To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Silvio Berlusconi’s time as owner of AC Milan in 2006, the club organised a party for him at the hippodrome next to San Siro. At one stage during the evening, Clarence Seedorf picked up the microphone, asked the band if they knew Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ and went over to the president’s table to perform it. To say it went down well with Berlusconi, a former cruise ship singer before he made his fortune in construction and TV, is an understatement. “Bravo!” he applauded. “Bravo, Clarence.”
The bond between them is a special one, founded on mutual respect and appreciation. “He’s a leader on and off the pitch,” Berlusconi said of Seedorf when the player was made a recipient of the Order of Orange-Nassau, a Dutch decoration awarded to him in 2011 for representing the Netherlands in Italy. “He’s an example for everybody. He has always behaved like a gentleman.” In addition to expressing his opinion that Seedorf would play on until he was 52 at that ceremony, Berlusconi spoke about a time “when he will be coach of Milan.”
That time is already upon us. “Berlusconi foresaw it all two years ago,” Seedorf told reporters as he touched down at Linate airport on Wednesday after flying in from Rio via Amsterdam to replace Massimiliano Allegri, who was dismissed following a 4-3 defeat to Sassuolo at the weekend. How prophetic, he seemed to be saying of Berlusconi. As the person in control of their destiny, though, of course he could make it happen if he so pleased. Rather than a prophecy, this has felt like the plan for a while now at Milan.
Before the beginning of this season, Il Corriere della Sera claimed that this time last year Seedorf had even signed a preliminary agreement with a view to taking charge in the summer. That seemed to be Berlusconi’s intention only it didn’t happen. How come? A number of reasons were cited. At the time it was thought that Seedorf would have to pay a penalty in order to break his playing contract with Botafogo in Brazil [something that was later revealed not to be the case providing he he was leaving for a coaching position]. Then there were the coaching badges he was yet to complete and the cost of the staff he wished to assemble.
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When Milan’s ultras learned of Berlusconi’s intentions, they too expressed their disapproval. “Seedorf, no thanks,” read a banner draped outside the club’s old offices on via Turati. It was nothing personal. The Curva Sud merely felt that after guiding Milan to third and qualifying them for the Champions League in spite of the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, and the clearout of veteran players including Seedorf, the existing coach, Allegri, deserved more recognition and respect for the job he had done last season. Milan’s vice-president and chief executive Adriano Galliani agreed and after a tense few weeks managed to talk a begrudging Berlusconi into giving him another year.
Conditions were imposed on Allegri at a summit held at his residence in Arcore. Milan were to play better football and with a playmaker, Berlusconi demanded. It was an awkward truce, a phoney peace. Few considered it sustainable. It lasted 224 days. With hindsight, Allegri should have accepted the offer Roma made him in the summer. Asked why he didn’t, he told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “I trusted my instinct. When I didn’t follow it in the past, I made a mistake.” Berlusconi’s instinct about Seedorf’s potential to become a great coach now explains at least in part why Allegri is out of a job.
It was an itch Berlusconi just had to scratch. He has or at least did once have great intuition for these kinds of decisions. People thought Berlusconi was mad when he made Arrigo Sacchi, a former shoe salesman who’d never played football before, nor coached in the top flight, his first appointment in 1987. Sacchi duly delivered the Scudetto and is the last person to win back-to-back European Cups.
When he left to take the Italy job in 1991, Berlusconi looked not within the club, but within one of his own companies, Mediolanum for a replacement. It helped that Fabio Capello had been a player and had caretakered Milan for the final six games of the 1986-87 season. Yet it still seemed an unconventional choice to give the post to someone so young and so inexperienced in coaching terms. Capello went 58 league games without a defeat, won the Scudetto four times and the Champions League once.
It’s to him that the mind soon turns when thinking of Seedorf the manager. For it was while playing under Capello at Real Madrid in 1995-96 that his teammates began to discern a side to his character that indicated one day he’d like to be in his position. At half-time of one game, Seedorf explained to Capello what he thought Real should be doing tactically. It provoked an angry reaction. “If you know it all so well, you be the coach,” Capello raged.
Seedorf's apppointment has captured the imagination
Never afraid to question, debate and recommend what decisions his coach’s should be making, it was clear to those around him that he was one in the making. “He talked 10 per cent like a player, 70 per cent like a coach and 20 per cent like a general manager,” reflected Bruno Demichelis, Milan’s former psychologist. Does it necessarily follow, however, that he will be a good or even a great one. That’s the question?
