There are times when Italian teams and coaches are unfairly burdened with accusations of cynical play and defensive tactics. But on other occasions, the stereotypes ring true. In 1994, AC Milan won Serie A by scoring thirty-six goals and letting in fifteen in thirty-four games. They were outscored by ten of the eighteen teams in the division. They won 1-0 nine times and kept twenty-two clean sheets. At one stage, they played nine consecutive games without conceding, helping Sebastiano Rossi go nine hundred and twenty-nine minutes unbeaten. (The record would stand for twenty-two years.) As they slogged their way to the title, the Italian Football Federation felt so compelled to incentivise attacking football that they decided to award three points per win the very next summer.
Behind the scenes, Fabio Capello was grimly determined. He clashed with players, demanded everything and explained nothing. “You were told what was expected and, if you couldn’t deliver, he’d find someone else who could,” Brian Laudrup said, according to The Daily Record. “There was no sentiment involved.” Roberto Donadoni felt Capello would have made a good prison guard. Silvio Berlusconi noted that “dialogue forms no part of his approach”. The leadership could appear rigid and joyless—and the tactics didn’t help. “If Capello’s system looks boring from the stands,” said Jean-Pierre Papin, “it’s even worse to play in.”
Capello didn’t care. What mattered to him was a third scudetto in as many years as coach. The average of 0.441 goals conceded per game put that campaign in the pantheon of defensive efforts among the top four European leagues—Italy, England, Spain, Germany. Only four teams have ever managed a lower rate: Nereo Rocco’s Milan in 1968/69 (0.400), José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/05 (0.395), Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in 1978/79 (0.381) and Cagliari in 1969/70 (0.367), who let in eleven goals in thirty games. (This means that two of the four best records took place in the same country inside two years.) While Capello would later dismiss his reputed cautiousness, the solidity must have pleased him; not even Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter recorded such numbers over a single season.
The inspiration behind such tactics did not come out of nowhere. As a player, Capello had had a front-row seat when the masters of the defensive arts had showed their tricks. A strong and shrewd holding midfielder, he had started out at Spal, but moved to Roma in 1967, where Herrera would arrive a year later. Capello came to admire Il Mago, who he believed was ten years ahead of his time. “He taught me a lot about many things and, tactically, I really improved under his tutelage,” Capello told biographer Gabriele Marcotti. Capello also witnessed his fiery sense of discipline. “He was a great motivator,” he told Diario AS. “He always said: ‘Train the way you play.’ In the morning before a game he would grab you by the shirt and shout: ‘You’re the strongest! You’re going to eat them for breakfast!’ And in training, if he saw someone stopping or moving slowly, he’d send them off.”
In 1970, Capello joined Juventus. The new manager was Armando Picchi, the commanding sweeper of Herrera’s Internazionale, who had just hung up his boots. But Picchi soon died of a rare spinal disease, so Juve promoted Čestmír Vycpálek, the maternal uncle of Zdeněk Zeman, from the youth teams. They won the title in 1972 and 1973. Capello won another in 1975, before going to Milan a year later. That would soon coincide with a brief return from Rocco, the architect of their golden era in the 1960s, which meant Capello had now played for the two masters of Italian catenaccio.
Before retirement in 1980, Capello would also play for Niels Liedholm, whose relaxed style shaped another former Roma central midfielder: Carlo Ancelotti. “Whenever there were problems, he would talk very calmly,” Capello told AS. “His training sessions were technique, technique, technique… The same as Ancelotti does now.” While it is hard to say exactly what Capello and Ancelotti learned from their respective coaches, obvious parallels go between Ancelotti and Liedholm, the kings of levity, and Capello and Herrera. At Milan, Berlusconi found out which of the two Capello most resembled. According to FourFourTwo, when the image-conscious president once asked him whether he could smile a bit more on the touchline, Capello thought about the suggestion, and replied: “When I am at work, there is no need for me to deliver anything but results.”
Capello quickly moved into coaching. The son of a schoolteacher, he took to leadership naturally. He started out with the Milan U17s and the U19s, taking pleasure in seeing talent develop. “They’re little plants,” he said. “You water them every day and they grow.”
