Football: The most beautiful game: Majestic Milan put flair to the fore and turn the European Cup final into a parade of their riches: Richard Williams in Athens sees a display rich in eloquence from the European champions

'I'm waiting for Desailly - I excel myself against blacks.'

Hristo Stoichkov's stupid boast, uttered on the eve of last week's European Cup final, came back to choke him.

It was one of many sub-plots in a match as enthralling and uplifting as any of its kind since Real Madrid's 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final, the legendary encounter which bathed this competition in an enduring glow of magic and sophistication.

For the European Cup final has something that not even the climactic episode of the World Cup can boast: a cosmopolitan dimension inaugurated by that great Madrid team of Di Stefano, Puskas, Santamaria and Canario, and reflected on Wednesday night by the presence in the Olympic Stadium, in Athens, of a Bulgarian, a Frenchman, a Croat, a Dutchman, a Montenegrin and a Brazilian, starting the match alongside eight Italians and eight Spaniards. Whereas the World Cup is about patriotism and national character, defining itself within those limits, the European Cup has no such restrictions. It is about wealth and power, and the task of assembling the best that money can buy. At one level, of course, this makes it a war of tycoons, merely a battle - in this case - between Milan's Silvio Berlusconi and Barcelona's Jose Luis Nunez over who can afford the best toys. On the face of it, this may project a regrettable vision of modern sport, but in reality - in the breathless moment before the kick-off, when anything might happen with so much talent on display - its potency is unique and infinitely seductive.

As for Marcel Desailly, the Ghanaian-born Frenchman, once the whistle had gone he barely gave a thought to Stoichkov, who had seemed to embody all the flair and deadly threat of the Spanish champions. He didn't need to, since others were doing the job for him. First Christian Panucci, a 21- year-old novice libero playing doubly out of position at left-back, nullified Barcelona's gifted, arrogant Bulgarian striker. Then, when Stoichkov switched wings after a barren half-hour, he was shut out by a veteran, Milan's 34-year-old right-back, Mauro Tassotti. Finally, when he tried to infiltrate the centre of Milan's spatchcocked defence in the second half, Stoichkov disappeared into the black hole created by the covering of the alert, athletic Italian centre-backs, Filippo Galli and Paolo Maldini. So Desailly was left free to obliterate the attacking efforts of the Spanish midfielders, who dashed themselves against his mighty tackling like moths drawn into the blades of an electric fan. And in the 59th minute, having imposed himself as the game's primary destructive force, Desailly found the freedom to stride forward, to exchange passes with Demetrio Albertini, and to curl the ball around Andoni Zubizarreta and into the net with a delicacy that even Eric Cantona hadn't summoned when presented with a similar opportunity at Wembley four days earlier.

Beforehand, Desailly had declined the opportunity to make a verbal response to Stoichkov's taunt. Like the rest of his team, he saved his eloquence for the pitch. As a result, Stoichkov wasn't the only one to have his words rammed back down his throat: you would imagine that Johan Cruyff, the Barcelona coach, might have known better than to promise his team would give Milan a lesson in attacking football that would set standards for the rest of the world. Fabio Capello, his opposite number, merely muttered a few words about how Milan would need to be at their grittiest. 'I'm looking for an 'ugly' Milan,' he said, seeming to confirm the worst fears of those convinced that Capello's red-and- blacks had renounced the expansive football of Arrigo Sacchi's team of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard in favour of a return to the dour defensive preoccupations of the Italian stereotype.

In the event, it was Milan who gave the world a football master- class, the all-round excellence of Desailly's contribution mirrored by that of the entire team, among whom there was not a single weak link - indeed, hardly a single mistake all night. The first half, in particular, represented an exhibition of technical skill and sporting intellect so concentrated and intense that it intimidated Cruyff's team - hot pre-match favourites with just about everybody - into unconditional surrender.

Daniele Massaro's first goal, in the 23rd minute, established Milan's supremacy; his second, in first-half injury time, confirmed their victory. In between, they had impressed their pattern on the game to such an extent that the Spaniards had lost all vestiges of coherence. As Massaro turned to celebrate his second strike, their faces - and, more significantly, Cruyff's - betrayed the sullenness of despair. Philip Don's half-time whistle, a few moments later, brought to an end a period that had compressed the urgency and creativity of 90 minutes into 45. There were 45 more minutes to come, and two more goals to be scored, but the game was up and everyone in the stadium knew it.

Moreover, the build-up to that second goal alone contained more virtue than most entire matches. From the hand of Sebastiano Rossi, Milan's goalkeeper, to the foot of Massaro, it lasted 47 seconds and encompassed 13 passes, involving eight of Milan's outfield players, featuring constant changes of tempo, rhythm and angle, and just about every football technique in the book except heading and tackling: long passes, short passes, first-time passes, delayed passes, passes faded with the outside of the boot and curled with the inside, instant reactions, pauses for thought, shielding of the ball, dummy runs, a marvellous backheel, a final shot of pitiless accuracy. At the time, in the flesh, it was staggering; in replay it takes on the lineaments of a great set- piece of the cinema - a montage by Eisenstein or Hitchcock. As a catalogue of individual skill and collective vision, it should be in every coach's video library.

To all this the Barcelona players were little more than spectators, pulled this way and that as the Milanese kept possession, probing for a weakness, pressing and withdrawing, varying the pace and the trajectory of their attacks with magical fluency until Roberto Donadoni found the space for the lethal cross which opened up the target for Massaro. Of all the marvellous things Milan had to show us on Wednesday, it was the clearest illustration of the feeling that although these two great clubs are roughly similar in size and degree of support and all-round affluence, in Athens only one of them looked like the product of such assets, such organisation.

Barcelona had an excuse or two for their disastrous failure to live up to their pledges. 'We couldn't play the way we wanted because Milan played so well, winning all the tackles,' Cruyff said afterwards, with a decent measure of grace in defeat. Had he been less of a man, he might have added a couple of mitigating factors. First, whereas Milan had wrapped up the Italian league championship in mid-April and could cruise through their remaining fixtures, the Catalans were scrapping with the upstarts of Deportivo La Coruna all the way through to the Saturday before Athens, winning the title only by virtue of La Coruna's last-minute penalty miss. Second, in terms of individual motivation, it can hardly have been simply a coincidence that while all three of Barcelona's foreign players - Stoichkov of Bulgaria, Romario of Brazil and Koeman of the Netherlands - are going to the World Cup next month, all three of Milan's - Savicevic of Montenegro, Boban of Croatia and Desailly of France - will be denied that biggest of all stages on which to display their art. The discrepancy in urgency, in appetite, between the two sets of exiles on the night would certainly support such a view. Milan's foreigners displayed a voracity that made them look worth every lira of whatever fortunes they are paid, while Cruyff's imported mercenaries had no stomach for this particular fight.

Still, the challenge of the European Cup should have been more than enough to motivate anybody - as it certainly was for the five Milan players who will be in Sacchi's Italian squad in the US. And, of course, Milan could point to the disruption caused to their defence by the thoroughly justified suspension of Franco Baresi, their ageing captain, and the much less satisfactory ban on Alessandro Costacurta. Fabio Capello's greatest achievement was to field a realigned back four that may even have been more efficient than his usual first-choice rearguard, to the degree that on Thursday morning Sacchi was to be heard trying in vain to explain his absurd decision to leave Panucci, the star of the Under-21 side which won the European championship last month, and Baresi's natural heir, out of the World Cup party. Somebody should remind the Italian national manager of the impact of Giuseppe Bergomi, introduced as an 18-year-old at right-back by Enzo Bearzot during the course of the 1982 finals in Spain, and a vital figure in Italy's eventual triumph.

Once Milan had wound themselves up, their power - physical, technical and moral - was irresistible. But there was more to it than simply the fruit of Capello's decisions to choose Savicevic over Papin, to keep faith with Massaro, to bring Maldini in from left-back to partner Galli, and to trust Panucci's immense natural talent to see him safely through in an unfamiliar position in the biggest game of his life. The third goal, two minutes after the restart, not only eradicated any hope of a Barcelona comeback but illustrated the part that spontaneity and virtuosity can play even in the most carefully regulated mechanism.

It came, inevitably, from Savicevic - il Genio, the genius, to the Milan fans. By contrast with the 47-second epic which he helped orchestrate for Massaro, Savicevic's own strike took a fraction under four seconds from the moment he flicked the ball away from the long-suffering Miguel Angel Nadal on the right-hand touchline and, still more than 20 yards from goal, with his next contact used his left foot to lift the ball over the tall Zubizarreta and inside the far angle of bar and post.

It was at this moment that the mind went back to the flickering black and white images from Hampden Park in 1960, when 127,000 awestruck Scots watched Alfredo Di Stefano respond to the impertinence of Eintracht's second goal by striking Real Madrid's seventh exactly 13 seconds after the restart. Now Savicevic, after two awkward seasons at San Siro, produced a performance so deft of touch and quick of thought that he would have found a place even among Madrid's immortals, and certainly put himself within touching distance of the standards established by another brilliant No 10, his boyhood hero Michel Platini, with whom he shares a lot more than a head of dark curls.

It's said that Savicevic needed Berlusconi's influence to overcome Capello's mistrust of his flickering skills, but he and Boban - the Montenegrin and the Croat - used the platform provided by Desailly and Albertini to run the game in with a panache that Puskas and Di Stefano would have recognised. They are players and human beings of intelligence, who understand the significance of their presence in the same side.

'Boban and I are men with differing political views,' Savicevic told an Italian reporter in the build-up to the final, 'but we wish each other well. I hope that one day my national team will play against his. I don't know when - but I hope it happens as soon as possible, in a full stadium, with a happy and peaceful crowd. With a lot of goals, and with singing.'

That prospect may be in the distant future, but the sight of the two former Yugoslavs in harmony on the pitch was, like the match as a whole, a useful antidote to some of the poisons running through football's bloodstream last week.

(Photograph omitted)

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