Milan Redux: The Top 5 Returns

Over the years, we have witnessed many players leave Milan, only to return later in their careers. The intrigue of exploring new challenges across Europe’s most elite leagues offers excitement and perhaps more money, but the red and black remains more than just colours.

Here are the top players who just couldn’t reject another shot with the Rossoneri:

5. Roberto Donadoni

The arrival of Silvio Berlusconi to Milan ushered in a renaissance for the Rossoneri.  Part of that renaissance was the arrival of a young ambitious midfielder Roberto Donadoni from Atalanta in 1986.  Along with the talented Dutch Trio, Donadoni became a part of the Italian core that would dominate world football under Arrigo Sacchi and then Fabio Capello.  In his first stint with the Rossoneri, the midfielder helped Milan to five Serie A titles, three European cups, three European SuperCups and two World Club cups all the while racking up over 260 appearances.  It was a shirt that he nearly gave his life for, quite literally, when he had to be revived on the field during a European Cup match against Red Star after a vicious foul left him unconscious and unable to breath.  Luckily Donadoni was saved and his career with the club continued to wield dividends.  By the mid 90s, the Milan he knew began to change with new faces arriving and the old ones that defined a decade of dominance departed.  Gullit, Riijkard, Van Basten and Baresi were gone and Donadoni felt the urge to start anew.

A move to the New York/New Jersey Metrostars of the upstart Major League Soccer in the United States tempted Donadoni to cross the Atlantic and start fresh.  “This is a new experience,” Donadoni said at the time. “It’s important not only for soccer, but for my life. It was a good time for a change for me.” Donadoni easily became the biggest draw for the MLS at the time and hopes were more players from Europe would make the move west, but it wouldn’t be until David Beckham made the move almost a decade later that the MLS would see an influx of top stars. Donadoni made 52 appearances for the Metrostars chipping in 6 goals and 19 assists.  Two years later with Milan struggling in Serie A, Donadoni could not refuse the lure of his former club.  With Fabio Capello personally pushing for his return, Donadoni cancelled his American vacation and returned to the Rossoneri in their time of need.  His decision stunned the MLS community but for Donadoni his decision was final.  ”The only reason I’m leaving,” Donadoni said in October of 97, ”is because I’m going back to Milan. I would not be leaving if it was anywhere else.”  Donadoni would return for two seasons and was able to claim a sixth Serie A crown under Alberto Zaccheroni.

4. Ruud Gullit

In 1986, the calcio landscape was changing and the shift of power was due to ‘Il Cavaliere’ Silvio Berlusconi and his band. The arrival of Berlusconi ushered in a new era of dominance for Milan and an integral part of that dominance was a trio of Dutchman who arrived on a cloud of optimism. Part of that Dutch trio was Ruud Gullit, purchased for a world record fee at the time from PSV Eindhoven, who was the quintessential footballer capable of adapting to different positions and playing styles.  Gullit would go on to win the Ballon d’Or and become a legend with Milan scoring two goals against Steau Bucaresti in the final of the 1989 European Cup Final and was also a part of the squad that repeated as champions over Benfica in 1990. After a knee ligament injury saw him miss out on most of the 89/90 season, Gullit’s presence in the Milan 11 began to wane. He even missed out on the 1993 final which Milan lost 1-0 to Marseille.

The writing was on the wall for Gullit who realized he was no longer a part of Fabio Capello’s plans.  A move to Sampdoria would re-invigorate his career at least for a while.  “It was over for me,” he said in the fall of 1993. “Six years are a long time. It was a good time to change.”  The Dutchman was right. Gullit scored 15 times in 31 appearances for the Blucherciati, leading them to a Coppa Italia title.  It was enough of an improvement to be awarded with a return to the red and black.  His second stint at Milan unfortunately is barely worth a mention as he made only 8 appearances (3 goals) before returning to Sampdoria and eventually making his mark at Chelsea FC.

