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.

Dušan Vlahović: Big, brave and bold, but oven-ready?

THERE’s often a shortage of up-and-coming young strikers around Europe, so anyone who shows the ability to score 20-plus goals is always going to be a sought-after commodity. Big clubs want to bet their money on a sure thing, so the competition for notable names like Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé will always be fierce once the bidding starts. Other forwards who have potential and have not necessarily been centre stage also command sizeable fees.

Dušan Vlahović of Fiorentina is one such player, a 21 year-old Serb who lacks nothing in technique, drive and confidence. His hero is Zlatan Ibrahimović and he has told friends and associates that he is a Serbian Zlatan who will only play for the strongest clubs. He’s currently at Fiorentina, a club with ambition but whose last scudetto was in 1969 (their second) and their last piece of silverware was the Coppa Italia, which was lifted in 2001. The Belgrade-born youngster started his professional career with Partizan, but he also played at youth level for both Red Star and OFK.

Pundits and fans have been singing his praises for the past year or so, and unsurprisingly, he’s about to sign for Juventus for a fee of € 75 million, despite interest from Premier League clubs like Arsenal, who were very keen on breaking the bank to secure him. Champions League football was a prerequisite, however, and Arsenal cannot guarantee their involvement, unlike Manchester City, who were also interested in him at an earlier stage.

It does sound as though Juventus was always going to be his next destination as some rumours imply he had already agreed terms with them before rejecting a new contract with the Viola. As talks continued between Vlahović’s people and Juve, there was a negative reaction from some Fiorentina’s fans. He has moved from hero to zero, so much so that the Italian police are keeping an eye on the situation.

Vlahović’s entourage includes his agent, Darko Ristic, who has upset one or two people around the Fiorentina camp due to media reports that he asked for a € 20 million bonus. There is also talk of an attorney connected to the deal being pictured with certain individuals from the Serbian underworld. Rocco B. Commisso, the club’s owner, has allegedly said the club will not deal with Ristic and his colleagues again.

Meanwhile, Vlahović has said he never pushed to leave Fiorentina, although he did turn down a new five-year contract that would pay him € 3.5 million per year and make him the highest earning player in the club’s history. According to the Italian press, he currently earns € 800,000 a year at Fiorentina and Juventus are willing to give him a € 7 million annual salary.

Initially, though, Fiorentina were eager not to sell their leading scorer, but there has been something of a poker game going on. Juventus came onto the scene and told them that it was a deal now or they would wait until 2023 and get the player for nothing. Furthermore, Ristic wasn’t listening to other offers, including an extension to his existing deal. This really forced Fiorentina’s hand and hence, Vlahović is bound for Turin.

How will he fare at a bigger club where expectation will be high? His goalscoring rate in Florence has been impressive, 44 in 98 Serie A games, and his strike rate for Serbia, seven goals in 14 appearances, also underlines his potential. It should be noted that 12 of his 44 league goals have been penalties. In the calendar year, his 33 goals were beaten only by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski. By the time Serbia take part in the 2022 World Cup, Vlahović’s personal development will have further evolved and he will have had 10 months at Juventus.

He is an imposing figure, firstly because, at 6 feet 3 inches, he stands head and shoulders above most players. Naturally, at that height he is effective in the air, but he also has the close control of a smaller individual and he is adept at holding-up the ball. Not only does he have an eye for goal, but he does create for others and he has a good turn of speed. 

He has been called “the complete forward”, but in a bigger pond, will he have the same impact? Juventus already have Paulo Dybala, Álvaro Morata, Moise Kean and the young Brazilian Kaio Jorge. Interestingly, there are rumours concerning the futures of all four players when Vlahović arrives, with Tottenham interested in Dybala, Morata being chased by Barcelona, and 20 year-old Jorge going out on loan to another Italian club. Obviously, the expectation is the expensive new signing will be the first choice striker, so the spotlight will be firmly on one of Europe’s most exciting young talents in the coming months.

