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.

Europe gets the women’s Champions League

IT WAS an astonishing occasion and a landmark for women’s football – 91,500 people watching the Champions League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This crowd owed as much to the enduring appeal of El Clásico as it did the appeal of the women’s game, but it also underlined the fact Barcelona are the best in the world right now.

When the two clubs met in the first leg, the crowd was just 3,318 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium. Clearly there was a lot of marketing around the second leg and despite the weather, it worked. The crowd of 91,500 even put the men’s Clásico – crowd of 86,422 – into the shade. If the rain had held off, they might have had even more people in the Camp Nou as they had sold 99,000 tickets!

Most of the Champions League quarter-finals had promising crowds. Apart from that Real-Barca first leg, the smallest attendances was the 5,018 that went to Arsenal versus Wolfsburg at the Emirates. What a pity the game, involving the only English club left in the competition, could only attract a sub-10,000 gate. By WSL standards, 5,000 was a very decent crowd, but switching to the Emirates should have attracted a much better turnout. Over the two legs, Arsenal’s answer to Wolfsburg’s high-octane approach – along with the way Chelsea were dismantled by Barca last season – reminded the WSL it still has some way to go, despite its preference for hiring big names.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain drew over 27,000 against Bayern, Juventus versus Lyon in Turin (the appointed venue for the final) was watched by 9,000-plus and Wolfsburg’s second leg win against the Gunners had a crowd of 11,000. 

Of course, the competition is the pinnacle of the club game, so it should be well supported, but it should not overlook the fact crowds are still not flocking to bread and butter league games. Barcelona Feminí usually play in front of less than 3,000 at their home games. They have won all 25 of their league fixtures, scoring an average of more than five per game and have conceded just seven goals.

The average crowd across the Women’s Super League is around 1,600 but France’s top division barely draws 1,000 per game, although Lyon have an average of 4,500. Germany is trailing at present and its average this season is 700 with Eintracht Frankfurt the best supported at 1,300. 

The WSL gets a lot of publicity, but general interest still seems lack lustre compared to the enthusiasm for the women’s national team. The Football Association’s ambition of 6,000 crowds for the WSL by 2024 looks a considerable ask at the moment and the pandemic may have put back that aspiration by a year or two. Hosting the European Championship this summer may provide a boost, but will the expected upsurge interest extend beyond internationals?

It is hard to see anyone stopping Barcelona from retaining the Champions League trophy they won so impressively last season. They have lost just one league game in three seasons and they are packed with star names, such as Alexia Putellas, the 28 year-old midfielder who fulfilled her dream as a young girl of playing for Barca. She’s also Spain’s most-capped player. Barca also have Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Jenni Hermoso (Spain), Irene Paredes (Spain), Lieke Martens (Netherlands), Aitana Bonmati (Spain) and Mapi León (Spain) in their squad.

Barcelona meet Wolfsburg  and Lyon and PSG provide an all-French tie in the semi-finals. These are four of the top five teams in Europe according to UEFA’s club co-efficients, so the quality couldn’t really be any higher. These should get the turnstiles clicking again.