By Vincenzo Curro
Football occasionally has the ability to prove itself just as ruthless as any other business in the world. It happens most often when working in a way which is based not on romance but rather on pragmatism.
The best stories are rare, but are still available to be told. They are permeated with timeless charm, filled with hope and with love, but also possess a sad, melancholic narrative that only reaches the heart when the final word is read.
Right now we are reading the final chapter of one of the greatest stories, one which finishes with the inevitable tear-jerking goodbyes. It is a story in which the four protagonists are men who have inextricably woven themselves within the fabric of AC Milan. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso are about to fly the nest.
They are four names which have all been uttered a million times by Milanisti, but never with quite the lump in the throat that they will be at San Siro on Sunday. The quartet had become almost mythical to the club's followers, they were idols who had reached the fans' hearts and would never be let go. They were men who led the club through another great era, one which made Silvio Berlusconi's club once again stand out among the world's best.
They have made memories over long periods. Gattuso arrived in 1999 and Inzaghi in 2001, while Seedorf and Nesta have spent the past decade with the club. Thirteen years have passed since the arrival of the first, and in that time the already-bulging Milan trophy room got only more crowded. Two Scudetti, two Supercoppe Italiane, a Coppa Italia, two Champions Leagues (won in Manchester in 2003 and Athens in 2007), a Club World Cup and two Uefa Supercups. The Europa League apart, everything that can be won has been won, all with the four legends at the heart of it.
|MILAN SAY GOODBYE TO FOUR PIECES OF HISTORY
|MILAN IN MANCHESTER||MILAN IN ATHENS|
COSTACURTA - NESTA - MALDINI - KALADZE
GATTUSO - PIRLO - SEEDORF
SHEVCHENKO - INZAGHI
ODDO - NESTA - MALDINI - JANKULOVSKI
GATTUSO - PIRLO - AMBROSINI
KAKA - SEEDORF
Almost as soon as he rocked up at Milanello, Gattuso made himself an important part of the Rossoneri squad, becoming an instant fan favourite thanks to his unrivaled competitive edge. It was a love story which could have ended sooner due to his difficulties with Leonardo, but Massimiliano Allegri managed to rekindle the flame for a short time, winning a Scudetto along the way.
This year has seen 'Rino' play only a marginal role thanks to the eye problem which saw him miss six months of football. Only six of his 467 club appearances have come during 2011-12, and none of his 11 goals. His absence affected the team massively, off the pitch just as much as on it. Now, the Calabrian will start again elsewhere. He wants to get off the bench and back into a first XI, but exactly where that will be is yet to be identified.
Pippo Inzaghi may well be saying goodbye, but he does so with a legacy which invokes countless tears and great applause. Having arrived from Juventus 11 years ago, he wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm. The fact he could score goals was not discussed much, more the fact he was a Juventino of four years standing. It made for quite a smokescreen which would cloud his real worth. But it would take 'Superpippo' little time to win over the Rossoneri faithful. With goals one after the other, he became a key weapon for the club, netting 125 times in 299 games.
|THEIR TRIUMPHS IN RED AND BLACK
|1||Club World Cup
The gap left by Alessandro Nesta will perhaps be the biggest. The Roman defender became a Milan player in 2002, with an 11th hour blitz by Berlusconi securing his signature. Immediately, the fans took to him, and their faith and enthusiasm would be justified in time thanks to a series of performances marrying security and elegance, seasoned with many successes, if also the odd ache and pain.
It is those injury issues which have ultimately brought about Nesta's departure. After 325 games and 10 goals, it was a fairly inevitable conclusion which the defender drew from his recent battles with his body. "I can no longer keep playing at this level. My body is no longer able to sustain a full season, so I would prefer to go elsewhere," said Nesta, and it is likely he will end up in America's MLS with New York Red Bulls.
Clear ideas of what to do next will also be at the forefront of Seedorf's mind. A real scholar of the game, the Dutchman leaves Milan after disagreements with Allegri. In his 10 years since arriving from Inter in a deal which saw Francesco Coco go the other way, he has been a maestro in the middle of the pitch, dispensing wisdom all around him. After 431 games and 62 goals, he is expected to complete a move to Botafogo in Brazil.
In short, four pieces of history are leaving Milan. From next year onwards, Milanisti will remember them all, but they will no longer be around. New arrivals will come in, but echoes of the past will remain. They will still talk on the terraces of the players that have passed on. They'll recall Gattuso's scream in the face of Christian Poulsen, Inzaghi's night in Athens, Nesta's deadly elegance against Juventus in Manchester and the damage Seedorf did to Edwin van der Sar on one of the club's great Champions League nights.
Milan will have their work cut out trying to replace Nesta, Seedorf, Inzaghi and Gattuso. The legends have 90 minutes to say their final goodbyes against Novara on Sunday. It will be an emotionally painful farewell, albeit an inevitable one from a technical point of view. As they say in Italy: this is football.