INTERVIEW: LUCA ANTONINI
Words & Illustration: Archie Willis
It’s another night under the floodlights at San Siro. It’s been a difficult season for the Rossoneri, who are resigned to finishing third after city rivals Inter beat Roma to the Serie A title. Juventus, languishing in 7th place, are the visitors for the final match of the season. Over 60,000 fans have turned up at San Siro to bid farewell to two departing legends – Brazilian goalkeeper Dida and Serie A veteran Giuseppe Favalli. Despite an inconsistent season, Milan are looking for their 20th league victory to send the fans home happy. And Milan are confident; they’d beaten Juve 3-0 in Turin back in January. With Pato, Seedorf and Nesta sticking around for at least one more year, the red and black side of Milan have the foundations in place to topple Inter the following season. It’s time to put on a show against an old rival for the near-capacity crowd.
The Curva Sud has unveiled massive banners and the ultras’ flags are waving as the teams take to the pitch. Almost immediately, it’s end-to-end stuff, with both sides creating opportunities within the first 10 minutes. The supporters are whistling every time Juventus touch the ball, but a big cheer goes up as Milan win it back on the halfway line, coming out on top after two successive fifty-fifty challenges. Cannavaro and Chiellini are drawn to the loose ball, but Seedorf expertly steps in to knock it over the top of the Juve defence. Milan’s left back, who had won the ball back originally, seizes the opportunity and darts past the opposition’s stretched centre backs. He’s just too fast for the recovering defenders, and suddenly he’s one-on-one with the keeper.
“It was certainly one of the best days of my life,” Luca Antonini proudly tells me. The left back takes the lobbed pass down with one touch, and with the next, slots the ball past a stranded Gigi Buffon. The stadium erupts. “Milan is life and scoring in the stadium of my dreams in front of all those people was unforgettable…but then there was Buffon!”
That goal in May of 2010 was Antonini’s first, and last, in a Rossoneri shirt. But it was only the beginning of his Milan journey, while the future of experienced players like Inzaghi, Oddo, Jankulovksi, Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso and 2009-10’s joint-top scorer Ronaldinho was still up in the air. The 3-0 victory against Juventus was also a farewell for head coach Leonardo, who had fallen out with owner Silvio Berlusconi and left by mutual consent following the conclusion to the season. It seemed like a transitional period, albeit for a star-studded Milan squad. A young, promising manager by the name of Massimiliano Allegri, fresh from a respectable 12th place finish with Cagliari, was brought in to replace the outgoing Leonardo. With José Mourinho leaving Inter following the 2009-10 campaign, now was the time for Milan to make the most of their ageing legends, for one last shot at glory. However, their preparations for the new season could easily have been disrupted by the abundance of transfer rumours regarding their star man, Ronaldinho. Luca sees it differently. “I think Ronaldinho wanted to stay at Milan but I don't think he fitted well with Allegri's way of playing,” he argues. “Then that year Ibra, Cassano and Robinho arrived, so unfortunately in January he made other choices but he remains in the history of Milan and I feel a very lucky person to have had him as a teammate.”
Milan were on the verge of a decisive season. For Luca Antonini, in the peak years of his career, it had been a long road back to the city where he was born, and the team which he supported as a boy. After joining the Rossoneri at the age of eight, he was allowed to leave San Siro in 2003 in a co-ownership deal with Sampdoria. With little playing time available, Antonini spent years out on loan in Italy’s top three divisions. “No one gave me anything,” he says. “In all the years I played on loan I always showed that I deserved an opportunity.” Luca had spent time on loan at Prato, Ancona, Modena, Pescara, Arezzo and Siena before re-joining Milan in 2008. “Obviously I had to take my chances, playing with players of the highest level, but I believe that in those 5 years [at Milan] I showed that I could be great at a club that I still consider my home.”
Luca loves Milan. It’s why the chance to come back meant so much to him. “For me, I repeat, wearing that shirt represented the fulfilment of a dream that I had been carrying inside me since I was 8 years old,” he says. “For me AC Milan is a second skin and for this reason I always do my best when I come into San Siro.”
