had no option but to sell him to Real Madrid in January 2006 for a cut price fee of a little under $7M or risk receiving nothing for him when his contract expired in the summer of the same year.

Ironically, Cassano crossed paths again with Capello when he took over Real Madrid in the summer of 2006. It set off another round of skirmishes, suspensions and being left out of the line up.

In 2007 Sampdoria stepped in to take the bad boy off of Madrid’s hands. Hopes that he had finally settled down disintegrated in the fall of last year with another row which precipitated legal action and ultimately another cut price move, this time to Milan.

Five players, all special players in some way or another. All have spent varying amounts of time with either Real Madrid or Barcelona and all have moved to Milan. At least three players (Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Cassano) look set to share the same dressing room.

If Milan Manager Massimiliano Allegri can keep the peace and bring success then achieving a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East should be his next trick.

Milan are away to Cagliari on Thursday before hosting Udinese this Sunday. Milan currently leads Serie A by three points from Napoli and Lazio with Juventus a further two points behind.

Milan’s last Serie A title came in the 2003/04 season.

5 responses to “Milan – Cut-Price Magpie Rather Than Thieving”

  1. Ursusarctos says:


    Anthropology …

    Ornithology …

    Linguistics …

    Musicology …

    All in the first 3 paragraphs!

    Not to mention a sly reference later to Italian politics – you only missed noting Milan’s place as one of the world centres of fashion, which would have tied nicely into the Beckham circus’ stops in town and Ibra’s love of striking a pose.

    Sports journalism is not supposed to be cultured. You’re ruining me for the Daily Mail …

    Interesting thoughts on RA using the purchase of CFC as an “insurance policy” against conflict with the Russian govt in the discussion of your midweek roundup, btw.

    I can’t for the life of me remember where, but I recall reading a similar suggestion several years ago: CFC was seen as a politically acceptable offshore asset diversification play by RA to help insure against politico-financial risk (such as the 1998 Russian default), that would also serve the ego side of the equation in a way another “asset class” wouldn’t.

    (At the time I wondered what the long-term risk-return profile of a PL club was …)

    Of course, that idea and yours are not mutually exclusive.

  2. I have a Manchester United – Liverpool column ready for tomorrow that will be turned upside down if Hodgson is sacked. The Liverpool board need to take this into consideration!

  3. Shawn says:

    Bobby I just want to Throw Two More Names Into ur Basket what about Rivaldo,Ronaldo’s Move to Milan???

  4. Rossoneri Red Devil says:

    After Borriello’s success last term, the last thing I expected was for Milan to remake a forward line that already included the likes of he, Ronaldihno, Pato, and Inzaghi. I was hoping for investment at goalkeeper, right and left back, or perhaps maybe even adding a young star to the midfield. So when Ibra and Robihno were brought in, I was wondering what the heck they were doing improving an already successful and star-filled attacking force, while neglecting how exposed their defense was against the top Italian squads and Champions League opponents.
    Seven months later, and Galliani’s moves look like shear brilliance. Abbiati has stablized the goalkeeping position. Abate and Antonini could still be looked at as weak links in the squad, but have been a part of a defense that has allowed the fewest goals in Serie A. Now with the addition of Cassano, Milan has a forward lineup that is arguably more talented than any in the world, and although it comes with tons of baggage, cost half as much as those at Madrid, Barca, and Man City.
    This squad is the best AC Milan group since the 07 Champions League Winner. I am tentatively excited about this season, and feel like we are back as a contender in Italy and Europe. Tentative though, because I know that this group of egos could be a powder keg about to blow. If Allegri can keep these egos in check, it will undoubetly be an even more impressive managerial performance than getting that scrappy Cagliari group to 9th place a couple of seasons ago.

  5. RRD – Nice to hear from you again. – Bobby

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