x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Italian football on our TVs was simply love at first sight

Fans could not get enough of Milan derbies when they first hit UAE screens in the 1980s – an affection still held to this day.

AC Milan striker Joe Jordan, of Scotland, is seen after scoring during a derby match against Inter Milan. (Ap Photo/Carlo Fumagalli)
AC Milan striker Joe Jordan, of Scotland, is seen after scoring during a derby match against Inter Milan. (Ap Photo/Carlo Fumagalli)

Great football moments, and by extension, teams, of bygone eras are preserved in our memories as some kind of greatest hits compilation, a highlight sequence you might find these days on YouTube.

A Cruyff turn. A Gerd Muller goal. Carlos Alberto's coup de grace in the 1970 World Cup final. Even Diego Maradona slaloming through the English defence in 1986.

Rarely, if ever, do we remember the misplaced passes, the wasted free kicks and corners, and the countless moments of ennui that actually hold our cherished memories together.

That all changed in the late 1980s as across Europe, football broke away from the confines of governmental stations and into people's homes.

Live matches became the norm, and with football's top leagues realising the cash cow on their hands, football as a product began to be exported to hungry viewers around the world.

This coincided with, or maybe even helped create, Italian football's most recent golden age. In the mid-1980s, the Hillsborough tragedy and resulting English football revolution were a few years away, as was Johan Cruyff's Barcelona Deam Team. But Italy's Serie A was thriving.

Above all, the late '80s and early '90s was a time when one city ruled world football. In those days when people spoke of a clasico, they meant AC Milan and Inter Milan at the San Siro.

Tonight, the eyes of the world will once again turn to el clasico. An hour later, the Milan derby will also kick off.

These days, when Barcelona play Real Madrid, the world stops to watch. But to many football fans in the UAE, and the region, AC Milan v Inter remains the clasico. And the origins of this devotion can be traced back to proliferation of television coverage in the late 1980s.

As the decade drew to a close, live Italian football made its debut on Abu Dhabi television. It was love at first sight for football-obsessed fans in a nation on the way to qualifying for its first World Cup, in Italy of course, in 1990.

In those pre-Al Jazeera, indeed pre-cable television, days, being able to watch best league in the world was a gift gladly received by supporters in the Emirates.

Down the years, watching Serie A matches at shisha cafes became almost a national pastime across the country. And despite blanket football coverage from leagues around the world, it is a tradition that persists to this day.

And no teams captured the imagination quite like the great Milan rivals.

As Italian football threw off the shackles of Catenaccio to become the biggest draw in world football, Inter, managed by Giovanni Trapattoni, snapped up the brilliant (West) German trio of Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann.

Arrigo Sacchi's AC meanwhile, even bettered that with their own triumvirate of Dutch masters: Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and the peerless Marco van Basten. Both sides were packed with some of the best Italian talent too, such as Inter's goalkeeper Walter Zenga, the present-day coach of Al Nasr, or AC's legendary defensive pair of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.

Audiences were spoilt. AC Milan's title in 1987/88 and Inter's a year later were sandwiched between two Maradona-inspired Napoli triumphs. Indeed, Napoli, Juventus and Inter dominated the Uefa Cup between 1989 and 1991.

But throughout, AC Milan were in a league of their own. And thanks to the live coverage of matches, viewers were getting the full anthology of their brilliance and not just the greatest hits version.

The seeds of AC Milan's, and to a lesser extent, Inter's, enduring popularity were sowed in those days.

A hat-trick of scudetto titles followed between 1992 and 1994 under Fabio Capello, but it is their back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1989 and 1990 - a feat unequalled since - that sealed their reputation as one of the finest club sides in the history of football, perhaps the greatest until Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

And unlike, the legendary Real Madrid team of the 1950s or Ajax's total football practitioners of the early 1970s, this was football of the present, not tagged at the end of the news.

The 1989 European Cup final saw Steaua Bucharest destroyed 4-0. A year later it was Rijkaard who scored the only goal in the final win over Benfica.

But their signature performance came at the San Siro in the European Cup semi-final second leg match against Real Madrid on April 19, 1989. On a day when their football flirted with perfection, AC Milan toyed with a Madrid team containing Bernd Schuster, Emilio Butragueno, and Mexican superstar Hugo Sanchez in a 5-0 triumph. It was football from the future.

The future, however, has struggled to live up to that glorious past.

Of course, both clubs remain giants of world football. But when they step onto the pitch tonight, neither will have anywhere near the talent of a Van Basten or Matthaus, never mind that of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, to the diehard Milanistas, even those from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the match of the day will not be played at Camp Nou.

For that, we can thank the class of 1990. No YouTube clips necessary.

akhaled@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE