The story of Monza, Silvio Berlusconi and 'a bus full of wh*res'

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Silvio Berlusconi Rafaelle Palladino AC Monza GFX
The Italian is one of the most controversial characters in world politics, but his football team AC Monza is thriving...

The comedian Dylan Moran once joked that Silvio Berlusconi is "so thoroughly corrupt that every time he smiles, an angel gets gonorrhoea".

The former Italian prime minister is certainly a dubious character.

Only last Sunday, he criticised Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, which prompted one of Zelensky's aides, Mykhailo Podolyak, to label Berlusconi "a VIP agitator who is acting in the interests of Russian propaganda".

On Wednesday, meanwhile, he was cleared of paying witnesses to lie in an underage prostitution case that has dogged him for more than a decade.

"Finally acquitted after more than 11 years of suffering, mud-slinging and incalculable political damage," he wrote on Twitter.

It is worth noting, though, that while Berlusconi was also acquitted in the original case, he had been found to have paid a teenager for sex.

However, there had been no proof that Berlusconi knew the girl in question was a minor.

One with no previous knowledge of Berlusconi would be forgiven, then, for thinking that he might shy away from discussing – let alone joking about – controversial topics such as prostitution.

But this is a man who has never been afraid to make light of the most uncomfortable of topics, so it didn't really come as much of a surprise when Berlusconi sparked uproar at Monza's Christmas dinner last December while initially paying tribute to the motivational skills of coach Raffaele Palladino.

  1. 'A bus full of wh*res'

    "He is good, smart, kind, and able to stimulate our lads," the club president said.

    "But I decided to add extra stimulation, so I told the lads, 'You will play Milan, Juventus, etc... so if you beat one of these big teams, I will have you greeted in the locker room by a bus full of whores!'"

    It was classic Berlusconi and his 'joke' was met by laughter in the room.

    However, when a video of the speech went viral, many Italians, who've long considered Berlusconi a national embarrassment, failed to see the funny side.

    Which was wholly unsurprising, of course. The media mogul remains a hugely divisive figure across the country.

    His political career has been blighted by scandal and yet, last year, he managed to secure a senate, while his Forza Italia party is a key component in the new right-wing coalition government led by Giorgia Meloni.

    What is beyond dispute, though, is that Berlusconi has overseen a remarkable turnaround in Monza's fortunes since being persuaded to buy the club by his former CEO at AC Milan, Adriano Galliani, in 2018.

  2. 'We must win the Scudetto'

    The Biancorossi's potential has long been obvious. Located in one of the most industrious areas in northern Italy, in a city home to one of Formula 1's most famous race tracks, not far from the metropolis that is Milan, Monza has attracted plenty of ambitious investors in the past.

    However, where others have failed, Berlusconi has succeeded, spectacularly, taking Monza from Serie C to Serie A in just four seasons.

    Perhaps that shouldn't have been so surprising, given Berlusconi and Galliani worked wonders at Milan, winning a whopping 29 trophies during their 31-year stay at San Siro.

    However, when they finally left, in 2017, the Rossoneri were in a clear decline that very nearly ended in bankruptcy.

    At that point, both Berlusconi and Galliani appeared finished in football, at least at the highest level.

    Last summer, though, they secured a sensational return to Serie A, with Monza beating Pisa in the Serie B play-offs.

    For the first time in their history, the Biancorossi had made it to Italy's top flight.

    “It’s amazing for a club like Monza, founded in 1912, to gain promotion after 110 years," Berlusconi said.

    "Being in Serie A, we must win the Scudetto and go to the Champions League and win it too. I am accustomed to winning all the time, so let’s see..."

  3. 'Palladino has done what needed to be done'
    Getty Images

    'Palladino has done what needed to be done'

    Nobody took such lofty talk seriously at the time and Berlusconi's bold proclamation was made to look quite foolish during a dreadful start to the 2022-23 season, which saw Monza pick up just one point from their first six games.

    However, Berlusconi then did something quite remarkable: he sacked Giovanni Stroppa and replaced him with Palladino, the club's Primavera coach.

    Even more incredibly, it worked.

    "I thought it was a temporary choice," admitted former AC Milan coach Fabio Capello, who was given his own big break by Berlusconi more than three decades ago.

    "When you move from the Primavera to the first team, most of the time it's just to respond to an emergency.

    "However, Berlusconi and Galliani understood Palladino's qualities before everyone else.

    "He has shown a great ability in the technical and tactical management of the team, and the group followed him, trusted him.

    "Palladino understood what needed to be done in a short time."

  4. 'There is magic in the dressing room'

    Since Palladino's appointment, only Napoli, Juventus and Inter have picked up more points than Monza (28) and they're presently on an eight-game unbeaten run – the longest streak in Serie A.

    With the top-flight debutants now sitting 10th in the table, the supporters' dream of seeing their side play in continental competition no longer seems quite so far-fetched.

    Both Palladino and his players are obviously remaining grounded but even the coach has admitted that "there is a magic in the dressing room" that he has never seen before.

    "The team is so united, so cohesive, and so happy," he enthused.

    There is also quality there.

  5. Galliani's lucky yellow tie

    Nicolo Rovella has been one of the most impressive midfielders on show in Serie A this season, Brazilian Carlos Augusto has caught the eye out wide in Palladino's 3-4-2-1 formation, Dany Mota is excelling in attack, centre-back Armando Izzo has been revitalised, while Matteo Pessina is once again looking like the player that made such an impressive breakthrough at Atalanta.

    It remains to be seen whether Monza really have the firepower to force their way into the battle for a Europa League berth but even a top-half finish would be a fantastic achievement.

    The Biancorossi have already surpassed expectations this season, even completing a home-and-away double over Juventus with a win in Turin that reduced some members of Palladino's backroom team to tears.

    Galliani was also overcome by emotion after the victory at the Allianz Stadium and even gifted the coach one of the 'lucky' yellow ties he used to sport whenever Milan played a big game back in the day.

  6. 'There were 300 people watching Monza, now there's 10,000'

    'There were 300 people watching Monza, now there's 10,000'

    As for Berlusconi, he admitted that he had been inundated with calls about whether he would honour his Christmas dinner promise, and Monza's official social media channel did their best to make light of the whole affair.

    There is, of course, a risk of Monza's incredible campaign being overshadowed by the antics of their attention-loving president, but there is no disputing the fact that Berlusconi has played a pivotal role in this remarkable rise to prominence.

    "We bought new players, we doubled our training ground, Monzello, which is now the biggest and most beautiful in Italy," Berlusconi boasted last year.

    "Now we have also put in place the stadium with a small expenditure of €25 million (£22m/$27m).

    "So, things have changed: when we arrived, there were 300 people watching Monza, now there's 10,000."

    There will certainly be a full house at the Stadio Brianteo on Saturday, with in-form Monza having a serious chance of beating Stefano Pioli's struggling Milan side, which is a victory in itself for one of the most controversial figures in football.

    Indeed, win, lose or draw, Berlusconi will have every reason to smile on Saturday evening.

    Which is obviously great for Monza, but ominous news for angels everywhere...