Demetrio Albertini: AC Milan’s quiet heart with a different beat

Words by Chris Weir Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 5, 2018
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“He’s more talented and skilful on the ball than I ever was, that’s for certain”.

Not for the first time, Demetrio Albertini was doing himself a disservice. Humility might seem unusual for a two-time winner of the Champions League. Deference, too, might be surprising in a man who spent fourteen years at one of Europe’s greatest clubs.

The remarks, however, were typical of a player who built his legend on grace and tact. Il Metronomo is a Milanese icon, a gentleman assassin who made an art of unlocking defences long before Xavi and Iniesta ever set foot in the Camp Nou.

Albertini has every reason to be boastful, but he chose an interview with FIFA.com in 2008 to speak instead about the virtues of Andrea Pirlo, the man who took his place in the team where he grew up. Ego, it seems, is something he doesn’t wear lightly.

Demetrio Albertini grew up in Villa Reverio, a sleepy village in Lombardy where every day feels like Sunday. The son of a construction worker, his mother allowed him to train only if he promised to maintain his studies. Plans for a career as a surveyor were waylaid, however, when her son was spotted by Milan scouts when he was just eleven years old.

A shimmering centrocampista with remarkable game intelligence, Albertini’s progress through the Primavera ranks was silk-smooth. Nobody was surprised when Arrigo Sacchi called him up to the first team in 1989. The Rossoneri were on their way to a third European Cup, but there was room in the squad for a prodigy whose talent was undeniable, even at 17.

After making his Serie A debut against Como on 15th January, Albertini was dispatched on loan to Padova for the 1990/91 season. In Veneto, his performances were so impressive that Diadora voted him as the ‘best hope’ for Italian football.

Even as a youngster, Albertini stood out. A connoisseur of cuisine and fine wine, he admitted in a recent interview with Affaritaliani that “When I played and some of my teammates went to the disco, I preferred the wine shops”. Whilst his contemporaries sampled the local nightlife, he was more likely to be found with his nose in a Paulo Coelho book or attending a Milanese theatre.

Despite his burgeoning profile, Albertini returned to a side that was stuffed with galactic talents. Fabio Capello, inheriting a squad that had just won another European Cup, put him straight into the starting line-up ahead of a tiring Carlo Ancelotti. Boosted by a 25-goal-haul from Marco van Basten, Il Diavolo went the entire season unbeaten, scoring 74 times in the process.

Sacrifice wasn’t unusual for a player whose mother had put her own life on pause to deliver him to training three times a week as a youngster. Albertini had been brought up to show respect and deference to his superiors, and it was his demurring character that made him such a natural presence in Milan’s glittering midfield that season.

“I’m a simple guy looking for a normal life” he shrugged to Gazzetto Dello Sport. “I do not like being put on a pedestal”.

His talent, however, soon made that inevitable. Albertini was always more comfortable on the edge of the huddle than at its centre, an introverted architect who was happiest basking in his teammates’ glory rather than his own. When Milan went down to Marseille in the Champions League final a year later, there was no hulking ego to deflate; only a resolve to rectify the injustice in the following season.

Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ were firm favourites for the final in Athens on 18 May 1994. Barcelona had Romário, scorer of 30 goals in 33 games. They had the roaming savagery of Hristo Stoichkov. And they also had Pep Guardiola, the Catalan príncep who was at the peak of his cerebral powers.

Milan, however, had Albertini, whose languid style juxtaposed sublimely with the smothering genius of Marcel Desailly. Throughout the ninety minutes, the Italian threaded the play with patience and studied precision. Guardiola simply couldn’t get near him. The ensuing 4-0 whitewash reflected Milan’s dominance totally.

Much is made of the Rossoneri‘s gilded backline, and rightly so. Few defences can boast the luminescence of Mauro Tassotti, Billy Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. In front of them, however, was a man whose pouting brilliance often vanquished the danger before they even needed to react. Albertini was Milan’s floating brain in a jar, his probing passes finding Daniele Massaro and Dejan Savićević with indiscriminate regularity.

“I’m a simple guy looking for a normal life. I do not like being put on a pedestal." Demetrio Albertini

Soaring after his continental triumph, Albertini joined the Italian squad for the 1994 World Cup. In the United States, he would be reunited with the man who’d given him his Milan debut six years earlier. He was still the apple of Arrigo Sacchi’s eye, especially after his crafted through ball released Roberto Baggio to score a vital goal against Bulgaria in the semi-final.

On the 17th July 1994, however, he received his first body blow. Roberto Baggio’s decisive penalty flew over Claudio Taffarel’s bar at the Rose Bowl, and Brazil were crowned world champions.