Seedorf’s appointment has certainly captured the imagination, not least because he’s only the third black coach to work in Serie A [after Faustinho Cane, an assistant to Vujadin Boskov at Napoli in 1994-95 and Fabio Liverani, who was hired and fired by Genoa this season]. People are genuinely curious to see how he gets on. His profile is global. He speaks six different languages, has played in four different countries, on two different continents and remains the only footballer to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
Charismatic, a great communicator and a winner, until recently he owned and ran a football club - Monza - and like Capello, to whom he has been compared quite a lot in recent days, he is cultured and has interests outside the game from running a fusion restaurant and editing magazines to holding Q&As in the New York Times. It’s through interests like these that he has had experiences and generated ideas. And it’s ideas that Milan need now.
Emotionally invested in Seedorf and with his enthusiasm renewed, Berlusconi is more likely to spend money to ensure his man is a success but the fact remains his power to do so isn’t what it once was and so Milan need to get creative, they need look at things from a fresh perspective. This is the new direction Barbara Berlusconi has been arguing the club should take. Seedorf exemplifies it. He brings with him the promise of doing things differently, a diversity, a modernity.
His influences are drawn from American sports. Seedorf has spoken about his admiration for Phil Jackson, the 11-time NBA winning coach. We’re led to believe that he wants former Milan players Jaap Stam to coach the backline and Hernan Crespo the forwards, acting, if you will, like defensive and offensive coordinators in the NFL. Dare I say, it sounds very reminiscent of Jürgen Klinsmann’s coaching philosophy.
There is scepticism. Allegri’s predecessor, Leonardo, also had lofty ideas, but the naive fantasy of his 4-2-fantasia wasn’t grounded in reality and his relationship with Berlusconi - or Narcissus as he called him - soured. Will history repeat itself with Allegri’s successor? Let’s not forget, until only a couple of days ago Seedorf was still a player. Contrary to the aforementioned reports, he claims to have been caught unawares by Milan’s offer, expressing surprise when Galliani called him during training at Botafogo on Monday.
How prepared is he? Seedorf has been doing his coaching badges [“studying until three in the morning”], but is yet to complete his UEFA Pro license and requires special dispensation to be on the Milan bench. He walks into a delicate situation. Milan are 11th, 20 points outside the Champions League places. That position doesn’t reflect the true ability of the squad at his disposal, but if they’re down there, it’s not just on account of Allegri.
On the one hand, this could be a baptism of fire for Seedorf. He may get burnt. On the other, you can argue that it can’t get any worse for Milan than it already is and the only way is up. Berlusconi’s latest hunch better be right. Seedorf will make his debut on the bench this Sunday night when Hellas Verona, the side who beat Milan on the opening day of the season, travel to San Siro. You can catch the game as part of BT Sport 1’s European Football Show. Coverage starts at 6:45pm. Join us.
ELSEWHERE IN SERIE A
Milan aren’t the only club to make a coaching change this week. Relegation threatened Livorno sacked coach Davide Nicola on Monday. His replacement, Attilio Perotti has been promoted from within. Ultras interrupted his press conference insisting he shouldn’t accept as, to them, his appointment is indicative of a lack of ambition from owner Aldo Spinelli who, no longer willing to spend and fretting over paying next month’s wage bill, intends to sell up in the summer.
Bottom club Catania also decided to call time on their coach, Gigi de Canio. To replace him they’ve brought back his predecessor, the bald, rock-climbing enthusiast Rolando Maran, who led the club to their highest ever finish and best points total last season. Can he save the Sicilian Elephants?
With Serie A top scorer Giuseppe Rossi back in the United States rehabbing his injured knee and £13.5m summer signing and strike partner Mario Gomez still yet to return from a similar knock suffered in mid-September, Fiorentina have brought in Milan striker Alessandro Matri on loan as cover. A scorer of just one goal this season, if he can’t find the net for the Viola, who make chance after chance after chance, then there’s no hope for him.
Napoli look to have tied up a deal with Hellas to co-own promising young midfielder Jorginho for €5.5m. Coach Rafa Benitez had been looking to strengthen his team in the middle of the park even before the injury to Valon Behrami. Expect another to arrive soon amid reports of a bid for Tottenham’s Etienne Capoue.
As for Juventus, their general manager Beppe Marotta claims the league leaders and reigning champions have no plans to open their chequebook between now and the end of transfer window. The Old Lady has been linked with Torino’s Alessio Cerci and Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata over the last week. However, Marotta insists: “There’ll be no arrivals.”