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.

The Euros – 1976 to 1988: Penalties, Platini and volleys

The European Championships evolved from a four-team event to an eight team affair in 1980 and although that particular edition was somewhat tame, in 1984 and 1988, Europe was treated to two excellent tournaments in France and Germany respectively.

Prior to the reformatting, 1976 produced one of the competition’s outstanding moments, the famous penalty from Antonín Panenka in Belgrade. Everyone anticipated a re-run of the 1974 World Cup between West Germany and the Netherlands, but the Czechs pulled off a unique double.

Czechoslavakia 1976:  
Ivo Viktor, Anton Ondruš, Ján Pivarnik, Koloman Gögh, Jozef Čapkovič, Karol Dobiaš, Jozef Móder, Antonín Panenka, Marian Masny, Zdenêk Nehoda, Ján Švehlík, Ladislav Jurkemik, František Vesely.

Manager: Václav Ježek

Achievement: European Championship winners 1976, beating West Germany on penalties in the final after disposing of Netherlands in the semi-final and USSR in the last eight. Came through a qualifying group that included England, Portugal and Cyprus.

Key men: Zdenêk Nehoda, striker/winger who netted a goal every three games. Played for Dukla and then went to play in Belgium, France and Germany later in his career; Marián Masny, skilful winger, rated among the world’s best, from Slovan Bratislava; Antonin Panenka, attacking midfielder, famous for his jinked penalty that won the Euros but also his quality passing and dead-ball expertise.

Perception: Surprise winners of the Euros who beat both of the 1974 World Cup finalists. Very skilful in attack, but an inconsistent team. 

West Germany 1980: Harald Schumacher, Uli Stielike, Berard Dietz, Karlheinz Förster, Manfred Kaltz, Hans-Peter Briegel, Bernd Schuster, Hansi Müller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Horst Hrubesch, Klaus Allofs, Berhard Cullmann.

 Jupp Derwall

Achievement: European Championship winners 1980, beating Belgium in the final after meeting Netherlands, Greece and Belgium in the group phase. Also faced Turkey, Wales and Malta in the qualifying competition.

Key men: Hans-Peter Briegel, versatile defender who played for Kaiserslautern before going to Italy. Won 72 caps for West Germany; Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, flexible forward who possessed great speed, agility and goalscoring power. Scored 45 goals in 95 appearances for his country; Bernd Schuster, powerful and skilful midfielder who never quite lived up to his early promise. Played for Köln before moving to Spain and appeared for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. Won 21 caps for West Germany.

Perception: Not as compelling as other German teams of the period, but good enough to win the European Championship in Italy.

France 1984: Joël Bats, Patrick Battiston, Maxime Bossis, Yvon Le Roux, Jean-Francois Domerque, Luis Fernandez, Alain Giresse, Michel Platini, Bernard Lacombe, Bruno Bellone, Manuel Amoros, Bernard Genghini, Jean-Marc Ferreri, Dominique Rocheteau, Jean Tigana, Didier Six.

Manager: Michel Hidalgo

Achievement: European Championship winners 1984; World Cup semi-finals 1982 and 1986. In Euro 1984, in which they were the host nation, beat Denmark, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Portugal before overcoming Spain in the final.

Key men: Michel Platini, one of the outstanding players in the history of European football. Elegant, skilful, incisive and capable of scoring goals on the floor and in the air. A marvellous individual; Alain Giresse, stocky midfielder who dovetailed with Platini. An intelligent playmaker who was agile and capable of accelerating from midfield; Jean Tigana, one of the best box-to-box midfielders of his generation. Great pace and stamina, he was also an excellent team player.

Perception: A formidable team with an all-star midfield. Very unfortunate not to win the World Cup, they were the best team in Europe in the mid-1980s.

Netherlands 1988: Hans van Bruekelen, Berry van Aerle, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Adri van Tiggelen, Gerald Vanenberg, Jan Wouters, Arnold Muhren, Erwin Koeman, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, John Bosman, Wim Kieft.

Manager: Rinus Michels

Achievement: European Championship winners 1988, beating USSR in the final after winning 2-1 against hosts West Germany in the semi-final. Also faced England, Ireland and the Soviets in the group stage. Earlier came top in a qualifying group that featured Greece, Hungary, Poland and Cyprus

Key men: Frank Rijkaard, quick, strong and tenacious defender who read the game perfectly. Started with Ajax and went on to be a key member of the AC Milan team of the late-80s- early 1990s. 73 caps for the Netherlands; Ruud Gullit, skilful and versatile midfielder who was pivotal in the re-emergence of the Dutch in the late 1980s. Strong, extremely athletic and very good in the air. Could also play as a striker; Marco van Basten, one of the most complete and exciting strikers of his generation. Nicknamed “the swan of Utrecht” due to his elegance and intelligent attacking play. Capable of scoring spectacular goals, such as his volley in the Euro final of 1988.

Perception: The latter day exponents of modified Total Football. Wonderful technique and individualism. Short-lived success, but a brilliant team and worthy European champions.

Photo: ALAMY