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There was a moment on the pitch in Sassuolo, the day we won the Scudetto last season.
Even though we played away, the stadium was 90% full of AC Milan fans. I heard that our fans crashed the Sassuolo website to try to buy tickets. After 11 years without a title, some fans have paid thousands of euros to be there. It was a sea of red and black. I've never seen anything like it.
After the final whistle, all the fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate with us. I will always remember the guy who grabbed me by the shoulders and started shaking me. He was shouting in English: “Fik! FIK!!! Thank you! A thousand thanks!!! This means EVERYTHING to us…you know?!”
And I thought, okkei... this is how it is done in Milan.
The whole scene and the celebrations that followed, the trophy parade in Piazza del Duomo… it was like… you know the freeze frame in a cheesy film with the sound of the scratched record? One of those “how did I get here?” moments
To tell you the truth, I've had this thought several times over the last couple of years: “is this really happening?”
Before Milan, I was frustrated. My career at Chelsea started so well, but then suddenly I didn't understand where it was going. In the summer of 2020, I had never entered a pre-season knowing which club I would be playing for on opening day. This isn't easy.
Don't get me wrong, I have tons of fond memories of Chelsea - which youth team did I come from? Win two FA Youth Cups and the UEFA Youth Championships? Those times were the cream. We had been together for many years. Me, Tammy, Mason, Dom Solanke, Andreas Christensen, Trevoh Chalobah, I could go on… We were just friends who loved life.
Then I grew a lot going on loan to Brighton, Hull and Derby. No one was trying to hold me up or put an arm around my shoulders anymore. It was about the Championship, not the youth league. There are real consequences at stake: promotions, demotions, jobs. Not to mention the physical appearance. Once, at Derby, I remember being hit by the burly Bristol City striker Famara Diédhiou: he hurt me so much I couldn't feel my leg anymore and I had to leave the pitch. Our club doctor told me that he had never seen anything like it. He added: “I only see this kind of injury in rugby!”
And this is the Championship.
When I finally broke into the Chelsea first team in 2019-20, it was surreal. Not only for making it, but also for making it with my teammates. There have been so many times that Tammy, Mason and I have said to each other, “Guys, we're here. We play for Chelsea." At the time, I always made sure to tape the football show, Match of the Day, just to see myself on TV.
The game that best sums this up was the one in which we beat Wolves 5-2 away that season. I scored a killer goal. I hit the ball on the fly, from outside, and it flew into the net. Pewww. Willy Caballero was always teasing me about how I shot in practice so I got my revenge haha!
In between, Tammy said to me, “I'm so tired. I ran without ever stopping”.
And I said to him, “Dude, what do you mean you're tired?? You can't be tired! You scored twice. You could score a Premier League hat-trick. Keep it up!!!"
In the second half, he scored the third goal and then Mason scored another. Youth academy boys all score together to win a game for Chelsea. In the locker room, Tammy and I sat next to each other and looked into each other's eyes. It was such a moment... Can you believe this is happening???
I couldn't stop smiling.
But after COVID, everything changed.
Suddenly, I wasn't playing as much anymore. My career was going in one direction and then stopped.
I'm someone who doesn't try to get too high or low, but I'm not going to lie, my smile was gone.
Then I got the phone call that changed everything.
When I told my father, his first question was: "Why is Paolo Maldini talking to you?"
Hahaha! Thanks Dad.
I explained to him that Maldini is the sporting director of Milan and that he had called me to explore the possibility of moving there on loan. To be honest, the whole Zoom call I couldn't believe it either. I was sitting and watching him, listening, but not really understanding. I was just thinking:
That is Paolo Maldini.
I'm talking to Paolo Maldini.
If nothing happens, I can still say I spoke to Paolo Maldini.
My father loved Milan. Dad is Nigerian and grew up following the best European football. In his day, Milan were the team that looked like they should win the Champions League every year. When he understood that the call was true, he got excited and started giving me a little history lesson about Milan. I was sitting there, thinking, 'Yeah, thanks Dad, I know a little bit about football too.'
But he was right. It's such a famous club. The only thing I could think was, "I don't know if I'm ready."
When I was growing up in London, it seemed like the only English players playing abroad were David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves. It wasn't really an option. And it wasn't just any club, it was Milan.
But then I spoke to some Chelsea guys who had been to Italy: Toni Rüdiger, Mateo Kovačić and Emerson. Toni was at Roma and kept telling me the players were supported very well. Then he approached me and said: “So, are you going to Milan? Listen… if you get the chance, go”.
“The fans… it's different in Italy. It's crazy. I was an idol there, do you understand? Give your all and they'll love you."
Then there was Thiago Silva. He didn't know English, but when he heard what we were talking about, he said, "Milan?", giving a huge thumbs up! Hahaha!
And then I was like, “O.K., put me on the plane!”
When I finally went to sign, in January of 2021, they gave me a tour of the museum. There are so many trophies that you can't even remember them all. Champions Cups and Golden Balls, everywhere. I look at the photos on the walls and say to myself: “Yes, this is the right place”. There are Shevchenko, Kaka, Nesta, Ibra, Pirlo, Ronaldinho... And these are just a few that I remember because I saw them as a child, given my age.
The most touching moment was when they handed me a bag with my suit inside. When he pulled it out, I stared at the AC Milan crest. I think Dad realized I was having trouble assimilating all of this. He looked at me and said: "You play for Milan".
