Building a brand and pumping up TV rights: How Silvio Berlusconi's reign as AC Milan owner shaped modern football

AC Milan

On the morning of July 8 1986, 10,000 Milan fans gathered at the city’s Arena Civica stadium, just across the Sempione Park from the iconic Sforzesco castle. With rain in the air, a dance troupe called Drive In had just finished doing their thing, when Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries suddenly began blasting out over the speakers. 

The master of ceremonies, a TV presenter for the Italia Uno channel, told the expectant crowd to look up to the skies, where three Agusta helicopters hovered into view.

In a surreal mix of Apocalypse Now and schmaltzy game show, the choppers landed on the pitch and out jumped Milan’s players, led by the captain, Franco Baresi, followed by the club directors and coaching team (including a young Fabio Capello) and, finally, the Rossoneri’s new owner: Silvio Berlusconi.

Wagner faded into the background as Berlusconi stepped forward to take hold of the microphone. Il Presidente spoke of being a lifelong milanista, no different from any other supporter (even if rumours still persist that he was a boyhood Inter fan). He wanted to see the return of spectacle (a frequent buzzword) and believed above all that football was ultimately an easy, simple game to play.

After half an hour or so, the drops of rain had developed into a full-scale summer downpour and the ceremony was cut short. With the crowd running off to find shelter, everyone jumped back into the helicopters, flying off to Berlusconi’s villa outside the city and leaving behind tables laden with increasingly soggy canapes and cakes. A banner with the words ‘Grazie Silvio!’ flapped in the breeze.

The early 1980s hadn’t been kind to Milan. Before Marco van Basten there was Mark Hateley; before Ruud Gullit there was Ray Wilkins. And before Berlusconi there was Giuseppe Farina, known scathingly as Il Agricoltore (‘the farmer’) and dismissed as a provincial with straw in his ears, lacking the charisma needed to run such a prestigious club. Not that there was much prestige around.

The early 1980s hadn’t been kind to Milan. Before Marco van Basten there was Mark Hateley; before Ruud Gullit there was Ray Wilkins

In 1980 Milan had been sent down to Serie B in disgrace as part of the Totonero illegal betting scandal fallout, just a year after winning their 10th Scudetto (and with it the right to wear the gold star on their shirts). They came straight up again but, ridden with debt and struggling to attract any decent players, were duly relegated once more.

Joe Jordan, who joined from Manchester United in the summer of 1981, had made little impact in his first season, but his goals helped push the club back into the Italian top tier. The signing of Luther Blissett in 1983 has become the stuff of legend, but the former Watford player was a Golden Boot winner, Europe’s top scorer and clearly a very capable target man. 

However, Blissett’s failure to adapt to life in Serie A had become symptomatic of Milan’s miserable malaise. There were some hints of a brighter future, though. Baresi, rejected by Inter, had come through the ranks to take on the libero role at just 18 and was widely hailed as the new Beckenbauer.

The arrival in 1984 of Wilkins and Hateley (the former from Manchester United; the latter from Second Division Portsmouth, though Farina initially tried to claim he was a Liverpool player) was greeted with surprising enthusiasm, given their British predecessors’ torrid time.

“They were like a breath of fresh air,” Baresi remembers. “They were big professionals, big names at the time, and they had this great optimism about them. Unfortunately it was just bad timing – Milan were never at their best while they were there.”

Rather than the square-ball link man of popular memory, Wilkins was hailed as a bona fide regista; a superb passer of the ball who could open up play from the midfield. Wilkins always put in a dependably smooth performance, but never matched his English team-mate in the cult hero stakes.

The 22-year-old Hateley was an unknown quantity, signed on the recommendation of youth coach Capello, who had seen him play for England U21s and later scoring for the full national team in a summer friendly against Brazil.

“It was a run-of-the-mill goal for a centre-forward in those days: a far-post header,” Hateley remembers. “I never had an inkling what it might mean. I didn’t consider the magnitude of what had happened until the phone rang. It was Ray Wilkins, who had signed a pre-contract with Milan at Easter. He’d got a call from the powers that be at the club asking if I would be interested. I thought he was taking the mickey.”

