"……so why Milan?"
A question I’ve been asked regularly for roughly 20 years quizzing my choice of football team, not you see because I live in the middle of merda country but because im located in the UK, Scotland to be precise.
Now if you think Barca & Madrid have a monopoly on their league, I fear I live with something far worse. For here in Scotland the Scottish Premier League is hamstrung by the presence of Rangers and Celtic, referred to locally as the "Old Firm", both of whom share the City of Glasgow with a rivalry that truly puts them on a par with Barca-Madrid. Milan-merda, Boca-River Plate.
Now maybe you think this is a slight exaggeration so allow me to try and address any such fears. The 1st derby match between Celtic and Rangers last season ended up with a red card, a Rangers player squaring up to the Celtic manager on the touchline and then topped off by both managers having to be separated at the end of the match.
This was made worse by the fact that there was next to no football on display instead lots of fouls and physical aggression and harassment of the referee. So bad was the display, which was meant to showcase the pinnacle of Scottish football, that the Scottish Govt demanded a meeting with representatives from both clubs and the Police following the match as it was viewed as a national disgrace by pretty much everyone.
Now you might still be questioning if this is comparable to the heated rivalries of one of the "Big Derbies" well let me add in the fact that about 4 years ago following an Old Firm derby match the Celtic manager (Neil Lennon) was attacked and left unconscious by Rangers fans after leaving a bar and being set upon and was left face down, unconscious and bloodied in the middle of Glasgow. This was followed a few years later where several high profile Celtic fans, as well as the Celtic manager himself, received letter bombs (bullets are considered kinda soft around these parts). So obviously, things were calmer the 2nd derby of last season? Well kinda, there was definitely more of an emphasis on football but the Celtic manager didn’t exactly endear himself by gesturing to the Rangers fans at the end of the match.
This was then followed by a week or two later by Lennon being attacked by a rival fan DURING a match! No, I swear i'm not making this up, a pitch invader managed to tackle Lennon during a match versus Hearts of Midlothian before being seized and taken away by police.
Permit me to throw some stats at you in case you still harbour any lingering doubts as to the ferocity of the Old Firm Derby and the affect it has on my countrymen. Its alleged that domestic violence jumps between 50% - 88% across Scotland on any weekend when Rangers and Celtic meet in a derby and when coupled with data that appears to show a spike in attempted murders, assaults and breach of peace incidents it should come as no surprise that one of the most senior officers in the Scottish Police publicly stated that if it was up to him he would simply ban both teams from playing each other. He added that he winced whenever he saw any heated incidents between rival players on the pitch as he knew this would usually correlate with violence on the streets afterwards.
The animosity historically stems from the make up of the fans: Rangers being Protestant and Unionist (ie Pro British & Pro Northern Ireland) with Celtic being Catholic & Nationalists with heavy links back to Ireland (Republicans, who historically oppose Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland) with both sets of supporters having some ambiguous links to Irish based paramilitaries (hence those letter bombs I mentioned earlier) and I’m not even going anywhere near the historic religious tensions in Scotland over the centuries between Protestant & Catholic churches, suffice to say it too has helped shape the current animosities.
So I grew up knowing that wearing the wrong colour in the wrong part of town could literally cost you your teeth and had grown bored of all this long before the more recent incidents mentioned above and it was right about this time I caught a glimpse of the coolest guy I had ever seen playing football.
He was wearing Red & Black and had long dreadlocks which swayed rhythmically when he ran with the ball "Who’s that" I asked my uncle "That, my little man, is Ruud" Wow, even the name sounded cool, this was to be the 1st day of my love fest with the Rossoneri. As a kid I can remember watching this team called "Meelan" seemingly attacking another team with such ferocity that it felt like I was watching a different sport, I cant remember the team they were playing against but can recall that I felt sorry for them as they were constantly bullied & attacked by this Red & Black swarm. I was mesmerised with the way they moved across the pitch, it was in a manner that appeared to make football look somehow different to the sport I had grown up watching in Scotland. This, it later turned out, was to be my first and lasting impression of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.
