AC Milan: Winter Break Innovators

As Serie A moves into its re-styled winter break, clubs across the peninsula will be contemplating how to strike the right balance between rest and recovery on one hand and retaining match sharpness on the other. This is the very same dilemma faced by AC Milan back in the early 1990s, when they sat at the very top of football’s world order. Their chosen approach was as unconventional as it was festive.

Milan had been in the habit of playing low key friendlies against minor Italian opposition during the winter breaks of the late 1980’s. Perhaps sensing a missed sporting or commercial opportunity, they changed their tact in 1991/92, complementing the usual friendlies with the Trofeo Di Capodanno Amaro Lucano (highlights). This was a round robin tournament of 45 minute matches played at La Favorita di Palermo on New Year’s Eve 1991, involving CSKA Moscow and Juventus. Milan ran out victorious, winning both matches in front of a 28,000 crowd.

The following season, Milan’s approach further evolved, playing a full strength team in an exhibition friendly in Tenerife, beating the hosts 1-0 to lift the grandly-titled Trofeo Dell’Isola. Italy has a long tradition of creating such elaborate titles and associated silverware for one-off fixtures (see also Trofeo Luigi Berlusconi). However, the centrepiece of the winter calendar was the newly-created Coppa Della Bonta. A charity match to be contested between AC Milan against a select “Christmas Stars” XI. With undertones of what led to the creation of Internazionale back in 1908, Milan were to field an entirely Italian side, with their foreign players turning out for the opposition.

The Stars were comprised mainly of Italian-based internationals, such as Claudio Taffarel, Sergio Berti (both Parma), Branco (Genoa), Careca (Napoli), Gheorghe Hagi (Brescia) and Mattias Sammer (Inter), along with a smattering of players based outside of the peninsula (Laurent Blanc, David Ginola, Davor Suker, Ciriaco Sforza). In the age of modern football, it’s astonishing to believe, even for a charitable cause, that clubs were willing to release these players for such a meaningless fixture against a rival team. Milan’s stranieri provided a formidable backbone to the Stars, in the form of Jean-Pierre Papin, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Dejan Savicevic, Zvonimir Boban and a young Giovane Elber.

Over 40,000 spectators were present to witness an enthralling 4-2 victory for Milan. Papin put his employers on the back foot, but replies from Evani, Massaro (2) and Serena sealed it for Milan. Amidst the carnival atmosphere in the San Siro, nearly 300 million Lire (around £250,000 in today’s prices) was raised to assist Somalian refugees. The match also provided a glimpse into the future of international friendly football; the visitors used 26 players within the 90 minutes. If the incessant flow of substitutions detracted from the spectacle, the Stars’ kit certainly did not. It was a glorious Lotto number, reminiscent of the classic 89/90 Ajax “TDK” away shirt.

The experiment was sufficiently successful to be repeated the following year (30 December 1993). The terms of engagement had changed slightly with Milan retaining the service of their foreign stars, meaning that Papin and Savicevic switched sides from the previous season, whilst they were joined by Marcel Desailly. The game was notable for Gianluigi Lentini’s appearance for Milan; his first since suffering life-threatening injuries in a car accident.

The Stars of 1993 certainly had a more eclectic feel. Gullit had since departed Milan for Sampdoria, but remained the talisman of the Stars’ team. Nestor Sensini, Tomas Brolin (both Parma), Jose Chamot (Foggia), Luis Oliveira (Cagliari) and Brian Laudrup (Fiorentina) were notable Serie A representatives. In pursuit of further appeal to an international TV audience, the Stars had a more cosmopolitan line up than previously, including talents from four different continents. Mexican Jorge Campos was in goal, whilst Hugo Sanchez (Valladolid) led the line. Victor Onopko (Spartak Moscow) and Ilie Dumitrescu (Steaua) represented the Eastern European states. The Stars also featured lesser-knowns from around the world, such as Bolivia’s Miguel Rimba (Bolivar), South Korea’s Shin-Hong Gi (Ulsan) and Tahar El Khejal (Kawkab Marrakech). Arguably, the game provided a showcase for several players who went on to appear in Serie A the very next season, such as Kazu Miura (Genoa), Goran Vlaovic (Padova) and Freddy Rincon (Napoli).

Milan once again romped to victory (5-3) to the delight of a 40,000-plus crowd, raising another 300 million Lire in the process. If the Stars’ starting line-up was a bit of a comedown from the previous year, so too was their kit. A slightly nauseating combination of green and black stripes fading into white. The disappointing Puma design was only tempered by Campos’ characteristically chaotic and self-designed ‘keeper top.

By the 1994/95 season, the novelty of the fixture appeared to be wearing off and wet conditions had deterred many supporters from attending. Furthermore, having won three-straight Serie A titles, Milan found themselves languishing in seventh place at Christmas and home crowds at the San Siro had begun to dwindle. Consequently, only 23,000 were present when a weakened Milan, decked out in a yellow third strip and devoid of most of their foreign players, fell to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Stars.

Aside from World Cup Golden Boot winner Hristo Stoichkov (Barcelona) the Stars were no longer the stellar opponents of earlier years. Symbolically, the South Americans had been replaced with North Americans. Increasingly too, the fixture was becoming a thinly-veiled attempt by agents to get their clients in the shop window for a prospective move to Serie A. Back in 1994, European players such as Aljosa Asanovic and Igor Stimac (Hadjuk Split), Patrick Berger (Slavia Prague), Richard Witschge (Bordeaux), Nikos Machlas (OFI Crete) and Glenn Helder (Vitesse Arnhem) were just beginning to forge a name for themselves and failed to capture the imagination of the Milanese public. Not even the presence of the legendary Nils Liedholm in the opponent’s dugout could muster a larger crowd.

This proved to be the third and final instalment in this unconventional fixture. Poor support for the 1994 version, coupled with the curtailment of the 1995/96 winter break to a little over two weeks, spelt the end for the Trofeo Della Bonta. At its inauguration in 1992, it served as a meaningful sporting and charitable endeavour. By the end it was barely fulfilling either of those objectives. And with that, it was consigned to the annals of sporting history, the likes of which we are unlikely to see again.

Thanks for reading – and huge credit to the excellent site for information and pictures.

If you enjoyed this article you might also be interested in my travel guide to the Milan Derby and my piece about Milan’s former home, Arena Civica.


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