Silvio Berlusconi The Joker
One of the real advantages of believing in the Pearly Gates, and a judgement day, is that you can delegate your own moral outrage to a higher authority. The bad men will answer for what they did another day, and to another person.
And so it is with me and types like Silvio Berlusconi. I can park everything I should say about him, and his dreadful sins, and just focus on his “impact”. Especially on sport and media, for a sportsbiz column.
I know that is a cop-out, and not the comment of a serious person, but this obituary for Berlusconi isn’t going to focus too much on his sins, as there will be many, many people who will do that professionally in these days. I can’t compete with proper writers on serious stuff.
In my career, I have had regular dealings with other people in this ballpark: Sir David Murray of Glasgow Rangers for example. And I have to admit that, with eyes wide open, I usually liked them. They are intriguing and entertaining. Their charisma exists in spades.
If Paolo Maldini is Il Gattopardo,
Silvio Berlusconi is, or was, the most diabolical Joker.
Today’s Sunday Column is my own story of Mr Silvio Berlusconi, and his impact on me, Italian society, media, culture, and our game of football.
I arrived in Italy in 1986, the year Berlusconi bought AC Milan. I knew nothing of him and his media businesses, and very little of the country in general. That would soon all change, and he would be a major protagonist.
May you live in interesting times, the Chinese say. Full marks, Silvio.
Money, demographics, and geopolitics!
Past is always prologue.
It is not fully appreciated how utterly geopolitical Italy was in 1945. As the Iron Curtain fell down across Europe, Italy was the number one candidate to go communist. Neighbouring Jugoslavia had fallen, and Italy drifting left-wing red was a natural reaction to Mussolini’s fascism. It was also playing into the desire for a whole new world of working-class socialism, that had even deposed Winston Churchill in 1945.
The Italian Communist party had a natural wind at its back. It was odds-on favourite: the value bet. Should you be interested, here is a brief history.
The Americans were, thus, extremely concerned and, of course, did not stand idle. Their Marshall Plan for Italy even had anti-communism conditions, and they did everything to combat the rise of the philosophy of the communist Gramsci, whose popularity had risen, since his death under Mussolini in 1937, aged 46.
Uncle Sam and his CIA doubled down on an unholy alliance they had formed earlier in 1943, with the Mob.
Those Italian Americans were very helpful in the planning and execution of the invasion of Sicily. The Mafia was involved to help US Naval Intelligence draw maps of the harbours of Sicily and Vito Genovese, a senior Don, became an interpreter and advisor to the U.S. military government in Naples. Operation Underworld, was a very real thing. Realpolitik.
Cosa Nostra has always been very willing to trade power with politicians. The communism threat in 1946 was grasped perfectly by them, as an opportunity to strengthen their influence and further their interests in the rubble of a post-war Italy, needing to be completely rebuilt.
It is not in debate that these guys can direct the result of democratic elections, especially in the South, even to this day.
In practice, the centrist political party of the Christian Democrats (DC), was charged with keeping Italy this side of the Iron Curtain, using the help of the CIA, Mafia, and the Catholic Church.
Any given Sunday, one would hear Pacino-passionate parish preaching, warning that the Commies didn’t believe in God, and even ate babies (I’m not joking).
There is a reason the Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years. They are as Borgia-political as it comes. These Pharisees especially need to fear the Pearly Gates.
Remember that many parts of Italy, at that time, were deeply under-educated. This propaganda sunk in and the geopolitical troika tag-team succeeded in defending the status quo, parking the bus, and keeping their foot on the throat of rising socialism, also through the total political control of the state TV monopoly, RAI.
RAI was able to dictate the narrative in its entirety, with feel-good content around homely values, church, school, community, and family. Any producer, presenter or performer who got a bit edgy and off-message just disappeared. The government wasn’t playing around, as the stakes were very high.
The illusion of democracy.
Politics, Church, and Mafia in Italy played this American game very very well. Whilst governments in Italy famously changed more than the weather, in reality absolutely nothing changed. The power was stable and behind the scenes.
Silvio Berlusconi of course knew all this, and he played the board with a boundless ambition, and morals-free ruthlessness; ultimately making friends with senior politician Bettino Craxi.
Silvio had come from nothing, hustling various jobs, using his one major talent: charm and empathy. He sang crooner ballads on cruise ships, whilst also studying the classics and graduating with full honours. This was no nepo-baby, or clown. He was a nightmarish Christopher Nolan creation.
