Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest- serving prime minister, has found his passion for soccer again. So have the supporters of his club, AC Milan.
The billionaire paid a combined 42 million euros ($54 million) to sign forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho before the season. That’s relieved some of the pressure on the 73-year- old, who took over the club in 1986.
While the team has won seven league titles and five European Cups since the politician’s arrival, it’s gone three seasons without a trophy. Even worse for Milan, city rival Inter Milan added the Champions League last season to five straight league titles.
That prompted 3,000 Milan supporters to protest at the club’s training facility on July 20 to urge Berlusconi to sell, calling him an “absentee owner.” A return to the spending that characterized the early years of his reign has revived the fans’ interest.
“Ibrahimovic and Robinho are a good start,” said Tommaso Peregalli, a 22-year-old university student. “It will take a few years to recoup the underinvestment of the past few years.”
The team begins its Champions League campaign at home to France’s Auxerre tonight with Robinho and Ibrahimovic in line to start together for the first time since signing in the last week of August.
AC Milan has sold 53,260 season tickets for its home Champions League matches, surpassing its record of 52,500 in the 2002-03 season, which ended with the sixth of its seven European Cup triumphs. The club says its overall season-ticket revenue is 12.7 million euros, up from 10.3 million euros a year earlier.
“There’s a very important message sent by the excellent support by Mr. Berlusconi’s family with the acquisition of new players,” Umberto Gandini, a Milan director, said in an interview. “This is the Mr. Berlusconi we know.”
Milan replaced coach Leonardo with Massimiliano Allegri after finishing third last season. Inter, which shares the San Siro stadium with Milan, finished 12 points ahead of its neighbor.
Berlusconi’s squad also suffered a 7-2 loss to Manchester United over two games in the second round of the Champions League. That performance came after selling 2007 World Player of the Year Kaka to Real Madrid for 68 million euros, a move that led to further fan protests.
Those setbacks brought appeals for Berlusconi to end his association with the club. Fininvest SpA, Milan’s holding company, said it doesn’t have any plans to sell.
The owner, who made his fortune with Italian broadcaster Mediaset SpA, surprised fans by bankrolling the signings of Ibrahimovic from Barcelona and Robinho from Manchester City within the last three days of the transfer window.
Ibrahimovic joined Milan for 24 million euros, about a third less than the deal that took him to Spain a season earlier. The Swedish national team scored 57 goals in 88 appearances to help propel Inter to three straight titles starting in 2006.
Robinho, a 26-year-old Brazilian, remains the U.K.’s costliest player, having joined City for 32.5 million pounds ($50.6 million) in 2008. Milan paid 18 million euros for him and got both players to agree a cut in salary, media reports said.
Berlusconi “always said if there’s any opportunity to buy a champion, a real champion, ‘I will be there and do my part,’” Gandini said. “In this case we offered an ideal solution to the players and to the involved clubs. We probably had the opportunity to have the upper hand.”
By adding the new talent to a squad that includes the likes of Brazilian attackers Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho as well as Italian national team midfielder Andrea Pirlo, the team is being talked about as a contender for major honors.
“Their attack now has strengthened,” Real Madrid director Emilio Butragueno said in an interview. “They are going to be very strong opponents.”
Former European champions Real and Ajax join Auxerre as Milan’s opponents in Group G.
Having players with international reputations doesn’t always bring success. Real Madrid spent $300 million to expand its squad and won no trophies last season. Ibrahimovic missed a penalty on his Milan debut four days ago as his new team slumped to a 2-0 loss at newly promoted Cesena.
“It’s very good to have Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but it was clear after the Cesena loss they should have started rebuilding with defenders,” Peregalli said.