Franck Kessie: 'Wearing the Milan shirt like a second skin to me'

By Daniele VerriItalian football journalist
Ivorian midfielder Franck Kessie has been key to Milan's bright start to Serie A, with the club facing Roma on Monday

It's been a while coming for AC Milan's Franck Kessie but the club the Ivorian joined in 2017 is now sitting in the place he hoped they would be - top of Serie A.

Milan have won their opening four games of the season and are on an impressive run since football resumed after the coronavirus-enforced lockdown.

Since losing the last game they played prior to lockdown - a 2-1 home defeat by Genoa - the seven-time European champions are unbeaten in 21 games, winning 17 of them while scoring 54 goals and averaging 2.62 points per game.

Without a trophy since the Italian Super Cup in 2016 and, more importantly, without a league title since 2011, is this the season that AC Milan finally return to the top?

"We don't set ourselves any limits," Kessie told BBC Sport Africa. "We are on the right path and we have to carry on working like this.

"We have great enthusiasm and high spirit. We want to keep it and nourish it even more until the end of the season."

Kessie, 23, has played in every game since the resumption of Italian football, becoming a mainstay of a side that has scored at least two goals in their last 10 matches - a feat the Rossoneri last achieved in 1964.

The central midfielder has not always been indispensable however. With his Italian career starting with two fine seasons at Cesena and Atalanta, he was bought by AC Milan in 2017 but a player bought for just 28m euros (£25.4m) was soon struggling to fit in - and making little impact on the pitch.

Not once though did he ever give up on his dream of taking Milan back to the top.

"I have never even thought of leaving the club and no one here asked me to do so," the midfielder said. "Wearing this shirt, which is like a second skin to me, is a source of pride for me and my family."

Milan resurgence

So how does Kessie explain the turnaround in both AC Milan's and his fortunes?

A man who has consistently delivered some massive performances during the Rossoneri's resurrection gives a lot of credit to coach Stefano Pioli who took charge in October 2019 of a Milan side then lying 13th in Serie A.

"The gaffer knows how to manage the group - and we all feel important parts of the project," said Kessie.

"He told me what he expected from me. At the beginning it wasn't easy, but then I understood his requests and I could translate them onto the pitch."

Pioli and Kessie
Kessie credits Milan coach Stefano Pioli for the team's turnaround in fortunes

Kessie also credits the ability to recharge the batteries during the enforced lay-off during lockdown for Milan's revitalised displays.

One of these included the 2-1 win over Milan rivals Inter in their last league game, as striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice to secure their first derby victory since 2016.

In the last two seasons, the Nerazzurri had won all four Milan derbies but Kessie says his side's supporters were key when the teams met earlier this month - despite being absent from the San Siro stadium.

"Our fans' affection is incredible," he said. "Thousands of them drove along our bus on their mopeds to the stadium ahead of the derby. That was a true demonstration of love and gave us that extra energy and motivation."

'Veteran' at 23

Franck Kessie may only be 23 but he is already assuming a role that belies his years.

"I am already a veteran of the squad and I need to lead by example," he said. "Wearing this shirt is an honour as well as a responsibility. We represent millions of fans around the world and we all work hard every day to bring AC Milan back where it belongs."

So do the owners, the American hedge fund group Elliott Management, who took control in July 2018 and have started to reverse a steady decline. The appointment of former Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis later that year has also helped them in their goal.

Today, the club's philosophy is simple - blending experienced players with a number of young prospects to be developed, with Ibrahimovic's return providing a catalyst for change and a platform for others.

Ivorian midfielder Franck Kessie
Franck Kessie hopes his good form will also be replicated at international level with Ivory Coast

Fittingly for a club made famous in Africa by the legendary Liberian George Weah, who shone in the 1990s, Kessie sits alongside Algeria's Ismael Bennacer in an all-African defensive midfield in Pioli's 4-2-3-1 formation.

"Everyone knows our club in Africa," said Kessie. "The first African player to win the Ballon d'Or was George Weah (in 1995) with AC Milan and, as a consequence, many fans were drawn closer to the Rossoneri colours."

Bennacer was named best player as Algeria won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, beating Ivory Coast on penalties in the quarter-finals, to claim their first title in 29 years - a feat which Kessie is keen to emulate with the Elephants.

"Ivory Coast has a good squad - we are a tight-knit group and I am happy. We have important players such as Wilfried Zaha, Nicolas Pepe, Christian Kouame, Maxwel Cornet and Serge Aurier.

"We played two friendly games recently and we drew against Belgium, which is one of the best teams in the world. Unfortunately we didn't do as well against Japan (losing 1-0). We are improving though and we have what it takes to go all the way."

The same can be said of Kessie's club side as the Ivorian embarks on a crucial two years, not just at club level but with the 2021 Nations Cup and 2022 World Cup looming on an ever-brightening horizon.