It’s not very often that Pep Guardiola is left baffled. As a manager, there have been few occasions where he has been outdone, with those moments being too far in between, while as a player, he was widely lauded as one of the most integral parts of Barcelona’s best side in the early 1990s. It takes a mammoth effort to halt his genius, but on one occasion, on the night Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team was supposed to be immortalized, Guardiola’s brilliance was halted, with many of the plaudits going the way of one Demetrio Albertini.
The match in conversation here is, of course, the Champions League final in 1994 in Athens where an unfancied AC Milan overcame the incredible Barcelona side that had one the same competition two years prior. Prior to the final, Barcelona came in as overwhelming favourites, not only because of their own quality, but also because their Milanese opposition were fairly depleted. However, by the end of the 90 minutes, they were infamously humbled. “It was not that we played badly,” a flabbergasted Cruyff said after the thrashing, “it was that we did not play at all.”
So, how important was Albertini is nullifying Cruyff’s erudition?
On the night, his coach, Fabio Capello used the midfielder’s qualities to full effect. The iconic manager set up in a 4-4-2 formation with the midfield four-man midfield consisting of Zvonimir Boban and Roberto Donadoni on either flank with Albertini partnered by Marcel Desailly in the middle of the park. That midfield was constantly on the move, varying from an all-attacking 4-1-3-2 to a more compact 4-1-4-1. On the grander scheme, these may just seem as numbers on a field, but Albertini’s hand in Milan’s attacking play was immense.
When playing in a more attacking sense, he would adopt a more advanced role on the field, playing just behind the two forwards, Dejan Savićević and Daniele Massaro. The midfield would shift to a diamond, with Desailly the deepest and the other three weaving their magic, largely inspired by Albertini. And when in need of a reserved set-up, Albertini would provide the calmness in midfield, with his composure on the ball unmatched by anyone else on the field. In the end, Guardiola, the catalyst to all the good things Barcelona did in that era, was trapped, and it was a magical night for Milan. It finished 4-0 to the Rossoneri in the Athens Olympic Stadium, a masterstroke from Capello.
Albertini describes that match against Barcelona as the best of his career, but there is a lot more that goes behind his legend. In a glorious era for AC Milan and Italian football as a whole, where Serie A was at its peak around the world and the quality reeking through the league was unmatchable by any league, Albertini’s name often goes under the radar. The likes of Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Albertini’s own team-mate at one point, George Weah’s exploits meant that the midfielder’s name often went under the radar, but that should overshadow what an excellent footballer he was.
Born and raised in Lombardy, AC Milan was in him right from the start and he began his path to going professional at the tender age of 11. The talent in him was clear, and he was catching the eye of many right from his younger days. Honed by the club’s famed youth setup, his flamboyance in the Primavera side caught the eye of the great Arrigo Sacchi, who was guiding Milan to European supremacy. Sacchi gave a 17-year-old Albertini his first taste of senior football on as a substitute against Como in a 4-0 success. There was a roar when he stepped on the turf for the Milan faithful had done their homework on the youngster – lots was expected of him.
“One Saturday night, I got a phone call in the parish, it was Demetrio, in a low voice, almost timidly telling me: ‘Ale, I’m in Naples, guess who I’m in the room with? [Franco] Baresi!’ It was [set to be his] first [time on the] bench in Serie A” – Demetrio’s brother, Alessio Albertini, on his sibling’s excitement ahead of his debut.
But it was clear that his young legs would be well down the pecking order. After just one more senior appearance, Albertini was sent out on loan to Padova in Serie B in the 1990/91 season. This was done for two reasons. Firstly, the controversial Silvio Berlusconi, who was calling the shots at the club at the time, saw huge potential in him and secondly, he wanted to give the player more time on the pitch, for he felt that Albertini’s mercurial talents would be on display to the world very soon. Although complicated, Berlusconi often got many things right in his time as AC Milan’s highest, and in the case of Albertini, he was spot on.
While playing constantly and consistently at Padova, he was often labelled as Italy’s finest young footballer. And upon his return to the San Siro, he was immediately inserted into the first-team arrangement. Having dominated the European scene at the time of his departure, Milan were looking to reignite their glory days, but this time, there would be another man on the bench: Fabio Capello.
