After 12 years, AC Milan needed a new captain.
Paolo Maldini had retired a blue-eyed God, seven Scudetti and five Champions Leagues weighing the armband down considerably.
There were a number of candidates to succeed him. Clarence Seedorf had always loved to talk, but a gnarling Rino Gattuso was worthy of a shout. Andrea Pirlo, meanwhile, lurked broodily in the wings.
However, all three were overlooked in favour of a player who, despite going into his fourteenth year at Milanello, had never established himself as an undisputed starter. That nobody questioned the decision may illustrate the regard with which Massimo Ambrosini was held by his teammates. It was a natural accession for a man who, despite numerous setbacks, would dedicate his career and life to the club over two decades.
Fabio Capello has never been an indulgent man. But even he realised that the blonde-haired 17-year-old playing for Cesena was a major talent, signing Massimo Amrbosini in the Summer of 1995. By his 18th birthday, the Pesaro native would be competing with Demetrio Albertini and Marcel Desailly for a place in the world’s most glamorous starting eleven. Predictably, he found first-team minutes hard to come by, departing on loan to Vicenza in the summer of 1997.
A Cup Winners Cup semi-final and 27 appearances later, he returned a first-team player, given greater responsiblility by Alberto Zaccheroni. Then, as it always seemed to throughout his career, injury struck; anterior cruciate ligament damage ruling him out for 10 months in February 2001.
He returned to a new coach, a new system and new hope. Fatih Terim had been a disaster at San Siro, but a last-minute intervention from Adriano Galliani to pry Carlo Ancelotti from Parma had brought renewed vigour to the club. Ambrosini took his chance gamely, proving an effective deputy for both Gattuso and Pirlo. He was always ready, and he never disappointed, but rarely started.
Eventually, he became more influential. It was his headed goal that brought Milan to the Champions League final in Istanbul, glancing Kaka’s guided cross past PSV’s flailing Heurelho Gomes at the Philips Stadion on the 5th May 2005. Inevitably (or, as some Milanisti would lament, fortunately) injury would prevent him from appearing in the debacle against Liverpool.
Ancelotti had, however, brought Ambrosini into his coven of trusted lieutenants. ‘Ambro’, despite never being the first name on the teamsheet, was a leader of men, a dedicated professional who loathed to give even one centimetre on the pitch. When he played, whether it be for 15 or 90 minutes, Milan fans saw a performance worthy of the shirt.
By the time Milan faced Liverpool two years later in Athens, Ambrosini had become a key player. The Rossoneri had had a disappointing campaign, but results picked up in December, when their blonde midfielder had returned from yet another injury that had kept him out of the 2006 World Cup. On the eve of the game, he had threatened to make Steven Gerrard his “enemy”, but he needn’t have bothered. Liverpool were dispatched, Ambrosini’s position at the base of midfield allowing Seedorf and Kaka to run the show further forward.
Maldini’s retirement in 2009 prompted more than a montage of heartfelt tributes and sanguine love letters. Ancelotti and Kaka had also gone, and replacement coach Leonardo was totally unproven as a big club manager. In a time of upheaval and against a backdrop of increasingly tight resources, Milan needed a steadying hand. It was Ambro who got the call, usurping Gattuso as the starting defensive midfielder and righting the tanker with his unfailingly consistent performances. It was his hand-dirtying diligence that allowed Seedorf and Pato to cement a reassuring third place finish in the League.Which makes the manner of his departure from the club all the more difficult to understand. Ambroisini had willingly signed a series of one-year contracts, an inescapable reality of the aging footballer. He had deigned faithfully to the club’s more sprightly stars, as Milan’s shoestring budget was spun into a project based on ‘youth’.
Quite simply, he became a victim of his own professionalism. Milan, to their shame, had taken for granted the attitude of a player who had grown up and grown old alongside them. It remains a slight blot on an otherwise fruitful marriage that they waited until the very last moment to inform him that his contract would not be renewed.
Despite interest from West Ham and LA Galaxy, Fiorentina signed Ambrosini on a free transfer in the summer of 2013. The veteran was just one of 13 signings at the Artemio Franchi that year, as Vincenzo Montella and the Viola shot towards the Champions League places. Ambro, alongside Alberto Aquilani and Juan Cuadrado, was an essential part of a Viola squad that would go on to finish fourth in the league.
It didn’t look right, though. Ambrosini didn’t suit any colour but red and black, and many Milanisti would have been relieved when he called time on his career that summer. Nowadays, he acts as a pundit for Sky Italia, offering erudite and informed criticism on Milan and the wider championship.
But Milan fans will never forget the professionalism, dedication and loyalty shown to them by their erstwhile captain. He was never flashy, but he never let them down. Not bad for 18 years of service.