In 1986, Milan turned on its head. Relegated in 1980 as part of the Totonero match-fixing scandal, they had endured poor results and debts for years, but now Berlusconi kicked in the doors armed with fresh investment and lofty ambitions. The sense of grandeur was unmissable. “I remember when he first arrived, we didn’t know what to make of him,” Franco Baresi told FourFourTwo. “That team presentation he made the first year, we were picked up from the training ground in a helicopter, then flown to the Arena [a former Roman arena converted into a miniature sports ground] in the centre of Milan. In a helicopter!”
That first year, Liedholm was kept as manager—and Capello made his assistant. It was a turbulent campaign. Milan wobbled and supporters got restless. At one point, writes Marcotti, one fan threw a rock at the dugout, smashing the glass next to Liedholm. In April, after a Coppa Italia defeat to Arrigo Sacchi’s Parma, then in Serie B, the Swede was fired. Capello took charge temporarily and showed his ruthless streak: in one game, he sent on Guiseppe Galderisi at half-time, only to haul him off after fourteen minutes.
Capello eventually delivered the only thing realistically expected of him: a place in the UEFA Cup. But Berlusconi had been transfixed by Parma and wanted Sacchi. The former shoe salesman was hired, and revolutionised football with his zonal-marking system and 4-4-2, honed through positional exercises in which eleven men play an imaginary opponent. Boosted by the signings of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Ancelotti, Milan snatched the scudetto after a spectacular (and controversial) collapse by Diego Maradona’s Napoli, while later, they added Frank Rijkaard, and won successive European Cups. It was the stuff of legend.
By that stage Capello had escaped the limelight. Rather than returning to youth football, he had been sent on a year-long training course reserved for the finest executives of the Berlusconi empire. He polished his management skills and, a year later, writes Marcotti, he was made head of Polisportiva Milan—an internal body that supervised new Milan teams in volleyball, ice hockey, baseball, rugby. He ran it for three years, handling finances, marketing, staff.
In 1991, Berlusconi fired Sacchi, and Capello got the job. He inherited a successful but ageing squad. “I thought they were a great side near to their sunset boulevard, reaching the end of an unrepeatable cycle of success,” Sacchi said, according to Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid. “Obviously, I was wrong.”
Since Capello had spent years in Berlusconi’s offices, the press first saw him as a marionette. He was certainly not in a position to bemoan the recent lack of investment, which meant the only main addition that year was Demetrio Albertini, promoted from the youth team to replace Ancelotti. But Capello still had Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit; and what might be the finest defence football has seen.
The established Milan back four had an intimate understanding of the club, its culture and each other. Mauro Tassotti had arrived from Lazio in 1980, while Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Baresi had been at Milanello since the 1970s. The latter had been rejected due to his modest stature by Inter, who signed his brother Giuseppe instead. Capello already knew three of the four: he had played with Baresi, and managed Maldini and Costacurta at his youth team.
The presence of such class was a blessing for Capello. Maldini and Baresi would have their shirt numbers retired by the club, while Maldini and Costacurta would become one of the most durable members of Calcio history, playing for Milan in Serie A beyond their fortieth birthday and earning spots among the three oldest outfield players to feature in the top division, alongside Pietro Vierchowod. (A mention here should also go to Marco Ballotta, the goalkeeper, who at forty-four became the oldest player to play in Serie A when lining up for Lazio in May 2008. He retired that year, but soon put his boots back on to play for Calcara Samoggia in the eighth division—this time as a striker. Having guarded the net for more than two decades, Ballotta hammered in twenty-four goals in thirty-seven games, claiming his understanding of the keepers gave him a edge.)
The Milan defence also had links to a glorious past. Maldini was the son of Cesare, also a defender, who had won four scudetti and a European Cup for the club in the 1950s and 1960s. Cesare had played under Rocco, for whom he served as an assistant at Milan in the early 1970s, and would become a catenaccio-style manager himself; first briefly with Milan, and later with the Italian youth teams, and the senior team at the 1998 World Cup. Incidentally, Cesare and Rocco were both from Trieste, a costal city squeezed into the deepest corner of north-eastern Italy, while Capello was born in San Canzian d’Isonzo, a thirty-minute drive further north. In other words, three of Milan’s most influential figures, all of defensive inclinations, came from the same part of Italy.
