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Monday, July 16, 2012
What is the Milan plan?

By Gabriele Marcotti

You knew it was going to be a rude awakening. And it probably should have come sooner and more gradually, because we've all known about it for several years. But sometimes, you just have to go cold turkey.

Milan's imminent sale of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris St. Germain is probably the first major side effect of UEFA's Financial Fair Play plan. Coupled with the departures of Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Mark Van Bommel, Alessandro Nesta and Pippo Inzaghi, it represents a massive overhaul aimed primarily at saving money and moving the Rossoneri towards FFP.

The move won't be well-received, but now is really the only good time for Milan to sell Zlatan Ibrahimovic and receive maximum value in return.

Collectively, the guys who are gone -- some sold, others released at the end of their contracts -- made up nearly 40 percent of Milan's wage bill. And while the transfer window isn't over -- new players will arrive and must be paid as well -- when the dust settles, Milan's salary expenditure will probably be about 25 to 35 percent less than it is now.

Given that this club spent nearly $250 million in salaries last year while recording losses of approximately $80 million, you don't need to be a math major to figure out that this will help Milan meet those pesky FFP requirements, which limit the losses a team can sustain (initially it's $54 million over two years, but every season the restrictions become more stringent).

Of course, the other aspect of the Ibrahimovic-Silva deal is the sizable transfer fee. Paris St. Germain will pay a reported $75 million for the pair.

Now, Silva well may be the best central defender in the world and Ibrahimovic, while he divides opinion, is a monster who has helped every team he has played for win a league title in nine of the past 11 seasons. But the fact is that come this winter, Silva and Ibrahimovic will be 28 and 31, respectively.

So Milan had two options this summer. Keeping the pair would have meant making another legitimate run at the Champions League and Serie A titles this coming season. The flip side is that it also likely would have forced the club to spend more in order to exploit the window of opportunity.

Furthermore, it would have forced a huge and tricky decision over Ibrahimovic. The big Swede's contract expires in 2014, meaning that the club would have had to enter contract negotiations some time this season. Ibrahimovic already earns a whopping $30 million a year, so it's safe to say -- with "superagent" Mino Raiola representing him -- that he would have wanted both an extension and a raise. Milan's choice 12 months from now would have been committing even more money to Ibrahimovic, or trying to sell him with a year left on his contract.

And, generally speaking, you don't get a great price for players over 30 years old on huge wages who are a year away from free agency.

The other option was to sell now, knowing full well that this might be the last summer in which anyone in Europe throws around major cash. With most of Europe's elite clubs now adjusting to FFP, the pool of profligate spenders is drying up. Chelsea and PSG seem happy to rack up huge losses for now, but even Manchester City is reeling it in somewhat. A year from now, Milan might have struggled to get a third as much for Silva and Ibrahimovic as the $75 million that is coming its way this summer.

So the feeling was very much that this step, however painful, had to happen and will make the club stronger in the midterm. Roughly half of the money Milan will receive from PSG is earmarked for a new striker and central defender, and the Serie A club feels pretty confident that there are some bargains to be had out there, especially among those teams (Manchester City is the obvious one) who already have a glut of strikers and are looking to add more (Robin van Persie?).

Edin Dzeko
Losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be tough for Milan's front line, but plenty of talent will be available -- possibly Manchester City's Edin Dzeko.

Both Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez earn less than Ibrahimovic and both likely would welcome a move and the opportunity for regular playing time. While Man City manager Roberto Mancini insisted the contrary this weekend, the club has its own FFP concerns and could let one or both move on, especially if van Persie arrives.

As for the defense, Milan figures it has six weeks to find someone who can alternate with Philippe Mexes, Mario Yepes and Francesco Acerbi to provide a reasonable center back pairing.

It's encouraging that Milan -- after years of overspending and papering over the cracks with cash injections from owner Silvio Berlusconi -- is moving toward a more rational and sustainable approach.

But the reality is that the Rossoneri won't have a Silva or Ibrahimovic (or, going back a few seasons, a Kaka or an Andrei Shevchenko) to sell every few years. And with FFP in place, there probably won't be anyone out there willing to shell out the big cash to buy them.

Ultimately, if Milan is going to compete in the long-term, two things need to happen. Revenue -- especially on game day -- needs to grow substantially. And the club needs to have the courage to push the kids from its youth ranks, an academy that once produced the likes of Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi but in recent years has contributed relatively little to the first team.

Gabriele Marcotti is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer. He is also the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN Press Pass and read him here twice a week.