UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Summers spent stateside have become de rigueur for Europe’s top clubs. From Arsenal to Liverpool to reigning European champs Real Madrid, it seems as though all of UEFA’s heavy hitters are here in the States. Indeed, the footballing talent pool currently assembled on these shores would give Brazil circa mid-June a serious run for its money.
Now you can add Mario Balotelli and AC Milan to that impressive list.
The Rossoneri touched down at JFK on Wednesday, and shortly afterwards they piled into a bus and drove out to Long Island to partake in a closed-door scrimmage with NASL side, the New York Cosmos.
The scrimmage didn’t wind up taking place — no explanation was given as to why Milan backed out of playing Pele’s former club — but both sides held training sessions that were viewed by the media and a select group of supporters.
Here are 11 takeaways from what was seen at the Cosmos’ training ground on Wednesday.
1. Balotelli’s big here too: Even in doing nothing, Mario Balotelli somehow dominated the proceedings in L.I. He was the last one off the bus when Milan arrived, but drew by far the most applause from the fans outside the locker room. He put forth minimal effort during training, but the assembled media was discussing his every move. He was the last one out of the locker room upon leaving, but the fans waited until the very end just to catch a glimpse of his blonde mohawk. Ever the showman, he lived up to his legend by doing very little. Which is usually the way of cool, no?
2. Gentleman Honda: Attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda was one of two players made available to the media after practice (Sulley Muntari was the other) and despite giving off a cocksure air on the pitch, the Japanese international was a humble gentleman off of it. He answered every question politely and even tried his best to add insight to a difficult question about whether he thinks fellow Japanese international Shinji Kagawa’s future really lies at Manchester United. “He is my friend,” replied Honda. “I (hope) he will play very good at Manchester United. Or maybe he will transfer to another team also, where he can play better.”
3. Muntari talks World Cup exit: Along with Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari was famously sent home from the World Cup early by the Ghanaian football federation. While Muntari didn’t fully disclose why he was sent home, he said that he would tell all when the time was right. “It’s my country. I love my country,” said Muntari, when asked about Brazil. “There are certain things I want to say, but I will say them at the (right) time. So now, I just don’t want to talk about it, but my country’s always going to be my country.”
4. Pippo’s peppy practices: Milan spent most of the training session running an 11-v-11 drill across the width of the field that focused more on shape and distribution out of the back than actual attacking play. New coach Pippo Inzaghi was very hands-on, shouting instructions and chasing the ball throughout, and his involvement infused the drill with plenty of intensity. Hard play was the norm, with a couple of scary collisions taking place as well. After Milan’s lackluster 2013-14, Pippo’s serious approach could bode well for the Rossoneri’s upcoming Serie A campaign.
5. Big Adil: Despite playing in just 18 matches for Milan last season, central defender Adil Rami was easily the most vocal player on the pitch on Wednesday. The French international’s booming voice was heard constantly during practice. He and ex-Chelsea center back Alex were arguably the most impressive backline players during the extended 11-v-11 drill.
6. Dang, Niang: The attacking player who impressed the most during training was 19-year-old French forward M’Baye Niang. The lanky forward has tremendous pace, as well as skill on the ball. He’s one of those players who makes the game look far easier than it really is.
7. Ladies in red (hats): As both clubs are sponsored by Emirates airline, there were six female flight attendants in attendance for the entirety of Wednesday’s training session. Donning their signature tan dress-suits and red hats, they stood in a straight line for the entire two hours. In all honesty, it was a touch curious.
8. Big name missing: Brazilian forward Robinho was not in attendance on Wednesday, and is apparently not touring with the club this summer. Those MLS rumors just might have some credibility, after all.
9. El Staaraway: With his signature dyed mohawk-pompadour hairdo and a sly grin on his face, Stephan El Shaaraway was easily the second-most popular Milan player with the stateside fans. He and Super Mario seem to have the ability to draw attention from supporters as easily as they do rival defenders.
10. Lazy, but Super Mario: Surprising no one, Balotelli was the picture of indifference during the club’s stretching exercises. But when he did put forth the effort to run at a full clip during competitive sprints, it was a sight to behold. It’s just rare to find players his size who can move as gracefully — and as quickly — as he does.
11. Chuffed ex-Chelsea lads: At this point in their careers, one would expect veteran stars Michael Essien and Alex to be indifferent to enthusiastic receptions from autograph-hungry fans. But both players were all smiles and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves as they signed jerseys and took selfies with the local supporters. It was a bit touching, to be honest. Maybe both players are wise enough to drink these moments in during the latter stages of their impressive careers.