When he speaks, he takes a bracelet off his wrist, plays with it, and then puts it back on. He loosens it again and so on. It melts little by little. Until now, in a career that is still short and much studied by all, he has always said little. But his nature reserve is immediately separated from pride, and perhaps it has something to do with the Lower Lodi area where he grew up, an endless plain of boundless horizons, fields, few houses and few words. The “residential silence” that Celati was talking about went over there heading east toward the mouth. Sandro Tonali is a boy born in 2000: it’s easy to forget that footballers are sometimes men who are so young that they have just finished high school, even though on Sundays we put big, popular heroes’ projections, dreams and responsibilities on them. He has just finished his third year in Serie A and is not even 22 when we speak – he returned on 8 May. In three years, at an age where many of his peers have just left school, he has gone through three different phases of his career: the predetermined one, with Brescia; the most difficult, with difficulty adapting, to Milan’s first year; as a leader and hope for the future of Italian football again this year.
After the first year in Serie A with Brescia, half of Italy wanted his talents, but he played and showed some exposure. AC Milan ended up being almost a surprise. He opened only then: I only wanted Rossoneri, he said; here I can win everything. Milan are back in the Champions League and it took him longer than expected to adapt to Pioli’s football. But he was twenty, even though he was crushed by a motivated but too serious hype. Growing up is something that requires patience and protection. Get words and a big effort. Milan gave him them. In August 2021, he appeared on the field, resembling another. On the second day of the championship, directly from a free kick, a rainbow under the cross, the first with the Milan jersey, which seemed both a liberation and an initiation. He cheered with closed eyes and outstretched arms, as if to say: finally.
Ⓤ: Where does Sandro Tonali come from?
I was born in Lodi. I was at home in Sant’Angelo, I did the first year at the oratorio in my country, then I immediately went to Milan for Lombardia Uno. I made a very direct transition that was not normal, let’s say, at that age.
Ⓤ: About non-normal passages. Did you immediately notice that there was something more than the others?
Yes, we realized it right away because I was training in the beginning with my brother, who was three years older than me, and with all his teammates. I was the only one from 2000, the only one so small. So after having some time with them, I went back with them my age and there we understood something. From there until the end of the year, I always stayed in Sant’Angelo to stay, but to play, I moved to Lombardia Uno in Milan. There was a lot more work there than in my country and my journey began.
Ⓤ: How many players have you been before you became the midfielder you are now?
As a child, everyone wants to be a striker, and I was also born a striker. And as time went on, it was not like I was bored, but I wanted to try new things around the track. Then I only tried one, because I became a midfielder and stopped there. It was good.
Ⓤ: In those years you only had football in mind, or was it more like: let’s try, let’s see how it goes?
Everyone starts with the idea of wanting to become football players as children, but it’s hard to have an idea and be able to bring it to an end. You have to be lucky, you have to be good, and you have to dedicate as much time as possible to football. And a lot of luck again. It’s hard to say, “I want to play in Serie A” and then succeed. So many things need to suit you.
Ⓤ: Of all these things that have to fit together to get to Serie A, which one has especially helped?
I was so lucky to play in Brescia and to have a president who especially gets young players to play. This is luck more than a quality. Cellino in Brescia gave me this opportunity in the first championship and I immediately got on the train. It’s hard to see 17-year-olds from the youth sector make their Serie B debut.
Ⓤ: What difficulties does a child have in learning to cope?
I did a lot of back and forth until I was 13: first in Milan, then in Piacenza, finally in Brescia. So at the age of 14, I stopped going to boarding school for the first time, and everything changed there, my whole lifestyle. I no longer had my parents every day, and even though they called me, it was not the same. Another life has begun. Even waking up in the morning and knowing that you have to fend for yourself during the day, to go to school, then from school to training, get back from training, maybe arrange a dinner out: these are all little things that you know 14-time must already know manage. And it’s not that simple.
Ⓤ: What is a trait that has characterized you since you were a child?
I was the type who spoke a little and who always worked hard. I was very much in mine, as even now. I just liked to play.
Ⓤ: It also takes temperament to say it in a gentle way, to be able to control a growth process of this type.
Above all, do not give up. There were moments, like after the first season of Serie B, where I returned to Primavera, and those are moments to learn to control. To receive the blow, and not to experience the fact of having been on the first team and then return to Primavera as a refusal, but one has to cope with it as a more mature person than his teammates, even if one is the same age.
Ⓤ: Has it helped you to be passed by the province and not be thrown directly into the city?
In Brescia, I found people and friends who helped me. The first year of boarding school we were six boys, three of whom were from the same team, and that was important. Spending weeks alone at a boarding school is difficult, and the first few days we were only two or three, after training you felt bored and saw the urge to go home, to give up.
Ⓤ: How do you handle this urge?
With hours of phone calls. To the friends you want to see this weekend, to your parents, who are the foundation of everything. And try not to think that you are far from home and that you are 14 and that there is nothing to do besides school and football.
Ⓤ: Is a word predetermined that suits you?
More than predetermined, which I do not find a real adjective, in the end I have always been humble. It helped that I was sweating before I got high. Having played more than 80 matches with Brescia has also helped me on the path I have had and since I came to Milan. Even off the field, for Serie B gives you experience. I’m not saying it’s an experience to do, but for those who can not play in Serie A right away, it’s something they do well because you understand the steps that will be there.
Ⓤ: Would it be better to always start from scratch?
Yes, we have seen that in recent years a young player tried his hand for the first time in Serie A since Primavera, after maybe half a season at the top, then there is a risk of talking like: he is not ready yet … it is the desire to wait for a boy, a team today wants people and players who are ready who are on par with the others.
Ⓤ: How in Milan did you manage to deal with the emotions from a first year in a row and a second year as a leader? First of all, how has your perception of yourself changed?
At first it was difficult. Because I came at a time when the team was running at two thousand an hour, everything was fine, the results were perfect, so I had to get on my toes. It was a slow process. So over time, Mr Pioli was important, he came to me a lot during the year, it was nice to find very young guys, and very experienced guys like Ibra, who last year helped me a lot both inside and out. the path. More off the field.
Ⓤ: Do you talk to him a lot?
Yes, he is someone who immediately understands if you have a half problem, if you have a wrong comma. He is a person who talks a lot and who helps you in all aspects.
Ⓤ: And what happened then this summer, how does one transform from promise to certainty, almost to an idol?
It happens that a year and a summer have passed and I had time to relax, rest my head, reset and start over. In football, this is something that can give you a second chance, as it happened to me. I had time to think: knowing that Milan was still betting on me, that was the basics, the foundation of everything. So on the pitch, I can not tell you what has changed, because something has changed in my head. But from there, it was a way that the coach and I always tried to keep. For it was very easy to do well two or three games and then go back to last year’s average, so that was the hard part.
Ⓤ: Did you also feel a change in the love for you?
I believe that from last year to this year, playing behind closed doors and playing with the fans are two opposite experiences. Watching the match in the stadium for a fan is another thing, you see two parts of the pitch at the same time, you can see what your goalkeeper is doing and the opponent’s goalkeeper at the same time. And then the fans’ warmth, for us, this year gave something more. In my opinion, nothing has changed, only that the fans are back and watching the matches and are more happy. That was what football was missing.
Ⓤ: You said something happened on a mental level: you disconnected to be able to start over. one thing that is being talked about more and more often, thankfully in recent years, the importance of being relaxed also in the head.
It seems to me that in Milan there is a group that works a lot, also because there is mental synergy. One good thing is that we are young and we understand each other in a split second in every aspect. In football, the time you have to really unwind is short, you can only do it during a summer holiday at the end of the season. It can give you energy, an extra boost, even recharging.
Ⓤ: And how do you find the strength to react even in unexpected ways when the toughest matches come?
These are games played just to win, otherwise we would not be here. The one against Naples was fundamental to us, to morality and to the classification. And also the one with Inter. You find the charge on your own, you need no other motivation. It’s easier in some ways to play them than other games at a slow pace.
Ⓤ: What has Milan and its history always told you?
I grew up watching Milan and going to the stadium. It gives me a sense of happiness, of serenity. And also knowing people like Maldini and Massara … they give you the feeling of being calm, happy and of having huge love for Milan. Being with them facilitates everyone’s journey.
Ⓤ: When you are not thinking about Milan, what do you do?
This year compared to the last two years I have changed a lot. Broom. Hobbies that are different and fewer because living in a city like Milan allows you certain things and does not allow you others. So maybe go out once less and stay home a lot more often, or go out to dinner with my boyfriend. These are all things you can do, but you also need to be careful about them.
Ⓤ: Are you important?
Yes, besides being engaged, we are very close friends. We have been together for more than two years, but before we were together we were friends. So now everything has changed.
Ⓤ: Is there a sense of responsibility, in some ways, in feeling so strong?
No, or rather not yet. It’s my second year in Milan, my third year in Serie A, so I would say it’s still early. The responsibility comes by itself, after several matches, a long time on a team, with the trust of all the people in a club. Now there is no need to feel a responsibility to carry around.
Ⓤ: Does football make you grow too fast?
Yup. Because as I lived it from the first steps that you as a 14-year-old go to live alone changes you, because as an 18-year-old you are already a man and your other friends at 18 have lived a different life, they are still at home, and so the moment you come home a summer or some vacation days you get weird too. So it makes you grow fast and the bad thing is that it ends early.