How Silvio Berlusconi's three-decade Milan reign has shaped modern football

Before ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties threatened to ruin his private life and political career, Silvio Berlusconi turned Milan into the game’s first modern superclub and paved the way for the Premier League. But how? Thirty-one years to the day since he bought the club, FourFourTwo has the inside story

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. 

In a surreal mix of Apocalypse Now and schmaltzy game show, choppers landed on the pitch and out jumped the Rossoneri’s new owner: Silvio Berlusconi

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.

Berlusconi

Berlusconi certainly knows how to make an entrance

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.

Tougher times

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. 


Baresi

The iconic Franco Baresi hailed a new dawn for Milan

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.

Fresh faces

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

- Franco Baresi

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.

Capello

Capello was a big fan of a young Mark Hateley

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.

Ray Wilkins had got a call from the powers that be at the club asking if I would be interested. I thought he was taking the mickey

- Mark Hateley

“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...”