One of the biggest red flags in Yonghong Li’s tenure as Milan owner came before the Chinese businessman had even taken over the club.
In October 2016, Li was head of a consortium called Sino-Europe Sports which was looking to buy the Rossoneri from Silvio Berlusconi. With the takeover effectively having to be paid for in instalments and a lack of clarity over who made up the group, the potential new owners sought to bring a club legend on board to placate fans.
The historic club has more than its fair share of iconic figures, but when you think of a Milan legend only one name comes to mind: Paolo Maldini.
The former defender spent his entire career with Milan, making 902 appearances as he played beyond his 40th birthday. Maldini’s trophy cabinet makes for ridiculous reading, with seven Scudetti, five European Cups, four UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and the Coppa Italia.
When he retired from football in 2009 it seemed inevitable he’d be given a role with the Rossoneri, as Javier Zanetti would with Inter a few years later. Reported tensions with the ownership, and in particular CEO Adriano Galliani, put paid to that, but with a new regime coming in the time was surely right for Maldini to come home.
Except it wasn’t. Paolo Maldini, Mr Milan, rejected the opportunity to work with Yonghong Li and Marco Fassone, blaming a lack of transparency - the former left-back never met with any of the Chinese owners - and predicting that there wasn’t “the basis for a winning project”.
“Milan has always been a matter of heart and passion for me,” Maldini explained at the time. “My history, my father’s history and my children prove it, and no-one can take this bond with the Rossoneri colours away from us. This very strong link obligates me to be careful, precise and professional in accepting a job I’m offered.”
Maldini could never accept being a mere figurehead, far less one for an unstable and shady ownership. Of all the warning signs about Li, many ignored or outright rejected by a section of the Milan support, the fact he couldn’t convince the Rossoneri’s greatest legend to work for the club he loves was perhaps the most glaring.
When the owner was finally ousted by Elliott Management, the hedge fund from whom he’d borrowed money to finance his takeover, there was again concern about how the club would be handled.
The early signs were good, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturning UEFA’s decision to bar Milan from the Europa League, the decision reached in part due to a more stable ownership situation. Former player and Coach Leonardo returned as technical director, and strengthened the squad with Mattia Caldara and Gonzalo Higuain.
Then, yesterday, it was officially announced that Maldini will be returning to the club. The living legend will become the Diavolo’s strategic development director, and the fact he accepted the role proves there is a more convincing and sustainable project in place at Casa Milan these days.
It’s not all sunshine of course. Maldini’s retirement wasn’t befitting of his legendary status, marred as it was by pointed jibes from the club’s ultras. For his final match against Roma, the Curva Sud unveiled a huge banner saying “there’s only one capitano” - but bearing Franco Baresi’s number 6 rather than Maldini’s 3.
Never one to bow to public opinion, the legendary defender had at times been critical of the ultras during his career, with another banner accusing Maldini of having “no respect for those who made you rich”. It was a shameful way for his glorious career to end.
Time heals all wounds though, and Maldini’s return has been met with almost universal positivity. The fact that the 50-year-old refused to bow either to the ultras or to Yonghong Li proves that he’s his own man, not simply a face and a name for others to hide behind.
Paolo Maldini is back where he belongs, and his endorsement of the new regime is perhaps the greatest source of reassurance Milan fans could hope for.