Nicknamed ‘Attila’ for his flowing locks and combative style (but also because Italians struggled to pronounce his surname), Hateley was a no-holds-barred British target man.

“I like a battle,” he told a journalist from La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I don’t need any protection from referees.” He pointed to his elbows. “I’ve got these to protect me.” “Ah,” the journalist replied. “Interesting...”

Under the guidance of Swedish coach Nils Liedholm – an elegant striker and captain of Milan in the 1950s – Milan were finally getting themselves back on track and, by late 1985, were in the top half of the table. Off the pitch, however, the club were in a mess. Clearly Farina didn’t have the financial clout he’d always claimed.

Players were still waiting for wages to be paid, while at Old Trafford, chairman Martin Edwards was growing concerned about the £600,000 still owed for Wilkins. Under increasing pressure, and with very real fears that the club could go bust, Farina finally announced in December 1985 that he would be selling up. Within a couple of days, press stories began to appear claiming that Berlusconi would be taking over.

Born in Milan in 1936, the former cruise ship crooner, wedding snapper and door-to-door salesman had made his name in real estate, creating the Milano Due new town (a dreary concrete suburb on the outskirts of the Lombard capital). Switching his attention to the media, Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding company began ploughing money into the burgeoning cable TV market in the late 1970s.

In 1980 he bought the rights to the Mundialito tournament, played in Uruguay to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first World Cup. Matches were shown on his Canale 5 network with long ad slots running every quarter-hour. By 1984 he ran three national channels.

Banners began appearing on the Curva Sud, home to the club’s ultras: ‘Silvio, Milan loves you’, ‘Silvio, save us from this shame’ and ‘Silvio, get rid of this society of thieves’

Having started discussions with Farina’s counterparts, Berlusconi’s legal team were shocked by the perilous state of the club’s accounts. In three years Milan’s debts had tripled and Italy’s financial police were keen 
to investigate suspected misappropriation of funds.

Farina had skipped the country, leaving unfortunate interim president Rosario Lo Verde, a dapper 71-year-old, to scramble around various banks trying to secure a loan to keep the club going. Berlusconi sat tight, keen to buy on the cheap and waiting for a new Serie A TV deal to kick in after the New Year.

Banners began appearing on the Curva Sud, home to the club’s ultras: ‘Silvio, Milan loves you’, ‘Silvio, save us from this shame’ and ‘Silvio, get rid of this society of thieves’. An offer of 40 million lire was eventually tabled and, on February 10, 1986, a deal was reached allowing Berlusconi to become Milan’s 20th president.

With little of the current season left, Berlusconi was quick to invest in new players (though not before presenting each of the current squad with a Cartier silver goblet). There were rumours about Diego Maradona signing, but the initial batch of arrivals were all Italy internationals, none of them huge stars but all expensive enough to raise a few eyebrows.

There were worries Milan would disrupt the transfer market, causing too much of an imbalance. According to Baresi, after five years of turmoil and struggle, the players loved it. “It’s true. There was a real feeling that this guy who had come along was going to really change things; that he was going to be able to take us up a level, to make us competitive again, not just in Italy but in Europe as well.”

There was a real feeling that this guy who had come along was going to really change things; that he was going to be able to take us up a level, to make us competitive again, not just in Italy but in Europe as well

By the time of the glitzy presentation, the culture at the club had been completely changed. A new commercial dynamism and energy was beginning to take root. “I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Baresi explains. “It wasn’t just the helicopter ride, more the feeling that there had been this huge shift; that things really wouldn’t be the same again.”

A publicity campaign had been running on Fininvest’s channels that summer. The brilliantly cheesy ads were classic Berlusconi, with a voiceover suggesting viewers give themselves a “little gift this Sunday, with the blue of the sky, the green of the grass and the red and black of the new Milan”. A record number of season ticket holders, over 60,000, took up the offer.

