As we pulled into Centro Sportivo Vismara, I’m struck by the subtlety of the entrance. Straight down a nondescript road, two speed bumps and a turn, and the car is parked. The only indication was a small arch right when you turn onto the side road. These are Milan’s youth grounds, 230,000 square meters devoted entirely to growing the future generation of Rossoneri.
We get out and walk towards the main field, where there are two sides warming up. I find out shortly thereafter that one of these is the Allievi Nazionali II, the younger of the two Allievi Nazionali sides (and for those wondering, this is the side one year younger than the one managed by Pippo Inzaghi).
We climb a ramp to the grandstands, opting to lean against the rail and watch the redblacks and a team in light blue warm up; one figure stands out from the rest, the number 10. He’s wearing a cast on his right arm, so when he goes to shake the hands of the opposition (a nearby amateur side with plenty of parental support in the stands) he has to reach across with his left arm. The player was Hachim Mastour, probably the most high-profile Milan youth player; a man with miles of hype.
Milan spent a record fee for a player of Mastour’s age making him the most talked-about signing of the Rossoneri’s youth revolution. But that’s just a transfer. The Rossoneri are upgrading the facilities, putting tens of millions of euros into the youth system each year now, hoping to restore the glory of a youth academy that used to churn out world-class talents that need no introduction. Over the last decade or two though, the youth fell down the pecking order, and the most notable graduates of the last several years, Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini are some of the only ones to hit the first team of Milan. Adriano Galliani says that Milan hope to come out of the Financial Fair Play era with a sustainable Milan, and that means bringing players from the youth ranks to the first team.
Mastour is playing with the Allievi I/II Division, a year younger than the side he normally plays with, Pippo’s Allievi Nazionali. Even though he’s still younger than the majority of the players on the field, he towers over many of the others, whom are going through various stages of puberty. Mastour is incredibly talented, and he knows it. Warmups began with the Brazilian warmup of two lines jogging and stretching, and shortly thereafter the groups break down into fours and these pods warm up with some passing exercises which give way to brief one on one warmups. This shows the technical ability of some of the players – the defenders opting to make a simple feint and cut, while attackers perform stepovers and more complicated moves. None try what Mastour does though, on his second attempt he successfully rainbows the ball over his teammate, cooly brings the ball down, and gets back in line. He tries the move three other times, but none looked as good as his first success.
It’s a midweek friendly, and many of the more talented individuals have been called up to the Allievi Nazionali side who have an important match coming up against Chievo, the side four points ahead of third placed Milan in the table. Nonetheless, this is a match in which the overlooked players get their chance to play, and the motivation is apparent in some. Mastour doesn’t seem particularly invigorated today though, after all, he’s just coming back from an injury. It only takes a minute, maybe two, for the opening goal. Crociata, a young Sicilian player (and probably the most motivated player on the pitch – to the point of over-exhuberance winning the ball back at any cost) is waiting on the edge of the offsides line and breaks forward with a well timed run, dribbling to the byline. He cuts back, and plays a ball right to the feet of Mastour, who from the penalty spot fakes a shot to the right, shifting the two defenders, and then shoots low and left, beating the keeper. It seemed effortless from Mastour, and this goal settled his nerves.
Mastour had lost the ball the first two or three times he was in possession, prompting me to think, “Well, maybe he’s just rusty after such a long layoff..” Losing the ball seemed to motivate him though, and after his goal, Mastour began to dance. When he dribbles, he has the ball on a string. I haven’t seen someone with his sort of control since (and I don’t make this comparison lightly, Andrés Iniesta). Mastour rolls the ball, waits for the defender to mentally commit, and then glides, and I mean glides by his man, only inches away from an outstretched leg. Mastour is so confident though that he doesn’t just beat one man at a time, he takes on a defender, steps past him, then takes on another, moving the ball to places that only he can reach while bypassing player after player.
His first touch is immaculate, he always intelligently has the ball close to him, but away from the defender, close enough often so that the defender will bite and try to grab it, and by the time they decide to make their move, they’ve already been beaten. Halftime at the friendly sees the scoreline reading three to nil, and little scent of a comeback from the visitors.
We continue down a gravel road, passing by Pippo Inzaghi’s Allievi Nazionali. Mister Inzaghi, unfortunately wasn’t present today, as he was ill. And Inzaghi is one of the draws of the youth squads now, as Milan reinvest in their youth with former players, another notable one being the immensely successful Giovanissimi Nazionali coach Walter De Vecchi. He has turned the Giovanissimi Nazionali into one of the most successful youth sides not just in Italy, but in all of Europe.
As we approached De Vecchi’s side, he was working with the squad on a mini-scrimmage based around getting the ball out wide and working on the side’s crossing and movements without the ball. This team immediately caught my eye. They’re fluid, they move as a unit, and individually, they’re hyper-talented. Patrick Cutrone in particular seemed to be having an excellent day, scoring several times in the few minutes we observed, with each foot, and a variety of different positions. Andres Llamas in the rear looked the complete defender, ending our viewing session with a sensational half-volley that the keeper couldn’t turn away. Throughout the entire training session though, De Vecchi was constantly giving instructions. “Pass here, move like this. Press here.” Every moment became a teachable segment – a free kick meant that they worked on an indirect free kick: how to both go about taking it, and how to defend it on the other side. This core of the Giovanissimi Nazionali have been together since they were 8 or 9 years old, while adding talented players like Italian international Marco La Ferrara when possible. This is the best youth side, in my opinion, I left their training session even more impressed.
These kids, if all goes as planned, are going to be a part of Milan’s next “golden generation”. One of the most important aspects of their training is the appreciation of the club and shirt they play for. The youth system does an excellent job of emphasizing the fact that this is the most internationally successful club in the world. The youth know the level of the club, and they all hope to be a part of the history lining the halls of Via Turati.
Earlier in the day, we had the opportunity to visit the Via Turati trophy room, and to see what the history of the club is all about. Words cannot describe what it feels like to be surrounded by centuries of history. The feeling of being a part of something so much more important and so overarching. The feeling of pride that goes with that. The feeling of seeing seven of the “big ears”. And this is coming from someone who will never wear the jersey of Milan (unless they’re looking for your next lefty – call me I’m available for the attack). To be a youth player and to know that you have the chance to make this history, well let’s just say it would be motivating. And the youth know what they’re playing for. They know what the greats before them have done, and they want to achieve it themselves.
And now, once again, it seems Milan are ready to receive them. Mattia De Sciglio and Bryan Cristante are the two most notable names coming from the youth in the past two years, and the plan is to bring more up to begin training with the first team. The future is for the youth, as they say, and Milan’s youth once again bring with them the promise that goes with a club of their history.
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