It’s easy to imagine the passion he must have added to Allegri’s dressing room in 2010. After impressing under previous management, Luca Antonini was trusted to continue as Milan’s first choice left back for the new season. He formed a resilient back line with Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta and Ignazio Abate, as Milan were crowned Serie A champions for the first time since 2004. Luca has so many memories from that season. “That season was great in everything because it was finally a great team all over the pitch,” he describes. “We had great feelings and we won the Scudetto because nobody in Italy was likes us. For me it was the best season in my career and when you win in your city in front of all your friends it's amazing, believe me.”
For sure, nobody in Italy had a stronger defence than the Rossoneri. Over the course of the 2010-11 season, they conceded just 24 goals in 38 Serie A matches. On 7th May 2011, Milan won it in the capital with a 0-0 draw against Roma. We had to ask Luca about the celebrations after that title-clinching point at Stadio Olimpico. “I remember the dinner all together in the hotel with all our family. It was amazing,” he says. Allegri’s men won the Derby della Madonnina twice, and came out on top against 3rd placed Napoli both home and away. Milan supporters haven’t witnessed an occasion as joyous as the 4-1 demolition of Cagliari at a sold-out San Siro, a week after securing the title, since. The team was unstoppable domestically and would rival any Serie A champion of the 21st century. And Luca Antonini was the boy from Milan living the dream, almost a decade after leaving his beloved Rossoneri.
Antonini continued to play a key role for Milan in the following season, but they failed to secure a second Serie A title as an undefeated Juventus side beat them to the title by just four points. Milan decided to exchange Antonini for Genoa’s Valter Birsa in 2013 after the left back made just six league appearances in 2012-13. There were clearly no regrets for Luca when he answers our question. “Yes, I decided that my story was at the end with AC Milan because something changed at the club and I thought that it was time to go to another club to find some new motivation, and Genoa was the best option that I had,” he tells us. The Milan fanatic was welcomed with open arms at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. With his hard work, passion and desire, Antonini won a place in the hearts of Rossoneri and Rossoblù supporters. The title-winning defender lost his place in the first team during his second season at Genoa, but there was to be one more big night under the lights against Juventus for Luca. The champions arrived in la Superba to face a hopeful Genoa side managed by the much-admired Gian Piero Gasperini. It’s a tight game, and Juve are struggling to break down the Rossoblù defence. Backed by a vociferous home support, with red and blue flags flying at the oldest stadium in Italy, Genoa look to have secured a well-earned point to continue a fine run of form. Four minutes are added on, and with seconds to play, Genoa make their way forward. It’s not clear how, but substitute Luca Antonini is standing unmarked on the penalty spot as a high ball is toe-poked down in the direction of the defender-turned-poacher, who stumbles, somehow failing to recognise the open goal just a few yards in front of him. He doesn’t slam the ball past Buffon as he did in a Rossoneri shirt years before, but rather attempts to take a touch, and consequently scrambles the ball into the net as Chiellini attempts a desperate goal line clearance. The Juve defenders are tangled up in the netting, but Luca wheels away to celebrate with a wild crowd. It’s the last action of the game, and Luca Antonini has done it again. He loves scoring against The Old Lady. Today, he’s still delighted with his last gasp winner, his final Serie A goal. It wasn’t at the San Siro, but it’s clear that Genoa is his home away from home. “It was a great feeling with the new fans,” he says. Gasperini led Genoa to a remarkable 6th place finish in the 2014-15 season, well above both Milan teams, with memorable victories against AC Milan, Lazio, Inter and, of course, Juventus. “And I had a great season, so finally it was great!”
Luca called time on an exceptional career in 2016. He wrote his name into the history books of his beloved Milan, so we end the interview by asking him about his feelings for the club now that he has hung up his boots. “I miss San Siro to play yes, but I live near it and whenever I can go, I go to see my special team and my love, AC Milan,” he says. The dream of the 8 year-old boy lives on.