In the penultimate entry of our series, we look at Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan team that won the European Cup two years in a row
Arrigo Sacchi's first European Cup triumph was almost lost to the world. The 1989 final between his Milan team and Steaua Bucharest, played in Barcelona at the Camp Nou, was supposed to have been filmed by the Spanish state broadcasters TVE, whose live images would then be shared with international rights holders all across the globe. That plan had to be revised rather swiftly when TVE's technicians called a strike to coincide with the game.
Engaged in a long-running contractual dispute, the staff in question had reached the end of their collective tether. Last-ditch negotiations with management were convened, but all to no avail. On the afternoon of 23 May, little more than 24 hours before the final was due to kick-off, TVE released a statement confirming that they would be unable to show it.
As a concession to football fans overseas, however, TVE's technicians agreed not to impede any foreign TV crews who sought to take over the international broadcast – as long as it was not aired in Spain. That was all the Italian government needed to know. The ministry of defence immediately placed a military plane at the disposal of their own state broadcasters, Rai, to assist them in transporting Italian film crews over to Barcelona.
A day later 300 million people, spread across 80 different countries, tuned in to watch one of the most lopsided finals in tournament history. No sooner had the referee, Karl-Heinz Tritschler, whistled for the game to begin, than Milan set up camp on the edge of the Steaua box. When Ruud Gullit opened the scoring by passing into an empty net after 18 minutes, the only surprise was that it had taken him that long to do so.
Gullit struck again before half-time, teeing himself up for a half-volley from 18 yards out. Marco Van Basten had already made it 2-0 by that point with a powerful close-range header, and would score his team's fourth just after the break, running on to a through ball and guiding it home from the corner of the six-yard box. The game finished 4-0 to the Rossoneri.
It would be easy to fool oneself, looking back, that a Milan victory had always been a foregone conclusion. In truth it was nothing of the sort. Steaua had reached the semi-finals of this tournament a year previously and won it as recently as 1986. Closing in on their fifth consecutive Romanian title, they had not lost a domestic league game for more than three years.
Even Milan's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, stressed in the days leading up to the final that he did not expect his team to prevail, stating that they were ahead of schedule and could be content simply to have reached this stage. His manager, meanwhile, had never considered winning to be his top priority in the first place.
Sacchi wanted to beat Steaua, of course, but more than that he was intent on defeating a powerful national stereotype. Italian football had become renowned over the course of several decades for its grim defensive mindset, reflected and perhaps even perpetuated in the writings of the immensely influential sports writer Gianni Brera: a man who famously argued that a perfect match should always finish 0-0.
It has been claimed that Brera invented catenaccio, since it was he who first came up with the word "libero" to describe the additional defender, free of specific responsibilities, that he believed all teams should deploy in support of their existing man-marking schemes. He justified his tactical outlook with spurious appeals to genetic science, claiming that Italians were inherently smaller and weaker than people from other European nations and could therefore only hope to succeed through defensive guile and cunning.
A chicken-and-egg debate exists over whether Brera was really influencing coaches in this period, or merely applying a new language to tactical trends that already existed. But what is clear is that caution really had taken hold in the peninsula. As James Horncastle noted in a piece on Brera for The Blizzard, the average Serie A game contained just 1.92 goals when Sacchi took charge of Milan in 1987.
Sacchi was intent on showing his countrymen another way. A former shoe salesman who had never played football professionally, his ideas on how the game should be played were formed during trips to peddle footwear in different countries across Europe. Whenever his schedule would permit, the young Sacchi would make arrangements to see the local teams play. He became obsessed with the Total Football ideals of Ajax and Holland in the mid-1970s.
It was a desire to spread such concepts which pushed Sacchi into giving up sales and pursuing a career in football management. When he took over at Rimini in Serie C1 (then the third tier of Italian football) in 1982, the mere concept of zonal marking was considered radical and dangerous. Five years later that same defensive system helped him to win the Scudetto with Milan in his first season of top-flight management.
Sacchi challenged his teams to always set the tempo and take the game to their opponents, rather than playing reactively. When they had the ball, his players should always be looking to bring it forward, using short, quick passes to drag defenders out of position. When Sacchi's team lost possession, the whole team was expected to press high up the pitch, denying the opposition time to think and regroup. Those concepts might sound commonplace today, but in the context of Italian football in the late 1980s, they were positively revolutionary.
Even after Milan's 1987 title win many Italians remained sceptical of Sacchi's methods. Before the final against Steaua, he brought an article by Brera with him into the changing rooms, telling his players: "The most famous Italian journalist says that the Romanians are masters on the ball, and that we need to wait for them to come at us before we try to strike them on the counter-attack. What do you guys reckon?" According to Sacchi's account, Gullit stood up and replied: "We will attack them from the first second".
That they most certainly did. In the next morning's edition of the newspaper La Repubblica, Brera likened Milan to "that monster from the classic poems which is coaxed out of the abyss by a friendly goddess in order to smash a hated enemy". Continuing in his own inimitable style, Brera described Gullit as being "so full of uranium that he was able to recharge Milan's atomic cell as if by magic".
And yet that was not even the most impressive victory of the season for Milan, whose 5-0 obliteration of Real Madrid in the semi-final second leg remains one of the most iconic games in club history. Madrid were themselves en route to the fourth of five consecutive La Liga titles, and had gone 27 league games without defeat in the run-up to their humiliation at San Siro.
Milan's triumph over Madrid seemed all the more impressive for the fact that the goals had been spread between five different players – Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Roberto Donadoni joining Gullit and Van Basten on the scoresheet. The team, rather than any individual player, had been the true star of the show. That is how Sacchi would always have wanted it.
For a long time, indeed, Sacchi would contend that any player, given the right training, could slot into his system and perform just as well as the next man. In reality, of course, that was simply not the case, a fact which became increasingly apparent as Milan's league form stuttered amidst an injury crisis during the 1989-90 season.
Indeed, Sacchi ought not to be considered the sole architect of Milan's success in this period. While the manager's obsession with teamwork – driven home by lengthy training sessions without a ball, in which players had only their team-mates' positions to use as their point of reference – was unquestionably crucial, the team also had their owner to thank for seeing the other side of the coin.
As the head of a considerable media empire, Berlusconi understood the importance of star power better than most, and it was he who funded the moves for Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard. His club was simultaneously fortunate to have such great home-grown players as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi on its books. Sacchi recognised the value of his cast, but even then maintained that they would be nothing without their director. "De Niro is a fine actor," he would say. "But you only see it when he appears in a great Coppola film."
It was Sacchi's refusal to kowtow to his stars that ultimately proved his downfall at Milan, Silvio Berlusconi cutting the manager loose in 1991 amid reports of a falling out with Van Basten and various others. By that point, though, Sacchi and his squad had already secured their place in history, becoming the first team in more than a decade to retain the European Cup when they beat Benfica in the 1990 final. Nobody has repeated that achievement since.
Milan's performance was not as impressive against the Portuguese champions as it had been against Steaua a year previously, but the world still tuned in to see Frank Rijkaard score the only goal in a 1-0 win. This time, even the Spanish were watching.