Another advantage for Capello was that the back four had been drilled by Sacchi, who was so driven he would mumble on about tactics in his sleep. His intensity was too much for some players—Rijkaard was said to nod off during his briefings—but it also meant they could defend blindfolded. “Training used to be a little bit crazy,” Maldini told The Daily Mail in 2015. “He’d work you hard, then work your mind. He would make you repeat the same things over and over, especially defenders. Every day we’d do the same thing. But if me, Baresi, Costacurta and Tassotti meet each other now, we can still play as we did in the 1990s. It is stuck in your mind.”
Milan were not dull at the start of Capello’ reign. Retaining the 4-4-2, they hit seventy-four league goals in the first Serie A campaign—eighteen more than any other side. On the last day, they hammered Zeman’s Foggia 8-2. They won the title undefeated. Success in Europe proved harder. A year earlier, in the European Cup quarter-finals, they had been 1-0 down at Marseille when one of the floodlights went out in stoppage time. It was fixed quickly, but Adriano Galliani had already taken the players off the pitch and refused to reenter. The hope was to force a replay of a tie they had practically lost, but UEFA were unimpressed and banned Milan for a year.
In 1992, Berlusconi opened his wallet. Milan broke the transfer record by signing Gianluigi Lentini; they also bought Papin, the holder of the Ballon d’Or; recalled Zvonimir Boban from his loan at Bari; and gambled on Dejan Savićević, the lax but ingenious playmaker, who had led Red Star Belgrade to the 1991 European Cup. With the Dutch trio still around, the squad was so strong that, by late 1992, five of the last six Ballon d’Ors resided at San Siro: Gullit (1987), Papin (1991), Van Basten (1988, 1989, 1992).
The signings gave Capello luxury problems in attack. Complicating matters was the rule that only three foreigners could play at the same time, which affected the Dutchmen as well as Papin, Boban and Savićević. The abundance of talent led to sixty-five goals that season, but the defending concerned Capello. He had tried to move central midfielders Rijkaard and Albertini deeper, but not even that had prevented thirty-two goals from leaking in. Still, they managed to defend their league title, losing only two games, the first halting their unbeaten run at fifth-eight games. Their victors were Parma, the winner hit by Faustino Asprilla, whose later antics would allegedly include firing at police with a machine gun, as well as launching his own line of flavoured condoms.
The defence was not Capello’s only worry. A year earlier, Van Basten had been untouchable, recovering from his ankle problems to slam home twenty-five goals and become Serie A top scorer. But now his ankle had got done again. He would be out for months, his absence affecting Milan’s return to the European Cup, now rebranded the Champions League.
They had showed familiar solidity in the group stage, conceding once in six games. The final threw up a reunion with Marseille, who may have sold Papin, but who still had Fabien Barthez, Jocelyn Angloma, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Rudi Völler, Alen Bokšić. Milan had to summon all their strength and, in this case, that meant risking Van Basten, who had been patched up by the doctors for an early comeback. Clearly unfit, he struggled, yet Capello did not take him off until four minutes from time.
By that stage Milan were 1-0 down amid some controversial refereeing. After the defeat, their complaints might have sounded like sour grapes, but later, it emerged that Marseille owner Bernard Tapie had tried to bribe opponents in Ligue 1 days earlier. Marseille kept the Champions League title, but were banned by UEFA for a year, while Tapie was sent to prison. Years later, the referee of the final, Kurt Röthlisberger, was banned for life by UEFA having offered to fix a Champions League tie between Grasshoppers and Auxerre in 1996.
The next season, Capello was gearing up for a third title tilt. The only summer arrivals of note were Laudrup, Christian Panucci and Florin Răducioiu. More notable were some of the departures: Rijkaard was sold to Ajax, while an out-of-favour Gullit was loaned to Sampdoria.
Capello must have thought he had enough firepower to ship out Gullit. But trouble soon started to brew. Papin’s season would be riddled with injuries, while Marco Simone wanted to leave. As for the recalcitrant Savićević, he was adored by Berlusconi, but angered Capello with his languidness and inconsistency. To top it all, in August, Lentini had skid off the road in his Porsche, the car flying into a ditch and bursting into flames. He suffered a fractured skull and spent two days in a light coma. At twenty-four, he would recover his health, but never his talent.
