When Silvio Berlusconi purchased AC Milan in February 1986, they were hardly one of the powerhouse clubs of Calcio. The mega-rich and controversial entrepreneur was compelled to invest huge sums of money, merely to stave off threats of financial collapse. They hadn’t lifted the Scudetto for almost a decade, and their last title had been earned by topping Serie B three years earlier following relegation. Berlusconi though was a man in a hurry. He had plans and he craved success.
Nils Lindholm was moved out of the manager’s chair and the club turned to Primavera coach, Fabio Capello to see things through to the end of the season. The young coach did well enough but would have to wait for his chance in the ‘big chair’ on a permanent basis. The owner had already chosen the man he wanted to head up the club’s renaissance.
Arrigo Sacchi was the up and coming coach of a resurgent Parma team. He had lifted the Gialloblù to promotion from Serie B and then startled the top table of Italian clubs by guiding Parma to within three points of the Scudetto. They had also impressively dumped the Rossoneri out of the Coppa Italia. It was sufficient to persuade Berlusconi to take Sacchi to Milan and entrust him with revitalising the club’s fortunes. Capello would be his assistant and clearly earmarked as the next in line.
Despite Berlusconi’s blustering confidence in the new man, the Italian press were less than impressed by the appointment, pointing out both a lack of experience at the top level and the fact that Sacchi had never been a top player. The manager’s retort was succinct and direct. “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.” It was a first taste of the humble pie that the press would be forced to swallow as Sacchi took to his task with a relish.
Berlusconi was wise enough to know that a mere changing of the driver would be insufficient if his plans were to bear fruit. A few extra horsepower would need to be added to the engine as well. Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and striker Marco van Basten were brought to the club. If Sacchi could deploy the Dutch trio and fit them into a team already boasting the domestic defensive talents of Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta, the future could look very bright. He could, and it did. Things were set for lift-off and the new man wasted no time in delivering.
Revolutionising the Milan approach, Sacchi’s team scorched through the Serie A season and secured the title in his first term. A mere 14 goals were conceded in that league season. The next best total was nearly double the amount. The Supercoppa was added as Milan headed into European competition. Sacchi was driving the club forward and, having hit the domestic heights, the European Cup was next on the list.
The early rounds saw successes against Levski Sofia, Red Star Belgrade and Werder Bremen, but things looked tougher in the last four when they were pitched against Real Madrid. A draw in the Bernabeu was tight, but back at the San Siro, the brilliance of Sacchi’s team destroyed the aristocrats of European club football as the Rossoneri subjected the Spanish champions to a 5-0 hammering. After that, there was little chance of the club stumbling against Steaua București in the final. Both Gullit and Van Basten hit braces in a comfortable win, with the latter becoming the tournament’s top marksman. It’s unknown as to whether Sacchi ordered quantities of that humble pie to be delivered to the press box after the game, but if he had, it would have been entirely understandable. By any standards of measurements, the new man had delivered.
The following season, they added the European Supercup and then the Intercontinental Cup, defeating Atlético Nacional of Colombia in Tokyo to become the de facto club champions of the world. The problem at such times is to decide what to do next. Sacchi’s answer was simple. Let’s do it again!
Another European Cup success followed, making Milan the first team to retain the trophy since 1980. No one else would do so again until 2017. Another European Supercup was added to the collection and the global status of the club was underscored by a second victory in the Intercontinental Cup. It was sufficient for the eminent magazine ‘World Soccer’ to acclaim Sacchi’s Milan as the best club team of all time. Even the press had been won over.
A fractious exit from the following season’s European Cup following a floodlight failure in Marseille and a controversial UEFA decision to eliminate Milan after they refused to resume the game when power was restored, was a foretaste of decline. For two years, the club had dominated Italian, European and indeed global club football, but all things come to an end.
At the end of the season, Berlusconi was wise enough to offer mere faux reluctance when the Italian national federation came knocking with a request for Sacchi to take control of the Azzurri. In the end, despite him failing to hit the heights with the national team, it was a deal that suited all parties. Sacchi left for the only job that could have tempted him away, and Berlusconi neatly slid Capello into the manager’s chair and more glory followed.
In his somewhat chequered career as a businessman, politician and club owner, Silvio Berlusconi has, at times, made some astute and some disastrous decisions. It’s interesting to consider for a moment however if there were any that turned out more successful than when he selected a jockey who had never been a horse to take over his club.