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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mighty Are Fallen: AC Milan's Decline

Today, at a stadium in that well-known hotbed of soccer, Tokyo, two sides will face each other in an event calling itself the Intercontinental Cup -- a competition which has five more syllables than it does contestants.

It pits the champions of Europe against those of South America in an attempt to determine the best club side in the world. The problem is that for one of them the event is being held at least six months too late. AC Milan, representing the Old World, is in the midst of a spectacular decline and fall.

Half a year ago AC won its third successive Italian league title and then demolished Barcelona 4-0 to take the European Cup. Now it is out of the national cup, in some danger of elimination from the Champions' League after a 2-0 defeat by Ajax and a depressing eleventh in the Italian League, fully 11 points behind the leaders, Parma. The local sporting press, whose editorial moods switch from orgasmic glee to suicidal despair (often in the same sentence) are at their wits end, never a great distance at the best of times.

The subject of their anxiety, and a certain amount of puzzlement across the rest of Europe, is: what has gone wrong? This column, which never likes to see even Italian soccer writers suffer for too long, has a few therapeutic explanations.

First of all, this is simply not the same side which swept all before it in such an imperious manner last season. Dutch striker Marco Van Basten has a long-term injury that may well end his career, and Jean-Pierre Papin, Brian Laudrup and Florin Raducioiu have all been sold.

In normal times these departures may not have mattered. But these are not normal times. Club president, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, is now Italian premier and even he would balk at the idea of forcing public spending cuts on the nation while his soccer club goes on one of their ritual sprees. So when the rest of Europe's big clubs were throwing money around in the summer, AC Milan was discovering the virtues of self-denial.

A telling example is Daniel Fonseca, the highly gifted Uruguayan striker, whose services Milan badly wanted. However, his asking price went beyond AC's new self-imposed cash limits and he joined AS Roma. Anyone who saw his almost single-handed destruction of Lazio on Sunday will appreciate the loss -- all the more poignant for his possession in abundance of the qualities Milan has so conspicuously lacked this season.

Fonseca's play is marked by two things: that eerie instinct for scoring from situations that only marginally less talented players would not even recognize and a willingness to run at and beat defenders. This is what Milan's play has so crucially lacked of late. It is as if the entire side has suffered a collective loss of nerve that makes it prefer the safe, square pass to the direct run with the ball that produces so many goals. The result, with Marco Simone their only genuine striker, is that it has scored just seven goals in 10 league matches, a dismal record worse only than the two bottom clubs.

As long as the economy drive at the San Siro goes on, there is little hope of improvement. It may beat Velez tomorrow and scrape through to the knock-out stage of the Champions' Cup, but further progress is unlikely, as is the prospect of anything much higher than sixth in the Italian League.

The end of an era? Probably. These things do not go on forever and they have been known to turn on stranger events than your president being elected Prime Minister. If I were a Milan supporter I would hope the corruption charges being levelled at Berlusconi see him dumped from office. He can then go back to what tycoons do best -- throwing considerable amounts of money around while never denying too strenuously rumors of sinister connections.

Meanwhile, I wish the team well. It was founded by an Englishman (hence the Anglicized name) and remains the only side to win the European Cup that was originally formed to play cricket.