Passengers on one of Milan's old orange trams witnessed an odd sight on their commute this summer. As they slowly made their way through via Turati in the centre of the city, those looking out of the window caught a glimpse of a crowd that had gathered outside the office block where AC Milan's headquarters are located.
A ceremony was taking place. Prayers were read out, flowers laid and candles lit. The mood was mournful. It was a funeral for the club. Passers-by stopped to read the epitaph that the mourners had left at the entrance. "AC Milan December 16, 1899 — July 22, 2012," it read, "he lacked affection for his loved ones."
The sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain for £56 million had recently been confirmed despite the claims of chief executive Adriano Galliani a month earlier that "they will 99.9 per cent stay." When it first emerged that Milan were in serious negotiations to trade their two best players, protests weren't limited to the supporters.
The club's official TV station, the Milan Channel, broadcast a picture of Thiago Silva and Silvio Berlusconi with the message: "President, we're begging you, keep him." Talks with PSG were called off. Milan had listened. "Praying works," smiled Galliani. "The heart has won, not the head. We will not sell anyone. Ibra will stay too."
Milanisti could rest assured. There could surely be no greater guarantee than the news that Thiago Silva had also signed a new long-term contract for the next five years. A wave of gratitude washed over the club. Still what couldn't be washed away was the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't the end of it. Milan supporters had reason to be cynical.
First of all, they had been here before. They had stood under Kaka's window in the spring of 2009, watching him hold his No.22 shirt over the balcony, thinking now that the club had resisted a reported £91m offer from Manchester City, he'd be at the club for the rest of his career. As it happened, he lasted until the summer when Milan sold him to his preferred destination, Real Madrid.
Second, the announcement of Thiago Silva's new deal on July 2 came only two days before season tickets went on general release. Was the timing a simple coincidence? Had his and Ibrahimovic's move to Paris Saint-Germain simply been put back until later in the transfer window, so season ticket sales wouldn't suffer, but benefit instead from the enthusiasm generated in the expectation that they'd stay.
It certainly felt that way later in the month when they did leave. Many felt duped by the marketing campaign which included the clichéd 'new signings' Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic, along with captain Massimo Ambrosini, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Nocerino in Milan's new kit. Supporters threatened to bring a class action against the club for false advertising leading Galliani to promise to refund any dissatisfied customers.
As of today, Milan have only sold 22,106 season tickets. They are available to buy until the middle of September but, for now, it's the lowest figure posted during the Berlusconi era at the club and a far cry from 1992 when 71,895 were purchased. Back then, Milan were all conquering. They had finished the previous season unbeaten under Fabio Capello and had bought Jean-Pierre Papin, Dejan Savicevic and Gigi Lentini not because they had to but because they could.
A new age has begun. Since Milan's holding company Fininvest had its fingers burned after a civil court of appeal ruled last year that it must pay £445m in compensation to CIR for damages caused when judicial corruption tipped the scales in their favour in the takeover of Italy's leading publishing company, Mondadori in 1991, there has been a desire to see the club stand on its own two feet.
However, annual losses of £50m, a high payroll, a collectively-bargained TV right deals less favourable than those negotiated on an individual basis and the presence of Financial Fair Play on the horizon have made that difficult without "painful but necessary" decisions. It's within this context that the sales of Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic must be considered for the good of the club. In addition to the £56m fee, they're set to save a further £85m in wages.
"Seeing Milan sell its two best players in one fell swoop has an effect on you," former Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, now at Swiss club Sion, said. "But I ask myself a question: is it better to sell Ibra and Thiago Silva or make thousands of Fininvest workers redundant? If other business aren't doing well and have to make cuts, why should football be made an exception?"
"The financial situation doesn't allow spending any longer like in the early '90s," reflected Berlusconi. "We have to build a great team thanks to youngsters and through a scouting network. Barcelona did it that way. Remember that the stellar Milan started like this: from Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta."