He made his first monies in real estate projects, with obscure capital from Switzerland and then, more dramatically, in the world of communications and media. In the big play, Berlusconi “persuaded” Craxi and other politicians to grant him broadcasting licenses for the fledgling commercial TV sector. And let’s be clear: Berlusconi was precise in what he needed. He was a world class strategist, understanding both distribution and content, with real business talent. He rolled-up a lot of very small stations and then got the green light to go national.
The monopoly of RAI was over.
There would now be another narrative entering Italian homes.
Here in the story comes the classic debate about media: do you have a duty to try and educate audiences, or just serve them what you know they want? That debate lasted about 5 seconds in Casa Berlusconi.
He understood product/market fit before anyone even knew what it meant.
He understood the average Italian, (l’Italiano medio) to perfection. Men and women, but especially men.
Average Italian men love a laugh with some crude jokes, have no embarrassment whatsoever in openly showing appreciation and desire for feminine beauty and are addicted to their football. They aren’t big drinkers, but they are absolutely “laddish” to the max. The patriarchal Italian society was set up for the benefit of men. Divorce was illegal, full of social stigma, and despised by the Church. Women were financially trapped, and many men were unapologetic philanderers.
Some cover this up better, with elegant clothes and fine dining. In my own personal experience though, l’Italiano medio is a simple machine. Few buttons to push.
By God, Silvio pushed all of them, and his media empire, of TV, films, magazines and newspapers grew huge on an output of seaside postcard humour, tette e culi (T&A), and football. He made zero pretence to lift standards and just delivered what worked commercially.
Silvio became very rich, but the cost to the moral fibre of Italy is seen by most intelligent people as enormous.
Ahead of his final ejection from power in 2011, The Economist described him as “the man who screwed an entire country.”
As we look at the decay of other great western societies, and their values, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, the Kardashian influencer culture, or rappers making it rain in strip clubs, there needs to be a huge debate as to cause and effect.
Did Berlusca just see the future, and position his business accordingly? Or was he the principle reason for the decline? I tend to the latter, albeit somewhat enjoying the huge comic value on the journey. I admit to a “penchant” for laddish, so I too will have to answer for my sins one day.
There is no doubt that Silvio Berlusconi has impacted Italy in the last 50 years more than anyone else. In the 80s, he took that baton from Gianni Agnelli and, let’s say, did it very differently. Many will argue that Johnny Lambs was equally a rogue and pirate, but the owner of FIAT, Ferrari and Juventus played the feudal lord with such immense class.
Silvio never had a lot of that class. He was a street-fighting hustler who changed everything, by pretending to be all things to all men. The family capitalism entrepreneurs of Italy saw him as Warren Buffet, the guy reading the Gazzetta in the bar saw him as a fan made good. The lounge lizards on the pull saw him as the king of the playboys. This was his genius. He was whatever each person wanted him to be. Like a magic trick.
Like him or loathe him, Berlusconi changed the media and sport sectors forever, not just in Italy.
Ever the strategist, he bought AC Milan, in the vertical integration flywheel-play that Murdoch tried with Manchester United. Silvio pulled it off. Rupert got caught in anti-trust. Go figure who got stuff done.
Berlusconi invested unheard sums of money into AC Milan at that time. He changed the table stakes. Amusingly, and perhaps not untrue, he also considered himself a world class coach, (no joking this time either), and was very opinionated on players and tactics. He wanted his football team to be like him: front foot attacking from every angle. The complete opposite of the old school calcio of defence and counterattack. Silvio was going to crush the opposition.
To be very fair to him, he took an enormous gamble on an unknown coach, Arrigo Sacchi, after seeing Parma play and beat Milan twice. In hindsight, this call was genius.
Extraordinary EQ to serve seduction.
Silvio was also a pragmatist, fruit of extraordinary EQ. Berlusconi didn’t really want Frank Rijkaard, as his third foreign player, preferring the immensely talented, if lightweight, Argentinian Claudio Borghi. Sacchi insisted, Silvio reluctantly relented, and the Dutchman joined the other two: Gullit and Van Basten. Sacchi then also demanded Ancelotti from Roma, whilst Silvio thought Carletto was at that point crocked: “His knees are shot Arrigo”, he said. “Yes Mr President, but his brain isn’t.” Berlusconi gave in again.
