Milan have crashed out of Europe in the early stages. Richard Mason reports on how their charismatic owner is trying to prevent this ever happening again

Milan’s failure to secure even a place in the UEFA Cup after the first phase of the Champions League is richly ironic. They are the Italian champions, and yet they are the only one of the three Italian sides in­vol­v­ed not to qualify for the next stage.

Better still is the fact that the obscenely bloated competition is, in essence, the brainchild of Milan’s owner Silvio Berlusconi. Worried about the prospect of a big club like his own being eliminated at an early stage in the old two-leg, sudden-death formula, he proclaimed that such an eventuality was “economic nonsense” and that everything must be done to prev­ent it from happening.

The road from this pronouncement to the pre­s­ent state of affairs has been relatively short and swift. It is interesting to speculate what, if anything, Berlusconi will come up with now that his apparently watertight theory has come up against an immutable law of foot­ball – the best teams do not always win. It’s a fact he should know well, since his Milan won the last Italian championship when Lazio were clearly superior.

One reason for Milan’s failure is simply that they are not a very good side. They were undone by a series of disastrous individual errors which cost them vital goals. Even so, when they led 2-1 in Istanbul with five minutes to go, with Chelsea 2-0 up against Her­tha, I was convinced they were going to do it and that they had, as the Italians say, “saints in heaven”.

Before the last round of matches, the conviction in Italy was that Chelsea and Hertha would draw, and so Milan would have to avoid defeat to qualify for the UEFA Cup. The news that Chelsea were winning was like manna from heaven, and led to flattering Italian com­ment about the high level of English sportsmanship compared to the Italian version.

It seemed that everything had been set up on that last day to ensure that Milan qualified, even down to the ap­point­­ment of controversial referee Lopez Nieto, whom the Turks accused of having been cho­sen by UEFA to make sure Mi­lan would win. And then, in the last minute, conspiracy theo­ry was blown sky high as Nieto awarded Gal­atasaray that fateful penalty.

The damage the defeat has done to Milan is already en­ormous in financial terms and could be serious on the field as well. The team looks rudderless, without ideas or spirit, and the coach Alberto Zaccheroni is now faced with the problem of keeping a large squad happy now that the glut of European games for which it was put together will no longer materialise. The general impression is that Zaccheroni is no longer in control of the situation. However, it must be said that he has not been helped by what to me seems a colossal blunder on the part of Mediaset, Berlusconi’s television arm, which broadcast all their European matches.

They employed as their match analyst – presumably with Berlusconi’s agreement – none other than Arrigo Sacchi. Most of the time his comments were incomprehensible without a first class degree in football philosophy, and helped to explain why he is no longer employed as a coach, but it cannot have helped Zaccheroni’s confidence to know that his team and his tactics were being analysed for millions of viewers by a man who, whatever one’s per­sonal views of him, is a Milan legend. Worse still, after each game Zaccheroni had to discuss and explain his tactics in studio conversation with Sacchi, who man­aged on several occasions to say that Milan played badly, but that no one could have prepared them better than Zaccheroni.

Mediaset have also come out of it very badly. They paid a huge sum, reputedly 170 billion lire (£55 mil­lion), for the rights to show Champions League games for four years, and they hoped to have two Italian teams to show – one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. With Milan’s exit they have had to shell out again to buy the rights to Lazio’s matches, which had been sold to pay-TV much to the annoyance of their fans. At least we can say that this year sport has prevailed – just – over the greed of a TV conglomerate.

So what will Berlusconi do now? In the Alice-in-Wonderland world that is European football, where losing at the right stage of one competition gains you admittance to another one, where teams can battle for over three months in the Intertoto and UEFA Cups and then go out to be replaced by “best losers” in the Champions League, anything is possible.

My theory is this. In the Champions League, points will be awarded as normal for individual matches, but there will also be bonus points for teams with “proud European records”. There could also be bonus points for the teams that attract the highest TV audience and advertising revenue. That way, Milan could lose all their matches and still qualify for the next phase.

But after what we have just seen, and what we still have to endure, does anyone really think a fully-fledged European League is a starter? That Arsenal v Real Mad­rid will ever mean more than Arsenal v Tottenham? Give me Atalanta v Monza any day.

From WSC 155 January 2000. What was happening this month

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