3. Mario Balotelli

A polarizing figure on every team he has ever played for, Mario Balotelli has made more noise in his private life than he has on the pitch in recent years.  The Italian first arrived at Milan from Manchester City in January of 2013 and made an instant impact despite being labelled a “bad apple” by President Silvio Berlusconi.  A lifelong fan of the Rossoneri, Balotelli scored 12 goals in 12 appearances in his first half campaign with Milan helping them to a third place finish and Champions League qualification almost single handedly. However, controversy seemed to follow Balotelli wherever he went as fans and pundit alike questioned his motivation, skills and overall effectiveness for the team.  The controversy reached a climax when Mario argued live on Sky Sport with former Milan legend Zvonomir Boban after a loss to Roma.  Balotelli continued to be a lightning rod for criticism from fans and pundits for a Milan side that was devoid of talent and suffering in the table.

In his second season with Milan, the Italian scored 14 times in 25 appearances and after a horrific World Cup campaign in Brazil, Mario was sold to Liverpool.  It was the hope of Brendan Rodgers that he could rehabilitate Mario and get the best out of him.  It was not to be as Mario never settled in Liverpool which opened up a sensational return to Milan on loan for this season.  The story of Balotelli’s return is yet to be written and all eyes will be on the San Siro this season to see if one of the most enigmatic Italian players can finally live up to the hype.

2. Kaká

One of the all-time greats to wear the shirt, Ricardo Kaká arrived at the reigning European champions for 8.5 million euro and quickly displaced Rui Costa as the attacking midfielder of choice for Carlo Ancelotti.  Kaká and Milan were a match made in heaven as the Brazilian scored 70 goals in his first stint with the Rossoneri winning the Scudetto in his first season with the club.  Part of the ill fated expedition to Istanbul in 2005, Kaka was instrumental in Milan’s revenge mission in Athens two years later.  Kaká scored 10 goals in thirteen matches on route to the final against Liverpool, including the winner against Celtic in the round of sixteen, and three goals against Manchester United in the semi-finals.  Kaká became the darling of the club and a Balon d’Or was soon to follow.

Milan tried desperately to hold on to their crown jewel and it seemed he would never be sold after a record shattering 100 million pound offer arrived from nuveau-riche Manchester City brought protests from the Rossoneri faithful and was turned down.  A move to Manchester wasn’t to come to fruition but just a few months later Kaka was sold to Real Madrid for a then record 56 million pounds.  Kaka would spend four seasons with Los Blancos, but the pull from the San Siro was never far away from the unsettled Galactico.  Every transfer market it seemed a stunning return to Milan was just around the corner, finally in the final days of the summer transfer market in September of 2013, Kaka made his return on a free transfer.  The Brazilian endeared himself with Milan fans for taking a pay cut to wear the shirt again, cementing his legacy with the Rossoneri.  Kaka scored 9 goals in 33 apearances with Milan in the 2013-14 season including his 100th goal for the club against Atalanta. He became the leader of a club who struggled to find consistency and was bereft of the stars he shared the field with in his first stint at the San Siro.  Kaka’s return lasted only one season but was enough for fans to be satisfied.  Kaka left for MLS expansion club Orlando City at the end of the campaign.

1. Andriy Shevchenko

Joining Milan in 1999 for a then record transfer fee, much was expected from the Dynamo Kyiv starlet who scored six goals in the Champions League the year before.  Shevchenko would become Milan’s second all-time goal scorer with 175 goals in 296 games.  The Ukrainian was instrumental in bringing the club its sixth Champions League trophy scoring the winning penalty against Juventus at Old Trafford.  Shevchenko also won the European Super Cup, Scudetto and the Balon d’Or in 2004.  In the summer of 2005, he left Milan for Chelsea FC and, despite the 30 million pound price tag, instantly drew criticism from Milan president Silvio Berlusconi (who was also Godfather to Shevchenko’s son).  The rift furthered when Shevchenko kissed the Chelsea badge after scoring his first goal for the club, an act which many of his Milan supporters saw as a slap in the face.  Shevchenko’s time at Chelsea is viewed by many as a failure as the Ukrainian was never to find the same form as he had on the peninsula and was soon begging for a return to the San Siro.  The “Prodigal Son” finally returned on loan in the summer of 2008.  His second spell with the club was much like his Chelsea stay, a disappointment.  “Sheva” was barely called upon by Carlo Ancelotti scoring only 2 goals in 26 appearances, most as a substitute or in the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup.  Shevchenko left Milan for a Chelsea return in the same summer as Ancelotti, Maldini and Kaka all departed, ending an era at the San Siro which brought the club to the top of the world.