When AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi heralded the visit to his squad at Milanello training ground and the pep talk ahead of today’s catchy Serie A game in Naples, many journalists recalled his notable appearance on a hot, cloudy 16 July 1986.
On that day, he landed on the Arena di Milano multi-purpose stadium aboard of a helicopter with the music of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, somehow aping one of the most memorable scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece “Apocalypse Now”.
Almost 27 years have passed so far from the moment Berlusconi took over one of Italy’s most glamorous clubs which were, at the time, on the brink of bankruptcy. Thrown in the Serie B following their involvement into the massive Totonero match-fixing scandal, AC Milan were immediately back to the top-flight, but very poor performances led to another ignominious relegation. Businessman Giussy Farina had taken over the club a few months before and his experience was all but remarkable. With AC Milan navigating dangerous waters, Farina abandoned the ship before its sinking, just in time to say that “the ideal Rossoneri chairman would be the eternal Father”, as Italian journalist Andrea Riscassi recalls.
His successor effectively showed up himself from the sky, announced by a noisy rotor. AC Milan players stepped out of the helicopter wearing elegant ties and suits, cheered by a number of expectant fans. They welcomed Berlusconi with a prophetic banner: “With you we’ll be great again”. They were tremendously right. Berlusconi soon hired an emerging manager like Arrigo Sacchi and revolutionised the transfers market by signing the most gifted, and definitely expensive, footballers. In less than a decade, AC Milan won four national titles, three European Cups (later renamed Champions League) and as many Italian Supercups, two European Supercups and a couple of Intercontinental Cups.
That just marked the beginning of Berlusconi’s ascension, though. It was on a cold, late-January evening in 1994 that he abruptly announced his political engagement. Many pundits saw him just as an entrepreneur borrowed to politics and hurriedly depicted the Cavaliere as a transitory phenomenon. But Berlusconi was not just the triumphant AC Milan president – he was also the main private television magnate. Thanks to a smart usage of market researches and opinion polls for commercial purposes, he perfectly knew what the majority of Italians was seeking.
As it had been the epicentre of a hedonistic way of life and the boom of fashion industry in the 1980s, Milan briskly turned into the scenario of Tangentopoli, a huge scandal involving corruption and prominent political parties. Feeling betrayed by their politicians, Italians pursued a new, trustworthy figure. Being a successful businessman in publishing, television and football, Berlusconi embodied their expectations. He promised to make Italy a prosperous company and portrayed himself as the man who came to save “the country I love” from obscure forces such as “the Communists”. The PCI, the Italian Communisty Party dismantled at the turn of the 1990s, had never been part of the Government before and there was no absolute certainty that its heir, the Democratic Party of the Left, would take the power. Still, this Ronald-Reagan-like announcement would prove to be particularly persuasive.
Nevertheless, no metaphor could have been more forceful than the sporting one. Italy is the 57-millions-of-football-managers country and Berlusconi’s AC Milan epitomised the superiority of Italian calcio in Europe. Consequently, he used words and terms referring to football for his speeches. He did not just enter politics – he “entered the field”. He named his political party Forza Italia, which sounds like the Italian equivalent of “C’mon England!”, and the Azzurri, like the Italy national team, its members.
A few months later, he won the elections with a record 21% of the popular vote and was appointed as Prime Minister. Since then, both fortunes of the club and of Berlusconi have gone through lights and shadows – he lost the elections in 1996 and 2006, but he won in 2001 and 2008 and was in charge of the most longeve government in Italian history, whereas AC Milan had alternate fortunes before the Carlo Ancelotti golden era between 2001 and 2009.
For much fluctuating his consensus could be, Berlusconi has always stuck with football as a propaganda medium. When rumours of Brazilian star Kaká moving to Manchester City broke in January 2009, he made a live phone call to a popular football TV show heartening AC Milan fans and announcing Kaká to keep on playing for the Rossoneri. The guests in the studio devotedly clapped and thanked him, perhaps not knowing that Real Madrid would sign the Brazilian just five months later.
Another example comes from the summer of 2010, when his Government alliance with Gianfranco Fini began to waver. AC Milan hired goalie Marco Amelia and defenders Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mario Yepes and the fans were disappointed; they insulted him and CEO Adriano Galliani, maintaining that the two were just ruining the club’s history. That happened in July, for the start of the new season, and journalists were almost sympathetic towards the man who defined a flabby Ronaldinho “the world’s best footballer”. When the transfer market window was about to close, the scenario dramatically changed. In just a few days he reinforced the squad with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho and the Swedish striker was officially presented at San Siro stadium among grateful banners and chants. They eventually won the Scudetto and Berlusconi seemed to gradually go off, as suggested the entrance of his daughter Barbara in the club’s board.
But, as history showed, his sporting and political destinies are almost indissoluble. Berlusconi abdicated as Prime Minister on 12 November 2011, paving the way to the technocrats Government of Mario Monti, and expressed his will of taking care of AC Milan.
Again, Rossoneri fans criticised him and Galliani last summer, when the club sold Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris St Germain after Kaká-like reassurances. Notwithstanding, the new squad has been portrayed as a competitive one. AC Milan are now going through their worst start since 1941, though, and Berlusconi, resuming an old habit, visited the squad by arriving in Milanello on a helicopter. He announced his aim to commit himself to the club and, not suprisingly, had the umpteenth dig at the current Government.
Differently from that day in 1986, no “Ride of the Valkyries” was sung. But, sticking with the film and despite the rumours of an interest by Arab oil tycoons, probably the notes of the other main theme, The Doors’ “The end”, are far from resonating, too.