Still, Capello had Van Basten, though his ankle injury had been aggravated in the final. As the club waited for it to heal, setbacks kept coming. Eventually, Van Basten gave up. In 1995, he retired, his last game being the defeat to Marseille when he was still only twenty-eight.
The injury robbed football of a special talent. Van Basten had been revered at Milan, if also regarded as unusual; according to FourFourTwo, he ditched nights out with the squad in favour of quiet nights with his wife, or backgammon with players from the youth teams. The press dubbed him ‘ice man’ for his social detachment. On the pitch, he attracted less skepticism, and for most members of that Milan squad he was the best they ever saw. “Oh yes,” Maldini told The Daily Mail. “Right foot. Left foot. Heading, so strong, fast. He could score, he could pass the ball. He was the best. The way he played was timeless.”
They were not his only adorers. When Berlusconi sacked Sacchi, it was largely because he had fallen out with Van Basten. A feature in FourFourTwo reports that when Van Basten got injured, a young fan named Paolo Simonetti was willing to give up his own cartilage, and even met with the club doctors. Galliani likened Van Basten to Leonardo Da Vinci—“he was everything, engineer and artist”. His talents could move even the coldest of hearts. In 1995, when Van Basten walked out at the San Siro for a final goodbye, Capello sat on the bench in tears.
The absentees would give Capello just one reliable front man: the experienced Daniele Massaro, who had hit five league goals the previous season. That kind of rate was never likely to deliver the scudetto—unless the defence shut up shop. Milan started off by beating 1-0 Torino in the Italian Super Cup, while in the Champions League qualifying rounds, they scraped past FC Aarau 1-0 on aggregate and sank Copenhagen 7-0. (The opening tie in Denmark was refereed by Guy Goethals, the son of Raymond, the chain-smoking manager, who had led Marseille in their two controversial games against Milan.)
But it was Serie A that would deliver the true tests. Milan started off with five wins and two draws. The results were 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 2-0, 2-0, 2-0, 0-0. But they then stumbled to successive 1-1 draws against Zeman’s Foggia and Juventus, before suffering a chastening 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria. It was bad enough that Milan had led 2-0 at half-time. It was even worse that the winner had been struck by Gullit.
Things got worse before they got better. As if five goals shipped in three games did not worry Capello enough, Boban then got injured for three months. This was a heavy blow, because the Croat had replaced Rijkaard in central midfield next to Albertini, where Capello lacked adequate cover. The transfer window closed in two days. The transfer barrel was scraped but, according to Marcotti, Capello talked to Galliani, who made a surreptitious call to Marseille. They agreed a fee for Desailly and Galliani sanctioned the deal on the hoof.
That piece of improvisation was not the only unusual part about the move. Milan had originally not been interested in Desailly. Director Ariedo Braida had travelled to France to scout Bokšić, only to take note of Desailly. Desailly later said it had been his best game of the season. Much later, FourFourTwo would ask him how his new team-mates at Milan received him. “Fine, though I think the players were wondering what I was doing there…” he said. “I was close to wondering what I was doing there too.”
Capello knew. Rather than playing him in defence, he made him Boban’s replacement in midfield. Desailly would screen the back line, while one of the strikers dropped deep, changing 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1. If this was a novel move in Serie A at the time, it was also, as Marcotti writes, a break with the Sacchi school: whereas Milan had been fluent and dynamic, the use of a centre-back in midfield indicated a more rigid style.
No matter. What Capello cared about was winning. He had to shore up his defence, and in Desailly he had a ball-winner protecting Baresi and Costacurta. “He was like a sweeper in front of the defence,” team-manager Silvano Ramaccioni told Marcotti. “He wasn’t given any specific marking duties, his job was simply to win the ball whenever it was nearby. Even when he did not get near the ball, he contributed. Opponents were forced wide; nobody wanted to come into his sphere of influence. Our defenders slept soundly at night thanks to him.”