Now I wont profess to having watched every single match ever since but as I had grown apathetic towards Scottish Football I was drawn to Milan and their apparent dynamism which then began to rejuvenate my love for football that had started to wane. I was in awe of a style of football that I didn’t realise was even possible, the speed, precision & compactness Sacchi’s squad was something I had never witnessed before. A season or two later I would be the kid at school arguing why Jean Pierre Papin or Marco Van Basten where better strikers than Rangers’ Mark Hately or Celtics’ Frank McAvennie (hard to convince the other party you’re right when they don’t know who the heck you are talking about).
Regardless of the talent Milan had at their disposal they appeared to rely on team work as opposed to highly skilled individuals to get things done. When they moved forward it was as a unit and when they lost the ball, all appeared to work to get it back. It was only after relatively recently coming across Sacchi’s comments on how he spent many hours and training sessions drilling his tactics into players who were sceptical of his ideas that I realised I had witnessed something genuinely special as a kid.
Sacchi recalled how during one of his training sessions the players voiced their opposition to his new and intense methods so to prove his point he set up a match between 7 midfielders and forwards against 5 defenders (attack vs defence). The mids and strikers were given carte blanche and allowed to play how they wanted meanwhile the defenders had to stick to Sacchi’s new regime of constantly pressing when not having the ball and staying within a certain distance of each other whilst in possession, all the attacking players had to do was outscore the defenders, simple. After several failed attempts the attack minded players realised that no matter what they did they simply couldn’t keep possession for long enough to even get a shot at goal, it was after this the team fell into line and one of the most amazing eras in football was written into footballing folklore.
Meanwhile guys at my school would complain about how inadequate their local teams were in Europe whilst Milan were steadily marching to the European finals pretty much year after year. It got to the point where some class mates would wager bets against Milan (which I was more than happy to take them up on) as they felt that this "Meelan" was a team not to be taken seriously, God how I loved to go to school the day after a CL match to collect my winnings! Overtime I noticed that if Rangers or ManUtd got knocked out of the CL people would then begin to ask me how my team were getting on and would reply with a sharp intake of breath or raise an eyebrow when I would recall epic 3-0 or 4-0 victories.
One of the highlights for me was the 1994 CL final where it felt like the whole world bar me was rooting for Johan Cruyff’s Barca. All day during school I picked up on kids talking about the match with Romario being constantly mentioned and how he was unstoppable and would lead Barca to victory, I remembered feeling the odd one out as it hadn’t honestly occurred to me that Capello’s Milan could lose the match! I was also stung by Cruyff’s apparent arrogance and the mocking tones of the English commentators who were pretty much stating that Barca would walk the match. By now I was a hardcore Milanista and felt that people weren’t giving Milan their dues considering what they had already achieved under former coach Sacchi. The match result is history but the display put on that night lives on, people thought I was mocking them when I told them the following day that Desailly was simply a defensive mid and that we didn’t even have a full strength backline. For all the individual brilliance of Romario and Stoichkov Barca were ruthlessly put to the sword in what I still hold as the best footballing display I have ever witnessed and it was with pure unadulterated pride I was able to tell people in the days that proceeded "THAT’S my Milan!"
Our club's history is so rich and vivid with a near endless list of illustrious names such as Sacchi, Capello, Van Basten, Gullit, Baresi, Maldini, Albertini, Savicevic, Boban, Weah, Pippo, Kaka and Shevchenko. Over the years I’ve gotten so much joy and pleasure from all the epic matches and victories along the way that I truly cant be thankful enough for becoming wrapped up in this Club thanks to an obsession that used to feel out of place at times considering where I lived.
Where I once used to almost dread explaining myself, I now instantly grin whenever I’m asked the question "……so why Milan?"