UCL’s Milan derby could be San Siro’s last hurrah
Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterMay 15, 2023, 04:30 AM ET
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
When it comes to landmarks in Milan, Italy, the San Siro is a proud part of the city’s cultural fabric. The grand old stadium, aesthetically beautiful and just six kilometres away from Milan’s famous Duomo cathedral, has played host to football’s biggest matches, and some of the world’s most famous musicians have performed there. “You never really get used to the roar of the San Siro,” Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has said.
Locals call it “Le Scala del Calcio” — the Cathedral of Football. “The atmosphere is unique and is a mix of passion, fear, tension — it is really difficulty to maintain a right balance mentally,” writer and journalist Marco Dell’Acqua tells ESPN, having been an AC Milan fan for 45 years.
“You have the ultras of Milan in la curva sud, while Inter’s ultras are in la curva nord,” he adds, referring to the south and north ends of the stadium, which feature opposing fans from Milan’s two clubs, AC Milan and Internazionale. “Those Milan derbies are breathless.”
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San Siro has been AC Milan’s home since 1926, with Inter Milan joining them in 1947. The 11 spiral towers outside intersperse with the sweeping ramps around the periphery of the stadium, which holds 80,018 spectators.
It’s a venue loved by locals, but it has also become a burden to both clubs — they lose millions in potential revenue due to the stadium’s antiquated facilities, and in the sport’s modern era, with most big clubs playing in state-of-the-art, multipurpose arenas, the hallowed ground has become unsustainable.
“I love the San Siro,” Nima Tavallaey Roodsari, Italian football journalist and chief news editor of SempreInter.com, tells ESPN. “It’s the most beautiful stadium in the world, and at night when the lights shine up into the evening sky on a crisp Milan night, there’s nothing like it. The noise is incredible. But it’s no longer fit for purpose.”
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Due to its unique design, it would be brutally difficult to renovate and, one way or another, both clubs are ready to move out of their famous home. But ever since plans were unveiled for their joint project, called “The Cathedral,” in 2019 — a new stadium built on the site of the old stadium — San Siro has become symbolic of the city’s current dilemma as the ground is at the centre of political posturing, footballing frustration and sentimentality. Those desperate to preserve Milan’s heritage are pinned against others who love the place but understand the urgency for both AC Milan and Inter to build a new home fit for purpose.
When the two teams meet in Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal, it could be one of the last, great derbies played out in the famous stadium.
“It’s in a state of limbo, and sooner or later the bubble has to burst,” Luciano Mondellini, the director of Calcioefinanza.it, tells ESPN. “Nothing has changed seriously in the last five years.” It’s just a question of which stakeholder blinks first.
The original foundations of San Siro date to 1926 when Piero Pirelli — then-president of AC Milan and son of Giovanni Pirelli, founder of the famous tyre company — funded the building of a new football ground. The middle tier, complete with those famous 11 towers and spirals, was added in 1955.
Originally, the plans were for capacity to be increased to 150,000, but then safety and logic took hold and it was reduced to 80,000, comprising 20,000 seats with the rest as standing-room only. In 1980, the stadium was renamed the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza after the legend who played most of his career at Inter but also played for AC Milan. The top tier, complete with the iconic red girders, was brought in ahead of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
It has played host to some famous nights, like Feyenoord’s 2-1 win over Celtic in the European Cup final in 1970, Inter’s 1-0 win over Diego Maradona’s Napoli in 1989, and the 5-0 evisceration AC Milan handed Real Madrid the same year. “It was great, the scorers were numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 — a long stripe of scorers,” Dell’acqua said. “I was also in Barcelona to see the final. It was one of my best moments with AC Milan.”
Then there were the pair of Milan derbies in the Champions League knockout stage — the 2003 semifinal, which AC Milan won on away goals, and the quarterfinal two years later that was prematurely halted after Milan goalkeeper Dida was hit in the head by a flare. AC Milan were awarded the win, but it was immortalised in that famous photo of Rui Costa and Marco Materazzi taking in the site of San Siro pitch covered in red smoke.
But the reality is, in 2023, both Milanese clubs are looking at the money generated by the flashy new stadiums of their contemporaries — fans of both clubs frequently reference Tottenham Hotspur‘s stadium — and the subsequent spending power in the Premier League. They know they must generate more from the ground or risk falling further behind.
Just 3% of the ground is dedicated to corporate boxes, compared to 20% or so in the newer stadiums of their peers. Currently, AC Milan and Inter pay the city council a collective €8.5m annually in rent for San Siro — the stadium was sold to the city in 1935. But the lack of corporate facilities and merchandise opportunities around the old stadium means that Inter and AC Milan reportedly miss out on approximately €60m each a season. Neither club can negotiate stadium naming rights due to being tenants rather than owners. Meanwhile, the degradation of the facilities has created an increasingly untenable situation for supporters.
