Ivan Gazidis has given a long interview to il Corriere della Sera, saying ‘anyone who tries to protect the club is seen as the Devil, but that is not the case.’
Gazidis landed at Milanello in December 2018 and on the surface he has everything to be the person an average fan dislikes: a director chosen by an investment fund to get the accounts back in order, who immediately faced a year of suspension from European competition and who let Gianluigi Donnarumma leave on a free because of salary demands.
A closer look shows things are more complex. And not only because Milan came in second last season and now have a more solid financial situation than many other Serie A clubs, but rather because Ivan, the son of two South African anti-apartheid activists, has a new model in mind.
After quite a while in charge of Milan, the unexpected happened: during a routine check Gazidis was diagnosed with throat cancer, a treatable form of cancer that took him to New York to undergo specialized treatment. And this is when Gazidis discovered that he is in fact more liked than expected.
The Milan CEO gave a long interview to il Corriere della Sera’s Sette, which you can read here:
Gazidis, how are you doing?
“I feel good. I’m very busy, I manage to combine work and therapies. They seem to be having positive effects, they make me confident for a full recovery, I hope to be back as soon as possible.”
You therefore manage to follow Milan from afar…
“Yes, of course. I saw the great match against Cagliari and seeing San Siro alive again was exciting. I felt like I was in the Curva.”
Did you feel the affection of the fans?
“I was speechless due to the messages I got from the big Milan family. All this is giving me an incredible energy. Now I understand what the players feel when they feel the push of the fans at the stadium.”
This summer, a spectacular goal by you in Milanello, on an assist from Ibra, was circulating on social media… a revelation: did you play?
“I wanted to become a professional, at 14-15 I was playing in the second division. I was a fast defender, then I became a midfielder and finally a striker; I realized that there was more glory up front! I even played against Arsenal once. But if you are the CEO of Milan they give you all the compliments, while at that time they were complaining about my crooked shots…”
You England side lost the EUROs against Italy…
“My son was very disappointed! But it was great that Mancini broke down all the stereotypes about Italian football.”
This England team is made up of many young players launched by the youth program that you also worked on at Arsenal. Young players are also the backbone of Milan. Can you explain your project?
“My experience began in the USA, where the success of the MLS depends on training young American players. In the Premier League, we have completely renewed the development of English players, the clubs were given incentives to develop the Academies, but you had to meet very high standards. At Arsenal, a lot of money was invested in a program for 9-16 year olds: we chose a completely international staff. Players who were 12-year-olds at that time are now national team players, like Saka, Sancho and others. The philosophy was not to protect them from competition, but rather to expose them: therefore, it’s not the obligation to have a certain number of English players in the team, but the obligation to respect certain standards, so the English players had to live up to them.”
Should Italy take a cue?
“No one can think today of winning only with already-established Champions. I think Italian football is a bit conservative, like English football was 10 years ago, it has to look not only ahead but also outside – there are interesting ideas around. But something is changing, the National team is proving it.”
What is the strength of Milan?
“I give a lot of credit to Pioli’s leadership, he’s a curious man who follows how football evolves, but to the hunger of the players. I read a very interesting book, The Captain Class, it talks about the tug of war: there are studies – when one person pulls against another, he develops a certain strength; when there are 8 people on one side and 8 people on the other side, and we discover that the individual puts in less. Because in the corner of his brain he thinks that someone else will take his responsibility for him. There are players whose influence goes beyond the performance on the pitch, it develops in the 5% who give more to all the others. Ibra is like that. But also Kjær is a leader, and with different styles also Kessié and Bennacer.”
But you’ve lost one of them: Donnarumma. Are you sure you did well?
“I don’t want to talk about the specific case, but I can say what is happening: football no longer has benefactor owners. It’s a model that changed 30 years ago, with the arrival of TV rights money: a lot of money, no cost control. This continued to grow until it was no longer €10-20-30 million a year, but €100m: many owners had to back down, entire states entered football. In this context, anyone who tries to protect the club is seen as the Devil, but that’s not the case.”
You think of yourself, I imagine…
“It’s easy to look good but put the team at risk. Then you maybe leave, and the team is left with problems. People who say ‘no’ are demonized and this creates great pressure to continue spending. But you can’t spend forever. Whoever says ‘no’ is just brave enough to put the team ahead of them. Because the system starting to break down. And then COVID came along.”
Which had a devastating effect…
“We haven’t seen it completely yet. I know the fans are returning to the stadium and you may think it’s all in the past, but it’s not. We, at Milan, don’t want to say ‘no’ to ambition, but instead give the club the strength to build a successful, independent future. People talk about €10m as if it were not real money, but in the end you have to pay the bills: I want Milan to be strong enough to do that. Otherwise, there is always a dream that needs to be safeguarded, but this club doesn’t need to be safeguarded, it needs to be build. And if it is built well then it will stand on its own two feet and look forward. I said from Day 1 that it would be difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions are needed. But the fans are starting to understand our model: two and a half years ago there was lot of skepticism, inside and outside the team, now there isn’t – people are supporting us.”
But after a second place expectations will grow…
“We like high expectations! You can finish first or fifth but what matters is to show that you can have confidence in the club. We were among the few in the world in a position to invest in the summer, Milan are growing from an economic point of view and people are once again proud to be Milan fans. What matters is to build this sense of belonging, otherwise it’s just a matter of watching millionaires kick a ball.”
At what point is the new stadium?
“We are ready. The sooner we do it, the sooner Milan will have no only a world-class stadium, but two world-class teams, will also be important for the city: people will come to Milano and it will be one of the places they’ll want to visit, like the Duomo.”
If the football crisis is real, the Super League was not the right answer…
“No, it wasn’t, but when you are in trouble you can also lose your clarity. The problems have remained and must be faced together: clubs, UEFA, FIFA – because the crisis has not passed and it is not time for anyone to declare victory. The issue of governance is fundamental: we must remember that everything is based on the clubs.”
But does the Financial Fair Play still exist? Looking at PSG it would seem not…
“Milan will have to answer a series of questions about their financial health in October. So yes, the FFP still exists. We, who wanted a sustainable football project, were punished with a one-year suspension from the European competitions. I accept it but the rules must be the same for everyone. Are they? UEFA must be asked, its credibility is at stake.”
There is racism in Calcio: Milan have drawn up a Manifesto against discrimination, but is it enough?
“Sometimes it’s easy to get depressed, but I remain optimistic: football is a fantastic example of inclusion that produces results and, at the same time, friendship. The guys who follow football see a Muslim for what he can do as a player and as a man. Kessié is not a black man, he is a hero.”
The new generations move away from football or look at it differently: they are no longer in front of the TV for 90 minutes. Are you gearing up to handle these changes?
“It is a complex issue: for example, young people are choosing to follow initiatives that can be ‘connected’. In my day, one could have an interest in football and in parallel one in music and fashion – now they want to unite these worlds. In the era of TikTok, the challenge is challenge is to understand where the future interested parties are: Milan collaborates with Roc Nation [Jay Z’s agency] and looks for to have influence in other markets in order to intercept young people where they are, not where we think they should be. It works: we are one of the clubs that has involved the largest number of new interested parties. But in the end, the fans need to recognize themselves in a community: our founder, Herbert Kiplin, would have liked this as well, we just have to translate it into a current language. Do I think this need is perceived in football? I don’t. Most directors are old white men: a generational change is needed, with voices ready for experimentation.”