Former Milan CEO Marco Fassone insists Yonghong Li “underestimated the task of repaying the loan, but the final balance was ultimately positive.”
Fassone was placed in charge when Chinese businessman Yonghong Li purchased the club from Silvio Berlusconi for €740m, ending a 30-year reign, and continued to reassure fans that there were no financial problems.
Fassone maintained this all the way up to the moment Yonghong Li defaulted on repayments of a €303m loan in July 2018, so the club was effectively repossessed by Elliott Management, the US hedge fund that had given him the loan.
“Of course there is regret when a director works for a year and lays the foundations, but then doesn’t reap any rewards,” Fassone told Sportitalia.
“The questions of what was behind it all have to be reduced to simple terms: the owner at the time underestimated the task of repaying a loan over 18 months. He was convinced that the debt was very small compared to the value of the club.
“He was unable to complete an operation that he considered to be simple during the allotted time and therefore had to hand it over to the current owners.
“If I look back to August 2016, when I first received the phone call from the Chinese investors, I think anyone in my place wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to join what seemed like a very important project.
“I thought that, as they were negotiating with (Berlusconi’s holding company) Fininvest and were backed by an important advisor, one of the most reliable law firms and that Berlusconi was ready to sell, that this was someone to be trusted.
“Up until that moment, we’d done things right. Of course, we made a few mistakes, but that’s normal. I think before the closing and during our running of the club, we did our best to bring back enthusiasm and create the vision Li had in his mind.
“We expected fewer difficulties, but I never imagined it would end up like this. The last months were a real struggle, we couldn’t create a team. There was fear and disappointment.
“He lost his business because of debts, both his and Milan’s. He went in default before, didn’t put back the €32m into his own accounts and therefore no longer had to give back the millions owed by Milan.
“I never heard from him after that, although to be honest, I didn’t speak to him much before either. He only spoke Chinese, so I communicated with Li Han, who was very affectionate with me even after leaving Milan.”
Fassone also had a fraught relationship with director of sport Massimiliano Mirabelli, although he worked alongside him at Inter in the past.
“Massimiliano was (Inter director Piero) Ausilio’s chief collaborator. I worked alongside him in my last two seasons at Inter, so I saw the way he worked and was looking for a director who wanted to gamble with me.
“I thought it was the right choice, despite the criticism. I maintain the final balance, between things we did well and less well, was ultimately positive.”
Paolo Maldini was brought in by Elliott Management after the takeover, but the Milan legend had also been approached by Yonghong Li and turned them down.
“I had proposed a job for Maldini, as my ideal was a Milan with Maldini and Mirabelli working together. Paolo made his choices. I imagine he said yes this time because he can see a more interesting project, collaborating with Zvonimir Boban and Leonardo, who he already knows well.
“Milan have decided now to spend a lot more in terms of directorial salaries, whereas at the time it was just Mirabelli and I. They invested in that aspect.”