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Milan ultras provide another lesson in the unfortunate irony of modern fandom

AC Milan v Novara Calcio  - Serie A

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 13: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan looks on during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Novara Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 13, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

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A small, obvious, but still brilliant part of soccer’s information age has been the acknowledgement of fan knowledge: the general acceptance supporters know more about their team than most media, particularly media on regional or national beats. This seems so obvious to us now that it’s hard to believe there was a time when this wasn’t a given. Of course people who live and bleed their teams are likely to know more than somebody synthesizing a league’s worth of data. Just because that knowledge wasn’t punched through a typewriter, put through a press and offered on a street corner didn’t mean it failed to exist.

Having knowledge, however, is not the same as using it wisely. People who’ve built reputations in the soccer information business use more than mere knowledge. They are the best filters of that information. They take the data and describe with a completeness - an even-handedness - that’s rarely seen in fan forums. When that description requires them to step onto one side of a debate, they made sure they’ve covered all relevant angles, assuring their depictions can transcend any reasonable accusations of partisanship.

Fanaticism is inherently partisan. You can’t cover yourself in a team’s colors and pretend they don’t obscure your view. At a minimum, it becomes a call you don’t get to make. If you’re conveying information about the Columbus Crew under a yellow and black banner, you’re forcing the reader to pause and consider motive.

In a vast majority of instances, issues are so cut-and-dry that partisanship has no effect on how information is processed. After all, 5-0 loss is bad no matter how much you support the Portland Timbers. How poorly the team played is a little more open to interpretation, though when you throw out the extreme voices on a given message board/comment thread, most fans people see the world through a similar prism.

But there are rare occasions where that prism screws everything up, usually on issues that hit at club identity. We saw this last year with Liverpool when many fans blindly followed Kenny Dalglish’s defense of Luis Suarez. For most fans, opposing Dalglish’s stance on Suarez was tantamount to turning their back on the club. Such was Kenny Dalglish’s stature at Liverpool. Such is the nature of being a supporter.

We also saw this late last season in Genoa, when fans lept onto the field to demand players remove their shirts. It was a powerful measure, one that brought about emotional responses from the team, but it was also completely inappropriate. An emotional response turned dangerous, with fans turning to violence in defense of the identity they’d ascribed to the club.

A similar identity crisis is developing in Milan, and as with the cases in Liverpool and Genoa, fans are letting their passion supersede their judgment. AC Milan ultras are protesting summer transfer window business that’s seen seven prominent players leave the club. A class action lawsuit on the part of season ticket holders alleges false advertising. The club’s started reimbursements. President Silvio Berlusconi is considering making a video addressing the uprising, while supporters recently held a funeral in front of club headquarters commemorating the team’s death.

AC Milan's Alessandro Nesta greets supporters at the end of the Serie A soccer match against Novara in Milan

After a decade at Milan, defender Alessandro Nesta left the club this summer. (Photo: Reuters)


It’s a harsh stance, one that looks downright foolish when you look at the seven transfers. For most of the season it was assumed many of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Pippo Inzaghi and Mark Van Bommel go. Was it shocking to see them all leave together? Of course, especially the first four names, but the five-some averaged 35.8 years old and 11.2 starts. Milan could have been sentimental and kept a couple of them, but the club’s decision to move on is justifiable. It certainly shouldn’t spur a mass uprising.

Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are another story, but consistent with the history of international soccer, every player has a price. Juventus had theirs for Zinedine Zidane. Manchester United had theirs for Cristiano Ronaldo. Just three years ago, Milan had theirs for Kaká, a more clearly motivated by money. The same reasoning applies to the Silva-Ibrahimovic sale. As James Horncastle noted on Twitter, the wages saved combined with the transfer fees mean Milan nets €170 million.

Deconstructed, Milan’s summer business seems to be seven individually justifiable player moves, none of which were done capriciously. Had Paris Saint-Germain not backed an armored truck up to Via Turati, Milan would have probably held on to Silva and Ibrahimovic, and the club certainly could have moved on from their veterans sooner (Inzaghi was 38 and only make seven league appearances last year). Fans, scared the moves signal a new, less competitive era for Milan, are left protesting good business, demonstrations reminiscent of an infant rebelling against a parent’s “No.”

You won’t find many with distance from Milan (emotional or physical) questioning the Rossoneri’s moves. They were tough decisions, but they were probably good ones. At a minimum, they’re decisions fans should understand, even if they don’t agree with them. There’s no need for funerals, law suits, or the kind of self-defeating view that would keep Milan a loyal-if-old team that could never balance their books for fear of ultra reaction to their taking advantage of a seller’s market.

Then there is that small, obvious irony belying the entire story. None of these assessments - be they about aging players or the sale of Milan’s stars - are news to Rossoneri supporters. They know more about Milan than any of us. They know the team was old. They know the club could use money. They know the recent past has seen the high-priced sale of Kaká and the painful departure of Andrea Pirlo. And they know that over the last two seasons, Milan’s had the best team. Still, they protest. They hold their funerals. They file suits.

Understandably, emotion has gotten the best of them. One year removed from winning Serie A, fans have seen a vision of a vastly less-competitive Milan, but with the Rossoneri rumored to be in for Montpelier’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (arguably the best young defender in Ligue 1), it seems unlikely Berlusconi will merely pocket the money. The club still has Alexandre Pato, Robinho, and Alessandro Cassano. They still have Antonio Nocerino, Maximo Ambrosini and Kevin Prince-Boateng. They’ve added Ricardo Montolivo and will bring back the likes of Ignazio Abate, Philippe Mexes, Mathieu Flamini and Sulley Muntari. They should still be a very good team. If they spend some of PSG’s money, they could be a title-contending one.

Not that any this needs to be told to any Milanistas. They know their club is still decent. They know Berlusconi has consistently funded competitive, trophy-winning teams. They just need this moment. Milan ultras need this moment to vent, to act on the emotion spawn from seeing so many favorites go.

But once that emotion is gone, hopefully they can have a good laugh at themselves. A funeral for the Rossoneri? It’s all so dramatic.