Saving Private Niang

“I wish I could play our last match against Barcelona again, maybe shifting the goal a few centimetres to the side,” said a melancholic M’Baye Niang during an interview with Forza Milan in September.

Unfortunately for M’Baye, matches cannot be repeated and history, once written, remains trapped in the pages of almanacs and newspapers, black on white. That evening, an 18 year-old Niang darted towards Victor Valdés’ goal and, after firing a powerful shot past the Spaniard, was convinced, for one second, of having blessed Milan with access to Champion’s League Quarter Finals. That ball, as we all know, hit the post. That evening, Milan ended up losing 4-0, the doors of European football categorically shut.

Instead, Milan’s doors remained open for young M’Baye. Everyone agreed: a talented youngster couldn’t be condemned for hitting the post. It was decided, after the tears had dried up and everyone had come to terms with reality, that M’Baye had been unlucky, that it could’ve happened to anyone.

Thus, Niang was sent far away from the pressures of the big city life. On a mission to breathe some fresh air and hoping to regain his lost confidence, Niang joined Montpellier, and successively Genoa, on loan. At Genoa, under Gian Piero Gasperini’s guidance, Niang was finally presented with the opportunity to shine. In fact, in Liguria, the shy post-Barcelona, Niang was replaced by a fearless kid, capable of dragging his team forwards with devastating outbursts of pace. At Genoa, Niang revealed the technical and physical means that, clearly, he’d always kept somewhat hidden. Repressed, perhaps, by his reverential respect for one of the biggest clubs in history. In a more relaxed environment, freed from pressures and excessive expectations, Niang seemed to have found the tranquillity necessary to express his talent.

The results were palpable: after 33 games in the Serie A without scoring any goals, Niang bagged a total of five for the Grifone, in just half a season. One of those five was against Milan, at San Siro, in a startling 3-1 victory for the Genoani. It was the most random of goals: a powerful shot from Tino Costa, deflected by Niang, almost unaware of having scored. But that didn’t matter – all the kid ever desired was to be loved and forgiven by his people, the rossoneri.

At the end of the year, a decision was made: Niang, reputed mature and finally ready for a step-up, was called back to San Siro. What followed can only be described as an emotional rollercoaster: the contract renewal, the first goals for Milan, a consolidated spot in the starting eleven, followed by a bitter finale, the missed Europa League qualification and the loss of the Coppa Italia to Juventus. It was an overall bitter season for the Milanisti, but a positive one for the Frenchman, finally able to become a pivotal player for the team, one to count on when times were hard.

Starting exactly from where he’d left, Niang began this year’s season in the best of fashions. Any Milanista, in November, would’ve protested against the departure of the striker, who was considered by most fans as fundamental to the team’s mechanisms. In September, against Napoli, it seemed as if Niang had finally conquered red & black hearts (despite the 4-2 loss to the partenopei). Niang’s acceleration to beat Hysaj, in occasion of his goal, displayed not only impressive skills, but also heaps of personality: Niang had finally blossomed into a man, ready to take Milan by storm.

Despite this, a few months later, Niang appears to have conclusively lost the faith of fans and club. Unexplainable, if we consider how he was revered after his goal in the derby last year, after his wonderful start to the current season. The spark between Niang and the rossoneri seems to have faded away, in parallel with Niang’s clearly decreasing form. From mid-November onwards, Niang’s performances started to worsen. Initially, Montella appeared calm: “A player like Niang needs to be physically fit to play well and a loss of form is normal right now, there’s no need to worry.” Nonetheless, the quality of Niang’s performances continued to plunge, culminating with the definitive scission with the supporters: 12th of December, Stadio Olimpico, Rome.

Before talking about that decisive night, it’s important to make a consideration. Initially we said that matches cannot be repeated – it’s true. Niang knows that better than most people. However, quite differently from football matches, opportunities do repeat themselves, endlessly, if one does their best to create them. Niang was given many chances, and often due to his own efforts and determination. Contrarily to many other arrogant youngsters, Niang bore with the many insults, inevitable from such a demanding set of supporters, and came to terms with reality, willingly going off on loan, conscious that it was necessary for his own growth. Niang had the humility to step down, to go play for smaller clubs, in order to mature, as a footballer and as a man. For some reason, these merits are hardly ever acknowledged to Niang.

On other occasions, however, Niang proved to be less worthy of trust, especially at the beginning of his journey with Milan. Notorious for his misdoings, Niang would’ve been sent home without ifs or buts by the majority of clubs. Driving without a license and faking his identity, running away from the French National Team to go clubbing, the numerous car crashes in his flaming Ferrari: these are only some of Niang’s mess-ups. Back then, fans wondered whether it made any sense to invest time, money and energy in such an immature kid, who did not seem to learn from his mistakes. And still, back then, Niang was allowed to recommence, time and time again.

Let us now jump back to the 12th of December, just about two months ago. Roma and Milan are stuck on a tight nil-nil, in a well-fought contest, potentially decisive for Montella’s men. A victory would be the confirmation of what everyone was hoping to be true: Milan might be on its way back top Italy’s top tier. It’s a decisive game not only for Milan, but also for Niang. Decisive to prove that Montella was right, to send a clear message to the fans: “folks, I’m back, it was just a negative phase – I can still be your leader“. An opportunity, yet another in Niang’s career, arrives after just 30 minutes: Lapadula is taken down in the box and a penalty is awarded to Milan. Niang is the designated taker (there will be no incomprehensions like during the match against Crotone) and, determined, places the ball on the penalty-spot.

Perhaps, in that moment, Niang imagined himself in Spain, in front of Victor Valdés, with Mascherano’s breath on his neck and the wind in his hair. Perhaps not, but it hardly matters. What matters is that Niang missed that penalty and Milan, like four years back, lost the game and, maybe, waved a definitive goodbye to European football. For Niang it was the final condemnation: one month later he’d be asked to pack his bags and leave, direction Watford.

Still, in this whole story, there is something incomprehensible, almost paradoxical. In his moment of utmost footballing maturity, Niang is offered as a human sacrifice on the altar of the January market, deemed culpable of many sins and of Milan’s fall from grace. Strangely, Niang hasn’t been conceded an opportunity, perhaps in one of the only moments where he truly deserved one.

For the rossoneri, inevitably, the memory of Niang will always be bittersweet. Niang, the never-fulfilled talent, the kid, and then the man, who choked every time he had the chance to write history. And still, there is something that Niang knows very well, and that he must never forget. Niang knows that when you fall, you must get up; that even the best can hit the post, miss a penalty, but that what matters is to immediately get on your feet, and look out for the winning tap-in.

Words by Federico Manasse: @FedericoManasse

Federico is a columnist, editor and sketch artist for Italian Football Daily. He also writes for the Football Pink, the Gentleman Ultra and on his own website, Fede’s Calcio

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