Berlusconi Draws Boos From AC Milan Supporters Demanding Soccer Trophies

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest- serving premier, is under fire from fans of the AC Milan soccer team he owns after refusing to spend for star players.

“He’s transforming AC Milan into the most ridiculous team of Europe,” according to disgruntled supporters who set up a blog called “Berlusconi, Get Out of AC Milan” on Facebook Inc. The site attracted more than 25,000 members since it was formed April 27. The group wants the media tycoon and prime minister to sell the team unless he buys more big-name players to keep pace with Europe’s elite clubs such as Barcelona, Manchester United and cross-town rival Inter Milan.

AC Milan, the seven-time European champion, hasn’t won Italy’s Serie A league since 2004. The team’s coach Leonardo resigned today after a third-place finish this season, which ends May 16. By contrast, Inter is poised to win its fifth straight Italian crown and then faces Bayern Munich on May 22 in the final of Europe’s Champions League.

AC Milan lost 16,293 season ticketholders after last year’s sale of former world player of the year Kaka to Real Madrid, reducing the number to 27,865, the lowest since Berlusconi bought the club in 1986. Milan’s season ticket revenue fell this year by 1.76 million euros ($2.2 million) to 10.46 million euros.

“The real AC Milan supporters are tired of Berlusconi,” said Marcello Traversin, 37, who made the 36-hour bus trip in 1989 to Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, where the team won the European Cup under Berlusconi for the first time.

‘Personal Return’

“He has managed the club for a personal return to use in politics,” Traversin said. “He’s not spending anymore and he’s selling the best players. Last year it was Kaka and next will be Pato,” referring to press speculation that the Brazilian striker might be sold after the season.

Fininvest SpA, Berlusconi’s holding company, responded to the fans’ criticism on April 27 when it said in a statement that there are no plans to sell the soccer club as the team aims for “new, prestigious achievements.”

AC Milan spent 164 million euros on players’ salaries in the 2008-09 season, compared with 194 million euros at Inter Milan, company reports show. Fininvest added that AC Milan allocated 237 million euros from 2005 to 2009 to buy players.

Adriano Galliani, AC Milan’s chief executive officer, said April 23 that the club is committed to being a top team, though Berlusconi “can’t keep losing millions of euros every year.” Berlusconi’s daughter Marina, who is Fininvest’s chairman, agrees. “Soccer clubs have to follow the rules of good management, balancing costs and revenue, like every company,” she said last month.

Kaka Sale

AC Milan’s loss narrowed to 9.8 million euros in 2009 from 66.8 million euros in 2008, after the team sold Brazilian national team player Kaka to Real Madrid for 68 million euros.

AC Milan fell three places to 10th in the latest Deloitte Money League survey after revenue declined 6 percent to 196.5 million euros during the 2008-09 campaign, when the team didn’t play in the Champions League tournament of top European clubs.

Berlusconi’s Fininvest controls AC Milan as well as broadcaster Mediaset SpA, Italy’s biggest private television company, and publisher Arnoldo Mondadori SpA, and partially owns financial services company Mediolanum SpA. Mediaset broadcasts Italian soccer and Champions League matches.

The lackluster performance by AC Milan contrasts with Berlusconi’s political victory in the March local elections. His conservative coalition took four regions from the opposition Democratic Party.

‘Winning Image’

“Berlusconi has used AC Milan’s winning image as a metaphor for his personal and political success,” said Tito Boeri, professor of economics at Bocconi University in Milan, in a telephone interview.

Sports team owners often have other objectives when buying a club such as boosting their business interests, Boeri said. He cited as examples the Agnellis, who control Juventus Football Club SpA and carmaker Fiat SpA, and Milan’s Moratti family, the owners of Inter and oil refiner Saras SpA.

AC Milan “needs too much money, these are difficult times,” Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri told daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published today. “It’s an era for oil tycoons. That’s why the main investors are sheiks. And our sheik is Moratti.” Confalonieri is an AC Milan supporter and one of Berlusconi’s closest friends.

While AC Milan has qualified for the Champions League next season, Berlusconi criticized the team’s play under Brazilian coach Leonardo. They were ousted by Manchester United 7-2 over two games in the Champion’s League round of sixteen.

Leonardo announced today at a press conference that he is quitting “after the team reached the objective of qualifying for next season’s Champions League,” according to a statement posted on the team’s website.

“There isn’t a real project for the club,” said Matteo Balboni, who formed the “Berlusconi, Get Out of AC Milan” group. “They are just cutting investments and selling the top players for money.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tommaso Ebhardt in Milan tebhardt@bloomberg.net; Chiara Remondini in Milan at cremondini@bloomberg.net

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