Hateley scored Milan’s only goal in a 3-1 pre-season loss against Barcelona, but it was clear the striker was falling out of favour. The club had a poor start to the new campaign, fans were growing restless again and Berlusconi, with a portent of things to come in later years, began to put pressure on Liedholm.

By January 1987 there was talk everywhere of Van Basten and Gullit. Liedholm was sacked soon after, replaced on a temporary basis by Capello, groomed as a Milan company man (“he even dresses like Berlusconi,” newspaper La Repubblica pointed out), before Arrigo Sacchi, performing miracles at Parma, was ready to take over in the summer of 1987.

With Van Basten house-hunting in Milan (“What’s he got that I haven’t, apart from pace?” Attila muttered to an Italian magazine), it was time for Hateley to make a move, just across the border to Monaco.

Berlusconi did at least sort out the outstanding balance on the forward’s swanky home near Lake Maggiore, after Farina failed to keep up with the rent (the unfortunate Englishman was actually evicted at one stage by his miffed landlord).

After his last game at the Meazza the striker draped a banner at the foot of the Curva Sud, emblazoned with the words: ‘Grazie a tutti. I love you Milan. Mark Hateley.’

I was young, but I was the son of a footballer and I knew enough about the game to understand that this so-called football man knew very little. Berlusconi wanted to be the coach, he wanted to do everything

Talking to an Italian journalist in the 1990s, Hateley was pretty scornful of Berlusconi: “I had a one-to-one meeting with him at Milanello. I was young, but I was the son of a footballer and I knew enough about the game to understand that this so-called football man knew very little. He wanted to be the coach, he wanted to do everything.”

Looking back over 30 years later, though, there’s no trace of bitterness, only pride at what he achieved. “Milan completely shaped me. I would work with Liedholm and Capello every afternoon for three years, on my technique, where I should be, where I shouldn’t run – ‘we have other players to run there’ – which you’re never taught in England. Capello was a great guy. 
He lived in the same development as us, so we spent a bit of time going back and forth. He just loved the British mentality.”

A headed winning goal in the 1984 derby, when he out-jumped former Milan defender Fulvio Collovati, known as Il Traditore (the traitor) after joining Inter when the Rossoneri were relegated in 1982, sealed Hateley’s place in the club’s folklore. This was underlined at the most recent Milan Derby, when the Curva Sud was draped with a choreography depicting the Englishman's famous goal.

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“He amazed me,” a clearly impressed Baresi said at the time. When, in the mid-’90s, Pierluigi Casiraghi signed for Lazio, he admitted to the assembled journalists that he was a childhood Milan fan: “As a kid, I had a poster of Hateley on my bedroom wall.” The former England striker has become something of a symbol for milanisti; a reminder, perhaps, of less complicated times.

In July 1987, Wilkins followed Hateley to France, signing for PSG and slipping out of Italy with little fanfare. By now all the attention was on Sacchi, the Dutchmen and Berlusconi.

It would take another year (and the vital additions of Carlo Ancelotti and Frank Rijkaard) for the first league title of the Berlusconi era to be won, paving the way for the creation of one of the most influential footballing sides of the modern age.

Perhaps more than that, though, Berlusconi created the first brand in modern football. At a press conference a few days after buying the club he declared: “Milan is a team, but it’s also a product to sell; something to offer on the market.”

Compared with the still very patriarchal ownership style of Juventus, Milan were a modern, progressive club, applying the business strategies and entrepreneurial spirit of a large-scale conglomerate to the still largely family-run world of the Italian game.

It quickly became clear that Berlusconi wasn’t going to be satisfied with the usual president’s role of a local businessman made good, using a club as an ego-stroking vanity project and splashing money on big-name signings to keep the fans onside.

Berlusconi wanted to change things, to ruffle feathers. The Rossoneri became another outpost of his commercial empire, one that fed off the core business of Fininvest. He was a man used to being a pivotal figure in an organisation, one in full control who makes critical decisions.

The club’s press office immediately became the centre of operations, spinning stories, staging events and, increasingly, making claims of plots and persecution by match officials and non-Berlusconi media (fostering the kind of siege mentality much loved by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson).

