When a relationship comes to an end, it’s easy to remember only the last moments when it was all falling apart and even let that cloud your memories of the good times. Silvio Berlusconi and Milan are calling it quits, so it’s the right time to focus on the happy decades together.
Many fans will view the sale to Chinese investors – assuming it goes ahead, because we’ve been here before a number of times – as liberation from a failed project. It’s a little harsh to blame CEO Adriano Galliani, the Jeeves to Berlusconi’s Wooster, for the recent spate of terrible signings when he was given such a meagre budget to work with and a parade of never-ending Coaches. It’s frankly a miracle in some seasons he managed to put together almost an entire team made up of loans and free agents.
The real problem in recent years was that Berlusconi turned his focus to politics and no longer invested the huge sums he used to. AC Milan was no longer his prized possession, but a costly plaything that occasionally gave him embarrassing results, forcing him to distance himself from the club even further. Even worse, he tried to replicate the past and times have simply changed.
Yet it would be not just cruel, but downright ungrateful for supporters not to recognise how Berlusconi changed Milan and all of Italian football. The once glorious club was on the verge of bankruptcy and in absolute disgrace following a betting scandal and a return from Serie B when Berlusconi bought it on February 20, 1986. The media magnate immediately wiped out their debts and, after a fifth-place finish, changed history by appointing Arrigo Sacchi.
It’s arguable that many of Berlusconi’s errors over the last decade have been him trying to replicate that moment of magic. Sacchi was an unknown Coach from the lower leagues who shot to fame when his Parma knocked Milan out of the Coppa Italia at San Siro in 1986-87. Inexperienced but inspired, the President tried to see Sacchi in choices like Cristian Brocchi. Maurizio Sarri is the tactician who most resembles Arrigo, but Berlusconi considered that diamond a little too rough.
Sacchi’s Milan of the late 1980s and early 1990s was comfortably the best team in the world at that time and still remains one of the greatest in the sport. The last side to retain the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, they also won two European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and the Italian Super Cup. Inspired by Dutch Total Football, it’s no coincidence the Rossoneri used all three of their foreign player slots for Netherlands internationals Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit.
The Sacchi era ended in a rather ugly show of hubris when Galliani called the team off the pitch during a European Cup quarter-final with Olympique Marseille due to floodlight failure and refused to come back on when the issue was fixed. Milan were banned from continental competition for a year and Sacchi left to take the Italy job.
His replacement, Fabio Capello, was promoted from the Primavera youth team and dominated Serie A with four Scudetti in five years and a 4-0 Champions League Final victory over Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. Former player promoted straight to the main job, sound familiar? Berlusconi hoped lightning would strike twice with Pippo Inzaghi, Brocchi and even Clarence Seedorf, but only one of those Coaches managed to last an entire season.
Berlusconi rarely had luck with foreign tacticians, having problems with Oscar Washington Tabarez, Fatih Terim and to a degree Leonardo. Few recall that Carlo Ancelotti was considered a ‘loser’ when drafted in to replace Terim after a sacking in November 2001, having been the bridesmaid at Parma and Juventus. Carletto was a former midfielder in Sacchi’s Milan who learned over the years that a tactical philosophy had to be moulded to the players rather than the other way round. Getting rid of Gianfranco Zola and rejecting Roberto Baggio will do that to a Coach.
Ancelotti was the best at dealing with the bad side of Berlusconi’s approach to the Presidency. Silvio has never disguised the fact he’s a frustrated Coach and would happily sit on the bench and in the meantime dictates the line-ups to his employees. Ancelotti’s genius was in agreeing with all of the suggestions, then turning around and doing what he wanted anyway. The results were excellent, otherwise it would’ve been a short-lived experience.
Milan won Scudetti after Ancelotti, but it never quite felt the same. Berlusconi got more intransigent in his old age, more insistent he had the keys to success and less ready to deal with anyone saying no. Max Allegri was forever on the edge of being fired for publicly disagreeing with his President and it’s been downhill since then.
Berlusconi has always tried to replicate the moments and decisions that made Milan a legendary club, but lost sight of how football had moved forward. By selling to Chinese investors, he is finally accepting the need to step aside and let those wonderful memories remain untouched.
Thank you for everything, Silvio, and goodbye.
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