AC Milan: There is a light that must never go out

THE Serie A title race looks like it may be a struggle to the finish between Inter and AC Milan, the first time the San Siro duo will fight it out for the scudetto since 2010-11. Although Inter were champions and Milan second in 2021, there was a 12-point gap between them. Milan are currently one point behind Inter, although the Nerrazzuri have a game in hand.    

Away from playing matters, AC Milan have made real progress, which after the past few years, must be a great relief for the club’s management. Although they made a loss of € 92 million, they have shaved around € 100 million off their deficit in a year. In the past five years, Milan have lost almost € 600 million. Their revenues, totalling € 240.8 million, were at their highest level since 2013 when they almost reached € 250 million. Calcio de Finanza has forecast the momentum will continue in 2021-22, with total revenues hitting € 300 million. The resurgence of Covid infections and the new (temporary) stadium limit of 5,000 will be a challenge.

Income for 2020-21 was generated from broadcasting and commercial activities, which increased by 18% and 40% respectively. Broadcasting totalled € 138.3 million, while commercial activity amounted to € 102.5 million, thanks to increased sponsorship and advertising. They have built on this fresh impetus with 25 new commercial partnerships since August 2021.

Ninety-two million euros may seem a daunting figure, but Italian clubs, generally, have been making huge losses during the pandemic. The improvements since last year implies Milan are on the way back and being run more proficiently. They returned to the UEFA Champions League in 2021-22, but they were drawn in a particularly tough group with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto and finished bottom. Regardless, they will have benefitted financially from being involved. If Milan are to regain their competitive edge, regular participation in the competition will be a pre-requisite. Their income from European competition is miniscule compared to Italian rivals Juventus. 

Similarly, Milan need to step-up their player trading efforts. In 2020-21, they made a profit on player sales of € 18 million, and over the past five years, they had earned less than € 100 million from this source. Compare that to the € 1 billion-plus made between Juventus, Napoli and Roma, and it is clear there is significant upside for Milan. In 2020-21, they sold Suso to Sevilla for € 21 million and Lucas Paquetá to Lyon for € 20 million. 

In a transfer market undoubtedly compromised by the pandemic, Milan spent far less than Juventus and Inter last season. Their gross spend was around € 35 million (source: Transfermarkt), while Juve spent € 155 million and Inter € 121 million.

Milan also need to leverage their brand to secure better shirt and kit deals. According to Brand Finance, Milan are inside the top 30 most valuable and strongest brands. Their shirt sponsorship with Emirates yields € 14 million and their Puma kit arrangements amount to € 13 million. Juventus, by contrast have a shirt sponsor, Jeep, that pays € 45 million and Fiorentina’s deal with Mediacom is € 26 million. Even Sassuolo have a better shirt deal with Mapei (€ 18 million).

Key to AC Milan’s future is the new stadium project which seems to have been discussed for years. Interestingly, of the most recent 150 stadiums built around the world, only three happen to be Italian. Milan’s new home, to be shared with Inter, of course, aims to be a revolutionary arena that will take the club’s matchday revenues from the usual € 30 million to € 80 million. Their CEO, Ivan Gazidis, is desperate to drive-up revenues in order to bridge the gap with Europe’s elite group. He knows Milan are still € 100 million from break-even, but hopes this will be achieved within three years.

Milan’s league form has recovered after a sticky patch and they have won their last three games, including a 3-1 home success against Roma. They’ve only lost one away from home, but slipped up before Christmas against Napoli at home. Fans are calling for action during the transfer window to strengthen the squad, but Milan will be only too aware that some of their biggest signings have not worked out too well. Milan are still dependent on 40 year-old in Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is their leading scorer with eight Serie A goals in 13 games. He cannot go on forever. Franck Kessie, a player who has become a target of some of Europe’s top clubs, may decide to leave Milan as he has yet to sign a new deal. This will be a blow to the Rossoneri, but they have been looking at Sven Botman of Lille and Manchester United’s Eric Bailly.

After some grim financial performances, AC Milan still have some way to go, but there is, at least, a light at the end of the tunnel, and when the new stadium arrives, the club can look the future in the eye.