Resurrecting the Champion: When Beckham signed for Milan

Following Beckham’s retirement from football, Aditya Bajaj goes down memory lane to recollect the Englishman’s first loan spell at AC Milan that made headlines around the globe.
 Aditya Bajaj
 Football Writer
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It was met with heavy skepticism.

A cynical move is what the press described it as. Clearly a marketing strategy by a club undergoing a recent slump both on and off field due to their failure to even qualify for the Champions League having just won the competition a year and half ago at Athens in May, 2007.

Following a disappointing end to the 2007-08 season where the Rossoneri could only manage to finish fifth on the league table, that summer Milan decided to spend on the transfer market. But rather than enhancing and addressing the problems at the back and reducing the average of the squad, Chelsea outcast and former star Andriy Shevchenko was signed on loan while Gianluca Zambrotta was brought back home after an average couple of seasons at Barcelona.

The signing of Mathieu Flamini – one the protagnists of the Arsenal side that knocked Milan out of the Champions League the previous season – on a Bosman was hailed as the one for the future but it was Silvio Berlusconi’s dream signing of Ronaldinho that stole the limelight.

The Brazilian’s debut against Bologna attracted a strong crowd of 60,000 people at the San Siro – a strange phenomenon given that the Rossublu had just been promoted that season and Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani knew it was a marketing coup as attendances all around the country were in some sort of a free fall.

However, it was later in October that Milan - despite falling off the radar for participating in the last ever Uefa Cup in history - caught the globe’s attention.

“Beckham has chosen Milan," declared club Vice-president Adriano Galliani.

Understandably it raised eyebrows. Nothing else mattered for the next few days, not the Champions League and even the self-proclaimed best league in the world from England. After all, the English media’s former bunny David was coming back to the continent again.

 Beckham and Ronaldinho | After Ronnie, Galliani signed another crowd puller in Beckham

Galliani’s comment about football being all about full stadiums and sponsors and superstars like Beckham bringing the crowd to the stadiums provoked a skeptical response from all sections of the media. From being called ‘San Siro: old people’s home’ to ‘footballs answer to Live Aid’, the club was the toast of the town as it was mocked for signing David Beckham - the latest washed-up egomaniac.

But the world was nevertheless, once again talking about a league that was going through its worst phase after being the strongest in the continent for over two decades until the Calciopoli match fixing scandals that rocked the nation back in 2006.

After Ronaldinho, another crowd puller. Shirt sales, rock steady attendance once again – Galliani certainly what knew he was doing.  

The veterans at the club welcomed the move. “This team is as good as the Galacticos of Real Madrid and Becks is joining a team that could be the best in the world," said Shevchenko.

And why not?

Having played with the likes of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo – the original Galacticos at Madrid, Beckham would now line up alongside Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Pippo Inzaghi and Sheva himself.

On December 21st at a home game against Udinese, Beckham was unveiled as he walked to the center of the San Siro with the red and black scarf around his neck and to the strong crowd of over 50,000 people proclaimed ‘Forza Milan’.

Milan thrashed Udinese 5-1 that night, seated upstairs at the box Beckham smiled and so begun the mysterious yet skeptical love affair with his new club and the fans.

A Grand Reception | David Beckham was unveiled at the San Siro amidst much fanfare

But things changed when he made his debut later in January against Roma. Starting on the right hand side of Andrea Pirlo from the first minute as Milan drew 2-2, the former Real Madrid star was impressive. Two weeks later he scored his first goal for the club against Bologna and things changed some more. He had settled into the team faster than expected on the right hand side of a midfield triumvirate alongside Pirlo and Seedorf.

However, three days later when he opened the scoring against Genoa - his second in as many games – things changed forever.

A typical kick with a right footed shot to the top left corner from a tight angle near the corner flag, Beckham unleashed his trademark free kick – one of the best goals of his career till date – to leave the home crowd in awe of his magic and the media silent, once and for all.

From a marketing tool to a sheer professional for his team – David Beckham transformed his cynical public image of two months since loan move from LA Galaxy in a space of three weeks amidst heavy drama relating to Kaka’s potential transfer to Manchester City. He nursed the crowd and helped them get over that traumatic month.

Such was his charisma.

Following an impressive first few weeks on the pitch, both Milan and Beckham seeked an extension to the initial loan period of three months from LA Galaxy much to the annoyance of the MLS side. Beckham infact himself funded a part of the deal that would see him stay at Milan for the rest of the season.

A clear fan favourite as expected, he turned into an integral part of Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield alongside the likes of Pirlo, Seedorf, Gattuso, Ambrosini and Flamini that made the most of his versatility. Flamini, who was supposed to be as important as he was for Arsene Wenger at the Emirates, was now even being used as a full back.

Milan went on a rampage in the league, losing just four in 21 games since his arrival – one against Inter and two that were largely inconsequential towards the end of the season with Champions League qualification sealed – as Beckham went on to make 18 starts and two appearances from the bench ending up with 2 goals and 4 assists in his first season back in Europe since his departure from the scene two years prior to the comfortable shores of America.

The former Manchester United midfielder, found his Ruud Van Nistelrooy in Pippo Inzaghi who would go on to score 11 goals in 17 games with the Englishman as the two made for a devastating duo just like he did with the Dutch striker at Old Trafford and later at the Bernabeu.

Age is just a number | Beckham (34) formed a terrorizing partnership with Inzaghi (36) 

Many branded his departure to the MLS in 2007 as a form of semi-retirement, a career that was nearing its end at the ripe age of 32. But here he was, back two years later proving his critics wrong and most importantly sending a statement to Fabio Capello, the same man responsible for his departure from Madrid but now ironically at the helm of the national team back in England, that he still had it in him to compete with and against the best in the world’s most tactically adept league.

Who would have thought in 2007 that he would participate in Paolo Maldini’s last ever  match, not as a part of the football fraternity as a whole seated in Los Angeles but as a team-mate on the field playing alongside the greatest left back the game has ever seen?

His on field success with Milan prompted both sides to push for a permanent transfer which eventually failed as the Italians failed to meet the financial demands of his parent club. So much so, that he even bore the wrath of the crowd back in America as they labelled him a traitor for his desire to return back to Europe following early promises of promoting football in the United States.

Though short, Beckham first loan spell with Milan was significant in the sense that it resurrected his professional career once again. He proved he still had it in him and ever the professional as he was throughout his career, he let his on-field performances do the talking as he went about converting the non-believers.

He always knew he still had it in him and the Rossoneri were amongst the few who believed in him and for that his affair with the most popular Italian club in the world was special.

So special infact, that six months later he would return to the San Siro for a second spell.

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