The train ride from Milano Centrale to Wien Hauptbahnhof, the Vienna Main station, is quite a fantastic ride, as it is divided in two parts and it gives you the opportunity to spend a whole day getting lost through the beautiful streets of Venezia. The second part of the trip is interrupted in the middle of the night in Brenner, on the Italy-Austria border, where the Gendarmerie, the Austrian federal police, check rigorously for passports. I arrived in Vienna at approximately 6:00 AM on May 22nd, 1990, one day before the AC Milan - Benfica final was to be played at the Ernst Happel Stadium, located near the Prater public Park.
After I left my backpack at a small youth hostel, I went straight to the stadium using the metro, which stopped at the park, walking distance from the historic sports complex. At the time I had already covered other sports events, such as baseball games in the USA but this was my first big one in Europe with a press credential. My only support was a fax that I had sent from the radio station where I worked in Venezuela, hoping that it would be enough to secure my permission to report the game.
I wish I could remember how exactly I entered the stadium, but I can assure you that the norms of security were completely different to nowadays. I made it all the way to the office that the UEFA staff had built near the press seats and when I entered the room I talked to a very kind young lady who checked my identification card and proceeded to look for my passes. She found my request but couldn’t find anything else, and there I was somehow knowing that I will be ok. She decided to check with her boss, a nice guy, with big blue eyes, wearing a suit and tie, who after being consulted approved my request with a simple nod. That guy turned out to be Nils Lennart Johansson, who at the time had only 30 days elected as President of UEFA and is still the longest serving president of the organization.
I was informed that Benfica and AC Milan were coming to check the conditions of the field and that was sure to be a big thrill. The first team to arrive was the portuguese squad, dressed in jumpsuits, relaxed. I had the magnificent opportunity to talk to the Sweedish duo of Jonas Thern and Mats Magnusson; they were definitely the nicest and friendliest. I also talked to three other big guns, the Brazilians Valdo and Aldair and the Head Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who made a joke about the resemblance of Frank Rijkaard to the player on the cover (an art drawing) of the game program.
After Benfica left the park, we waited for Milan to arrive, but as time passed by we deducted that it wasn’t going to happen. I spent the time sitting in the stands having a memorable conversation with two English Football historians, the three of us were fascinated with our stories as much as we were disappointed because the Italian squad never made it to the stadium. All of the sudden a HUGE ROAR was heard; it came from the fans outside the arena and as fast as I told the british journalist “Milan is here” I was at the door of the team bus surrounded by Gullit, Baresi, Van Basten, Donadoni, Ancelotti, Sacchi and Massaro.
Imagine this, arguably the best ever Milan team walking into an empty stadium, late at night, under light rain and a cool breeze. Van Basten and Gullit sharing an umbrella, Sacchi watching his boys from the sideline, Rijkaard sitting on a bench, and I am in awe, just like the Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris where the writer Gil Pender is surrounded by Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Josephine Baker. I showed the game program to Rikjaard and shared Eriksson’s comments about him looking like the guy on the cover and he said to me “next time you talk to Eriksson please tell him that the player actually looks like his mother”. There were a few laughs from his teammates.
Many years later, in July of 2018 I had a personal meeting with Ruud Gullit in New York City where we talked about many subjects, including the night at the Prater. After I told my side of the story saying how exciting it was seeing the team in Vienna the night before the final, Gullit told me the reason why they were so late “Rene, that day, during the flight from Milano to Vienna, our plane went through a terrible turbulence and we landed in Austria in shock. We actually considered not going to the stadium”. This part of the story was actually the missing piece of a word puzzle that I started building when I sent that fax from my radio station. I am happy to share an inside scoop of our historic win against Benfica.
After the end of the game I went to the UEFA office to express my gratitude for the opportunity and there was another surprise. The elegant lady said to me “We want to make it up to you for the confusion with your credential and for this reason we want to invite you to next week’s Austria vs. Holland game”. I had only a week to go to Montecarlo, to the Monaco Grand Prix and back to Austria, but that story will be told on another Tribuna Stampa.
A souvenir from Renè Rincon: a photograph with the players signatures