From shoe salesman to football pioneer: Arrigo Sacchi’s path to greatness

Updated: 02/03/2024

“I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first.” Those were the words of Arrigo Sacchi when he was appointed Milan coach in 1987. At the time, he was a relative unknown in the world of football.

Born in 1946 in Fusignano, a community of 7,000 people in the province of Ravenna, Sacchi never really made it as a footballer. The sport had been an obsession from an early age but, at first, his enthusiasm did not translate to skill on the pitch.

A defender, Sacchi worked hard but could not progress from amateur level, spending most of his playing career with local club Fusignano. On the side, he worked as a shoe salesman at his father’s factory. Sacchi did not live the glamorous life of a professional footballer.

At the age of 26, while attempting to prove himself at another local club, Baracca Lugo, he decided to turn his hand to coaching. To those who knew him, it was not entirely surprising. Sacchi had been a student of the game from a young age: as a boy, he regularly watched the great Real Madrid team of the 1950s and quickly became enamoured.

The Netherlands of the 1970s, though, proved Sacchi’s greatest influence. “It was a mystery to me,” Sacchi said of Rinus Michels’ team. “The television was too small; I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to fully understand what they were doing and to fully appreciate it.”

Sacchi had a natural inclination towards the attacking side of the game. In that sense, he was something of a nonconformist in the Italian game: the style of play on the peninsula when Sacchi began his coaching career was still very much based on the defensive, risk-averse football of Nereo Rocco and Helenio Herrera.

At Baracca Lugo, it quickly became apparent that Sacchi was a precocious coaching talent. From there, he moved on to Bellaria, before joining Serie B club Cesena in 1979 as a youth coach. It was a job that required his complete dedication.

Sacchi had been working for his father’s company as a director, earning an increasingly lucrative salary. When Cesena came calling, he had to decide between shoes and football. He chose the latter.

It was the beginning of a rapid rise to the top of the Italian game. Sacchi was appointed by Rimini in Serie C1 and came close to winning the title. That was enough to earn him a move to Fiorentina in the top flight as a youth coach, before he was handed the reins at Parma.

Parma, playing with a ferocious intensity, impressed Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. This was something different. And so, in 1987, he appointed Sacchi, ignoring the scepticism of those who were unconvinced by his track record.

Before Sacchi’s arrival, Milan had won just one Serie A title in twenty years. A talented group of players had underperformed, and so Sacchi set about motivating them. “I may come from Fusignano, but what have you won?” he asked his players during his first training session.

By the time Sacchi left the club, they had won a lot: an elusive Serie A title was secured in his first season, and that was followed by two European Cups. By the time he left, Italian football had changed for good.

Sacchi always preached the importance of entertainment above all else. “If you want to go down in history you don’t just need to win,” he said, “you have to entertain.” Milan did. The trio of Dutchman – Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten – were fluid and often irresistible. And the defence, anchored by Franco Baresi, was a key foundation of Sacchi’s side.

Under Sacchi, Milan were both innovative and successful. It was vindication for a coach who had been dismissed by some on the basis of reputation.

In his later roles, though, Sacchi struggled to effectively get his ideas across. He left Milan in 1991 to take charge of the Italy national team, but he appeared frustrated by the limitations of the international game.

Sacchi did guide the Azzurri to the final of the 1994 World Cup, but they were beaten on penalties by Brazil. The side never truly convinced, and Sacchi was sacked after elimination in the group stage of Euro 96.

He briefly returned to Milan but couldn’t replicate his previous success. Then came an unsuccessful spell in Spain with Atletico Madrid and, in 2001, another season at Parma. A stress-related illness soon forced him to take on a position as director. His coaching career was over.

But Sacchi should not be remembered by the latter stages of his career. Few coaches have made such a significant impact – as he did with Milan – over such a short period of time. The high defensive line and pressing game so omnipresent today – and utilised by a number of the most talented coaches – would not have taken the form they did without the influence of Arrigo Sacchi.

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