Galliani, meanwhile, has been taking inspiration from Moneyball. "I like to think of myself this way and hope it's a good omen for Milan," he explained, no doubt referring to a colpo alla Nocerino. "Billy Beane's team was considered inferior to the others and yet they realised great objectives." Supporters have sneered at this suggestion. Traditionally Milan are to football what the New York Yankees are to baseball. They are not the Oakland As.
While that may be so, it's also true that the paradigm has shifted. Milan's place in the game — seen from the perspective that they were the Manchester City and PSG of the late '80s and '90s — has changed and, after 26 trophies in 25 years of Berlusconi, fans are having to get used to a new reality where the club can't compete in the way that it once did. Not for the moment anyway.
It's a brave new world. One that Milan are facing up to without legends like Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi who either left the club this summer after more than a decade of distinguished service or, in the latter's case, hung up their boots and accepted a coaching role with one of the Rossoneri's youth teams.
While only two of them were still playing regularly, their influence around the first-team training pitch at Milanello and in the dressing room at San Siro will be sorely missed, especially if Gattuso's claim to France Football was true that "in the last two or three months I noticed things I have never seen in 13 years at Milan… There was a lack of respect for the rules."
Milan have lost pillars and cornerstones. But if the house was back on a sound financial footing what about the team after the exits of 12 players? There was a sense that with limited resources available to him, coach Massimiliano Allegri would now really have to show the qualities that saw him beat Jose Mourinho to the Panchina d'Oro [Coach of the Year award] while at Cagliari in 2009. Without a go-to guy like Ibrahimovic, an individual who the team depended on too often, optimists thought that there was an opportunity here for a more collective effort, that Milan might become greater than the sum of the parts, and that the willingness of the papers to write off their chances would galvanise the players.
So far, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Indeed, it's been a depressing first week of the season for Milan. First there was Alexandre Pato's latest injury, his 15th in two seasons, which will keep him out for a month-and-a-half. Then there were the shots fired across the bow from Antonio Cassano, citing promises that hadn't been kept, after he traded places with his former team-mate and Gemello del Gol, Giampaolo Pazzini at rivals Inter. The general malaise was felt at San Siro on Sunday afternoon as Milan played out their opening game of the season at home to Sampdoria in front of a crowd of 36,288, a modest figure made all the starker in the cavernous surroundings of the ground.
Banners were unfurled, among them, "August 31, we are waiting patiently." Signings are expected, such as that of Caen striker M'Baye Niang, a teenager of great potential, and Bojan, to add to the other new arrivals, centre-backs Cristian Zapata and Francesco Acerbi, midfielders Riccardo Montolivo and Kevin Constant, and, as mentioned above, a centre-forward in Pazzini. They, however, have some very large shoes to fill and stumbled at the feet of a young Sampdoria side who'd only earned promotion from Serie B via the play-offs after finishing sixth last season.
Despite hitting the woodwork twice and seeing another effort cleared off the line, Milan underwhelmed — Kevin-Prince Boateng's girlfriend Melissa Satta yawned from the stands — as they succumbed to a headed goal from Andrea Costa, going down to a 1-0 defeat.
La Gazzetta dello Sport tried to look on the bright side, reminding its readers of the last time that Milan lost and Inter won on the opening day of the season. It was 53 years ago when the Rossoneri were shocked 3-1 by Alessandria. On that day, they were undone by a 16-year-old called Gianni Rivera, who, in doing so, would persuade Milan to buy him.
"That Milan of the 1959-60 season," wrote Luigi Garlando, "the one that collapsed to Alessandria, then went on to finish ahead of Inter and started again through Rivera. They started to equip the team that would soon conquer the world. If the finances no longer allow the glorious blitzes of before, this is the path to follow: the youngsters."
At the moment the road back to where Milan once were seems particularly long and arduous. But at least there's hope and solace to be found in history that it is the right one.