Desailly galvanised Milan. In their Champions League group, they went top ahead of Porto, Werder Bremen and Anderlecht, winning two, drawing four and conceding two goals. One blip came in the Intercontinental Cup in December, where they had taken Marseille’s place; they lost 3-2 in Tokyo to a São Paulo side led by Telê Santana and featuring Leonardo and a young Cafu, with Juninho Paulista on the bench. Back in Italy, however, they beat Reggiana 1-0 to start a run of nine clean sheets. The team ruining the streak was again Foggia, but the record was so solid it would stand until March 2016, when Gianluigi Buffon broke it with Juve.
No wonder the Milan defence had become legendary. Rossi deserved praise, and Capello had held marathon video sessions correcting small errors. But the player people looked up to was Baresi. “The way he ran his back-line, what a player,” Desailly told FourFourTwo. “You can’t begin to imagine to what a high level he took the art of defending. Impeccable. Class.” Baresi was never the tallest, but he compensated with elegance, energy and anticipation. Gullit: “A lot of the time he would know what the attacker was going to do before they knew themselves! How do you get past someone like that?”
None of this meant that all was well. The defeat to São Paulo had been disappointing and, in November, they had crashed out of the Coppa Italia against Piacenza. In February, Milan lost the European Super Cup final to Parma in extra time. Worse still, their league form faltered. Having notched up nine wins in a row from round twenty to twenty-eight, they lost two and drew five of their last seven games.
In moments of difficulty, Capello had no time for jokers or moaners. Iron-willed, he flew into rage when expectations were not met. “He was very hard, a man of few words and few smiles during our daily work at Milan,” said Panucci. Laudrup told The Daily Record: “Even as a young manager he was very intense and extremely focused. He was a strong-minded individual with a no-nonsense approach to everything.” Desailly: “When he was standing on the sidelines watching us train, you could feel his stare. He put you under pressure.”
Unhappy players were less likely to be consoled than confronted. “I think everyone had a run-in with him at some point,” Stefano Eranio told Marcotti. But as Marcotti himself writes, Capello had an ability to put rows behind him quickly. “When you fight with Capello, it is very difficult to understand if he is angry or just that he wants you to react,” Boban told the BBC. “The next day he comes to you and you are friends again. He provokes your reaction because he always wants to create a big tension in the group.”
Capello made no apologies. “You can make jokes, sure, but when it’s time to work, it’s time to be serious,” he would tell FourFourTwo. “People say: ‘I have a problem with my wife, with my kids, with my family.’ Well, we all have problems, but you have to work when you are here… What I want is for the players to work seriously, with intensity, to listen, to do the things I ask them.”
The majority did. Milan limped across the finish line, sealing the first hat-trick of league titles since Il Grande Torino in the 1940s. Had Capello not played defensively, the absentees up front would surely have made it impossible. “We had an extraordinary defence and in 1993/94 it was the strength of our back line that proved decisive,” he would tell La Gazzetta dello Sport, according to Football Italia. He added: “I think people should reflect more before slamming 1-0 as a grey result. It contains three truths: a team has won, was able to keep a clean sheet and fought to protect the goal… As the saying goes, you produce wine with the grapes you have.”
The season had not ended yet. In the Champions League, Milan had faced Arsène Wenger’s Monaco in the semi-finals. It consisted of just one game, played at San Siro since Monaco had finished second in their group. (This would not be an uncommon occurrence for Wenger.) Even with Costacurta dismissed on forty minutes, the Rossoneri won 3-0.
The win set up a final with Barcelona, led by Johan Cruyff, who had just celebrated their fourth straight league title. Three of these had been dramatic. In 1992, in the final round, they had to beat Athletic Club and hope Real Madrid stumbled at Tenerife. They won, while Madrid lost 3-2. It was a frantic photo finish.
The next year, lightning struck twice. Barça again had to win in the final round, and did, while Madrid slipped up again—at Tenerife. The title stayed in Catalonia.
A year later, the final round presented a similar scenario. This time Barça’s rivals were Deportivo La Coruña, who only had to beat Valencia at Riazor. Barça sank Sevilla 5-2, while Depor got a last-minute penalty at 0-0. Yet nobody knew who should take it. The first choice, Donato, had been taken off, and Bebeto didn’t dare. Eventually Miroslav Đukić stepped up—and missed. Barça had won La Liga on the last day for a third consecutive time.
