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.