Graham Hunter, Spain writerJul 13, 2023, 02:02 PM ET
CloseGraham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
Christian Pulisic joins AC Milan still defiant about his Chelsea record and deeply frustrated at a lack of faith and sufficient opportunities given to him at Stamford Bridge, but ambitious and committed to winning Serie A and the Champions League with the Rossoneri.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN at Casa Milan, the club’s imposing headquarters, Pulisic, asked if he should have been given a fairer, regular chance to prove himself, said: “Of course there were definitely times where I wish I could have gotten that much more of an opportunity and been ‘that guy,’ but that’s not the case. I’m strongly proud of what I achieved at Chelsea, winning major cup finals, being on the pitch and helping my team, Champions League, Super Cup, all that.
“I believe I had great moments at Chelsea. I learned a lot as a player and I grew a lot, but now I’m completely ready for this brilliant challenge at AC Milan.
“I remember playing here at San Siro in the Champions League (a 2-0 Chelsea win in October) and I could not believe what I was seeing before the match even started when the fans were just chanting and screaming. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. I’d never experienced anything like that. I think AC Milan, playing at San Siro, might be the best place in the world when there’s a big game.
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“I’m hugely excited, now, to be on the home end of that brilliant support and to be a part of all this. The Milanista fans have already been stunning, it’s incredible. Every place I’ve been there seems to be fans waiting out there; it just shows you the passion and the culture of this city and what this club means to them. They’ve definitely gone ‘above and beyond’ so far.”
The Rossoneri, about to celebrate their 125th anniversary, have won 18 FIFA and UEFA trophies, more than any other Italian club. Only Real Madrid have won more Champions Leagues than Milan.
Pulisic, 24, will become the first-ever U.S.-born man to start for this immensely storied club, Champions League semifinalists last season and Italian champions the season before. However, his stance is that opportunities in the immediate future vastly outweigh making history because of his unique status. He’s also crystal clear that working in the streetwise, ultra-tactical Serie A will directly benefit the quality and maturity of his performances for the U.S. men’s national team.
Pulisic, the player of the tournament when the USMNT won the Concacaf Nations League by beating Mexico 3-0 and Canada 2-0 in June, told ESPN: “I’m just proud to be an AC Milan player, it doesn’t matter where I’m from or becoming unique. This club has won titles all its history, and while I’m obviously keen to represent my country and to be the first guy from the U.S. to come here and make a big impact [Oguchi Onyewu came on for a 30-minute cameo in his single Milan appearance, and Netherlands-born Sergino Dest played intermittently on loan last season], the key fact is that I’m here to help AC Milan keep winning trophies.
Christian Pulisic signs autographs after signing for historic Italian club AC Milan. Giuseppe Cottini/AC Milan via Getty Images
“As far as the U.S. team is concerned, this experience is just a massive opportunity for me to learn and grow as a footballer. Playing in a new league is a challenge which will test me.
“When those big international moments come along, starting with next summer’s Copa America, I’m just going to be that much more battle-experienced. I view earning my place and performing well for AC Milan as a huge chance for me to really step up and go to another level as a player.”
After brief Palm Beach holidays, life has become a maelstrom for the Hershey, Pennsylvania-born player. There will be training for the first time with (mostly) new teammates under a coach eager to see his new signing in action. Then a tour of the U.S., playing Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona in Los Angeles; Pasadena, California; and Las Vegas. Even the whiff of the first Milan derby is only nine weeks away.
Fortunately, there are a host of reasons for him to settle in quickly. The most folksy of which is his much-loved grandmother, Johanna DiStefano.
A Brooklyn woman, upon whom young Pulisic absolutely doted, she considered herself a proud Italian.
“Yeah, I think my grandma would definitely be the most proud seeing me do this — signing for the greatest Italian club — so it’s a great feeling,” Pulisic said. “I’m really honoured to be here to play for such a historic club like this and to play in Italy. She’s definitely looking down on me right now and feeling proud.”
When Pulisic was at Borussia Dortmund and his grandfather’s Croatian heritage became a central theme, DiStefano firmly nagged her talented grandson to trumpet his Italian lineage.
“Oh yeah, she let everyone know that she was Italian — in fact that she was Sicilian,” Pulisic said. “That was her claim to fame. She definitely cooked us some unbelievable Italian food. I miss those meals, so she was she a big part of my life, and yeah, we miss her very much too. My dad, her son, has an Italian flag tattooed on his forearm, so I guess it’s funny how all that works out. Now Italy is a big part of my life.”
Pulisic reveals pride in Italian roots after AC Milan transfer
Christian Pulisic opens up about how proud his grandmother would have been of him after signing for AC Milan.
There are more practical route maps to Milan’s new star, who was mobbed by waiting fans at Malpensa Airport when he jetted in, fitting in quickly.
He speaks pretty good Spanish, a clear interpretive guide to understanding lots more Italian while he learns the new language. He also loved the extended briefing Milan coach Stefano Pioli gave him long before contracts were concluded.
As a bonus, he knows — and has been in contact with — several of the Rossoneri squad. Pulisic shared the Stamford Bridge dressing room with Olivier Giroud, Fikayo Tomori and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
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Pioli, the trainer who in 2022 brought Milan their first league title since 2011, didn’t only brief Pulisic on his potential role in the team — he persuaded him to sign.
“The coach really made me feel like he wanted me here … that he wanted me to be a part of this team and how he saw me fitting in,” Pulisic said of Pioli. “That’s precisely what I wanted to hear. Obviously I just want a fair opportunity like everyone else, I still need to earn my place of course, but it felt like I was genuinely wanted here. When I show good effort, good attitude every day and train well, I’m going to get the opportunity to go out and perform.
“Coach Pioli explained to me the reason they want me in is because I’m a very direct and creative player. That’s something that they want specifically.”
He hasn’t been short of encouragement from his new teammates either.
“I’ve been talking to all the ex-Chelsea guys,” Pulisic said. “Obviously [Giroud] and I had a great relationship at our last club and some great times together. We scored a lot of goals together and he definitely persuaded me to come here.
Pulisic gets a tour through Milan’s iconic history
Graham Hunter takes Christian Pulisic on a walk through his new club’s trophy-laden history.
“He told me about precisely how big a club it is and that AC Milan is a place where I can really flourish as a player. But I’ve spoken to [Tomori], [Loftus-Cheek], all those guys. I’ve heard only good things so I’m really excited to get started here, and it’s nice to see some familiar faces.”
The last time ESPN sat down to chat with Pulisic, it was in London, not long after his influential and exciting World Cup performance. He talked passionately about his faith, his belief that there’s a predestined route to his life and about his ability to rise to meet challenges.
Now, arguably, there’s a still greater feeling of fate.
“It’s still very true that I trust the path that I’m on. I know [God] is looking over me always, and while there’ve been a lot of tough moments in my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. So I just trust. I trust it’s all happening for a reason and there’s definitely a plan for me.”
The next part of the plan begins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on July 23 against the mighty Real Madrid. Bring it on.