The great Italian manager recognized his talent and soon after returning back home, he would often see himself in the starting team-sheet. During this time, there was Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti who were ahead of him in the midfield pecking order. But while the Dutchman was still raring to go, his partner’s aging legs meant that Albertini got more time on the pitch. That season, Milan would win the Scudetto, going unbeaten throughout the whole campaign as the club’s Dutch trio of Rijkaaad, Ruud Gullit and the amazing Marco van Basten, who scored 25 that season, fired the team into Serie A folklore.
And while he did make a flying start in his first season, making a significant contribution to the main team and also earning his first cap for the national team, it was essential that he didn’t have his head in the clouds, as there was major belief that there were great things in store for him. He cites Franco Baresi, his captain at club-level, as a major influence as his status was improving.
“While I was a youth player, I followed Ancelotti and Rijkaard, trying to emulate them in the match. At the end of the serious, Franco Baresi, the great captain, would say to me, ‘Do not let it get to your head, it was Carletto who was willing to make space for you. You have made an excellent contribution to this Scudetto, but you can still grow a lot.’” – Demetrio Albertini on the role of his captain, Franco Baresi, in helping him keep his feet on the ground.
In fairness, from his younger days, Albertini was mature well beyond his years, showing it on and off the pitch. A graceful architect in the middle of the pitch, he linked play with elegance, giving an aura of class in the Milan side. The following season, with a more important role to play, Capello’s incredible Milan would retain their Serie A title, and would chase the double, going all the way to the European Cup final, where they would face Marseille in Munich. Although he started the game, the night ended in heartbreak, as Basile Boli’s header just before half-time was the solitary goal in a disappointing match for the Rossoneri.
The following season, with Milan took one from the men that outdid them in the European Cup final, buying Marseille’s Marcel Desailly as the French club were trapped in a match-fixing scandal that resulted in their relegation from the French top flight and a ban from defending their title the next year. What Milan were getting was the perfect complement to Albertini’s poise, as the two were paired in midfield to provide the adequate balance of attacking flair and defensive stability. This was a game-changing combination.
The team would romp to a third-successive Serie A title – an impressive feat for the club, and even more so for the player, who was playing in the second division the season prior to the commencement of this mini-dynasty. His quality was clear to the world and in May of 1994, he enjoyed his finest hour donning the club’s famed crest when they trounced Barcelona in Athens. This was the pinnacle of Albertini’s young career and the disappointment in Munich was erased from the memory of the AC Milan faithful in emphatic fashion. There was no stopping Albertini’s growth, and his next goal after conquering Europe would be to conquer the world.
The World Cup in that year would go west to the United States and amidst blazing sunshine and an audience that was still adopting the sport, Italy were one of the favourites. Leading the Italian side was Arrigo Sacchi, the man that gave Albertini his debut and knew all that there was to know about him. So, when the time came, in a team of superstars consisting of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Pagliuca amongst others, Albertini was the centerpiece, and he started all their group stage games.
The Azzurri were in a relatively complicated group with Mexico, Norway and the Republic of Ireland, but were overwhelming favourites to come out on top. However, there were still struggles faced in a tight group. They finished third, qualifying to the second round as one of the best third-placed teams in a group where all four teams won, drew and lost a game each, with all four gaining four points. In the knockout stages, the Italians, and more specifically, Roberto Baggio, turned it up a notch, beating Nigeria to progress to the quarter-finals and then overcoming Spain to go to the last four.
Against Bulgaria, two wins away from winning a fourth world title, Albertini would play a crucial role. With Baggio running the show in attack, the midfielder would delicately control the midfield and in the build-up to the second Italian goal, he expertly played the pass to give Baggio a chance to score his second and double Italy’s leading, giving them one foot in the final. Hristo Stoichkov would get a consolation later, but it was Italy who would go to the Rose Bowl for the ultimate game of that year’s World Cup against Brazil.
In an intense encounter in Pasadena, the game would finish goalless – the first time such a result had occurred in a World Cup final. This meant that a dreaded penalty shoot-out would take place, and amazingly, it would be the overhit shot of Roberto Baggio – the man that essentially carried Italy to this point – that would result in his country’s shortcoming. In a year where Albertini, who scored in the shootout, and several of his AC Milan teammates could have had the unique distinction of being simultaneous Champions League and World Cup winners’, their afternoon ended in the bitterest of dissatisfactions.