Albertini had scored his penalty that day, so when he stepped up to take another against France in Saint-Dénis four years later, Azzurri fans were confident. Imagine their despair, then, when his weak strike was parried easily by Fabien Barthez. The momentum slipped from the Italians’ grasp, with Luigi Di Biagio’s wild effort consigning them to an early exit.

Two years later, Albertini was the star of Italy’s inexorable march to the Euro 2000 final. More heartbreak awaited him in Amsterdam, however, after David Trezeguet smashed in a golden goal winner with just seconds of regulation time left. An unhappy international career bottomed out when he was forcibly withdrawn from the squad for the World Cup in 2002. This time, it was an Achilles tendon injury that sealed his fate.

Whilst misery loved Albertini’s company on the international front, his luck wasn’t much better at club level. Stomach-churning losses against Ajax and Vélez robbed him of European and Intercontinental titles respectively, but he was essential in guiding his teammates back to the Scudetto a year later. George Weah was unstoppable in Serie A that season, helping himself to 15 goals in his debut campaign, but the following year couldn’t match those lustrous heights. For Albertini personally, however, it was his most productive season, with eight goals plundered from midfield.

Another dismal campaign followed under the returning Fabio Capello, before Alberto Zaccheroni inspired a resurgence that saw Milan sweep back to the Serie A title. By 2002, though, Albertini’s famed consistency was waning.

Lacklustre under Fatih Terim’s flailing eccentricities, Albertini surrendered his place to the incoming Andrea Pirlo as Carlo Ancelotti reshaped the team in his image. That July, he made the announcement that everybody had been expecting.

“I have spoken to the club that I consider my family” he stated through to tears to the assembled media.

“We are both convinced that the time has come to try a new experience”.

Atlético Madrid was the destination, with Albertini joining Fabricio Coloccini and José Mari in the Spanish capital. Luis Aragónes had dragged Los Colchoneros from the purgatory of the Segunda, and Albertini was crucial in cajoling his temporary employers into a 12th place finish. Before returning to Italy, he’d even had time to score a last-minute equaliser against Real Madrid in the Madrileño Derby.

After their historic Scudetto win in 2000, Lazio were in desperate financial straits. With Sergio Cragnotti departing the club in disgrace, Roberto Mancini was left to salvage something from a squad that had no choice but to forgo talents like Dejan Stanković and Sergio Conceiçao. Arriving on a cut-price deal from Milan, Albertini was a steadying influence for a team that was rapidly disintegrating off the pitch. As honourable as he was, however, even he knew it was a sinking ship.

“As soon as the season ended, everyone made a run for it” he told reporters in 2017.

“Bankruptcy was close and nobody wanted to stay. At the first day of pre-season training, there were five of us in the locker room…I decided to leave at that point as well”.

Escaping to Atalanta, Albertini was content to wind down his career in the more subdued environs of Bergamo. In January 2005, however, he received a phone call from Barcelona.

Frank Rijkaard had watched on in horror as Gabri, Thiago Motta and Edmílson all succumbed to long-term injury. Desperate, the Blaugrana boss turned to his former teammate for help.

At 33, Albertini made the kind of move that’s usually reserved for players in their prime. In truth, he was a benchwarmer in Catalonia, appearing in just a handful of league and Cup games. It was a marvellous way, however, to announce his retirement. After sixteen trophies in seventeen years, he hung up his boots in December 2005.

“After a career like mine it is inevitable that I will study to be a coach” he admitted to the media when asked about his next steps.

The Calciopoli scandal soon put paid to his managerial ambitions. With the President of the Italian Football Federation resigning in the wake of the furore, Albertini was appointed as an extraordinary vice-commissioner. Four months later he was gone, only to be elected as vice-president a year later. He stayed in post for the next six years, before announcing himself as a candidate for the presidency in 2013 in opposition to Carlo Tavecchio.

“In the field I’ve always been a director; I want to do it in the Federation, too” he said at the launch of his campaign.

“I have a dream; that the Italian championship returns to the most beautiful in the world , as it was in the 90s”.

Alas, Tavecchio would see off Albertini’s challenge, with the 71-year-old garnering two thirds of the vote despite making racist comments about ‘banana eaters’.

Albertini might not have been able to bring the glory days back, but the memories of his brilliance are timeless. Few players had his precision and composure; fewer still could have endured, as he did, in a team boasting flagbearers like Frank Rijkaard and Zvonimir Boban. Albertini was one of the finest midfielders of his generation, a man who could do it all and frequently did, helping his club to every major trophy in the process.

One could argue that a player whose testimonial was attended by seven Ballons D’Or might be worth celebrating more extensively. Albertini, however, would disagree. His trophies and his legacy already speak for themselves.

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