“If you go with your family and your kid wants to go to the toilet, if you take them, you’ll miss 20 minutes or so of the game,” Alessandro Jacobone, freelance journalist and vice president of Milanisti 1899 association, tells ESPN. “It’s impossible. If you go in the break, it’s impossible even to get a drink or anything. It’s like having the most beautiful beach, which you can see, but you can’t approach on the boat. It’s not attainable or suitable anymore.”
Back in November 2018, the clubs announced a “memorandum of understanding” saying they would work together to build a new ground. They looked at the possibility of redeveloping San Siro, but the three-tier structure — each independently built like “three layers of a cake,” as Jacobone puts it — meant this was taken off the table. So, they put the process out for bidding and in December 2021, Populous — the architectural firm that designed both Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — won the contract with their design of The Cathedral.
The idea was that both clubs would play in the old stadium while the new one was being built next door. The plans were ambitious, going beyond just a new stadium to include renovations of the whole area around San Siro. One of the original, famous 11 towers would be maintained near The Cathedral as a nod to the old predecessor. It was to be a 65,000-capacity state-of-the-art ground adjacent to 12.5 acres of parkland, with space for multiple commercial units and parking below ground. The estimated cost: around €1.2 billion.
Construction was meant to start in January 2024 and finished in time for the 2027-28 season, but bureaucracy and red tape has held up the process. Now four years removed from the original plans being unveiled, the vision for a transformed ground at San Siro still appears to be no closer to becoming a reality.
In May 2020, the local Heritage Authority — a government body which protects historical buildings — ruled it would permit the demolition of San Siro. There’s a law in Italy that deems any building older than 70 years old must be protected, and San Siro’s foundations and bottom tier meet that criteria, dating back to 1926. But the authority deemed that due to the refurbishments in 1955, little of the original stadium really remains and, therefore, it raised no objection to the stadium being demolished.
But it remains a polarising issue. A local group called “Comitato Si Meazza” (“Yes to Meazza”) have been vocal and passionate critics of the plans to demolish.
“San Siro is a symbol of Milan, like the Duomo, the Scala or Leonard’s Last Supper,” Luigi Corbani, the former deputy mayor of Milan and president of Comitato Si Meazza, tells ESPN. “It is not only the place where two teams play, it is the story of millions of Milanese who have lived together in moments of passion for sport, for music, for the Pope’s visits to Milan.
“There is no stadium in the world like San Siro. It’s helical ramps and vertical towers are a manifesto of Milanese architecture. Why demolish a historic stadium that works well and has always been sold out since the beginning of the season?”
The group has well-placed allies. The undersecretary of state for culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, argued in February the stadium is a protected landmark. “I am convinced that the stadium should not be demolished, not so much for its architectural value as for the importance as a symbol and for the protection of memory,” he told Italian newspaper Il Giorno. “For this reason, as far as I am concerned, I will take all the necessary steps to prevent it from being torn down.”
These claims were soon countered by Italy’s minister for culture — effectively Sgarbi’s boss — Gennaro Sangiuliano, who said: “The state of the art is this: at the moment, there is no constraint and it will have to be the mayor of Milan who decides what he wants to do.”
Then there’s the sentimental side from those who know the stadium well. Former AC Milan midfielder Gianni Rivera said demolishing San Siro would be like “wanting to demolish the Scala,” while Silvio Berlusconi, the former president of AC Milan and ex-Italy Prime Minister, said tearing it down “would be a deep wound.”
Bruce Springsteen has played there five times — 1985, 2003, 2008, 2012 and 2013. “Since I was a kid, I’ve played quite a few places … but this one is special,” he said after his 2013 tour. Later he said in 2019: “Demolishing San Siro? It would be terrible. A pity if they demolish it. A beautiful place. The way it was built is unique: the side farthest from the stage is never so far away. While you play, it is like having a wall of humanity in front of you and a huge enthusiasm comes back to you. Every building has a soul, his spiritual life. And as long as they are sure, I like to play in them. The new buildings do not have that soul.”
But while it’s held in heavenly regard by both sets of fans in Milan, reality outweighs sentimentality. “If the English can tear down Wembley, the Italians can tear down San Siro,” Roodsari says. “We’re not talking about turning the Colosseum or Duomo into a drive-through fast-food restaurant here. We’re talking about a football stadium that is no longer fit for purpose. Wembley is a classic stadium, but they knew it wasn’t suitable so they tore it down.”
Inter won the Scudetto in the 2020-21 season but that summer saw the gutting of the team as they balanced the books with Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Matteo Politano all leaving for a combined €200m. That summer the club took out a €275m loan from U.S. investment firm Oaktree Capital to cover the shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The loan is due to be repaid in May 2024. Suning Holdings Group, the club’s Chinese owners, remains committed but back in September 2022 asked the Raine Group to look for buyers with the promise of a new stadium an attractive calling card. “If you sell a company with a brand-new factory, it is better than selling a company with an old factory,” Mondellini says.
