Calcio Retro – The Rossoneri Lakers Part ii: Decline of an Empire

From the French Revolution to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the annals are full of stories of those that had it and then either lost it or had it taken away from them. So it was inevitable that Milan’s dominance of the Italian game from the late 1980’s to the mid 1990’s would end and that others would rise like a phoenix in their place. It is also worth noting that there was little in the way of sympathy for the Rossoneri when it happened. Nobody does Schadenfreude quite like football fans.


The side that had won a Scudetto and European Cup double in 1994 contained numerous players who had passed their 30th birthday. Add a career-ending injury to Marco Van Basten and the loss of Gianluigi Lentini and you have a process of renewal that even a man with Berlusoni’s pockets would struggle to afford. Nor had this been helped by Milan having half a dozen foreign players on their books when only three were allowed. In 1992/93, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonimir Boban had played thirteen and ten games respectively. The following season, Brian Laudrup and Florin Raducoiu played nine and seven. Though Demetrio Albertini had established himself as an international midfield player, there were hardly a conveyor belt of stars coming through the Rossoneri academy. This short-termism led to accusations that Milan had bought players simply so others could not have them. More crucially, it meant that they had to keep winning to finance the renewal that was necessary.

The decline of Milanese dominance coincided with the emergence of two other great sides, one at home and one in Europe. Marcello Lippi’s temporary revival of Napoli had seen Juventus entrust him with the task of taking them back to the ascent of calcio. He didn’t disappoint. The side of Peruzzi, Kohler, Deschamps, Conte, Ravanelli and a young Del Piero were efficient when they needed to be and exhilarating when the situation allowed. 23 wins out of 34 games was a mightily impressive record as they won the title by ten points.

Milan stuttered near the end of the season to finish fourth, their eyes on a different prize. Having lost home and away against Ajax in the group stage of the Champions League, they had stumbled past the mediocrity of Salzburg and AEK Athens. Playing from memory to beat Benfica and Paris Saint Germain set up a final in Vienna against the same side that had outclassed them earlier in the competition. Former Rossoneri hero Frank Rijkaard gave some experience to the gifted youth of the De Boer brothers, Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen and Patrick Kluivert. It was hoped that memories of Milan’s 1990 triumph in the same city would inspire them. Rijkaard had scored the winning goal that day and so his contribution here was bitterly ironic. With five minutes left, his through ball found Kluivert, who managed to wriggle away from two defenders and toe-poke the ball past Rossi. The torch had been passed. However, in 1995/96, Milan won a Scudetto that turned out to be merely a temporary spike on a downward curve.

Top of the standings since September, the decisive weekend came four games from the end. Milan emerged victorious from a trip to Naples with a rare goal from Christian Panucci. Meanwhile, the Bianconeri crashed and burned at home to Sampdoria. The signing of Roberto Baggio from their main rivals was seen as pivotal, as he became the first player to win successive Scudetti with different teams. Equally important was the contribution of George Weah, the Liberian having the pace, strength, aerial ability and goal threat of a complete striker who could be seen as a replacement for Van Basten. All seemed well again, but on closer inspection, both were 28 when Milan signed them, Weah was pushing 29 and again the short-term policy of Berlusconi was merely papering over the cracks.

Capello’s reputation for galvanising talented individuals had led Real Madrid to identify him as the man to take them forward. His replacement, Oscar Tabarez was highly respected for the work he had done coaching his native Uruguay and establishing Cagliari in Italy’s top tier. It all began so well. After Antonio De Vitis had threatened to cut short the honeymoon period, Milan ran riot in a second half that culminated in Weah scoring ‘that’ goal, running from the edge of his own box and finishing smartly eighty yards later. However, after that, just about everything went wrong. A shock defeat at home to Rosenborg sent them out of the Champions League while in the midst of a poor run domestically. The goal that did it for Tabarez came on December 1, 1996. Pasquale Luiso’s overhead kick came straight from the depths of Rossoneri hell, and Tabarez was gone after only eleven league games. Berlusconi knew that in the New Year a new man was called for. He was actually an old and familiar one. They say ‘never go back’ and advocates of that philosophy will point to Arrigo Sacchi’s second tenure as coach of the Rossoneri when stating their case.


Though results were more random than plain disastrous, they included a few nightmares. The most notable came on April 6 1997 when Juventus came to San Siro and won 6-1. The sight of a 37-year old Baresi sat on his backside after Jugovic had given Juve the lead was a snapshot of how far the pendulum had swung. Now a shadow of his former self, the fact he had become fallible like everyone else underlined how important this superhuman all-in-one had been to them and just how irreplaceable he was. Meanwhile, Sacchi and Baggio had a very public falling-out which led to ‘the divine ponytail’ being sold to Bologna. As Juve clinched a second Scudetto in three years, Milan slumped to eleventh, their lowest finish since rejoining Serie A in 1983. Not even the return of Capello in 1997 could save them. While rivals Inter made the sensational signing of Ronaldo, Rossoneri’s own expensive import, Ibrahim Ba, would go out of fashion as quickly as his peroxide blonde hair. A team coached by Capello that finishes tenth has serious problems, a sort of cancer running through the club that hangs around for an age. Though it has now long gone and they have had notable success since, Milan have never again hit the heights discussed in part i. Perhaps when witnessing it slip away, it is worth noting that those achievements are a mark on mortality. That group of individuals’ collective greatness, can never be taken away from them.

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