Calcio Retro – The Rossoneri Lakers Part i: Milan Magic in the late 1980s

Great sporting dynasties are revered by supporters regardless of partisan allegiance because of their rarity. For one side to have a spell of prolonged dominance against serious competition, there are certain elements which must be in place. They need great individuals, capable of performances that win and save matches. They also need great coaches, who are either ahead of their time tactically or blessed with the ability to mould a group of stars into a cohesive unit. More crucial is the sense of drive, purpose and the pathological desire to achieve. AC Milan’s winning machine from 1987 to 1994 had all of these.

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Explaining the scale of the achievement is not possible without some historical context. After winning a first Scudetto for a decade in 1979, Milan had been heavily implicated in the Totonero scandal of 1980, with accusations of matches being fixed by numerous Italian clubs. Milan and Lazio were forcibly relegated as a result earning Catanzaro and Udinese a Serie A reprieve. Immediate promotion in 1981 was followed by relegation and another season in Serie B in 1982/83. Though Rossoneri were promoted again in 1983, finishes of eighth, fifth and seventh in the three seasons that followed were not those of a club with expectations of competing for major honours. The colourful, controversial and immensely wealthy Silvio Berlusconi provided the club with a lifeline when he bought them in 1986. He quickly decided a new Coach would need to be brought in to replace the Swede, Nils Liedholm. Davide Fontolan’s goal for Serie B side Parma on 3rd September 1986 may have caused Milan some Coppa Italia embarrassment, but it was a blessing in disguise. Berlusconi’s mind was made up. Their coach, Arrigo Sacchi, was his man.

Arriving in the close-season of 1987, Sacchi was able to view Milan’s squad with objectivity. He had never played the game professionally and as is sometimes the case, was not tied to the old and accepted ways of doing things. Before becoming Coach of Parma in 1985, Sacchi had worked in his family’s business selling shoes. His travels had seen him take in games all over Europe and he was far from reticent about promoting new ideas. Franco Baresi, seen as the archetypical Italian sweeper, would now be the leader of a back four in a 4-4-2 system that many Italian coaches had dismissed as primitive and simplistic. Sacchi added a fluidity to this structure and an element of the Dutch ‘total football’ of the 1970s. Bankrolled by Berlusconi, the trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten would become crucial to the success that followed. The results were instant. A late collapse by Napoli in 1988 included a crucial 3-2 win for Milan at San Paolo. A 1-1 draw at Como, along with Napoli losing at home to Sampdoria, sealed their first Scudetto for nine years and only their second in the previous twenty. It was in the European Cup that Rossoneri now began to excel. While deadly rivals Inter, inspired by Lothar Matthaus, surged to the title in 1989 (repeated in 1990), Milan ‘s European run saw them beat a nightmare chain of opposition. Vitosha, Red Star Belgrade, Werder Bremen and Real Madrid were all bested before Milan came up against Steaua Bucharest, who had won the trophy in 1986 and were in the midst of a 104-game unbeaten run domestically. The 4-0 demolition of Hagi, Lacatus et al marked the emergence of a new superpower and ensured two Milanese clubs would compete in the 1989/90 competition.

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It was just as well as Inter crashed to Malmo in the first round. Once again Real were beaten as were KV Mechelen, who had won the Cup Winners Cup as recently as 1988. Away goals saw them through an extra-time epic against Bayern Munich before Rijkaard settled things against Benfica in Vienna. The 1989 and 1990 European Supercups and Intercontinental titles were further indicators of their standing within the world game. However, they finished either second or third in Serie A between 1989 and 1991. With Italy failing to qualify for Euro 1992 in Sweden, it was the right time for not only Sacchi to try his hand at something new, but also for a new man to take them to the next level. Fabio Capello stepped up from inside the club to become that man. Having lost at Bari on 19th May 1991, Milan next lost a domestic match to a Faustino Asprilla strike for Parma on March 21st 1993, a whole 58 games later. This included the entire 1991-92 league season, which they finished unbeaten en route to a comprehensive title win, repeated almost effortlessly the following season. However, the final of the 1993 European Cup would forever be tainted by controversy. Milan lost 1-0 to a Marseille side who it later transpired had paid off members of the Valenciennes team that lost 1-0 to them in the final game of the Ligue 1 season. We will never know what may have happened had Marseille been made to earn the points the previous weekend. They were later stripped of the title, relegated and their own high-profile owner, Bernard Tapie was jailed in 1995 for corruption.

A less flamboyant Milan ground their way to another Scudetto in the 1993/94 season, with a particularly poor ending, culminating in Reggiana stealing salvation at the San Siro with a stunning 1-0 win on the last day. The loss of then world record signing Gianluigi Lentini in a near-fatal car crash, along with what would be a career-ending injury to Van Basten, had deprived them of some of the attacking flair evident in previous seasons. To make things worse, by the time of the European Cup final against Barcelona, both Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta had accrued one match bans. Against this backdrop, not only were Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona expected to beat them, but many purist neutrals hoped the team of Guardiola, Romario and Stoichkov would prevail. Instead, Milan produced one of the greatest ever European performances to trounce them 4-0. Dejan Savicevic, a gifted player often the victim of the three-foreigners rule, provided a memorable image of the masterpiece at work. His exquisite near-touchline lob over Zubizareta made it 3-0 and ended any contest that had existed. Far from being a side in decline, Milan looked like one set to rule for the next decade, having put the pretenders to their throne in place.


Calcio Retro

Castel di Sangro and the 1990s miracle

Piacenza – The Serie A years 1993-2003

When Cymru met Italia, nearly a Napoli nightmare

Disaster for Fiorentina in 1993 means relegation from Serie A

The Rossoneri Lakers Part i: Milan Magic in the late 1980s

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