Underrated & Understated – Remembering Demetrio Albertini

For those of a certain age, the 1994 Champions League Final played in Athens remains a game like no other. To recap: an unfancied and depleted AC Milan overcame a hugely gifted Barcelona side by four clear goals. Now replace overcame with humbled. “It was not that we played badly,” a flabbergasted Cruyff, the Barcelona coach, said after the thrashing, “it was that we did not play at all.” And while Marcel Desailly gained many of the plaudits for this result, the role played by another Milan midfielder cannot be praised enough. That midfielder was Demetrio Albertini.

On the night Milan coach Fabio Capello used the midfielder’s qualities to full effect.  He set up in a classic 4-4-2 formation with the midfield quartet consisting of Zvonimir Boban and Roberto Donadoni on either flank with Albertini partnered by Marcel Desailly in the centre. That midfield unit was ever-fluid, varying from an attack-minded 4-1-3-2 to a more compact 4-1-4-1 and Albertini’s role in executing these transitions was immense. When playing in a more attacking period, Albertini adopted a more advanced role on the field playing just behind the two forwards, Dejan Savićević and Daniele Massaro. And when in need of a cautious set-up, Albertini would provide the calmness in midfield, his composure on the ball unmatched by anyone else on the field that night.

Albertini describes that match as the best of his career, but there is a lot more that built his legend. In a glorious era for AC Milan and Italian football, when Serie A was at its peak around the world, Albertini’s name often goes under the radar. The exploits of players like Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Albertini’s own team-mate at one point, George Weah, meant that the less extravagant talents of Albertini could be overlooked; but that should not overshadow what an excellent footballer he was.

Born and raised in Lombardy, AC Milan was in his blood from his youth and he began his path to a professional career at the tender age of 11. His talent was evident and as he was honed and shaped within the club’s famed youth setup. Performances for the Primavera side caught the eye of Arrigo Sacchi and Milan’s first-team coach gave the 17-year-old his first taste of senior football as a substitute in a 4-1 Serie A win over Como.

“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.

Precocious talent or not, it was clear that the youngster would be well down the pecking order in Milan’s star-filled squad. After just one more senior appearance he was sent out on loan to Padova in Serie B for the 1990/91 season. Regular football suited him and while playing consistently at Padova, he was starting to be labelled as Italy’s finest young footballer. Upon his return to the San Siro he was immediately brought into the first-team setup. And this time there would be a different man on the bench: Fabio Capello.

The new coach recognised his special talent and he started to feature on the starting team-sheet with increasing regularity. During this era, Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti were obvious choices ahead of him, but while the Dutchman was still in fine shape, his partner’s ageing legs gave Albertini more opportunities to play. That season Milan would win the Scudetto and remain unbeaten throughout the whole campaign – an unprecedented achievement. Albertini’s influence grew as the season advanced and even led to him earning a first international call-up. He cites Franco Baresi, his captain at club-level, as a major influence in his sharp improvement.

“While I was a youth player, I followed Ancelotti and Rijkaard, trying to emulate them in the match. At the end of the season, 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.

From his earliest days Albertini demonstrated maturity well beyond his years, both on and off the pitch. A graceful architect in midfield, he linked play with elegance. The following season, with a more important role to play, Capello’s incredible Milan would retain its Serie A title and would chase a double, going all the way to the Champions League Final to face Marseille in Munich. Although he started the game, a disappointing night for the Rossoneri ended in heartbreak as Basile Boli’s header just before half-time won it for the French.

For the 1993-94 season Milan acquired one of the players who overcame them in that European Cup final: Marseille’s Marcel Desailly. What Milan added was the perfect complement to Albertini’s poise and the two in tandem featured a perfect balance of attacking flair and defensive stability. This was a game-changing combination. Milan romped to a third successive Serie A title and at the end of that season came that game against Barcelona in Athens, with Albertini enjoying his finest hour in the club’s famous shirt.

The World Cup that same year went west to the United States and Italy began as 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. This was a team of superstars containing Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Pagliuca amongst others and at its fulcrum was Demetrio Albertini. He duly started all their group stage games.

