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Berlusconi and AC Milan – passion, politics and trophies

Silvio Berlusconi's name will forever be associated with AC Milan, the football club he took over in the 1980s and with his immense wealth....

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 25, 2011 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusaconi attends a television programme in Rome. – Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who reshaped Italy’s political and cultural landscape has died aged 86, his spokesman confirmed to AFP on June 12, 2023. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Silvio Berlusconi’s name will forever be associated with AC Milan, the football club he took over in the 1980s and with his immense wealth turned from a debt-ridden mess to a European powerhouse.

Berlusconi, who death at the age of 86 was confirmed on Monday, reigned supreme at Milan from 1986 until 2017, during which time the club won 29 trophies, including five Champions League and eight Italian league titles.

Milan was a genuine passion for Berlusconi but his success as owner and the modern image he gave the club was a formidably effective communication tool that he used in the service of his business and political career.

Some of his teams made history, such as Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary and all-conquering side of the late 1980s and his successor Fabio Capello’s outfit which hammered Barcelona’s “Dream Team” 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final — the third European crown of Berlusconi era.

During that period some of the game’s greatest players wore Milan’s famous red and black kit — from flying Dutchmen Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard to the likes of homegrown heros Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.

But success had a price, and in an era when players changed clubs far less frequently than they do now, Berlusconi was among the pioneers of the modern-day football business.

One of the most notorious signings of the Berlusconi era was Gianluigi Lentini, a rampaging winger bought for a world-record fee in 1992 from a Torino team being dismantled at the same rate as their controversial owner Gian Mauro Borsano’s finances imploded.

Lentini failed to shine on the bigger San Siro stage and the summer after a poor display in the 1993 Champions League final loss to Bernard Tapie’s Marseille a major car accident signalled the beginning of the end.

Milan won the Champions League two more times this millennium as their star-studded teams beat Italian rivals Juventus in 2003 and then Liverpool in 2007, although that was two years after they lost an epic final to the Reds on penalties after letting slip a three-goal half-time lead.

The 2011 Serie A title was the last major honour won under Berlusconi, who with AC Milan in seemingly terminal decline sold his majority stake to Chinese businessman Li Yonghong six years later for more than 700 million euros ($754 million at today’s conversion rates).

Dream Monza promotion

Success didn’t return to the red and black half of Milan until last season’s Scudetto, won under the more parsimonious ownership of American investment fund Elliott, who took control of the club when Li Yonghong failed to pay debts.

On his departure, Berlusconi acknowledged in a message to fans that the ownership of football clubs had moved into another financial dimension: “To be competitive at the highest level of modern football requires investment and resources that a single family can no longer take on.”

Remaining a fan of the team “my dad taught me to love as a kid”, he nonetheless took a tiny portion of the money he earned selling Milan to purchase then third-tier Monza in 2018.

He vowed to take Monza to Serie A and with the help of his long-time right-hand man Adriano Galliani the team based near Milan reached the top flight for the first time in their history last season.

Monza are guaranteed another season in the top division after finishing the just-completed campaign in 11th position.

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