Europe’s Champions: AC Milan 1988-89

BY 1987, AC Milan had declined from their 1960s highs and had even suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie A in 1980 due to a match-fixing scandal. Milan won promotion back to the top division in 1981 but went straight back down to Serie B. They went up again in 1983 and spent a few years re-establishing themselves as one of Italy’s premier clubs, but the club was in a bad state financially and on the brink of bankruptcy. In February 1986, Silvio Berlusconi, a wealthy entrepreneur, bought AC Milan for 40 million Lire, beginning a successful and often controversial period in the club’s history. Berlusconi had a very clear vision to transform the club’s fortunes. “Milan is a team, but it’s also a product to sell; something to offer on the market.” Berlusconi proceeded to use his media companies to create football’s first global brand, while he also covered any losses.

Serie A at the time was in the midst of a glorious era in which some of the world’s top players were lured to Italy: Diego Maradona had joined Napoli in 1984, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of West Germany was at Inter and France’s virtuoso, Michel Platini was orchestrating Juventus’s midfield.

In 1987, Napoli won their first scudetto, with Maradona at his very best. Milan finished in fifth place, but Berlusconi was determined to compete with Napoli and bring top talent to the club, signing two brilliant Dutchmen, Ruud Gullit of PSV Eindhoven and Marco van Basten of Ajax. Gullit cost 18 million Dutch guilders, the equivalent of £ 6 million at the time and a world record fee. Van Basten was signed for little more than £ 1 million. Other players to arrive in 1987 were Carlo Ancelotti of Roma, a slow-paced midfielder with excellent vision, and Angelo Colombo.

Milan also had outstanding products from their youth system, such as Paolo Maldini, son of Cesare Maldini, who captained Milan’s 1963 European Cup winning side. Paolo would go on to play more than 900 games for the club and win 126 caps for Italy. Captain Franco Baresi was also a graduate of the Milan set-up and spent 20 seasons with the club. He was one of the best defenders ever produced by Italy, combining power and pace.

Milan effectively rejected the concept of catenaccio

Berlusconi persuaded Parma’s Arrigo Sacchi to join the club, an innovative yet unknown coach who influenced a generation of football managers. But the bespectacled and dapper Sacchi had to win over the demanding Italian media, who felt he was ill-equipped to manage a club like Milan. They predicted he wouldn’t last more than a few months and even when they were heading for the title, were forecasting who would be the club’s coach for the following season.

Sachi created a fluid style of football built around 4-4-2 that was not only effective and entertaining. His approach was basically a rejection of the notorious catenaccio that stifled the life out of opponents. Furthermore, Sacchi’s team played a flat back four and dispensed with the use of sweepers. The emphasis was on space, so man-marking was also abandoned. Milan became the most unItalian of Italian sides.

In 1987-88, Milan looked to be off the pace at one stage, but they only lost twice all season and remained unbeaten away from home. Sacchi admits today Gullit was the key man in the title race, describing him as a formidable athlete. Van Basten was rarely fit in his first season, forever troubled by an ankle injury.

With five games to go, Napoli still had a four-point lead over Milan and looked set to successfully defend the scudetto. But it all went wrong and they lost four of their last five games, including a 3-2 defeat at home to Milan. Prior to the finale, Napoli had lost twice and there have been numerous attempts to explain why they threw away a second successive championship. Needless to say, some tried to link underworld gambling to Napoli’s collapse. Milan were none too convincing in the last couple of games, but they won their first scudetto since 1979 and secured a place in the European Cup in 1988-89. Meanwhile, Milan’s big signing in 1988-89 was another Dutch player, midfielder Frank Rijkaard, who joined from Sporting Lisbon after falling out with Ajax.

In 1987, Gullit was named European Footballer of the Year, a year later, Milan dominated the award, with all top three places occupied by their players: Van Basten top, Gullit second and Rijkaard third. Milan really were dominating European football.

It was fairly clear Milan’s target for 1988-89 was the European Cup and they relinquished their Serie A title all too easily. Sacchi believed his team had, to some extent, lost the will to win after their outstanding efforts in 1987-88. Inter were the latest force to be reckoned with, thanks to their German influence, and four defeats in the first 12 games cost Milan dear. They may have been the only losses Sacchi’s team suffered, but Inter’s relentless form meant they finished 12 points ahead of Milan in third place, with Napoli one ahead in the runners-up spot. Milan drew 14 of their 34 league games, far too many given Inter won 26 games, 10 more than their San Siro co-tenants.

