In the early days at least, Berlusconi was smart at managing his public image as well as dealing with his political opponents. He knew that a large part of his appeal lay in his image as a man of the people, albeit one who flew by helicopter from one luxury pleasure palace to another. In 1986, even as he was scheming and fretting over the fate of his media empire, the millions pouring in from TV advertising meant he was able to buy a football (soccer) club. And not just any football club. Berlusconi became the owner of mighty AC Milan, one of the aristocrats of the sport.
In the mid-1980s the team was going through a lean period. But national interest in football was greater than ever thanks to Italy’s triumph in the 1982 World Cup. The purchase, which was to prove one of the tycoon’s most inspired, was probably a mixture of heart and head. Berlusconi, a life-long supporter of Milan, imagined a rejuvenated team, flush with his cash, and he saw how the team’s success might rub off on him. Berlusconi the businessman was also quick to see how much he stood to make from advertising in football-mad Italy.
But the decision to take the leap was a torturous one. He’d actually been considering buying the football club for several years. Back in 1982 a clairvoyant he consulted, known as Moro, had warned that the portents were against the purchase of AC Milan. “My mystic told me that it would bring me bad luck,” he told associates.
But unable to shake the obsession with owning the prestigious club, he convened another meeting in January 1986 with his most trusted associates to discuss buying it. Not one to do things in half measures, the mogul rented a huge villa in the top ski resort St. Moritz, in the Swiss Alps, which had belonged to the former shah of Iran. After a weekend of examining and reexamining the pros, and many potential cons, of purchasing AC Milan, Berlusconi and his aides agreed the move was too risky. The morning after, however, when the group had just taken their business-class seats for the flight back to Milan, Berlusconi suddenly declared: “Oh to hell with it. I’m going to buy it.”
Thus in July 1986, to the accompaniment of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the new Berlusconi AC Milan squad flew into the stadium by helicopter to meet the fans. In the following 1986—87 season, the club sold a record number of season tickets.
Berlusconi’s AC Milan made shrewd purchases from overseas, includ- ing the Dutch stars Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. The purchase of Gullit was particularly interesting. This flamboyant black player, famous for his flowing dreadlocks, was confronted by Italian football crowds— which are often racist and violent. However, Milan fans were soon dazzled by Gullit’s skills and charm and in their own, politically incorrect, way showed their appreciation by blacking their faces and wearing dreadlock wigs during the matches. Of course Berlusconi was quick to claim the credit for this transformation.
“I explained to them it was possible to support a club without being violent or racist. That mentality had to go.” Unfortunately, you don’t have to go very far to see such attitudes elsewhere in Italian football. But to its credit, Berlusconi’s AC Milan, in purchasing Gullit and, more recently, black players like Mario Balotelli, has been more active than most clubs in fighting racism on the terraces. It was noted, however, that Berlusconi’s unlikeable and mentally unspectacular brother, Paolo Berlusconi, un- did some of the good work in February 2013 when he referred to Balo- telli, Milan’s new $28 million striker, as “the little negro of the family.”
Berlusconi basked in the glow of the revitalized club—and notable triumphs, including the Italian championship in 1988 and the European Champion’s Cup the following year, for which the club provided a ship, an airplane and 450 buses to ensure 26,000 Milan fans were in Barcelona to see the victory.
As he had hoped, Berlusconi profited mightily from the symbiotic relationship that TV enjoys with the sport. The more that football was broadcast and discussed—with endless hours devoted to match high- lights and analysis—the greater the interest created. This meant bigger AC Milan ticket sales as well as more viewers and greater TV advertising revenue for the mogul’s TV channels.
In addition to making huge quantities of cash, AC Milan would also prove a vital source of inspiration and popular appeal in the 1990s, when Berlusconi made his move into politics. With the trophies piling up, Berlusconi’s fame soared; he was surprised—but utterly delighted—to receive praise bordering on adulation from Milan fans. He liked to recall how one supporter had told him: “Silvio, you’re God; you’re the Messiah.” The suggestion of divinity obviously struck a chord with the vain and egotistical tycoon, who’d be further buoyed by polls suggesting he was better known among Italian children than the Son of God. In 2006, explaining why Italians ought to reelect him after five years of crass and inept leadership, Prime Minister Berlusconi said: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics… I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
Excerpted from Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga by Michael Day. Copyright © 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted by permission.