The whole life and success of Silvio Berlusconi has been about seducing people. And sometimes, to do that, you need to let them have a few wins. If this rascal philanderer is now getting a state funeral, and eulogies from the Vatican, with at least half the country in tears, there’s a reason. Anyone dismissing this man as a cartoon comedian hasn’t understood anything about the world. He was a wrecking ball of people manipulation. Picking your pocket, whilst making you feel the most important guy in the world.
He changed Italian football totally.
I read a Cruyff quote this week from some journo on Twitter, as Inter Milan were troubling Man City: “ Italian teams won’t ever be able to beat you, but you can lose to them”.
Well, what AC Milan did across Italy and Europe was a kind of football I’d never seen.
They hammered Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in a European Cup final!
Johan was always a purist. Silvio ate purists for lunch.
They were just demolishing teams with intense pressing, a high defensive line, and pace. And those players all loved the President. So did the media. The fans, well… you can imagine.
All of the great players are full of tributes these days, including Paolo Maldini (missing no opportunity to juxtapose those years with tight-fisted Cardinale, I guess).
Silvio didn’t just have a football team, as content for his media distribution. He had a generational football team, that would write the history books. It utterly cemented his reputation as a “winner”, an “innovator” and a media/sport sector visionary.
He immediately understood the power of this nexus, and the direction of travel. The first Super League attempt came soon after, from Milano, via advisory group Media Partners.
UEFA responded, in what would be a 35 year appeasement strategy, by coming up with the Champions League.
AC Milan became a dynasty for the best part of 2 decades.
They bought the best players and coaches, and were not really bothering about a financial return.
The return was in brand, power and influence.
Sounds familiar for today? History doesn’t repeat, but it certainly rhymes. Have a read here!
At the start of the 90s, back in the big game of geopolitics, the Pax Americana of the DC imploded, with the Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) corruption earthquake that blew away an entire political generation. Craxi, Silvio’s buddy, went down very hard, and his cover was gone.
This is exactly when I myself met Berlusconi. I was doing an All or Nothing doc for Sky UK on the phenomenon of AC Milan. A long weekend embedded with the team. Sports docs aren’t new.
Thanks frankly to my wife and her charm (Italians will always stop for a pretty girl), we had managed to secure amazing interviews with them all (Capello, Gullit, Van Basten, Frankie R, Maldini, Ancelotti, Donadoni, and many more).
I wasn’t a pro journalist, but we’d managed to do all that, and I felt good. If you are going to do something, do it well, I thought. Sky had trusted a quirky kid with a film crew and their brand, and I was relieved I hadn’t let them down. The juice was all in the can.
But I also wanted the Big Man. Letters to his PR people were answered in the conditional tense, the people at Milanello shrugged their shoulders. We were running out of time.
At the game, our last day, at half time, I ran over from the press box to the VIP seats and shouted (in English) at him:
“Presidente, it’s me, from Sky! What about this interview?”
He gestured to me “later”! The Italian hacks told me to fuck off back home (again, not joking).
Getting a sit-down with the President was rare even for them.
Ten minutes before full time, a very well dressed but burly man taps my shoulder and hands me an address and a time. He walks off without a word.
The Sky crew, Raffa and I get over there asap, to this beautiful villa in the centre of Milan.
To repeat, this wasn’t my profession, and adrenalin was now making the cold reality of all this very foggy. It hit that I had no idea what to ask him, certainly not in Italian, as I didn’t expect to get him. You’re bluffing a job you’ve had no qualifications for, questioning a major major personality, in a language not your own.
In terms of timing, this was a man who had lost his political coverage in Craxi, and was about to decide whether to run for office in the first person. It was that moment in his life. I heard him in the other room talking some serious, serious stuff.
“We’re good to go, Rog!” said Gerry Logan, the fellow Scot Sky producer. Raffa smiled at me. I thought I was going to be sick.
He comes in: “So you’re one of Murdoch’s”.
I thought for a second to explain the whole humble backstory of a simple accountant from Panini, who was only doing this as a side-hustle; but pride took over.
“That’s right. But I’m here to tell the Brits who you are. They haven’t realised yet.”
“Good! Let’s do it!”
This wasn’t a jokey character, an empty suit. This was a man who looked and smelt dangerous. No encouragement for a young lad. Just hardball.
I was utterly intimidated. I wonder, with 5 seasons of AYNE, how I would have done it today.
Camera comes on, and there it is: the big smile, the lightness in the eyes, as if he was about to tell a joke. Frightening change in a split second.
