The Rise and Fall of the Madonnina

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On the 9th of April 2017, F.C. Internazionale Milano suffered a 1-2 defeat to Football Club Crotone, a team playing in its first ever season in Serie A, where it currently sits in 18th place. The loss was both surprising and understandable. Surprising as Inter had played superbly since ex-Lazio boss Stefano Pioli took charge in November, winning 12 of his first 16 league games. And understandable because the team had failed to win either of their last two games, drawing away at Torino before losing to Sampdoria at the San Siro. The same weekend of the Crotone defeat, neighbours Associazione Calcio Milan cruised to a 4-0 win over 19th placed Palermo, inspired by a pair of Merseyside rejects in Suso and Gerard Deulofeu. The contrast was stark but deceptive. In reality, the two clubs are 6th (Milan) and 7th (Inter) on the table and have experienced similar declines since their most recent glory days.

Berlusconi and the Butterfly Effect

Silvio Berlusconi holding an AC Milan jersey

Between 1980 and 1986, Milan teams achieved a podium finish just twice – Inter finished third in 1983 and 1985. That was about to change, largely because of one man: Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi acquired Milan in 1986, and after the appointment of the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, the team secured the Serie A title. Though the team had to settle for 2nd place in both 1990 and 1991, behind Napoli and Sampdoria teams under the magical spells of Diego Maradona and Roberto Mancini respectively, it was in Europe that they really made waves. Rossoneri won consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990, matching the achievement of Helenio Herrera’s great Inter team of the 60s. Most importantly, Sacchi had put the finishing touches on a truly formidable side, marrying the international class of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard with the defensive resolve of Franco Baresi, Billy Costacurta, and Paolo Maldini, undeniably the three finest defenders the country has ever produced.

Meanwhile, Inter secured the title in 1989 following the arrivals of future World Cup winners Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus. They were unable to sustain that success and soon fell behind a team that was still seen as their less successful neighbour. In truth, it was Berlusconi that changed this view – and the reality, too. At the time, he was just a media magnate who stepped in to save his boyhood club from financial distress. But his intervention would completely transform Milan – and calcio in general – to instigate one of the finest eras of European football – the Football Italia years.

The Football Italia Years

Whisper it softly, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, Serie A was the greatest league in the world. After Michel Platini and Diego Maradona in the 80s, the world’s best players flocked to Italy to ply their trade. English royalty like Gazza, Paul Ince, David Platt even made the plunge to Serie A. At the same time, Italy was producing its finest group of players in generations with the likes of Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, and Gigi Buffon breaking through during this period. Many of these players donned the colours of either Milan team. With Dutch flair blended with Italian steel, and under the guidance of chief pragmatist Fabio Capello, Milan recorded the most impressive win in the history of a continental European final, dispatching Johan Cruyff’s “Dream team” 4-0 in 1994 despite a depleted starting XI. This win was sandwiched between cup final losses to Marseille and Ajax and following a trio of Scudetti from 1992 and 1994. In the first half of the 90s, AC Milan was the finest team in world football, and they secured their place in posterity with a remarkable 58-game unbeaten run, still the longest in Europe’s top 5 leagues.

During this period, Inter were relatively dormant, kicking their heels as they awaited their day in the sun. That would come later, but crucially, their own knight in shining armour swooped down in 1995 when Massimo Moratti took over as president in 1995. Before he stepped down (ish) in 2013, Moratti spent over €1 billion in the transfer market. Most notably, he assembled one of the most fearsome strikeforces in the history of the game when Christian Vieri was signed for a world record fee of €48 million and partnered with 3-time World Footballer of the Year, Ronaldo, himself signed for a world record fee ($27 million in 1997). Unfortunately, Inter would accumulate more superstars than titles, coming closest with a runner-up finish in 1998, thereby cementing their status as one of Italian football’s nearly men.

The reemergence of Juventus in the mid-90s and growing competitiveness of the league reduced Milan’s dominance but at the same time, set the city up for a final tilt at glory in the early 2000s.

