Berlusconi slump mirrors Milan’s form

FOOTBALL and politics are so inextricably linked in Italy that it was no surprise when Silvio Berlusconi fainted while delivering a speech on Sunday and had to be whisked off to hospital for a check-up.

Just an irregular heartbeat according to the doctors, but the political commentators are claiming that Berlusconi is suffering from burnout following his election defeat in April, while the gossip has it that the stress of facing yet another trial for embezzlement and tax fraud may finally have got to him.

However, it is blindingly obvious to anyone in the know that the reason for the old man’s collapse was Saturday night’s game at the San Siro.

As Milan president, Berlusconi has suffered as much as anyone from his team’s nightmare four weeks: three league defeats followed by a 0-0 draw. “Europe is our main priority this season,” declared Berlusconi’s right-hand man Adriano Galliani last weekend — whereupon the team went down 1-0 to AEK Athens, a side unused to scoring a goal in the Champions League, let alone winning.

Stuck away in his hotel room on Saturday night, Berlusconi must have feared the worst as Milan marched out to face Messina, but — blessed relief — they scored early on, and ran out 1-0 winners, although not without the odd palpitation on the way.

Not that Milan’s barren forwards managed a goal. Instead it was the captain, Paolo Maldini, who stuck the ball away — at 38, almost as past-it in football terms as Berlusconi is in politics.

Milan, like their president, face an uphill struggle. Not only has any chance of the title gone, the spectre of Inter winning looms larger by the week.

Moreover, that dream of dominating in Europe, dented by successive defeats against Liverpool in Istanbul, and then against Barcelona last season, also looks insecure.

As boss of Mediaset, the giant Italian TV company, Berlusconi seemed perfectly placed to channel funds to the club. But the lack of major spending, even with that £30 million (44m) windfall from the sale of Andriy Shevchenko, has worried the fans. Suddenly even Milan seem less able to compete in the transfer market.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich, yesterday echoed widespread concern about the extent to which wealth dominates the game.

“Given what Abramovich does every summer in the transfer market, how can German clubs stay competitive? If Bremen get past Barcelona in the Champions League, that would be the eighth wonder of the world. Bremen earn 23m from television rights and Barcelona get 143m.”

Rummenigge’s simultaneous attack on the G14 grouping of top clubs — “everybody in the G14 thinks only about themselves. It is pure selfishness that rules” — carries even more weight, as Bayern have been in it from the start.

To an extent this is down to envy. Despite packed stadiums, the top German clubs have not enjoyed the same sort of revenues as their rivals in Italy, Spain and England. TV money also means nowadays French champions Lyon are better financed.

There is also what Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport this week described as “the invasion of foreign currency” above all in the Premier League, with six clubs — Chelsea, Manchester United, Fulham, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and West Ham — now entirely in foreign hands, and foreign businessmen seemingly poised to make bids for Liverpool and Everton also.

Last week the candidates for the UEFA presidency — Lennart Johansson and Michel Platini — both spoke of their concerns that sport should not be seen as a business, or at least should be seen as different from other sorts of business.

“I hope the politicians understand that we can’t continue to live with the uncertainty of clubs appealing to the European Court or the Court for Arbitration in Sport in Lausanne,” says Johansson.

Platini, who regards himself as the outsider, puts it more strongly: he wants sport to be recognised as a “special case”, as a “spectacle which is not entirely subject to the laws of the market”.

It’s an important argument. Sport is different — it depends for its survival on competition, and that competition has to be reasonably balanced otherwise people will stop watching.

On the other hand, sport, and specifically football, does not just involve one business, — and it is becoming one of the biggest money-spinners in the world. If the authorities, whether UEFA or FIFA or national federations, make decisions that affect people’s livelihoods, then they have to act in a way that’s compatible with normal legislation.

Both Platini and Johansson say they regret the Bosman ruling. But that judgement simply extended normal contractual rights to players. And for all that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, football remains competitive.

Just ask Silvio Berlusconi.

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