Mondal's Musings: How Silvio Berlusconi Mixed Milan & Politics

Silvio Berlusconi is a name that will never leave the Italian history books. Subhankar Mondal examines how the Milan bigwig mixed football and politics in order to succeed in both arenas...
May 18, 1994. While in Athens AC Milan were tearing apart Barcelona 4-0 and winning their fifth European Cup, the Italian senate in Rome was passing a vote of confidence in the new Berlusconi government, prompting the following morning's Corriere Della Sera to declare "4-0 and 159 to 153, both Cruyff's Barcelona and Occhetto's centre-left were wiped out".

In Italy, football and politics have always been married to each other and both are ball-games. But if anything came close to blurring the dividing line between the two, then it was that day, partly played in Rome, partly in Athens, when Silvio Berlusconi’s footballing triumph colluded with his politcal conquest.

The Start

When Berlusconi willingly dangled a debt-ridden Milan on February 20, 1986 round his neck, a lot of eyebrows were raised. No, not because tycoons buying football clubs was uncommon but because Milan were a club going through lean times and weren’t really lucrative.

Their last president, a certain Giuseppe Farina, was in a hurry to sell the club and leave for South Africa after being involved in a bribery scandal. Milan had been relegated to Serie B at the end of the 1979-80 season because of a betting scam. The side lacked harmony and the fans were depressed.

Enter Berlusconi with his money and image, in an effort to purge the club of its ills and make it the most attractive in Italy, if not in Europe.

And he did just that, while always making sure that he hogged the limelight. Whereas the Agnelli and the Moratti families hadn’t been too eager to publicly display their affection for Juventus and Inter respectively, eclipsing themselves from the scrutiny of the media and happy to pull the strings from the background, Berlusconi made every effort to see that he was identified with the club, so that the people knew and loved the man who was constructing an entertaining machine called AC Milan.

By the time he had taken over the Rossoneri, the now 72-year-old, born in an affluent Milanese middle class family and educated at the Sant'Ambrogio boarding school, had already formed the media group Fininvest, founded Italy's first national private network Canale 5 and established important contacts with people both in the media world and in the political domain.

The Build Up

Berlusconi had once coached a team and has always used this ‘feat’ to claim his knowledge of football. That he knows a thing or two about the game is quite apparent but it is his own unique way of proclaiming that, along with running a club as a business, he could coach its team too. He has always had a say in how his team performs. He publicly made it clear that he didn’t want his Milan to play the old Italian cautious game but to instead enthral the crowd. To do so, he signed Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit and made a huge political and cultural statement in the process.

Then he appointed a very attack-minded, and then unknown, coach Arrigo Sacchi. Not that he let Sacchi or any of the other subsequent tacticians run the team as they would have wanted to. Stories of Berlusconi giving team talks, advising his coaches on tactical and technical matters and actively participating in how the team plays, are as much true as they are rife.

The Journey Begins

As Milan went on to garner success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both in Italy and Europe, Berlusconi continued exploiting it. After all, the Diavoli were the byword for national sentiments with their fans coming from places other than Milan too.

In 1993 he formed his own party and named it, so obviously cunningly, ‘Forza Italia’ (which roughly translates as 'Go Italy'). Berlusconi started peppering his political speeches with distinct footballing jargon. When he announced his entry into the political arena on January 26, 1994, he so markedly said, "I have chosen to take to the field and involve myself in public life….." That "take to the field' phase has gone into Italian political and footballing folklore.

Berlusconi was always careful to portray himself as a regular fan of the game, just like the rest of the country. Like Mark Antony shrewdly identifying himself with the crowd but still maintaining a difference between him and them in the famous “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” speech, Berlusconi too played his cards extremely well.

The Politics

And when he has been in power as Italy’s prime minister, he has not hesitated to abuse it. In March 2003, his government introduced the possibility of creative accountancy, which allowed Italian clubs to write off over a ten-year period the losses incurred in any one season with regard to player devaluation, something that Milan themselves used to clear out an estimated €242 million.

Fast forward one year and Berlusconi was eager to form another law that would allow the Italian clubs to pay off outstanding sums owed to the Inland Revenue over a 10-year time-span. On this occasion, severe opposition from his own coalition party deterred him from carrying on with the decree.

And then there was the huge TV rights controversy in the summer of 2005. In early 2002, the Milan vice-president and trusted aide of Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, had been voted the president of the Lega Calcio. In 2005, he was handling negotiations on behalf of the Lega for various TV rights in which the competitors were State broadcaster RAI and the Berlusconi-owned Mediaset. The TV highlights rights were eventually awarded to Mediaset, ending RAI's 30-year old stranglehold of the 90th minute programme and sparking conspiracy theorists into action.

The Passion And The Exploitation

But an average Milan fan wouldn’t really care much about Berlusconi’s politics, would he? After all, if Berlusconi has shown anything, then it is the fact that he is passionate about the club. He was allegedly an Inter fan and had reportedly tried to take them over in 1980, but none of those affiliated to the Rossoneri could care less when Berlusconi oversaw the transportation of 26,000 supporters to Barcelona for the 1989 European Cup Final between Milan and Steaua Bucharest, using one ship, 25 airplanes and 450 buses.

Although initially Berlusconi must have thought of Milan as another investment area which could mint him money, he has gradually come to love it. Although in the subsequent years he has surfed the ocean of politics on the surfboard of Milan, he has always wanted ‘his club’ to triumph.

Which is why supporters have adored Berlusconi. Not only had he acted as the Messiah and rescued the club from ruins, he has rescaled the peaks and made them one of the most respected clubs in the world. In over 20 years, he has won seven Scudetti and five European Cups and have played outlandish football in the process.

Although the lack of investment in recent years has seen Berlusconi's popularity take a dive, when he does finally hand over power, Milan fans will surely have nothing but respect for the man.

Subhankar Mondal,