In April, former Italian Prime Minister and former AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi was diagnosed with leukemia, after which he began intensive treatment and was even able to start work in May. Two days ago he was taken back to hospital and yesterday Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told the media that Berlusconi’s condition “is not cause for concern.” But the disease was stronger. News came from Italy today that Berlusconi died in a hospital at the age of 87.
He was a man who inscribed his name not only in the history of the country and of the Milanese club, but of all of European football.
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Berlusconi learned a simple principle from childhood: buy low, sell high. At the age of 14, he was doing chores for classmates for money, charging fees based on grade. At 20, he was working as a singer on cruise ships to pay for his studies. At 27, he took out a loan and founded a construction company, buying cheap land in a Milan suburb near the airport to build a microdistrict there. The price of land then rose sharply, because the noise of the planes made the city authorities change their route for the comfort of the neighbors.
In 1980, Berlusconi founded Canale 5, Italy’s first commercial television network, bypassing the RA state monopoly. He found a loophole: he organized the work of local channels so that their broadcast was coordinated up to a minute: the same programs and commercials were played everywhere. Berlusconi has essentially created a national network.
In 1980, the year of the World Cup, the state channel refused to broadcast the matches of the tournament, despite the participation of Italy. Berlusconi decided to broadcast them at home, but the government quickly realized the commercial effect and tried to shut down all of the businessman’s channels. The attempt ended in failure: a week later, a decree was issued according to which the Berlusconi chain could show the World Cup; complaints from the audience helped.
Photo: Vittoriano Rastelli/Getty Images
The cost of advertising time on the Italian channels increased 13.5 times in two years, and by the end of the decade, the stations created by Berlusconi dominated the Italian airwaves. He bought department stores, cinemas, publishing houses and then came to football.
In December 1985, fans at the San Siro unfurled banners urging Berlusconi to buy AC Milan and save them from bankruptcy and inconsolable chatter in the middle of qualifying. He did it and won 29 trophies, completely reshaping the club.
Berlusconi opened a clothing store near the Duomo, upgraded the team’s training facilities, published Forza Milan magazine and offered competitive salaries to stars. “It sounds old-fashioned now, but he was completely new to Italy at the time,” Roman journalist Paddy Agnew wrote in his book Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football.
Berlusconi was unlikely to benefit financially from Milan, because the team, even in its heyday, ran a budget deficit. But he saw the club as a business that went beyond the football field. “Milan is my laboratory for the future,” he told World Soccer magazine in 1991. “We have to reach the public outside the stadium. It means television, the theater of the global village. Milan should be part of that.”
He made sure to use the club for the good, not just of Italian football, but of European football in general. In this equation, television was an important element: Berlusconi saw it as the key to the formula for international success.
“Of course we would like to be the best,” he said. “But at the highest level, winning or losing is often a matter of luck. The important thing is that we are among the main characters of this theater”.
Silvio Berlusconi, 1988 – the team celebrates winning the Scudetto
How Berlusconi decided to reform
So, football was not the product that Berlusconi saw. It was a game that was lived, mourned and rejoiced at, it was important, but only for a limited circle of people. Football in the global sense did not go beyond the stadium, it was not a show, it was not a business, only emotions and love, and not money. People cheered for their local teams, didn’t watch the big tournaments if their team or club wasn’t there.
Berlusconi saw the potential for change in this. He understood that with the right processes, soccer can generate a lot of money. But resources and potential were wasted in vain: at the European Champions Cup, the main European tournament, the giants blew up in the early stages, as a result of which television ratings fell to zero. In an interview with World Soccer, Berlusconi called the tournament a “historical anachronism” and “economic nonsense” because giants like Milan could be eliminated soon. “This is not a modern solution,” he protested.
In his discontent, Berlusconi was not alone: his opinion was shared by Campbell Ogilvy, who worked as secretary for Glasgow Rangers in the late 1980s and later became president of the Scottish Federation. “Within the country we had a ceiling,” he said, “and in Europe you could get knocked out after the first round. This sparked a discussion: is it possible to create a system, some kind of structure, where you are guaranteed to have six games, three of which are at home?
Photo: Frederic Meylan/Getty Images
Berlusconi was determined to create a new tournament format. He commissioned Saatchi and Saatchi’s Alex Flint to come up with a detailed concept for the new league, including the main idea of monetization through television broadcasts. “I did what he wanted,” Flint told the Independent. “Everything met his requirements, except football.”
No European Cup, no UEFA, just a closed league of 18-team superclubs: three each from England, Spain, Italy and Germany, plus the champions from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Scotland. No knockout games, because the main goal is more games from the best clubs so that the broadcasts can sell for a higher price on TV. After all, football is a show. And with this philosophy, Berlusconi went to UEFA.
The organization stirred. The Italian media mogul was so strong and persuasive that he really was able to take European soccer away from UEFA and build another empire. And the organization decided to change. The format of the tournament has changed, and at the same time a large-scale rebranding has taken place: a new name, logo, identity and anthem have appeared. The European Cup is dead – it was replaced by the Champions League, which we know today.
More on the development of the concept of the new Champions League:
Who came up with the Champions League anthem and how? The story of the creation of a masterpiece.
Berlusconi won. His project, which remained incomplete and was not carried out to the end, was skillful blackmail in the hands of an Italian businessman who knew everything about money from childhood. He didn’t need his own Super League, he needed UEFA reforms to be able to win more.
He started a huge machine that changed the landscape of European football. He saw that football is a show, it is a business and it is money. Berlusconi has become one of the most important reformers of this game, taking it to a whole other level.
And for that today we can thank you.