That catharsis, and the celebrations that followed, had come just days before Barça travelled to Athens to face Milan. Yet they were still favourites. While Milan had scraped their way to the title, Barça had won theirs in swashbuckling style—perhaps as expected given Cruyff’s adventurous tactics and the talents of Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup, Romário. They had scored ninety-one league goals and conceded forty-two. Romário had hit thirty—six shy of Milan’s total. One week in February symbolised their form: they lost 6-3 to Zaragoza, and responded by crushing Osasuna 8-1.
The Spanish press was never going to let such contrasts go untouched. In the build-up, they portrayed Cruyff and Barça as the angles of romantic football, while Capello and Milan were the guardians of toxic catenaccio. A Spanish victory was surely certain. In Fear and Loathing in La Liga, Sid Lowe cites Mundo Deportivo as writing that Barça were at their “sweetest moment” against “the poorest Milan of the Berlusconi era”.
Cruyff played up to the hype. According to Lowe, he dismissed Milan as “nothing out of this world” and noted that whereas Barça had spent big on Romário, the Italians had used their cash on Desailly. Cruyff was also pictured holding the trophy before the match, as if Barça were champions already. The Milan camp was livid. “We really had it in for Cruyff, and for the media, because they ridiculed us in the build-up to the final, saying we had no chance and explaining that Barcelona would mystify us,” Desailly told FourFourTwo. “But we knew our strengths, even if they were built around our defensive organisation. We had a real team spirit. Capello was raging mad at everything that had been said about him and about the club—and he got that anger across to us.”
Capello also had some selection issues. Baresi and Costacurta had earned suspensions against Monaco, so Maldini was moved into the centre alongside the experienced Filippo Galli, while Tassotti started on the right and Panucci on the left. That meant Desailly stayed in midfield next to Albertini, with Boban and Donadoni out wide as usual.
And then the forwards. A natural pick was Massaro, their only regular goalscorer that season, but what about Savićević? His tempestuous relationship with Capello had almost been wrecked beyond repair at the Intercontinental Cup. Just before boarding the flight to Japan, writes Marcotti, Capello learned that Savićević would be ineligible due to a FIFA ban issued earlier on national team duty. Capello gave his place to Răducioiu, who had flopped, but later, word came that the ban would not apply after all. It seemed a no-brainer to reinstate Savićević, but Capello refused to break his promise to Răducioiu. The Romanian did little, Milan lost and Savićević was furious. “Without question, Sav is the player with whom I have had the most rows,” Capello told Marcotti. “He hardly trained, he hardly worked. And, when he was on the pitch, everybody else had to work twice as hard to make up for him.”
But Capello did acknowledge the player had “exceptional talent”. And that night in Athens, he decided to play him. Prior to kick-off, Berlusconi told Savićević: “Dejan, you’re the genius of our team. Don’t betray us tonight.”
He didn’t. Savićević played one of the games of his life, setting up Massaro for 1-0 and producing an astonishing lob for 3-0. When Desailly made it 4-0, an hour was yet to pass. Barça were nullified, devoid of energy and spirit. “It was not that we played badly,” said Cruyff. “It was that we did not play at all.”
The 4-0 triumph was wildly at odds with the league campaign, where Milan had never scored more than twice in one game. The celebrations were heavy and, by 4am, Capello and Galliani were the only ones left standing.
Finally, at 6am, they headed up to their hotel rooms. In the lift, Capello asked Galliani what he had done with the cup. Galliani didn’t know. It was lost.
Galliani got terrified. He raced down to the hotel bar. It wasn’t there. “I ran around in a flat panic,” he said, according to Marcotti. He eventually found a maid, who said she had put it in the lost and found section. “I grabbed it, hugged it and kissed it like a long-lost child. I wasn’t going to let go of it for anything in the world.”
Relieved, Galliani headed back upstairs. “I was staying in a two-room suite, and my wife at the time was sleeping in one bed,” he said. “I’m not sure what happened, but I ended up in the other bed. With the cup.”