If you were asked which has been the most important AC Milan game in the past 35 years, what would you say? Would you mention the 4-0 win versus Barcelona in the 94 Champions League Final? Or would you prefer the perfect 5-0 vs Real Madrid in the 89 semifinals? There are other incredible matches, the revenge vs Liverpool; beating Juve in the 2003 Final; eliminating Inter in a Champions League semifinal derby; the 3-0 vs Manchester United or beating Bayern in Munich. We can all agree that this is quite a difficult exercise, but I am curious to know if any of you picked Milan winning in Napoli in 1988.
I am convinced that this is where it all started for the team, that this is where the Berlusconi era really began, not only winning a crucial game but also demoralizing a rival that was on top of the table with three games away to finish the season.
Napoli had won the scudetto the previous year led by Diego Armando Maradona and Antonio Careca but the Red and Blacks were threatening the champions with a fantastic team coached by Arrigo Sacchi and a list of names that are now known as Milan legends, such as Baresi, Van Basten, Donadoni, Maldini, Ancelotti, Massaro, Virdis, Costacurta, Tassoti, Galli and the then Ballon d’Or holder Ruud Gullit.
At the game of the andata, played in San Siro on January 3rd, 1988, The Neapolitans showed up exhibiting an undefeated record which, obviously they wanted to keep after their first clash of the season. Diego started the game with a routine touch of class, an unreal assist to Careca who opened the score on the 10th minute scaring the milanista tifosi. But those fans were there for a treat, witnessing a merciless attack led by Gullit, who received a standing ovation when Massaro substituted him in, with the scoreboard showing an overwhelming 4-1.
Let’s keep in mind that this team was in a building process and that it wasn’t as beautiful as it sounds. The Rossoneri were eliminated that year by Espanyol in the second round of the Coppa Uefa losing 0-2 at the Via del Mare stadium of Lecce due to sanctions to the San Siro stadio. Another huge fact is that Milan had not won a scudetto since 1979 and had only two championships in the previous 20 years.
I wish I could say that I was at the Tribuna Stampa of the San Paolo for the historic and decisive match but I can’t, my story has much less romanticism. I was in the Venezuelan island of Margarita constantly bothered by a Napoli fan who kept assuring me that Milan would lose the game and the title on that Sunday, May 1st.
There are many videos showing the atmosphere at the San paolo, and it is truly fantastic to see the crowd of almost 83.000 fans supporting their team and a large group of photographers and video camerographers covering the match in the field. My favorite video is a news report from Rai 3 Television (Napoli-Milan 2-3 VIRDIS (2), MARADONA, VAN BASTEN, CARECA 13ª giornata Ritorno 01-05-1988) the network that aired the match only for the residents of Campania. It is really a treasure video archive as you can see a journalist in the field interviewing Maradona and Gullit, both complementing each other, as well as other protagonists.
Napoli started the game with a one point advantage in the standings (only 2 points per win at the time) and for this reason Milan was obligated to win the match to complete the “Operazione Sorpasso”.
The match started with a Milan goal in the 36 minute scored by the always present Pietro Paolo Virdis and was followed by an equalizer free kick goal from Maradona at the end of the first half. In the second half Gullit made the difference again giving precious assists to Virdis and Van Basten that sealed a 2-3 victory. The following week Milan beat Roma at the Olimpico and Juventus edged Napoli in Turin and the title was then conquered mathematically.
The game is remembered as ‘the title that Napoli let get away’ but I have always considered it a ‘prodezza’, a feat, to go down south and beat Maradona’s Napoli in such a categorical way. The importance of the game is quite simple, as it represents the beginning of a historic period, the Silvio Berlusconi era, a term filled with trophies and titles. Less that one year after this match Milan would be destroying Real Madrid’s Quinta del Buitre, the squad of Michel, Hugo Sanchez and Emilio Butragueno in the semifinals of the Coppa Dei Campioni and a month later the team would obtain another huge result in the Champion League’s Final by trashing Steaua Bucharest 4-0 at Barcelona's Nou Camp with doubles by Van Basten and Gullit.
The 2-3 at the San Paolo wasn’t about winning a game or conquering the scudetto. The victory in Naples was the beginning of a dynasty.