THERE WAS a time when English football glanced enviously across Europe to Italy, viewing its league as the epitome of glamour, cosmopolitanism and affluence. Italy had the world’s leading players, the most passionate and colourful supporters and the financial clout to attract top talent. Furthermore, its clubs, AC Milan, Internazionale and Juventus, among others, represented the European elite.
That was in the 1980s and 1990s, when English football was on its knees, tainted by hooliganism, declining attendances and run-down stadiums. The situation has changed dramatically, as this season’s UEFA Champions League demonstrated – four English teams in the last eight with just Juventus representing Italy.
In many ways, Italy’s Serie A provided something of a blueprint for how people wanted English football to develop. In 2019, the Premier League is acknowledged as the most dynamic, wealthy and exciting league in Europe, if not the world. Italy, meanwhile, has been in recession mode for years, although there are signs that with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, Serie A could be on its way back.
While CR7’s club continues to stand astride Italian football, boosted by a rebranding exercise and continual domestic success, the two clubs that represented Calcio at its most ultra-professional in the 1960s and right through to the 1980s, AC Milan and Inter, continue to struggle to regain their footing.
The Milan duo were the first Italian clubs to make their mark on international club football, winning the European Cup in three consecutive years – 1963 to 1965, with AC Milan winning first and then Inter completing a double, beating Real Madrid and Benfica in the process. The two Milans were arch-exponents of “Catenaccio”, the cautious, defence-oriented mechanism that dominated the mid-to-late 1960s and made Italian football a low-scoring, occasionally cynical game. AC Milan had the rotund, larger-than-life coach Nereo Rocco in charge while Inter were coached by the Argentinian Hellenio Herrera, a win-at-all-costs pragmatist who almost invented the modern approach to football management.
Eventually, Catenaccio got found out by “Total Football” and teams like Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 1970s. It was not until the mid-1980s that Italian clubs started to rise again, buoyed by the arrival of overseas talent. Silvio Berlusconi bought AC Milan in 1986, rescuing them from financial trouble and appointed Arrigo Sacchi as manager. Milan signed three outstanding Dutch players in Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard and this trio provided the impetus for one of the club’s most successful periods. Milan won Serie A in 1988, depriving Diego Maradona of a second successive scudetto. For the next two years, Milan won the European Cup, playing an exciting brand of football far removed from the mean-spirited catenaccio of the 1960s.
A year later, Inter, with German internationals Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus in their line-up, won Serie A, later adding Juergen Klinsmann, another high-profile and coveted German, to their ranks.
Both AC Milan and Inter could, seemingly, lure any of the world’s top players to the Guiseppe Meazza stadium, commonly known as the San Siro. The iconic ground, which was sold by AC Milan to the city of Milan in the 1930s, has been the shared home of the two clubs since 1947.
While the 1980s and 1990s represented something of a golden period, Italy’s top clubs have found the modern era harder to negotiate. AC Milan have won the scudetto just twice in the 21stcentury, the last success in 2011. They’ve won two UEFA Champions Leagues, the most recent being 2007. Inter, meanwhile, had a purple patch in the period between 2005-06 and 2009-10, winning five successive league titles and the Champions League in 2010 with Jose Mourinho as coach.
Both clubs have struggled to regain their mojo after seeing their successful squads age. At the same time, they have, from a commercial perspective, stagnated, allowing Juventus to overtake them once more and become the only current Italian club who can compete on the highest European stage.
The plight of two clubs that were once the crème de la crème of European football is encapsulated by their rankings in football league tables devoted to the financial side of the game. For example, in 2001, AC Milan were placed fourth and Inter 10thin Deloitte’s Football Money League. In 2019, the two clubs were ranked 18thand 14threspectively. The fall of these iconic clubs, on and off the field, is symbolic of the decline of Italy which has seen match attendances fall from close to 40,000 per game in the mid-1980s to barely 25,000 today.
One of the problems for clubs like AC Milan and Inter is their huge chasm of a stadium. For a start, they don’t own the San Siro, so the revenue-generating potential of the ground is limited. Juventus own their new stadium and this has proved to be a big advantage in the club’s rise to the top of Italian football over the past seven years. Italian football, generally, is played in municipal-owned stadiums that are often too big and unwieldy. The San Siro, for instance, is outdated, vast and now looks somewhat shabby compared to many modern stadiums.
However, both AC Milan and Inter could be moving or, at least, have a new home to play in. Initially, there was talk of the clubs relocating or a complete refurbishment, but Milan president Paulo Scaroni recently said the 80,000 capacity stadium would have to be demolished due to the scale of a complete renovation. The clubs have already engaged a leading US investment bank to advise on the EUR 600 million project. Key to the success of the new 60,000 arena will be the sale of naming rights.
If and when the new stadium is built, it will represent another step towards making the two Milan giants modern competitors on the European football landscape. Both clubs are no longer owned by Italians, AC Milan are now owned by a US investment firm that is affiliated to hedge funds and Inter are majority-owned by a Chinese holding company.
In 2018-19, Milan and Inter are way behind serial champions Juventus. Yet Italian football needs successful Milanese clubs to make the league more competitive and visible. Both are global names and UEFA also needs more than just Juventus to represent one of Europe’s leading and influential football nations. Although they may have both suffered from a similar malaise in recent years, the red and black and blue and black shirts of Milan still have enormous cachet in the football world – but who can restore them to former glories?