Keir RadnedgeComment


Keir RadnedgeComment

Forget the World Cup. Never mind the European Championship. Wave goodbye to the European Champions' Cup, the Cup-winners' Cup and the UEFA Cup. They're passé. History. Yesterday's news. That, stripped of the sophisticated veneer of conversation, is the opinion of Silvio Berlusconi. And when Berlusconi talks, you listen. After all, being granted a two-hour audience at all is remarkable.

Silvio Berlusconi is one busy man. He is a social and industrial juggler. He has no time for the gauche politics of the hustings and the parliaments. His constituency is the capital market. His political muscle is translated through industry. He owns newspapers, construction companies, insurance houses and television channels. No sector of Italian life is untouched by Berlusconi. Perhaps you read II Giornale each day; watch your local cable TV station for the game shows, movies and sport; live in one of the satellite towns Berlusconi built; insure your family's future through Mediolanum; buy your groceries at the local Standa supermarket. All this is Berlusconi's empire. So far he could be a business magnate in any one of a dozen countries. But Berlusconi is betrayed - and humanised - by the last piece of his empire: Milan. The world's finest football team; one of the world's most famous clubs.

Berlusconi’s business interests are intricately woven into one huge inter-dependent pattern. Berlusconi's empire is its own society. He juggles each sector against the others. Thus football attracts his employees, gives them pride in association ... and provides Berlusconi with the very product which will captivate huge audiences for his own television stations. To Berlusconi the great clubs, such as Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona represent the future. Television provides the window on the game in which the major consumer commercial interests will want to be reflected.  It's a simple equation: Soccer plus television plus big business represents a circle of success.

In the 1990s Berlusconi looks forward confidently to a European league which entertains and reflects "our new communications culture" His vision makes English football’s premier prospectors look positively minor league. Seated behind the great dining table in his palazzo at Arcore, north of Milan, Berlusconi radiates energy. He talks fluently and briskly, preferring Italian for precision. Frequently, forgetting himself in excitement at his own ideas, he breaks into English and overtakes his own in-house translator. Berlusconi says: "The concept of the national team will, gradually, become less and less important. It is the clubs with which the fans associate. A European Championship for clubs is inevitable. The new format for the Champions' Cup is a step in the right direction. But it is only a step.

"The European cups, as they have been organised, have become a historical anachronism. It's economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round. A European cup that lasts the whole season is what Europe wants.

“After all, Europe wanted an economic community, with monetary union and a customs union. It's inevitable it should want a football union, too. And the clubs will lead the way - each playing around 80 games a season."

Wild reports have been emanating from the Stadio Meazza at San Siro that Berlusconi plans to run two teams next season: one in Europe and one in the league. But that is too simplistic an interpretation. Berlusconi explains his hunger for players thus: "Next season Milan will play twice every week. On Sundays in the Italian League; on Wednesday in the European Cup, or Italian Cup or television friendlies. This is why we must strengthen our squad. The older players cannot expect to be fit enough to play all the time.

"In my six years as president I have never seen our best team play - except in my head. Someone is always injured, or ill, or suspended. So we need many quality players and the players themselves accept this. Because we want to sign more foreigners does not mean, in any way, that we are dissatisfied with any that we have. Quite the reverse. We want Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard to stay with us as long as they want - hopefully right through to the end of their careers. They have played a very important part in Milan's revival. We respect them as men and we are grateful to them as players."

Waiting in the wings already, however, are the Croat midfielder, Zvonimir Boban (on loan at Bari), Red Star Belgrade's Dejan Savicevic (who signs after the European Championship) and Marseille's Jean-Pierre Papin (negotiations have reached an advanced stage). Berlusconi claims to consult his players every step of the way. He says: "At the start we decided the way we wanted to travel. But everybody had to be involved and understand the methods we would use to make the most of the club's potential.

"Managing a football club is not very different from managing any other form of business. You need to choose the right people with the right attitude. I must be doing something right. For example, in my companies we went from zero employees to 36,000 in a comparatively short time. Nobody works FOR Berlusconi; everyone works WITH Berlusconi. It's the same with the football team.

"Marco Van Basten was fully consulted when it came to choosing who plays alongside him in attack next season. I read your reports saying it will be Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille. Maybe. But, whoever it is, you can be sure that Van Basten will have been a party to the decision."

Berlusconi could not have put it better than to continue: "Milan are my laboratory for the future. We have to reach an audience beyond the stadium. That means television, the theatre of the global village. Milan must be a part of that.

"We would like to be the best, of course. But at the highest level winning or losing is often a matter of luck. What is important is that we are among the main actors in this theatre."

When it comes to the role of football entrepreneur, Berlusconi can point to spectacular success. Six years ago Milan were on the brink of spectacular collapse. The club were £15 million in debt, the previous president had run away to South Africa and the players were shrouded in the fall-out from a match-fixing scandal. Berlusconi rode in on a red-and black charger possessed of an imagination to compare with the game's greatest visionaries. In the 1930s Herbert Chapman believed so passionately in Arsenal's future he persuaded London Transport to change the name of the local Tube station, from Gillespie Road to Arsenal. In the 1940s Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu founded a great stadium and then a great team on a little ground wrecked by the Spanish civil war. In the 1950s Matt Busby defied the English football establishment to take his Busby Babes into the European Cup. Now Berlusconi believes his media empire has enabled him to define a new audience. He says: "Football is currently ignoring part of its support. First are the fans in the stadium; but that means only 50,000 or 60,000.

"Then there are the fans who watch bits and pieces of soccer on the state channels. But the third audience, which we are not reaching, is to be found on pay-TV. Through cable and satellite we must be able to reach the committed fan who wants to watch our games.

"For example, in Lombardy (the region around Milan) that could mean two or three million new viewers. And we believe we are now the best-supported team in all of Italy. The latest figures tell us we have five million fans through the country. They cannot all get into the stadium. But they could watch us through pay-TV."

Over the past three years Milan have indulged in a string of prestige midweek friendlies precisely to feed the high ratings soccer guarantees Canale 5. Manchester United and Marseille have provided the opposition. And Berlusconi was furious when the French authorities blocked domestic transmission of the match. He says: "They said there was another match that night. That's nonsense. It's like saying TV shows too many news bulletins or too many films." The key to Berlusconi's vision is his implicit confidence that we can never have too much soccer.

This article originally appeared in the May 1991 edition of World Soccer Magazine.  

All images are of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and have been kindly provided under licence by Marco Pochestorie.