AC Milan won the 2021-22 Scudetto a year later, with veterans Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud leading the line, alongside a young core of players in Theo Hernandez, Sandro Tonali, Fikayo Tomori and Rafael Leao. The club were under the guidance of Elliott Management for that first Serie A triumph in 11 years, but on June 1, 2022, RedBird Capital announced the purchase of AC Milan for a fee of €1.2bn. New owner Gerry Cardinale called them a “sleeping giant.”
“A brand of this scale, like AC Milan, should have infrastructure that is indicative of its football prowess and global potential,” Cardinale said. “We’ve had a lot of experience with stadium projects in the U.S. Milan and Italy deserve a world-class stadium that houses the best of sports and entertainment on a global scale.”
However, the teams are losing patience with the bureaucracy. It has reached the extent now that both clubs are considering going it separately and building their own stadiums away from the San Siro part of town and away from the inner city.
Reports in February said AC Milan were looking at other sites, including Sesto San Giovanni, San Donato and La Maura, with the latter — an equestrian and horse racing facility two kilometres away from San Siro — the favourite. But even that has already been met with resistance. In late March, 3,000 local residents at La Maura formed a human chain around the ground in protest.
“The idea of having a stadium a stone’s throw from home, even closer than the Meazza already is, worries us,” said Carlo Monguzzi, leader of the Europa Verde party. “Not only the greenery but also our peace of mind — we would always have people around the house, for eight days a month, we would be invaded by harassing fans who will pee on our walls. We don’t want to get to that.”
Either way, AC Milan’s new owners are restless. “If we want to bring Milan and Serie A back to a world-class level we have to go through infrastructure,” Cardinale said at the Financial Times Business of Football Summit in March. “Ideally staying in Milan is a priority. If possible, we will stay in the municipality, but we will evaluate in order to determine the best opportunity.”
Once reports came to light that AC Milan were considering going it alone in a new stadium, Inter announced they too would be exploring their own options.
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Sources tell ESPN that Inter still see the ideal solution as building a new San Siro and pursuing the original project, but they are aware AC Milan are looking elsewhere. As one source said: “A new stadium is mandatory — the restrictions are too great in the current San Siro. We have to think strategically globally, but act locally.” If AC Milan and Inter plan to go their separate ways with independent grounds, ESPN sources say Populous are likely to continue working with Inter having originally made contact with the club eight years ago.
“It’s hard to give one uniform answer for how the fans are feeling, but we need a new stadium. So do AC Milan,” Roodsari says. “Whether we do that with Milan, whether it is at San Siro, somewhere else or on the moon, it doesn’t matter. The city of Milan needs to give answer to these clubs, and they need to do it as soon as possible.”
The last official hurdle around the new site was a feasibility study and the public consultation on The Cathedral plans, which resulted in request for changes. Among those, released five months ago, was increasing the capacity to 70,000 amid fears the slightly smaller capacity would drive up ticket prices and increasing the green area to 50% of the footprint.
But with both Milan clubs talking about looking elsewhere away from the San Siro site, on April 13 Mayor Sala gave both a three-month deadline to clarify their intentions and called for transparency on their preferred plans. On May 3, both AC Milan and Inter sent their own letter to the mayor calling for an extension to the ultimatum, clarification on when there’d be a public referendum on the new stadium plans and clarification on the constraints of the current stadium.
Further muddying the waters is the fact the 70-year anniversary of the 1955 tier is approaching, meaning it would fall into the protected historical category and would need a fresh assessment. One source tells ESPN that if the clubs don’t get the clarification they need, or a definitive answer, they will pursue other plans, adding: “This is the last attempt.”
With key dates on the horizon, there are few certainties amid the ambiguity. San Siro as we know it is hosting the opening ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics in February that year. AC Milan and Inter’s leasing agreement with the city council ends in 2030.
Italy has also put forth a bid to host the men’s 2032 European Championships. The proposal includes 10 locations, and two are listed for Milan: San Siro, or the new San Siro. “Even the most powerful people in Italy in terms of football don’t know what the outcome is,” Mondellini says, but you sense both clubs have minimal patience left. Jacobone adds: “As they say in business, time is money and at the moment, the more time this takes, the more money they lose.”
So, soak in the atmosphere on Tuesday night for the Champions League semifinal, a derby between Milan’s two clubs. “It will be dressed at its best,” Mondellini says. These occasions at San Siro are not infinite, and time is running out for both the stadium, and the chance to enjoy its unique charm.
“Everyone connected with Milan and football adores the stadium with its aesthetic value, history and sentimentality,” Roodsari says. “But we’re not talking about the Colosseum or Pyramids, we’re not talking about the Foro Romano where Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar and turning that into a shopping mall. That’s not what we’re discussing here. We’re talking about a 100-year old football stadium that has served its purpose in terms of what it was built for.
“I love it there and there is nostalgia, but there’s also the reality of the situation. And I prefer to live in reality.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.