AC Milan 1981-82

Having a bad season? Worried that things couldn't be much worse? Cheer yourself up with som schadenfreude as Roberto Gotta looks back on AC Milan's darkest hour

AC Milan had to wait a long time for their tenth title, and with it the gold star that permanently adorns the red and black shirts. But it all came good in 1978-79 – three points ahead of the surprise challengers, un­beaten Per­ugia, and seven in front of the hated Juventus. The fol­lowing year they finished third, but were then relegated in the fall-out from the Totonero betting scandal, some Mi­lan players (led by goalkeeper and notorious racing enthusiast Enrico Albertosi) having conspired with others to fix results. But, as a teen­age Milan fan, I felt strangely unconcerned. Iconic mid­fielder Gianni Rivera had retired so this was a chance to rebuild and come back much stronger. Going down for the first time in the club’s history was not going to be a disaster – but it turned out to be even worse.

Milan were promoted right back from Serie B and had approached the 1981-82 campaign in a state of euphoria. But Franco Baresi, already a talismanic figure in defence, was kept out of the side for four months by injury. Up front, despite the gnarled presence of Joe Jordan, the team was simply too pedestrian to compete.

When lowly Catanzaro escaped with a 1-0 win in Milan on March 14, 1982, it seemed the players, including several with full international caps and who had won the title three years before, were lacking the mental toughness required to stave off relegation. The club panicked: coach Gigi Radice was sacked and youth-team coach Italo Galbiati inherited the post. But the team still couldn’t score enough (finishing with just 21 goals from 30 matches).

Bizarrely, only four days before the deciding match of the season at Cesena, Milan had won a European trophy, the Mitropa Cup. This had been the continent’s most prestigious club competition before the launch of the European Cup, but was now reduced to a mid­week nuisance involving the second division champions of various Central European countries plus Italy, hence Milan’s participation.

The team went into the last game with 22 points, two behind Genoa, who had an away game at Napoli. It was 2-0 to opponents Cesena midway through the second half, then Milan scored three times in 14 min­utes and ended up winning 3-2. News that Genoa were 2-1 behind with five minutes filtered through, and Milan fans staged a pitch invasion.

Then it all went quiet, however, as we heard that Genoa defender Faccenda had equalised from a corner kick. On TV later, Napoli goal­keeper Luciano Castellini was seen to have conceded that corner by throwing the ball over his own byline while trying to pass it to a team-mate.

This is remembered even on Genoa’s official web­site as “pasticciaccio brutto”, literally an ugly mess. Since Faccenda also means “matter” in Italian, some in Milan still refer to it as “brutta Faccenda”, another way of saying that Genoa’s weird equaliser looked highly suspicious. Then again, perhaps there should have been suspicion of foul play about Milan scoring in the last 23 minutes of the last game one sixth of the goals they’d managed in the previous 29. But I wouldn’t have listened at the time. We were down and I could not care less about rebuilding programmes and the like: all I knew was that I could never again say that “we have never been rel­egated on the pitch” while talking foot­ball with friends. Its modern version – “Juventus have never won a European Cup from open play” – is no sort of re­place­ment.

Once again, Milan came back to Serie A straight away and tried to take the top flight by storm by signing… Luther Blis­sett. As you may know, it didn’t quite work out.

From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month