Arrigo Sacchi was a revolutionary who came from nowhere to lead a great AC Milan side to back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990.
It is a feat that no coach has achieved since, but that Zinedine Zidane will match if he retains the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid in Saturday’s final against Juventus in Cardiff.
A recent poll on the website of Corriere dello Sport saw Sacchi’s Milan named as the greatest Italian team of all time by internet users and the second-best side — behind the ‘Grande Torino’ that dominated ‘calcio’ in the 1940s before being wiped out in the Superga air disaster — by a panel of 10 coaches.
Sacchi’s team “dominated Europe with a new kind of football, comprised of pressing, strength, speed and ideas,” according to the Rome-based sports daily.
Thirty years after Sacchi’s appointment as Milan coach, his precepts no longer seem so revolutionary: a 4-4-2 system with zonal marking, the absence of a ‘libero’, aggressive and constant pressing, pace, the offside trap, intensive training sessions…
But all that was revolutionary when Silvio Berlusconi hired him in 1987, despite Sacchi having never been a player and only coached in Serie B with Parma.
In a conservative Italian game where the best path to success was via a defensive style, Berlusconi and Sacchi added a new dimension by introducing a more seductive way of playing. “Win, convince and entertain,” is how Sacchi sums up his Milan team’s outlook.
– Ray Bans and megaphone –
Nevertheless, the man who would become known as “The Prophet of Fusignano” first of all had to convince those who doubted him largely because he had never played at any notable level.
“I never realised that to become a jockey you needed to be a horse first,” Sacchi joked. But Berlusconi’s support was crucial at the beginning.
The story goes that before an important match away to Verona, when the new coach’s methods had yet to convince his new side, the club president made it clear to every Milan player: “Between the team and Sacchi, I take Sacchi. He is staying. I’m still not sure about you.”
It worked and Sacchi was able to put in place his methods, ably helped by the likes of Franco Baresi, Carlo Ancelotti, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Donadoni and the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten.
Sacchi used to arrive at their Milanello training ground in his silver Porsche and would take sessions while wearing his Ray Ban aviators and with a megaphone in his hand, to compensate for his quiet voice.
– ‘Like Rosenborg’ –
With him, Milan won the ‘Scudetto’ in 1988, their first in nine years, and then those successive European Cups, hammering Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final in 1989 and retaining the trophy with a 1-0 defeat of Benfica the next year.
He later led Italy to defeat on penalties in the 1994 World Cup final and then a group-stage exit from Euro 96 before returning for a second, unsuccessful spell, at Milan and a brief stint at Atletico Madrid.
Sacchi then worked as a youth team coordinator for the Italian Federation and he has remained an unavoidable, but sometimes unwelcome, reference point for the new generation of Italian coaches, such as Ancelotti, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri.
Now 71, the “Prophet” has never disappeared from the landscape, regularly appearing in the Italian media to voice his opinion, without a megaphone this time.
Last year he was overtly critical of the work done by Allegri at Juventus, saying: “The only verb they can conjugate is ‘to win’. That might be enough in Italy, like for Rosenborg, who always win in Norway. But not in the Champions League.”
On Saturday, then, Allegri has a chance to both prove Sacchi wrong and allow him to remain the last coach to win consecutive European Cups. Otherwise, Sacchi will have to pass that honour on to Zidane.