The longer time goes on, the harder it gets to shake off the feeling that there is something wrong with AC Milan’s No. 9 shirt.
Since Filippo Inzaghi retired in 2012, the nine players who have worn his old jersey have scored 29 Serie A goals between them. By way of comparison, that’s only two goals more than Lazio striker Ciro Immobile—Serie A’s current top scorer—had netted in the six months before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The experience of Krzysztof Piatek, Milan’s most recent No. 9, only served to fuel talk that the shirt is cursed. After a prolific start to the 2018-19 season with Genoa, Piatek joined Milan in January 2019 but was told by then-sporting director Leonardo that the right to wear the No. 9 jersey would have to be “earned.”
With the No. 19 on his back, Piatek scored nine Serie A goals in the second half of the season and was rewarded with the No. 9 shirt. Then he stopped scoring. The Poland international notched only four league goals for Milan in the first half of the current campaign and was sold to Hertha Berlin in January.
The roll-call of strikers who have worn Milan’s No. 9 shirt since Inzaghi hung up his boots eight years ago features both rising stars like Piatek, Mattia Destro and Andre Silva, and proven goalscorers such as Fernando Torres and Gonzalo Higuain. All have tried, and all have failed.
“I think there’s something supernatural, a kind of spell,” says Benedetta Radaelli, a Milan supporter and presenter on Italian television channel Sport Mediaset. “Since Inzaghi, nobody has had any luck. I think his body and his energy are still inside that shirt, because he loved the shirt so much. If I were AC Milan, I would withdraw it. It’s so unlucky. Put it in some place where nobody can touch it or look at it.”
The sorry tale begins with Alexandre Pato, the Brazilian prodigy whose sad, injury-triggered decline had already set in by the time he swapped his No. 7 shirt for Inzaghi’s old number in the summer of 2012. After six injury-plagued months in which he failed to score a single league goal, he returned to Brazil with Corinthians.
Alessandro Matri, an August 2013 signing from Juventus, scored only one goal in 15 league games before being loaned out to Fiorentina the following January, never to return. Two players wore the No. 9 the following season—Torres in the campaign’s first half, Destro in the second—but the pair amassed only four league goals between them. Inzaghi, back at Milan as head coach that season and exasperated by the lack of reliable options up front, ended up deploying French winger Jeremy Menez as a striker for much of the campaign.
Recruited from Shakhtar Donetsk in July 2015, Luiz Adriano wore the No. 9 without distinction for a single season before passing it on to Gianluca Lapadula, who had scored goals for fun with Pescara in Serie B but found the going a little tougher in Serie A. Highly regarded Portugal international Silva, signed as part of new Chinese owner Li Yonghong’s chaotic €200 million transfer splurge in the summer of 2017, fared no better.
Higuain arrived on loan from Juventus in August 2018 and dismissed talk of a curse, declaring: “I have already worn a few shirts which carry a heavy burden, so the No. 9 shirt here isn’t a problem.” But after five months, and only six Serie A goals, he decided to re-join forces with Maurizio Sarri, his former Napoli mentor, at Chelsea. Enter (and then, swiftly, exit) Piatek.
Five Milan strikers have hit double figures in Serie A goals in the post-Inzaghi era—Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Pazzini, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Bacca and Patrick Cutrone—but none reached the 20-goal mark and none were wearing the famous number. Synonymous with goals in the days of Marco van Basten, George Weah and Inzaghi, the jersey now lies vacant, a sacred garment turned poisoned chalice. And with each new failure, the pressure to break the curse grows even stronger.
“The AC Milan shirt is so heavy, especially now,” says Alessandra Bocci, who reports on Milan for La Gazzetta dello Sport. “They’ve been in crisis for many years, so every year it gets heavier and heavier.”