Refusing to fold to Hakan Calhanoglu and Gianluigi Donnarumma’s lofty demands, Paolo Maldini and Milan convey a strong message prioritizing the project over individual players, writes Matt Santangelo.

Moments following Milan’s win vs. Atalanta to cement a return to the UEFA Champions League, a feeling of relief was shared amongst fans that perhaps they had also managed to win over Gianluigi Donnarumma after a long, drawn-out contractual saga. That was not the case, however, as the Rossoneri swiftly pivoted and subsequently confirmed his replacement in Mike Maignan from Ligue 1 champions Lille days later.

The French international, who is currently on international duty at EURO 2020, led Europe’s top five leagues last year in clean sheets with 21. Arriving at the San Siro for a club-friendly €13m plus €2m in bonuses while earning roughly €2,5m per year, Maignan is a viable option in net and comes at a fraction of the wages Donnarumma is projected to make in his lucrative Paris Saint-Germain bag.

Meanwhile, Hakan Calhanoglu’s move from one side of the Naviglio to other has not been met with all that much animosity and sulking from Milan supporters. Throughout his four years at the club, the Turkish international was very hot and cold, but mostly the latter.

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At his best, the former Leverkusen playmaker proved influential, undertaking heavy creative responsibility to help supply the forward players, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic whose aura, demonstrative play and larger than life personality permeated onto the rest of the roster as Milan began to evolve as a unit.

Calhanoglu’s best stretch came in the post-COVID restart, elevating his game to a level unlike we had witnessed at any point since his move from Germany. However, his purple patches of form were far too inconsistent and sporadic, raising plenty of questions about whether his performances warranted a doubled salary.

Clinging to a top four spot after a rapid decline at the turn of the calendar year, Calhanoglu seized to make the impact necessary of someone in his role. Instead, during the final phase of the campaign, Brahim and others rose to the occasion, while Calhanoglu sat idly by performing more like a passenger than a No. 10 shirt demanding a massive renewal.

As Donnarumma embarks on his new adventure in Paris, and Calhanoglu becomes a ‘mercenario’, there is now a moment to reflect on the financial ramifications.

The impact is certainly felt in the short-term, as Milan recoup nothing in transfer fees for two players who have been mainstays in XI for years. But thinking with a long-term view, Milan will find much more flexibility on wages that align with the current financial position of the club.

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Milan were willing to make a significant financial sacrifice to retain Donnarumma, one that would have seen him earn €8m a season and surpass Ibrahimovic as the highest earner. At the end of it all, in removing the emotional aspect of losing a player of his ilk for free, the margins were simply too much to make up in comparison to what he will earn at Paris Saint- Germain.

“We put a limit on the cost of our players’ salaries,” explained President Paolo Scaroni.

“Beyond this, players are free to do as they want. We made a big offer to Donnarumma for what we could afford, but it was not enough.”

The same could be said for Calhanoglu who leaves for Inter on a difference of €500,000, proving the strength of the project and relationship established was insufficient.

Milan are a club with a rich history, a winning culture and deep-rooted values which may have been tainted through the behaviour of some over the last era, but must be respected and understood.

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By electing to join the club’s direct rival, Calhanoglu expressed his true colours. The move sees him swaps shirts with nothing left to salvage from his time in red and black.

Donnarumma, well, that was strictly business and a decision made with his bank account and generational wealth in mind, not so much the potential to build a legacy as a club icon.

Each path chosen can be respected and acknowledged, but in the end, Milan and Maldini have conveyed a strong message that they will work within the parameters that suit the short-term and long-term sustainability of the project, rather than spending emotionally to please everyone.

Given the financial landscape of the sport, that is simply impossible to accommodate – no matter the importance of the player. Instead, the conversation shifts to how they will move on with Maignan, replace Calhanoglu and ultimately progress forward with a project that has a bright future ahead.


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