Life went on for Albertini, and the missed chance in the United States would have to be left behind. Back in Lombardy, he would add the European Super Cup to his constantly improving list of honours but would have to suffer further heartbreak on the world stage when Argentina’s Vélez Sarsfield beat the Italians in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo in 1994. Albertini would add two further Scudetti to his collection – first in 1996 in a George Weah-inspired team, where he also enjoyed his best goalscoring season with eight goals, and then again in 1999 under the management of Alberto Zaccheroni.
In between, there was also the World Cup in France, and further misery on the international scene wasn’t too far away. In the expanded 32-team competition, Italy strolled through the first two rounds and came up against the hosts in the quarter-finals. There, after a goalless two hours, it would be penalties to decide who would enter the semi-finals.
Interestingly, the shootout in Saint-Denis was entirely different as compared to the one in Pasadena, except the result. Here, it was Baggio that scored and Albertini that missed – and that was a devastating blow. Italy would lose out yet again on penalties after Luigi Di Biagio’s spot kick was also awry, and that was Albertini’s international career in a nutshell. And if that wasn’t enough, there would be more pain for Albertini and the Azzurri on the international scene.
Two years later at the European Championships that were jointly hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium, Italy were at their dominant best yet again, strolling through to the final where they would come up against the old nemesis, France, once more. And just like the last two major international tournaments, it was a matter of being so close once again, as David Trezeguet’s golden goal put Italy to the sword. For Albertini, there was the personal reward of being elected on to the Team of the Tournament, but over the last six years, there were a lot more honours that he would rather have taken back to Milan.
After the Serie A success in 1999, it was clear that Albertini’s influence was fading. A constant figure in the team for the best part of the decade, he was instrumental to AC Milan’s success and Italy’s progression to the latter stages of major tournaments and was aptly nicknamed Il Metronomo. His excellent ability and calmness on the ball meant that he could play in central midfield or as a deep-lying playmaker, for his capability to pick a pass was right up there amongst the best. In 2018, he was voted onto The Gentleman Ultra’s Serie A Dream Team of the 1990s, and an excerpt from his selection sums up just the sort of player he was on the pitch and the person he was off of it.
He played in front of Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi and Maldini, one of the best backlines world football has ever seen, but his role as guardian of their blockade is often overlooked due his quiet demeanour and lack of ego – The Gentleman Ultra
Zaccheroni would be in charge for only a short while after the title win, before Fatih Terim’s stint began and that failed to produce any fireworks. Injuries also troubled Albertini, forcing him to withdraw from the World Cup in 2002, effectively ending his 11-year international career. And after some time where he fiddled in and out of the first-team scene as Carlo Ancelotti, his former mentor-turned-manager tried to integrate an up-and-coming Andrea Pirlo into the first-team, the outcome was inevitable. In 2002, an emotional Albertini announced his departure from his beloved club, moving to Spain to continue his adventure with Atlético Madrid.
In the Spanish capital, he was coached by Luis Aragonés, who had just done a fine job of getting the side away from the depths of the second division and establishing the Colchoneros as a firm LaLiga outfit. Although Albertini represented the club for just a solitary season, he did leave his mark in a Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabéu, scoring a fine free-kick from the edge of the box. He helped his team to a 12th place finish, before returning home to play for another capital club, this time in the form of Lazio in Rome.
Trouble wasn’t too far away from Lazio. After winning the Scudetto in 2000, the mismanagement of the club saw many of their star players leave and after representing them for just a year, Albertini waved goodbye to them as well, leaving no major impact. He went to Atalanta as a one-year stint at various clubs was now becoming a habit and after the spell in Bergamo, he would receive a surprise offer to go to back to LaLiga Barcelona. A makeshift player to help the club deal with injury issues, Albertini mostly played in the cup games, but at the end of his career, he would add a LaLiga title to his honours list before retiring from the game entirely.
A revered midfielder who was one of the best in Serie A at a time when the league was the finest football had to offer, it’s a tad bit unfair that his name is often outshined by some of the other heroes of that era. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t deny what a fantastic footballer he was. The heartbeat of the Milan side that dominated Italy and Europe in the early ‘90s under Fabio Capello and a player that was adaptable to any situation. Arrigo Sacchi gave him his break, Capello made him a superstar, but knowing Demetrio Albertini and his resounding skill, humility and aptitude towards the game, he would have been great with anyone.