Franck Kessie: Ivorian's departure from AC Milan sparks mixed emotions

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Ivory Coast's Franck Kessie with the Italian Serie A trophyFranck Kessie helped AC Milan win the Italian title for the first time since 2010-11 in his final season at San Siro

The signing of Franck Kessie in 2017 was one of the few good things to come out of the controversial year-long tenure of Li Yonghong as AC Milan owner.

Kessie, 25, will leave the newly-crowned Italian champions when his contract expires next month, with Spanish giants Barcelona his expected destination.

"My contract is over in a month and it's impossible to extend it," the midfielder said.

Rossoneri supporters will feel mixed emotions, with Kessie receiving both plaudits and boos this season as he helped the club back to the top in Italy but ultimately decided to depart on a free transfer.

He joined after two impressive years in Italy with Cesena and Atalanta, and has gone on to score 37 goals in 223 appearances in all competitions during his five seasons at Milan.

The Ivorian has played a pivotal role in the club's rebirth, helping them to Champions League qualification at the end of last season after a seven-year absence before then claiming the ultimate prize of a first Serie A title in 11 seasons.

Despite his impressive statistics he struggled to establish himself in his first two years under the coaching of first Vincenzo Montella and then Gennaro Gattuso.

By that time Chinese businessman Li had handed over the club to Elliott Management, having borrowed heavily from the American hedge fund and denied reports he had been declared bankrupt.

Yet Kessie has played more minutes than any other AC Milan player since his arrival at San Siro, spending almost 18,400 minutes - over 300 hours - on the pitch.

Post-Covid success

Frank Kessie is welcomed by AC Milan fansKessie netted six goals in 31 outings in Serie A this season

Kessie's improvement coincided with the arrival of Stefano Pioli as Milan boss in October 2019, and the pair enjoyed an unbeaten end to the disrupted 2019-20 league campaign.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced Serie A to take a break in March 2020 and when it returned in June Kessie and his team-mates did not lose any of their final 12 games to finish sixth and qualify for the Europa League.

The results saw Pioli's contract extended by Milan, who then remaining unbeaten in the league until January 2021.

Kessie was enjoying life with the Rossoneri when he spoke to BBC Sport Africa in October 2020.

"Wearing this shirt feels like a second skin to me, it is an honour as well as a responsibility," he said.

"We represent millions of fans around the world and we all work hard every day to bring AC Milan back where it belongs."

Last season proved to be a standout one for Kessie, as he missed just one league game through suspension.

He weighed in with 13 goals, including 11 from the penalty spot, to help the seven-time European champions finish runners-up in Serie A and return to the Champions League.

A change of mind

That success saw Kessie - nicknamed 'The President' by Milan fans - seemingly commit his future to the San Siro outfit.

He hinted he would sign a new contract on his return from the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where he was one of Ivory Coast's over-aged players.

"I am proud to have chosen this club and I want to stay forever. I love fans chanting my name, "One President, for us there is only one President!," he said last July.

However that new deal did not materialise, and the chants for the 'President' eventually turned to boos in recent months.

The worst fears of Rossoneri supporters were confirmed this week when Kessie spoke to a French TV station.

"I came for a five-year project. We got back to the Champions League and won the Scudetto. I did what I came for and that's the best way to part," he said.

"I am so happy for the city, my team-mates, the coach, for me and my family."

Franck Kessie of AC Milan celebrates after scoring their third goal against SassuoloKessie scored on his final appearance for Milan to help wrap up the Scudetto

Reports suggest Milan were unable to match Kessie's financial demands and the rumours surrounding his future saw him struggle for last season's consistency despite winning the title.

For the fans, who once adored him, the uncertainty and eventual outcome were a painful reminder of two other favourites, Turkey's Hakan Calhanoglu and keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who both left as free agents and thus depriving Milan of transfer income.

Despite the backlash from a section of the crowd, Kessie did leave on a high note as he scored Milan's final goal of the season in the 3-0 win at Sassuolo which sealed the club's 19th Serie A title.

His face reflected the emotion of the occasion, as he crashed the ball in off the bar from a pull-back by Rafael Leao and fulfilled his promise to return Milan to the summit of the Italian game.

There is no doubt Kessie will be bittersweet about his farewell and fans will also be in two minds - was his departure down to the midfielder or the club's decision to adhere to a salary cap and not cave in to Kessie's demands?

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