The European Cup of 1988-89 was notable for the lack of English teams, who had been banned following the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985. Since 1985, the competition has been won by some unlikely teams: Steaua Bucharest, Porto and PSV Eindhoven. Prior to the Liverpool versus Juventus final in Brussels, English clubs had won the European Cup seven times between 1977 and 1984. There was something of a vacuum in European football but Milan were ideally placed to fill the gap left by the absence of clubs like Liverpool. Milan were considered among the favourites, along with Real Madrid and holders PSV.

The first round gave Milan a relatively easy draw, Vitosha Sofia of Bulgaria, the new (and temporary) name for Levski Sofia. They had won their domestic league by a narrow margin, overcoming the challenge of CSKA, the Bulgarian army side. Milan won 2-0 in Sofia and then Van Basten scored four times in the second leg in the San Siro as they ran out 5-2 winners. Van Basten was in sensational form at the time after winning the European Championship with the Netherlands in the summer.

Red Star Belgrade offered a more daunting hurdle in the second round. The first leg ended 1-1 in the San Siro, Red Star going ahead through Dragan Stojković but Milan responding almost immediately with Pietro Paolo Virdis netting the equaliser. The game had been tough and some players, such as Van Basten, felt Milan were already out of the competition. The second leg was in the cauldron that was Red Star’s Marakana, so it would be another stern test of character.

The game in Belgrade was going the home team’s way but was played in thick fog. The Milan bench didn’t realise that Dejan Savićević, who would later play for Milan, had given Red Star the lead. Similarly, they only knew of Virdis’s sending-off when he emerged through the mist after receiving his red card. The game was eventually called off after 65 minutes and was replayed the following day. Virdis and Ancelotti were both unable to play because of red and yellow cards, but there was no denying Milan had got out of jail.

The replayed game ended 1-1 and Milan went through on penalties, but the big talking point was the injury to Roberto Donadoni who was victim of a dreadful challenge – a headbutt and elbow – and almost lost his life. Gullit, who was far from fully fit came on in his place, but the incident understandably dampened the mood.

Milan were drawn to meet Werder Bremen, the West German champions, in the quarter-finals. Milan edged through 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a Van Basten goal, but the first leg in Bremen saw the home side have a goal ruled out.

The semi-final produced what has been regarded as the definitive performance by this AC Milan side. Real Madrid were the opponents, the club that set the benchmark for European club football. The first meeting ended 1-1, Sacchi very disappointed with his side – “the best Milan couldn’t beat the worst Real Madrid”, he noted in his memoirs – but there was pressure from Berlusconi for Milan to thrash Real in the San Siro. He called for a 5-0 victory, an extravagant request from any club owner, but that was exactly what the Rossoneri delivered.

Milan’s performance in the second leg was sublime, a combination of, to quote Brian Glanville, “technical excellence, dynamic pace and inspired movement”. Ancelotti opened the scoring after 18 minutes, Rijkaard headed a second and Gullit did likewise. By half-time, Milan were 3-0 ahead and it was soon four when Van Basten scored four minutes into the second half. Donadoni, happily recovered from Belgrade, added a fifth on the hour. Real were completely torn apart. Berlusconi, who had envied Real their forward power in Hugo Sanchez and Emilio Butragueno, no longer worried about Real’s riches. The result, for many, announced the second coming of AC Milan.

Their opponents were Steaua Bucharest, who had stunned Europe in 1986 when they won the Europan Cup against highly-fancied Barcelona, who were coached by Terry Venables. Steaua won on penalties after a tedious final, but they had shown their pedigree by reaching the final again, although their path to the Camp Nou was relatively comfortable and included Galatasaray, Sparta Prague, Göteborg and Spartak Moscow. But they had won the Romanian league for four consecutive years and would also be champions in 1988-89, going unbeaten in their 34 league games and scoring 121 goals. Steaua had Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lâcâtus, Dan Petrescu and Ilie Dumitrescu in their squad, all names that became very familiar across Europe.

This was the team that epitomised “sexy football”

Milan’s fans swamped Barcelona, some 75,000 of them, while Steaua had a mere 1,000 in the Camp Nou. Milan were red-hot favourities, even though Sacchi and his players were outwardly modest about the outcome. Milan had a worry, however, as Gullit was still recovering from a cartilage operation. Sacchi passed him fit on the eve of the final, or at least fit enough to start. “Gullit has to play even if he is not in perfect condition. We will need him if we are to win,” he said. Sacchi also praised the collective spirit of Steaua and saw them as very strong opponents. While Sacchi was being quite diplomatic, Berlusconi was being as controversial as ever, talking about a European Super League and dismissing English clubs because they had antiquated stadiums.

