If there has been a rite of passage in the recent life and times of Milan, then it came on March 13 of this year. That was the night when, for the second consecutive year, the mighty Milan limped out of the Champions League, held to a 1-1 draw by Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruna.
A more than interested spectator at that game was club owner Silvio Berlusconi, who, when not busy being Milan’s number one fan, also doubles up as Italian Prime Minister. On the night of the Deportivo game, Berlusconi was in the middle of an election campaign. If he had been hoping for a pre-electoral boost from his team, he was to be bitterly disappointed. Speaking on live TV after the match, he underlined his distress by saying that he would now take matters at the club in hand himself. Put simply, Berlusconi wanted the broom cupboard swept clean, starting with coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who was promptly dismissed next morning.
Furthermore, the Milan owner sent out the word that Zaccheroni’s long-term replacement must be capable of constructing a side that was both stylish and winning.
By the beginning of this season, the effects of the Berlusconi intervention were there for all to see. Not only had Zaccheroni’s short-term replacements, Cesare Maldini and Mauro Tassotti, themselves been replaced by Turkish coach Fatih ‘The Emperor’ Terim, but there had been significant changes within the squad.
A number of the established foreign players were offloaded – including Croat Zvonimir Boban (Celta Vigo), German Oliver Bierhoff (Monaco), Brazilian Leonardo (Sao Paulo) and Argentinian Andres Guglielminpietro (Internazionale) – as well as Italians Federico Giunti (Brescia), Luigi Sala and Gianni Comandini (both Atalanta).
Leading the Milan ‘new wave’ was Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa (in from Fiorentina), followed by Spanish striker Javi Moreno, Romanian defender Cosmin Contra (both Alaves), Danish defender Martin Laursen (Verona), plus Italians Filippo Inzaghi (Juventus) and Massimo Donati (Atalanta). Milan have further strengthened their squad since the season began, buying Turkish midfielder Umit Davala (Galatasaray), Belorussian striker Vitaly Kutuzov (Bate Borisov) and former old boy Marco Simone (Monaco).
Despite all these player arrivals, the key figure in the Milan revival is coach Terim. The fiery Turk, who did exceptionally well with Fiorentina last season until his disagreements with owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori undermined team morale, made all the right noises during the off-season period following his appointment last June.
‘My philosophy will remain the same. We will play positive, attacking football that the fans will enjoy watching. Even the players will like my style,’ he said, adding a footnotethat indicates much about The Emperor’s all too healthy self-esteem. ‘Some people ask me what system I play. Is it a Dutch system, a French system or a Brazilian system? They don’t understand. It’s none of these – it’s the Terim system.’
Put simply, the Terim system, at least as far as Milan are concerned, involves a four man defence (Contra- Paolo Maldini-Laursen-Kakha Kaladze), a three-man midfield (Gennaro Gattuso-Demetrio Albertini-Serginho), a playmaker (Rui Costa) and two strikers (Andrii Shevchenko and Inzaghi).
Inevitably, too, the system has not proved an overnight success. Although Milan picked up prestigious Serie A wins against Fiorentina (5-2) and Lazio (2-0) in the opening weeks of the season, their title aspirations suffered a severe setback when defeated 3-1 away to gritty little Perugia on the final Sunday of September.
In a game played in a steady drizzle, Milan looked less than enthusiastic for a scrap. But despite that setback, Terim struck an upbeat note afterwards, saying: ‘The first thing I want my team to do is to play attacking, positive football. At the moment, winningcomes second.’
Just how long that particular moment may last, remains to be seen. Not long, one suspects. ThePerugia setback apart, there are signs that a solid Terim foundation has been laid.
Crucially, as at Fiorentina, the Turk appears to have won the full confidence of senior players. Inzaghi, Shevchenko, Albertini, Maldini and Rui Costa all look willing to play for Terim, and the consequent results can be devastating, especially on the attack.
Perhaps even more important, though, has been Terim’s ability to get the best out of some of the less famous names in the Milan squad. Most coaches could probably get results with Shevchenko, Rui Costa and skipper Maldini, but Terim has also galvanised his out-of-form keeper CristianoAbbiati, his new-entry defender Laursen and his confused midfielder, Brazilian Serginho.
Abbiati has refound his confidence, Laursen has thrived in the big time, while Serginho is beginning to deliver his immense attacking potential thanks to the fact that he is now ‘covered’ by Georgian Kaladze. Intriguingly, too, the Terim system involves an element of built-in, guaranteed defensive solidity, with the switching of Maldini to central defence, while Kaladze adapts to the left-back role.
Last season at Fiorentina, Terim showed that he is more than capable of repeating the spectacular results achieved with Turkey (Euro 96 qualification) and Galatasaray (UEFA Cup and four straight Turkish titles).
His start thus far at the San Siro has been even smoother. All the omens would suggest that Milan may be on the way back to the very top of the greasy pole.
This interview appeared in the November 2001 issue of World Soccer.