Inter’s Domestic Dominance and Milan’s European Experience

The day is 13th May 2003, and San Siro is hosting the second leg of a tight UEFA Champions League semi-final. The peculiar thing about this match-up is that both teams were enjoying boisterous home support as they strived to be the first Italian team in the final for five years. Eventually, Milan, notionally the “away” team, edged through on “away goals”, 1-1 at the end. Nigerians may remember the game for the explosion of a young Obafemi Martins who scored Inter’s goal. While Milan snuck through to the final, where they would eventually overcome Scudetto winners Juventus in a drab final, the two would place 2nd and 3rd in the league that year, with Milan picking up the Coppa Italia trophy for good measure.

The 2000s brought less success for the city of Milan. It also turned out to be a decade of two halves – Milan enjoyed the better of the first half while Inter dominated the second half. The Calciopoli scandal which saw Juventus stripped of two titles and relegated to Serie B arguably marked the turning point, at least in domestic competition. Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan was a fearsome European prospect at this time – winning two Champions League and only losing another to a destiny-propelled Liverpool team in 2005. Their league return was comparatively bare – a single Scudetto in 2004. Still, they housed some of the world’s finest players during this decade, and the innovation of the Milan Lab helped extend the career of many a legend. Even as success became scarcer, this revolving door of big names reinforced the appeal of the club.

Patrick Vieira tackling Ronaldinho during a Milan derby
              Tough-tackling Patrick Vieira battling it out against Ronaldinho.

For Inter, Juventus’ fall was their literal gain. After plucking Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Viera from the demoted champions, Inter romped to four straight titles on the pitch, culminating in a treble-winning season in 2010. If it is ironic that nearly men Inter can now lay claim to perhaps the finest achievement in Italian football, it is more poignant that their primary competition would come from the 58-game unbeaten run of their great neighbours.

Will the Madonnina Rise Again?

In hindsight, the cracks were beginning to show by that 2009/2010 season. Despite a weak field, Milan only finished 3rd. The 2010/2011 season would prove to be a final hurrah for the Milanese giants as Milan clinched their last title with Inter coming a distant second. Since then, Juventus have reasserted themselves by clinching a joint-record five straight Scudetti. No Milanese team has even attained a podium finish in the last three years. This year looks no different; in fact, both teams are in danger of missing out on Europe altogether, just like in 2014/2015. That year looked to be the nadir, and in some ways, it still might be. This season, there have been some green shoots. Under Pioli and Vincenzo Montella, many once again see a probable revival of the Milanese clubs.

I have spoken much about the highs of the two teams and glossed over just how they fell to these depths. In some ways, their path mirrors the overall trend in Italian football which now sits comfortably behind Spain, England, and Germany in terms of leading leagues. The problems have been diagnosed – the role of ultras, lack of investment – especially in club-owned stadia, and a complacency that set in after the glorious Football Italia years. Surprisingly, the Old Lady of Italian Football have proven the most forward-thinking of all the big clubs, and now the Milanese giants must try and emulate Juventus, a team that has shown just what it takes to return from footballing purgatory. Both teams now have new foreign owners, and Inter’s have shown a willingness to spend, if sometimes unwisely. Godfather figures like Berlusconi and Moratti played an irreplaceable role in the ascent of the two teams but their approaches had become outdated, and their resources diminished. More than finances, the two teams need fresh ideas on and off the pitch.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Milan, the team that produced Baresi, Maldini, and Costacurta, have renewed their focus on youth and in the last 18 months, some exciting players have come through. The likes of Manuel Locatelli and Davide Calabria look like future stars, but it is 18-year old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma that Milan faithful have pinned their hopes. Donnarumma, the youngest goalkeeper to play for the Italian national side, is the most precocious talent the country has produced since the turn of the century. After a series of failed investments in ageing big-name stars, Milan has gone back to the 1986 way. For Inter, their squad looks strong; perhaps as strong as Napoli and Roma. Managerial upheaval has rocked the club since Mourinho’s departure, and stability is sorely needed.

Both could still potentially make it into Europe for next season, but a wise head might point to the benefits of having a season of consolidation where they can focus strictly on league activities. After all, Inter put up an early title charge last year mainly because they played so fewer games. Even as the thought of these two clubs out of Europe stings given their history, both can look to Juventus for proof that sometimes, the only way back to the top is the long, windy route.