The game was over by half-time as Milan produced a master class for the crowd and watching millions. This team gave birth to the term, “sexy football”. Gullit gave Milan the lead after 18 minutes, finishing from close range after the keeper had parried a shot from Angelo Colombo and Van Basten had followed up. It was a simple tap-in, but 10 minutes later, a cross from Mauro Tassotti was expertly headed downward and into the net by Van Basten.

The first half scoring was completed by Gullit, who receives the ball from Donadoni, controls it and shoots home from just inside the area. Steaua were exhausted, and beaten. Four minutes into the second period, Van Basten runs onto a ball from Rijkaard and strokes it into the net with his left foot.

The 4-0 victory was not only comprehensive but also underlined the sheer beauty of AC Milan’s football. After so many disappointing finals, invariably producing sterile, cautious football, the craft and class of Sacchi’s players built one of Europe’s most watchable teams, but how long could they maintain such excellence? A year later, they retained the cup, beating Benfica 1-0 in a less attractive final after eliminating Real Madrid (again) and Bayern Munich. They would not win another scudetto under Sacchi, but they were champions in 1992. The team of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, not to mention, Maldini, Baresi, Donadoni and Ancelotti was very special and deserves its place in football’s pantheon. How fortunate we were to witness it in full flight.

AC Milan in all their glory: Arrigo Sacchi’s inside story of “The Immortals”.

THERE’S A lot of so-called “inside stories” that are nothing but cut-and-paste reports that while being interesting are usually penned by outsiders. Clubs, managers, players rarely provide genuine insight about anything, firstly because when they leave a club, they do not scorch the earth and if they are sacked, they have, doubtless, signed a non-disclosure agreement. So when a book comes along that does actually provide some insight into spectacular success, it has to be read.

Arrigo Sacchi was the mastermind of the AC Milan team that won the Europan Cup in 1989 and 1990. Furthermore, he is considered an innovator who created a fluid style of football built around 4-4-2 that was not only effective but extremely entertaining. Milan had a team of outstanding players, including Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Carlo Ancelotti, Paulo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard. They won Serie A in 1988 at a time when Italian domestic football was awash with stars like Diego Maradona, it was the most admired league at the time and arguably provided the blueprint for England’s Premier League.

Sacchi’s book, The Immortals, tells the story of the 1988-89 season when Milan won the European Cup, beating Steaua Bucharest in the final by 4-0. 

Sacchi was a coach confident in his own ability, but there’s no arrogance about him, he was well aware that poor results made him vulnerable. His approach started with intense training and he sometimes comments in the book that he “killed” his team with his exhaustive sessions. He also documented every move in his diaries, from the type of training adopted each week to reviews on the performance of his team.

The book reveals a lot and shatters some myths, but it also gives a very different view on certain individuals. Ruud Gullit sounds like a somewhat fragile player, prone to niggling injuries, Marco van Basten comes across as high maintenance and occasionally difficult but Frank Rijkaard seems a decent individual with strong values. Of course, this is Sacchi’s view and you have to bear in mind, these players were interacting with their boss.

Similarly, Sacchi’s opinion of Silvio Berlusconi contrasts with how people see the former Milan owner. Sacchi seems to admire his employer and portrays him as an inspirational leader in many ways.

The 1988-89 season saw Milan lose their league title to Inter, but their European Cup run was full of drama. Their meeting with Red Star Belgrade, which lasted longer than usual because the second leg in Belgrade was abandoned due to fog, includes a meeting with the notorious Želijko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, who walked across the pitch with a tiger on a leash. Milan won through and played Real Madrid in the semi-finals, beating them 5-0 in the second leg, a result Berlusconi had requested the day before the game.

Sacchi had just one word to describe the performance of Milan in the final in Barcelona against 1986 winners Steaua, “fantastic”. It was one of the most comprehensive performances in a European Cup final, with two goals apiece from Gullit and van Basten.

The book leaves you wanting more as this is only part of the story, Milan won the cup again in 1990 and they dominated the competition in that period, winning again in 1994, although Sacchi was managing Italy by then after leaving Milan in 1991. 

Milan of that period created a benchmark which the club and Italian football have struggled to live up to. Sacchi, one of key figures in that story, is worth listening to.

The Immortals is published by Backpage.