Still after almost two years, every time I see my suit I still get a special feeling. I still say to myself: "I play for Milan".
Many British players have asked me what it's like to play in Italy. The thing that really strikes you is the culture. I am not referring to the food and drink, although I must say that I am a convert. I had never drank coffee before, now I'm a true aficionado of the daily macchiato!
It is the fan culture that is unique. Toni, Kova and the others tried to tell me about it before I arrived, but it's so much more than what they told me. It's impossible to describe if you haven't experienced it.
It's so different from England, where they ask you for a selfie or two on the street. In Italy, even if you wear a cap, a hood or a mask... you are recognized. Even if I cover my face, I'm still recognized. Someone catches my eye and I see him thinking about it, as I seem to know those eyes, and then all hell breaks loose!
It's madness. But it's good madness. Having waited a long time for the title and watching rivals dominate, one might expect some negativity from the fans, but I have to say I have never felt anything like this… only love. So many people refusing to charge you for coffee or showing you their AC Milan tattoos. I've seen so many tattoos of Giroud celebrating his goal in the derby...hahaha!
The way they treat us, the way they look at us. I mean, we're just footballers, right? But for them it is as if we were kings. And that's why it was so important for me to learn the language quickly so that I could be a part of all this. I wanted to be completely in. In a club like this you can't do things by halves.
The love given to us during the Scudetto race was immense. We would never have made it without the help of the fans.
There have been so many special moments on the way to the Scudetto, especially towards the end of the season.
With each game more and more friends have come from home to join in the excitement of the title race. I usually place them in the players' families sector at San Siro, but once I put them together with normal fans and then they came back saying: “Yes, Fik… you always have to put us there. We want to be part of this energy. It's crazy!”
I remember the February derby. I had just had knee surgery but, when Oli scored the second goal to complete the comeback, I jumped up as if I had just received a miracle cure! It was an away game, but there were still our ultras in the Curva Sud and when everyone ran to celebrate with them, we could see them jumping and screaming up there.
The same happened in April when we beat Lazio 2-1 away from home. Tonali scored in the 92nd minute, jumped the billboards and the stadium exploded. I still remember the faces of individual fans who were losing their minds from the sheer joy.
Even when you are in the game and focused on what you are doing, when the fans go crazy like that it hits you like a shock wave. The thing you don't understand about San Siro from TV is the noise. You really feel it. It takes your breath away and at the same time gives you new life.
The fans were only one part of the equation, the other was my team mates. I have to applaud them. It's such a special group. The spirit you see is real. We are all friends off the pitch. We go to eat together, not in small groups but as a team. There is a bond and the mindset is created that we are together on this journey.
The other thing is that – and the credit goes to Gazidis, Maldini, Massara and Pioli for this – it is a team in which many young players have had the opportunity to take on responsibilities and have used them to move up the level.
Guys like Pierre Kalulu and Rafa Leão. What a player Rafa is! When he arrived, I don't think even he knew how good he was. How easily he could dominate players one-on-one. He is tall, he can dribble, he can shoot and he can pass. He has it all…and now I think he knows it.
And then, on the other side, there are highly experienced guys like Zlatan. I know what you are thinking and, yes, in real life it is exactly like that.
I remember when I arrived in Milan for the first time he asked me where I was staying. Then he told me that we were neighbors. He said, “Yes, I live in the building next to yours. My apartment is the one on the top floor ... so God can watch over the city of him ”.
But he's also the strongest, most flexible and most committed in the team, even at 41 years old. It's a car. There are no other words to describe it. And he always talks in that big Zlatan-like booming voice, giving you little speeches and giving you advice. You can watch some videos on social media. We see it in front of us, every day.
In those final games, he kept us sharp. I remember we went to the locker room at half-time on the last day against Sassuolo with a 3-0 lead. I don't think I've ever been so happy in my life. I looked at my teammates who smiled: “We made it now”.
But that Zlatan noticed it right away, that we were letting go and said: “Nobody has to smile yet!!! There are still 45 minutes!!!”
We stopped smiling.
Forty-five minutes later we were champions.
The 24 hours after Sassuolo were crazy. I won't even try to describe the trophy parade. If you haven't already, go watch the videos... I'll wait for you.
The route was seven to eight kilometers and it took us five and a half hours to navigate through the crowds banging on the sides of the coach. Looking out, you couldn't even see the ground, just people, flags, flares, and red mist. I heard there were 50,000 people crammed into Piazza del Duomo, all singing “Pioli's on fire” hahaha!
In my head, I had a little thought: "Imagine if we won the Champions League."
The evening after the match against Sassuolo, I went back to my house to stay with my parents. They had come to Italy by plane, but not to the stadium: my father never watches my games. Never. He's too nervous. Instead he goes to mass. But that day, he decided to risk a heart attack and watched the game at my house. This makes you realize how important it was to him.
That evening – 16 months after visiting the Milan museum without really believing what was happening to me – my father and I celebrated together.
I play for Milan and I won the Scudetto.
It really happened. And it was better than I ever could have imagined.
I'd like to be able to find that fan who took me by the shoulders on the pitch in Sassuolo. If I could, I would take him by the shoulders and say to him in my best Italian:
Now I understand.
Now I understand what it means.
And I hope you understand what that means to me.
This article was originally published on theplayertribune as Cosa Significa il Milan Per Me.