Two mid-table sides faced off on Sunday evening in Milan. The stadium was loud and, as is often the case during well-attended Italian matches, the pitch was slightly obscured by flare smoke. Through the haze, there were fullbacks flowing down the wings, strikers appealing to God, and a 70s pornography compendium's worth of beards and mustaches. It was an entertaining, imperfect 1-1 draw. The question haunting both teams is whether it meant much of anything.
Milan and Inter, two of Italy's three historically wealthy clubs, are floundering, in large part because UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations have redefined wealth. Used to be, a club was as rich as the rich dude owning it deemed possible. In their heyday, oil magnate Massimo Moratti and horndog-politician Silvio Berlusconi were two of the most profligate billionaires around. (Moratti sold his majority share of Inter in 2013.) Seldom hesitant to reach into their ocean-deep pockets, they bought loads of stars and never particularly worried whether the expensive transfer fees and salaries added up to anything besides scudettos and European trophies.
Fair Play was instituted to curb these free-spending practices, compelling clubs to balance their budgets without getting hundreds of millions of euros in help from their benefactors-in-chief. In 2011, UEFA president Michel Platini handed down what amounted to an ultimatum: run smaller deficits, or face fines, roster reductions, and/or outright suspension from European competition. No one wants to miss out on the Champions League because the books aren't right, so Europe's biggest clubs have spent the past few years rejiggering how they do business. Or alternatively: downsizing.
Both Milan clubs have sold off many of their best players in recent years because they have smaller revenue streams than other European giants. They play in an old stadium in which they are tenants, not landlords; they don't have a sweetheart TV deal; they're not world-conquering brands like Real Madrid and Manchester United; and Italy has a so-called "submerging economy." The annual talent exoduses have left them only slightly above-average domestically and woefully underpowered in Europe. When Milan played Atlético Madrid at the Calderón last season, Diego Costa looked like a lion with a Happy Meal in its jaws.
One needn't weep for two immensely successful clubs no longer having the obscene operating budget it takes to field a world-class squad, but here is something to be sad about: Inter and Milan are dragging Serie A down with them. A tripolar league is drifting toward boring unipolarity. (Perpetual understudies Roma and Napoli are doing their bravest, but they can't compete with Juventus on a yearly basis.) Worse than that, the league's lack of European success during Milan and Inter's absence means life-sustaining Champions League money is running out, and as the money runs out, so does the talent.
In an effort to nudge clubs toward financial responsibility, UEFA has further calcified European soccer's caste system. To win, you must have sky-high revenues, but to have sky-high revenues, you must win. Milan started a center back pairing of Philippe Mexès and Cristián Zapata against Inter. They're not winning shit.
As Serie A deteriorates, so does its character. The aesthete rejects the Premier League on this basis: It's talent-rich, but most matches have all the panache of a sploogy guitar solo. The continent is where styles live. La Liga is extravagant; the Bundesliga is fast and precise; and Serie A is tactically complex, technical soccer played by guys who tackle with both feet and talk with both hands. It's brutal and mind-expanding. It's not like any other league in the world.
The Milan derby still means something, even if it shouldn't. In the stands, it has the surreal theater of two has-been actors superciliously reciting their IMDB pages to each other, and, on the pitch, it's helter-skelter and intermittently stunning.
On Sunday, Jeremy Ménez put the ball several hectares over the frame of the goal on a pair of free kicks. He also scored one of the prettiest volleys you'll ever see, meeting Stephan El Shaarawy's cross with the casual dexterity of a stoned gymnast. Neither team was adept at staying in front of the other or not forfeiting the ball in their own half, so Diego López and Samir Handanović had to splay themselves across yawning nets on several occasions. The game could have had a few more goals, but the forwards had the yips. At the end of the match, hundreds of fans filed down the steps of the San Siro, to wave flags and applaud from as near the pitch as they could get.
It wasn't exactly The Great Milan Derby, but the skeleton was there. Perhaps the haze hid some of the parts that didn't look the same. Milan and Inter are living mostly off their history, the kind of living that's half not being dead. We should hope they find vitality soon, somehow. It would be a shame to lose what they have helped build.