Here is the video of that weekend. It remains one of the little milestones in my ordinary life. Interviewing people with lives a lot less ordinary.
Martin Tyler voices-over the edit, in a piece that shows well the power and the glory of that panzer of a team on the field.
Worth noting how Capello talks about what would be known in years to come as “turnover”, how Silvio explains how there is no financial return for him in football and how a Superleague is one day inevitable (did you think I came up with that myself?). And, oh God, how they all knew what a talent Gascoigne was. Content wise, this is as rich as hell.
There is a side anecdote here. The producer told me Tyler was exceptionally dubious to be having to voice over an amateur nobody who had fluked all this access.
Me, watching this back for the first time in 20 years … he wasn’t wrong… What the fuck was I doing?
Martin was so kind to me and I wish him well in his retirement. John Inverdale was just starting, and dear dear Ray Wilkins on commentary. What memories!
But to keep on the Italian EQ theme here, it is 100 percent true that I don’t get any of this without Raffaella. She somehow convinces all these top players, finishing training at the same time, to hang around and wait their turn till I could interview them.
Charm and seduction is the leitmotif of this article and it always flows both ways for those blessed with empathy.
Sky were happy.
But I now look at this old video of ours, and my heart cries at how the game has been changed. There is no way AC Milan should be losing players to Aston Villa.
They shouldn’t even be interested in Tielemans in the first place. He’d have been cleaning the boots, in Silvio’s Milan.
Meanwhile, The Joker does decide to enter politics and treated the entire election campaign as a product launch. Simple messages, pitch-perfect, in exact symbiosis with Italy.
He re-formed the old band of Church and Mafia, to bring it home. Look up Marcello Dell’Utri, Stefano Bontate and especially Vittorio Mangano, (officially Silvio’s stable boy, who man-marked him for Don Bontate, for 20 years).
Once again, I’m not joking. You could not make this up. It was the tragic time of hero anti-mafia judges like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino being blown up, on the evening news.
Berlusca had Luca Brasi as a stable boy.
Silvio won the elections in 1994. The rest is history indeed.
Feel free to read all the serious op-eds around him. It’s my generation’s best story and commentary of these years. Full of judge bribing, high stakes double-dealings and betrayals, tax evasion, black money (also to buy Lentini from Torino). How the EU did him in. Everything you could think of, and more.
Silvio Berlusconi: una storia italiana.
He totally polarised the Italian nation.
No-one remained indifferent.
Ghe pensi mi!
Then what always happens to untouchable megalomaniacs, happened. He lost it completely.
The “elegant dinner parties” of Bunga Bunga, the never-to-be-beaten gaffes like:
- describing Obama as “well-tanned”;
- having Queen Elizabeth scold him for shouting during a foto shoot;
- calling Merkel “an unfuckable lard-ass”;
- referring in Strasburg to the EU’s Shulz as a concentration camp commander. He is German;
- saying he’d bring the EU Food Authority to Parma, by seducing the rival Finnish PM;
- demanding his aides get Ruby “rubacuori” (“heartthrob”, the under-age Moroccan escort) out of custody, by telling the police she was the niece of Mubarak (Egypt’s president at the time);
- the horrifically inappropriate blue jokes told in public;
- even recently telling the Monza players that if they won, he’d procure for them a bus of whores. His wife was in attendance.
Each of these alone today would cause jaws to drop. Yet, back then, it was all knock-about stuff. I’m in tears of laughter even writing this. It’s all true and just the surface. I have friends who were in Silvio‘s inner circle. Listeners to AYNE will remember the story of the Mini Cooper S. It’s beyond all imagination.
This week he will get a state funeral.
We are truly living in the Matrix.
Silvio was a visionary and an innovator, with other-world people skills. No rule was to be left unbroken; no desire unsated. He was the “whatever it takes” man, way before Mario Draghi. He knew how to get people to like him, make them laugh. But he was a bad man, even if his impact in global media, sport, society and politics is immense.
To close, talking about Pearly Gates, this is who I imagine is waiting for Silvio: Falcone and Borsellino.
Borsellino asks Falcone:
“Did YOU get a national day of mourning?”
“I didn’t, did you?”
“Me neither. What do you think we got wrong, then?”
“We were probably born in the wrong country.”
Italy is the most complex, contradictory and beautiful country in the world.
But it doesn’t ever do “plain vanilla”.
Silvio Berlusconi wasn’t plain vanilla.
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