AC Milan is my drug, part of my DNA, the link to a childhood when things weren’t quite so complicated. One of my earliest memories is hanging out of my father’s Fiat 600 on a carcade to Valletta, on May 26th 1969, when Milan beat Ajax 4-1 in the old European Cup. Even then, I remember thinking – wow, this is cool.
You can divide football fans by their colours, their choruses, their propensity for spontaneous hooliganism and heavy drinking. But the one thing all football fans do have in common and in abundance is blind, irrational passion. The love for your team is in many instances better, purer and even, dare I say, more durable than the love for your woman or whoever you choose to share your life with. Football is our excuse to get away from the day to day – to a simple world of winning and losing, where the framework of life, for once, is clear. There is no chance of living in shades of grey when you are in front of a TV screen or shivering for ninety minutes on the terraces.
Most of the fun with Milan being around has been us. The Maltese. The head cases who checked themselves into the hotel for a week in the cope of sharing a croissant with Inzaghi over breakfast. The guy at the Milan Club who lost his job because he forgot to show up for work for three consecutive days. A mass of faces, digital cameras, arms and limbs in the SAS Radisson restaurant. The outstretched hands with Milan memorabilia lined up outside the hotel, waiting for the team bus, in the hope of a signature, a handshake, something to immortalise the moment. And make us bask in reflected glory.
And I’m like them. While I waited in the lobby of the SAS Golden Sands, I gibbered, grinned like a Cheshire cat, took clips on my camera as my team filed past me on their way to lunch. I texted everyone I knew. I was an embarrassment. I was a fan.
Gilardino came in with PR minder and another guy who looked familiar, and who transpired later to be Daniele Bonera, the full back. The PR guy said I had five minutes; the recorder was clicked on and Gilardino sat down for the photo shoot.
My first thought was that the guy was young enough to be my son. My second was a general sense of wonder at Italian football’s propensity to serve up pin-up boys as their icons. And my third was that I had to coax stuff out of the guy, because he was clearly well-versed in PR.
We kicked off by talking about the obvious…
On Serie A this season
It’s been a strange summer, for sure. No Juve to play against. No proper summer break. Yes, I would have gone to play for Milan if we had been demoted to Serie B, no questions asked. I am in the team that I always wanted to join, the team that is right for me. There are a lot of clichés about Milan being a family, but I cannot describe it any other way. I am very attached to these colours, to this family. When I came here, Milan wanted me at all costs. I do not forget that kind of commitment.
It’s been tough seeing Inter race away from us this season. We have no chance of catching them in the League. But wouldn’t it be great to trip them up in the Champions League?
I have won nothing for my club yet. I know people keep talking about how a footballer can find the motivation to get better, after winning the World Cup. But I still have to deliver something for my club.
On Training in Malta
We don’t get to see much, but it seems to be a lovely island. Our routine has really been from here, to the training ground and back. I knew very little about Malta before I came. But it’s been great for us. We’re here for nearly two weeks – so it’s inevitable that close bonds are made between the players and the group gets stronger. And we’ve also had time to train hard and work on the technical and physical aspects of our game.
On the Maltese fans
Outside of Milan, I have ever seen such warmth as here – it really has been an explosion of joy around the team. Sure, when you travel, as a Milan player, you are recognised by fans all over the world - you do your bit of signing autographs. But Malta is just something else. All of us were completely bowled over by the reception when we arrived at the airport. And the level of support, of good humour, has remained the same, day after day. The Maltese have been great, polite, and good-natured – it really has been fantastic to be made to feel at home like this.
On life in the fast lane
From 12 years old you are aware that your future is likely to be different from that of other kids. By the time you are 17 and if you’re as lucky as I was, already close to playing in Serie A, you are earning much more than your contemporaries in other walks of life. You’ve got to be careful that it does not mess up your head. You need to retain the same mentality, the same values you had before you got into the football world. Your family have to help sort you out, and keep your feet on the ground. I’m very lucky. My parents were there for me.
On tough opponents
I don’t mind playing against defenders who play with passion. People like Gattuso are tough, but always fair. They’re not out there to injure you, they’re trying to win the ball. True, then there are people like Poulsen, who are there to wind you up.
If you want to make it in football, you have to be tough - not just physically, but mentally.
On Mind Games
When things go wrong, when you cannot score, or you’re injured, you have to get back to doing the simple things well. You train hard. You need the affection of people who you know really care for you – your family, your team mates. You look for your inner calm. You have to dig in and cultivate that element of self-belief to take you through the bad times. I went through a barren spell earlier this season. All attackers do, at some stage in their career. I never gave up, thinking I could get out of the tunnel.
No matter what anyone else tells you, you have to regroup, and keep working hard. 50% of a great player is the head.
On the Violin
People keep on asking me what happened to that one… getting down on a knee and pretending to play a violin after a goal. It is something I started at Parma and carried on with the National Team – I think the last time was the goal against the USA in Germany. I really have no idea why I have never celebrated a Milan goal in that way. Maybe I’m waiting for that special goal at San Siro. San Siro’s a pretty special place.
I can listen to most stuff. Especially on the team bus. Oasis, U2, Ramazzotti. But for true music talent, you’d have to listen to Seedorf, because he’s a great singer.
I’m a traditionalist. Give me pasta, give me anything Italian.
My best holiday is the one I still have to take. I want to drive across the US, coast to coast, with my girlfriend. Something I always dreamt of.
If you are a successful footballer, it is inevitable that you lose a bit of your childhood. I left Biella when I was still a kid. So, yes, you do grow up in a strange world, very much apart from other kids. That’s the price you pay.
On being recognised
Milan is a very liveable city, even if it is a metropolis. People leave you on your own, whether you go to a restaurant or go to a club. They are used to having stars around there.
On being a role model
If you want role models, look at Maldini, Gattuso, Pirlo. Football is full of senators. It is still a bit too early for my generation – me and Kaka – to be the flag bearers for this club.
I am not quite the Milan flag, right now… more like just the stick (Non mi sento una bandiera… forse a questo momento sono soltanto l’asta). But we’ll get there.
On life after football
Give me some time to think about that one! I’m 24. Honestly, it’s too early to say. I always wanted to be a footballer. I am living my dream.
At the end of the interview, we realised that the minder had drifted out of the room, and was admiring Golden Bay from the terrace outside. Gilardino patiently signed a memento for my father ‘A William,’ he mouthed, and then disappeared to promptly return with a digital camera.
“Hey”, he grinned, as he snapped away, “I might be back here on holiday, after all. MY girlfriend would love this room. How long does it take to get here by boat?”
I launched into the virtues of Virtu’ Ferries’ 90 minute crossing from Pozzallo before I realised that a multi-millionaire was likely to come over in some other more comfortable form of transport. I swear, he just kept nodding as I reeled off timetables and weather forecasts.
Gila’s a good guy. Even my mother would have liked him. She always had a soft spot for a well brought-up, pin-up boy.