Television rights became a crucial factor, the catalyst for all the glitz and glamour that was to follow. Worth 3.8 billion lire (£1.25 million) in 1982, they had jumped to 970 billion (£605 million) in 1988. Berlusconi’s channels were awash with football discussion shows, highlights packages and news programmes (often working as thinly veiled advertorials for new pay TV services).

In the first few months of his presidency, Berlusconi began pushing the city council to back plans for a revamp of the stadium, the concept of ‘customer’ loyalty was introduced – all those season ticket holders provided the perfect database for marketing opportunities and ‘cross-fertilisation’ of other Fininvest products (and, later, politics) – while a psychologist was brought in to teach everyone at the club the company way, to foster a new corporate mentality.

This is all a given in the sleek environs of a modern, successful club; now part of its very fabric. Berlusconi helped reinvent the game: he set a template for saturated television coverage, ushering in calcio’s 1990s golden age in the process and, beyond that, the formation of the Champions League and a new powerbase within the top levels of European club football.

Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan team of the early-’90s were forerunners of the galacticos; the Milanello training facility and, later in 2002, the Milan Lab medical centre, have become the cutting-edge standard for any ambitious club to reach for.

In England, the Premier League, built on television money, obsessed with PR and brand awareness, owes pretty much everything to Berlusconi (and of course, the English game was able to take Milan’s prototype and leave Italian football far behind, with the need to adapt the modello inglese becoming a constant mantra for Serie A club presidents).

That football (on the pitch) often runs completely independent of rational thought and business plans is a concept that still apparently troubles him. His run-ins with a succession of coaches (the managerial role at the club has changed hands 15 times during his 25-year reign) have been unflinching in their fuming bluntness.

In 2009, towards the end of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at Milan, Berlusconi took a break from a diplomatic wingding in Egypt to launch a broadside at his underperforming coach: “If we don’t win this year’s Scudetto it’s all the fault of Ancelotti and his bad tactics.”

From now on, we’re going to play with two strikers. Ancelotti has to be more dynamic – he has to do more. If not, he won’t be the coach of Milan for much longer

Silvio Berlusconi

A few days later, he appeared on one of his television channels and had another pop at the tactician: “Milan are like Real Madrid: they always have to attack. From now on, we’re going to play with two strikers. Ancelotti has to be more dynamic – he has to do more. If not, he won’t be the coach of Milan for much longer.”

Within weeks, Ancelotti announced he was leaving for Stamford Bridge.

In the early 1990s, with Italian politics still reeling from a series of corruption scandals, Berlusconi formed the Forza Italia party, filling a vacuum, just as he had in 1986 when he took over Milan. “I never really spoke to him much in the 1990s: he was much less of a club president, too busy with politics,” Baresi remembers.

“I’ve got so many memories of that time. Yes, he would sometimes intervene and want to discuss tactics, but he always respected everyone’s roles – he never overstepped the mark. I’ll always be grateful to him. I’ll always think of him with fondness. It’s so difficult to imagine Milan without him.”

Berlusconi’s subsequent use of the language of football in his day job as Italian Prime Minister has always been a touch overplayed: he certainly wasn’t the first politician to use sport as a metaphor, or seek political advantage from a team’s success.

However, in later years the beleaguered former premier began to need the club more than ever, as a way of reminding an increasingly dubious electorate of former glories. Certainly, having to stand trial on accusations of abuses of power and having sex with an underage prostitute was a new low, while his conviction for tax fraud only saw him avoid jail due to his age.

In April 2017, Berlusconi sold Milan to a Chinese consortium for €740 million. While his reign saw the Rossoneri claim eight Scudetti and five Champions League titles, his final years in charge saw a decline that they are only now beginning to reverse, with a Serie A title in 2022 and a Champions League semi-final in 2023.

At age 83, Berlusconi re-entered politics in 2019 as an MEP with Forza Italia, and became the owner of Serie C side Monza in 2018, overseeing their rise to mid-table in Serie A at the time of his death in June 2023.

But despite all the controversies, Berlusconi may have looked back on his Milan ownership as a better time. Perhaps the club do, too.

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