Milan became a dynasty under Silvio Berlusconi.
Eight Serie A titles, five European Cups/Champions League, at least two revolutionary managers and a string of players that demanded the world watched them. Anyone who paid any attention to Italian football during his tenure will be able to reel off any number of historic games and iconic performances that could probably support a nostalgic podcast and website on their own.
But perhaps the greatest of them all came only a few years into Berlusconi’s tenure, in the 1988/89 European Cup. “The final we all know about,” said James Richardson on the latest edition of Golazzo, on Berlusconi. “European champions in front of an estimated 100,000 Milanisti [at the Nou Camp] against Steaua Bucharest, but along the way, I think equally significantly, an absolute destruction of the dominant team in Spain, Real Madrid.”
Real have an inherent arrogance and swagger at the best of times, but going into the semi-final against Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, it was especially so. They were in the middle of a five-year period of dominance in La Liga and had won their previous six games against Italian opposition, the most recent of which had been a spicy affair against Diego Maradona’s Napoli in 1987, with the Bernabeu leg played behind closed doors because of trouble at the previous season’s semi-final. It was also one of the ties that inspired Berlusconi to push for a European super league – a version of which became the Champions League – because Silvio was so exorcised at the idea of two such great teams meeting each other in the first round, with one to be eliminated so early on.
Real, under David Carradine lookalike Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, had Manolo Sanchis, Michel, Bernd Schuster, Emiliano Butregueno and, of course, the great Hugo Sanchez. A line-up to make even the hardiest opponent curl up in a ball and cry.
This though, was Milan. They were technically in the formative stages of their first great dynastic team, only one domestic title to their name after a barren decade filled with failure and scandal, but there was more than enough meat on the bones. It was still a line-up to mist the eyes of even the most casual nostalgist: the three Dutchmen were there, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, plus the small matter of that defence: Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
But they were very close to not even making it this far. Milan played Red Star Belgrade in the second round, and after a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Italy, the second was abandoned just after the hour mark when a thick fog descended on the Marakana, Red Star 1-0 up and heading through. The game was replayed the following day, it ended 1-1 and Milan won 4-2 on penalties with Dejan Savicevic, who of course went on to chip in rather significantly for Fabio Capello’s Milan, missing for Red Star.
After easing past Werder Bremen in the quarters, it was Real. The first-leg ended 1-1, Sanchez giving Real the lead with a volley that most might have just turned in, but he Hugo Sanchez’d home from six yards, only for Van Basten to equalise with an extraordinary diving header from the edge of the box that snuck into the top corner, via Real keeper Buyo. Gullit had a goal bafflingly disallowed for offside before the leveller, but at the end Milan and Berlusconi were smiling.
“We suffered, it wasn’t an easy game,” said Baresi later. “We could have fallen apart [after the disallowed goal], instead, we managed to play how we wanted. Back in the dressing rooms, we were all satisfied, if not with the result, with the performance.
“Of course, in the locker room, Sacchi told us that we hadn’t achieved anything yet, but we were about to play a really tough second leg. He was already focusing on the match at San Siro, as nothing had happened. But something was happening inside us.”
Still, the tie was, as pundits would be contractually obliged to call it now, beautifully poised. “I’m still a little bit optimistic,” said Beenhakker ahead of the game. “I agree that the odds must now be 60-40 against us, but I think that there are one or two things we can do, if our players find their best form, which can unnerve Milan defence.”
If the game ahead wasn’t extraordinary enough in itself, what happened after 90 seconds was even more so. The match took place only a few days after the Hillsborough disaster, and Berlusconi seemed to have a better handle on why it had occurred than some in the British media, calling it ‘an avoidable tragedy, a consequence of human errors and stadium design faults.’
Referee Alexis Ponnet stopped the game and for a minute, the players stood in remembrance of the Liverpool fans who lost their lives. David Lacey wrote in the Guardian:
‘The Milanese skies wept for football. In a country as soccer-conscious as Italy, the Hillsborough tragedy was not some distant disaster on a foreign field…The crowd of 75,000 broke into prolonged and respectful applause, and behind one of the goals a section which only minutes earlier had turned the terraces into an inferno of red flares swayed gently as they sang You’ll Never Walk Alone. It was not a silent tribute, but it was far more moving.’
Even 30 years removed, it really is an extraordinary thing to watch, and it’s easy to forget that in the pre-internet era, it would have been much more difficult to even get a full idea of Hillsborough’s scale. For a team with no ostensible connection to Liverpool to pay tribute like that was incredible.
When the game did start, Real were arguably the better side in the opening stages, but everything turned on the first goal after 18 minutes. Gullit octopus’d his way around a couple of challenges on the right, and shifted inside to Carlo Ancelotti, who delicately skipped around Schuster, then Martin Vasquez, before launching a shot from 25 yards into the net (which might, on close party-pooping inspection, have taken a deflection).
From there, demolition. Rijkaard rose to batter a header in seven minutes later, and before the break Roberto Donadoni lollipopped down the left and crossed for Gullit to score one of his own. Even at that stage, merely 3-0 ahead, the San Siro seemed to throb with excitement, and that only increased after the break.
Van Basten smashed a fourth home and Donadoni snuck in the fifth after a short corner: by this stage there were strong vibes of a Real team that had frankly given up, but the Milanisti were beside themselves.
‘The old men of Real Madrid last night disintegrated,’ wrote David Miller in the Times. ‘They fell apart against the scintillating football of Rijkaard, Donadoni, Ancelotti, Van Basten and Gullit, and Milan galloped into the European Cup final to the delight of a 75,000 crowd.’
‘It was a show,’ wrote Van Basten in his autobiography. ‘It was a great feeling to be part of such a strong team that could put the opponent in such a corner…Of course, the Sacchi system was strong, but ultimately the quality of the players was decisive. That victory over Real in a delirious San Siro had brought us to Barcelona in this final.’
It was about the players, and it was about Sacchi, but Berlusconi made sure it was a little bit about him too. In his book about Real ‘White Angels’, John Carlin wrote: ‘Berlusconi went to Real dressing room, asked them to hold hands & said: “Do not worry. We are proud of having beaten Real Madrid because it is the best football club in the world. You have a good fortune which we do not have and that is – that whether we win the European Cup or not – we shall never, ever be like you.”
History does not record how many of the Real players wanted to use Berlusconi’s head to open the dressing room door as they threw him out, but you wouldn’t blame them if they did.
This was arguably the day that Berlusconi’s Milan went from being one man’s revival project into a great European force again. ‘That was really the exclamation point,’ said Gab Marcotti on Golazzo. ‘Prior to that in the European Cup, they hadn’t been that great. It was kind of a coming out party. It was an utter, utter demolition.’
You can listen to the latest edition of the Golazzo here, or even better you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.