Fans of AC Milan pride themselves that theirs is not merely a club, but rather a family and community in which tradition and hierarchy are highly revered. Year after year, certainly, champions from all corners of the world arrive to pull on the famous red-and-black shirt, hoping to make the most of their skills and write a new page in the history of this venerable Italian institution.
In several celebrated cases, these sterling servants have also
been encouraged to stay on to help continue the
Rossoneri's mission to win trophies and thrill
worldwide audiences. Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro
Tassotti are all prime examples, but the most famous is this
trio's former team-mate, Carlo Ancelotti, who since November
2001 has held the club's most prestigious and precarious job of
'Our main objective'
Carlo Ancelotti was born in Reggio-Emilia and made his name as a talented, tough-tackling midfielder in the first great Milan squad of the Berlusconi era. Within the space of three years from 1986 to 1989, he helped Milan clinch the Serie A title, the UEFA European Cup and the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup.
It was during the last of these, a 1-0 win over Colombia's Atletico Nacional in 1989, that the hugely influential Ancelotti picked up an injury which prevented him contributing to his side's successful defence of the title in Japan the following year against Paraguay's Olimpia.
He tasted defeat as coach of the Rossoneri in the 2003 final against Boca Juniors but now, 18 years since he last lifted the trophy, AC Milan's current coach is eager to return to the pinnacle of world club football. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, he said: "Our success is based on working together. For us and for the community, this trophy represents the main objective of our season."
Milan, a club of champions
As the coach explains, there will be three generations of outstanding footballers all aiming to clinch this trophy: "From Maldini, who even when he doesn't play represents the soul of this team, to Ronaldo, who really helped us last year. I think that he can make a major contribution in Tokyo. Then there's Kaka, who has unique technical and athletic abilities and who has grown so much since his arrival in Milan. He has several different sides to his game and he's a match-winner in several respects. His team-mates rate him because they see he's an exceptional athlete, a committed lad who plays for the team.
"Without forgetting players of the calibre of [Andrea]
Pirlo, [Rino] Gattuso, [Clarence] Seedorf, [Alessandro] Nesta and
[Filippo] Inzaghi. Besides all the others great players, of course,
we have someone who is already a world champion at club level and
that's [Alexandre] Pato. I can't play him in Japan,
unfortunately. He won't be available until 4 January, because
we couldn't register him before the end of the summer transfer
While the competition format may be new and intriguing, the 48-year-old coach faces similar challenges to those of previous club world tournaments: "My biggest worry is getting over the jetlag, which will take several days. Then there's the training which is not very in-depth, because these important games have to be fitted around our normal season. From this point of view, our opponents have the advantage of being more focused on each match."
Boca not the sole threat
Milan are leaving nothing to chance and have studied their opponents in minute detail. "Everyone underestimates the lesser known teams and are banking on a final between Milan and Boca, but you can't be too careful," said Ancelotti.
"Pachuca of Mexico can go far, so too can the Tunisians Etoile. They eliminated Al Ahly, who themselves went close to making last year's final and managed to clinch third place." As for the quarter-final match between Urawa Reds and Iran's Sepahan or New Zealand's Waitakere, Ancelotti has no doubts which side will book a date with Milan in the semi-final: "We've studied DVDs of Boca and Pachuca and we also sent an observer to the final of the AFC Champions League. In our view the Japanese side are the favourites. They will be playing on home soil, so they don't have to cope with jetlag. They also play world-class football, thanks to their German coach and Brazilian players in their line-up."
Of course, while keen to stress that Boca Juniors will not be
their only challengers, he knows only too well that the Buenos
Aires giants will prove extremely dangerous opponents. "I know
all about Argentinian sides," he said ruefully. "I lost
against one in the semi-final of the Italy 1990 World Cup and again
in the final of the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo in 2003, each
time on penalties. Collectively they are aggressive and determined,
besides having great technical ability."
A victory in Tokyo could see Ancelotti move on in search of fresh challenges, even if the man himself is playing down such a possibility: "I hope not, because I want to see out my career at club level here at Milan and I'm not planning to retire just yet. This is a profession which exposes you to every emotion, from elation and joy to anxiety and sadness, and rewards you with some priceless experiences. It's a job which gives you a real buzz, a job that I put a lot of passion into."
Given the respect in which he is held throughout the nation,
would the possibility of coaching Italy appeal once he departs the
San Siro? "Becoming a national coach - but not necessarily of
Italy - could be an objective," was his response, "but
it's not an immediate one. I hope to experience it one day; it
would be a stimulating experience."
Ancelotti's former team-mates Roberto Donadoni and Marco van Basten have themselves taken on the mantle of managing their respective national teams, while other recently retired Milan greats, such as Frank Rijkaard, have gone on to become successful club coaches. So, does Ancelotti see any members of the current squad following in their footsteps?
"To be honest I don't think there are too many," was his blunt response. "Andrea Pirlo springs to mind, for the level-headed way that he handles every situation. And perhaps Pippo Inzaghi, because he has great passion and has a great tactical understanding of the game. In any case, for now I need them on the pitch because together we want to make Milan the world champions of club football."