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Finalists on friendly terms

Italy's two most successful clubs, AC Milan and Juventus FC are "good friends yet fierce rivals".

By Paddy Agnew

It was perhaps fitting that the countdown to this season's all-Italian UEFA Champions League final between Juventus FC and AC Milan began in earnest last week in the unusual setting of the annual assembly of the Confederation of Italian Industry.

'Ceremonial handshake'
To the delight of TV cameramen and photographers, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Fiat president Umberto Agnelli stood together for a ceremonial handshake at which they wished each other "good luck at Old Trafford".

Powerful forces
Milan and Juventus, of course, are owned by two of the most powerful forces in the Italian economy. Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, presides over Milan, while the destiny of Juventus has been controlled for most of the last century by the Agnelli family, the major shareholders in the automobile giant Fiat. These two clubs are quite simply the shakers and makers of Italian football. Between them, they have won 43 Serie A titles, seven European Champion Clubs' Cups and three European/South American Cups.

Joint success
In the last decade, the two giants of Italian football have exerted a quasi-stranglehold on Italian success, both at home and abroad. Nine of the last eleven Serie A titles have been won by either Juventus or Milan, while together they have provided Italy's last six Champions League finalists.

Excellent relations
In such a context, one might expect the two clubs to be bitter rivals. Yet the economic reality of Italian football is such that they enjoy excellent relations, a point emphatically underlined in 1994 when the two sides drew up a working protocol of mutual collaboration in the areas of sponsorship, franchising, endorsements and TV rights.

'Game of dreams'
In recent years, too, Milan and Juventus have rarely competed for the same player. Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, who also serves as the Italian Football League president, has underlined the state of good relations existing between the two clubs. "There will be a very special atmosphere at Old Trafford," he said. "Taking the field will be two clubs that are both good friends and yet fierce rivals. For me, it is a matter of great pleasure that Milan will face Juventus in the final [...] this is the game of dreams."

Championship rivals
The Juventus-Milan collaboration of the last decade has not always met with total approval. Other Serie A clubs - especially their main championship rivals such as Internazionale FC, Parma AC, S.S. Lazio and AS Roma - have often pointed an accusatory finger at a Milan-Juve 'lobby'. Not for nothing, recent seasons have been marked by public squabbling between Inter and Juve, Roma and Milan, and Lazio and Juve. Yet rarely has there been as much as a word in anger exchanged between the Juventus and Milan camps.

Great night out
Not that this happy state of affairs extends all the way down from board level to the fans. Violent scuffles, both inside and outside the San Siro, marred Milan's 2-1 home victory against Juve in March. Yet Italian police - who have been in regular contact with their Manchester colleagues - are confident that even the most hardcore of fans will respect a pact of non-belligerence. Such a pact would be totally fitting for Italy's two most famous, most successful and mutually friendly clubs. Wednesday should be a great night out for Italian football.