The Azzurri was drawn in a relatively complicated group with Mexico, Norway and the Republic of Ireland and there would be a struggle to advance from it. Italy finished third, qualifying only for the second round as one of the best third-placed teams. In the knockout stages the Italians, and more specifically, Roberto Baggio, turned it up a notch beating Nigeria to progress to the quarter-finals, then overcoming Spain to reach the last four.

Now just wins from winning a fourth world title, Albertini would play a crucial role against Bulgaria. With Baggio running the show in attack, Albertini ran the midfield behind him and in the build-up to the second Italian goal, he expertly played the pass to give Baggio a chance to score his second. With Bulgaria trailing 2-0, Hristo Stoichkov scored a consolation but it was Italy who would go to the Rose Bowl for the Final against Brazil.

An intense encounter in Pasadena finished goalless, the first time such a result had occurred in a World Cup final. This meant that the dreaded penalty shoot-out would settle proceedings and it would be the overhit effort of Roberto Baggio – the man who essentially carried Italy to this point – which would result in his country’s defeat. In a year in which 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 added the European Super Cup to his growing list of honours but missed out when Argentina’s Vélez Sarsfield beat the Italians in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo. Albertini added two further Scudetti to his collection – first in a George Weah-inspired 1996 team in which he enjoyed his own highest-scoring campaign with eight goals, and then again in 1999 under the management of Alberto Zaccheroni.

Between those years was the World Cup in France and further penalty misery. 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 advance to the semi-finals. This time Baggio scored and Albertini missed and when Luigi Di Biagio’s spot-kick also went awry, so too did Italy’s participation in the tournament.

Two years later the European Championships was jointly hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium, Italy seemed at its dominant best yet again and advanced through to the final where they would come up against their old nemesis, France, once more. And just as in the previous two international tournaments, it was a case of being so close once again as David Trezeguet’s golden goal put Italy to the sword. For Albertini there was the personal recognition of being elected in the Team of the Tournament, scant reward for a tournament – indeed an entire international career – borne of frustration.

Following Milan’s Serie A success of 1999 it was becoming clear that Albertini’s influence was waning. 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. His nickname of ‘Il Metronomo’ was highly apt: his ability and calmness on the ball and unerring ability to pick a pass meant that he could play in central midfield or as a deep-lying playmaker. In 2018 he was voted into The Gentleman Ultra’s Serie A Dream Team of the 1990s, and an excerpt from his selection sums up just the sort of man he was.

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 to his quiet demeanour and lack of ego – The Gentleman Ultra

Zaccheroni would be in charge for only a short while after the 1999 title win before Fatih Terim’s stint failed to produce any fireworks. Injuries also troubled Albertini, forcing him to withdraw from the World Cup in 2002 and effectively ending his 11-year international career. And after some time in which he drifted in and out of the first-team scene as Carlo Ancelotti, his former mentor-turned-manager tried to integrate an emergent Andrea Pirlo into the Albertini role, the outcome was inevitable. In 2002, an emotional Albertini announced his departure from his beloved Milan and moved to Spain to continue his adventure with Atlético Madrid.

In the Spanish capital he was coached by Luis Aragonés who had done a fine job of bringing the club back from the depths of the second tier and establishing the Colchoneros as a solid La Liga outfit once again. Although Albertini represented the club for just a solitary season, he did leave his mark in a Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabéu by scoring a fine free-kick from the edge of the box. He helped his team to a twelfth placed finish before returning home to play for another capital club, this time in the form of Lazio in Rome.

Trouble wasn’t ever far away from Lazio. After winning the Scudetto in 2000, the mismanagement of the club saw many of their star players leave and Albertini himself waved goodbye after a single season in which he made no significant impact. He moved on to Atalanta with single-year stints now becoming his normal. Next, he would receive a surprise offer to go back to La Liga with Barcelona. This was always in a role of makeshift player to help the club deal with injury issues and Albertini mostly played in cup games, but at the end of his career he could add a Spanish title to his honours list before retiring from the game for good.

A revered midfielder who was one of the best in Serie A at a time when the league was the strongest in the world; the heartbeat of the Milan side that dominated Italy and Europe in the early ‘90s under Fabio Capello and a player who 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 attitude towards the game, he would have been a great working under any coach.

KARAN TEJWANI

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