Boardroom war at AC Milan takes a new twist

Italian football is the continuation of politics by other means rather than war.

Nowhere more so than at Milan.

Silvio Berlusconi made his fortune on the back of a business career in construction, advertising and the media, then saved an ailing club from bankruptcy and turned it into the most powerful force in football with the aid of managers such as Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and finally Carlo Ancelotti.

His rise to political power was based in Milan and on a political movement he named Forza Italia — Come on Italy — a conscious reference to football, as well as the idea of a strong nation. The formula served him well for the best part of 20 years, until his business empire began to falter and the tide of misdemeanours, peccadilloes and dodgy deals became impossible for even his most loyal supporters to ignore.

Just as Berlusconi’s rise to prominence coincided with Milan’s most glorious years, so his fall from grace coincides with a crisis at the club.

There have been signs of discord for 18 months or more but they burst into the open a month ago with an extraordinary public attack by the owner’s daughter on Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani. Galliani has been a business partner of Berlusconi — in television prior to football — since as far back as 1979. He has been in charge of the club since the takeover in 1986. His status at Milan, and by extension in Italian football, might be compared to secretary of state at the Vatican. He looks the part as well, full of gravitas and extremely discreet, although the irreverent have been known to refer to him as Uncle Fester.

Barbara Berlusconi by contrast is bright, pushy and evidently extremely tough, as well as a lot more photogenic. She has been a director of the Berlusconi holding company Fininvest for the past 10 years, and was put on the Milan board two years ago to look after the commercial side. At 29, she’s 40 years younger than her father’s right-hand man.

Barbara Berlusconi’s attack, obviously agreed with by her father, was a broadside against Galliani’s management, although he was not of course mentioned by name. Milan were stuck in the past, she told Italy’s official news agency ANSA in an “exclusive interview”. The “business philosophy” was outdated and key activities — scouting, recruitment, youth development — were stuck in the past. Milan “spent a lot and spent badly”.

Milan have been heading for a crisis for some years — the high of their Champions League win against Liverpool four years ago helped disguise some long-term problems. The club complacently neglected weaknesses in defence and midfield, relying on senatorial characters such as Paolo Maldini, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf to hold a shaky squad together. Their new young coach Massimo Allegri guided them to an impressive title win, but Berlusconi’s financial problems forced the sale of two crucial players, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to PSG.

There is some irony in the crisis at Milan. Greats such as Maldini and Demetrio Albertini have been neglected since they left the club — Albertini is now vice-president of the Italian Football Federation. Leonardo, the man who recruited Kaka, Thiago Silva and Alexandre Pato — briefly Barbara Berlusconi’s boyfriend — is now director of sport at PSG. Barbara wants to bring Maldini and Albertini (though not Leonardo) back on board.

At the weekend an armistice was announced. Galliani has been given a four-year stay of execution — on a higher salary. He and Barbara will “share” chief executive functions, with Galliani continuing to preside over the sporting side. It seems unlikely to satisfy Lady B, as the journalists are now calling her.

The unspoken assumption is that however impatient Barbara is for a management revolution, her father cannot afford to trample over the man who has managed his business affairs for so long. Galliani simply knows too much. All the same, Milan are only through the preliminary stage: the knockout round may be still to come.

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