Back in 2001 I made an apparently bold claim in the Israeli sports monthly Shem Hamisehak: ‘Inter are the new Manchester United!’ But this wasn’t a reference to the team and management that continues to raise the premiership bar, but the United of the late 1980’s. Dogged by the legacy of the ‘Busby babes’ and an apparent succession of bad luck, bad management and bad players, the club was a laughing stock as it attempted and failed, with equivalent annual increases in expenditure and desperation, to prove that it was capable of winning the league title and awakening the giant that was reputedly only sleeping. Fuelled by astronomical purchases the laughter just got louder as one year without the title became twenty five, and United found increasingly funnier ways of losing the ‘holy grail’. I witnessed a beauty from Upton Park’s packed North Bank as West Ham’s Kenny Brown shinned one in from outside the box, in 1992. Capable of trapping a ball further than most of us could kick it, the well-liked pro’s ruddler knocked the wind out of United’s sails and gave Leeds the impetus to snatch the title.
But as a wise Arsenal-supporting friend lamented at the time, besides the fun in speculating on just how United would screw it up this time, there was also a serious point to cheering the club’s continuing failure: once they broke the hoodoo, they’d dominate English football for a very long time. He proved right. In the end, two pieces of fortune changed everything: a late and arguably undeserved extra-time equaliser in the 1990 FA Cup Final that saved the Lord Ferg’s job, and the later, timely arrival of “Superman”, in the form of Eric Cantona.
The recent sacking of Inter coach Gian Piero Gasperini encourages the comparison once again, while raising questions on just where it all went wrong. His record at Genoa was certainly impressive and, as Dylan Fahy recently questioned, ‘Ex-Inter coach Jose Mourinho even claimed that Gasperini was one of the “hardest managers he coached against”, so why doesn’t it work at one of the best clubs in the world?’ Fahy’s tactical analysis is on the money, but for my two penneth such thinking might be too clear to penetrate the fog that is Inter. Far from asking where it went wrong, the real question is how the hell did it ever go right?
If we leave aside the hiatus of 2006-10, for the moment, so much have Inter’s fortunes over the last twenty years or so aped those of Manchester United that club President Massimo Moratti could have done worse than put the enfant terrible Cantona on the panchina. For Matt Busby trade Helenio Herrera; for over-spending, trade over-spending and just multiply by a figure of your choice; for the lengthy list of failed United coaches trade, Bianchi, Hodgson, Simoni, Lucescu, Lippi and Tardelli. Appointed, anointed, sacked and laid to rest in the president’s Pantheon of failure, they have been joined by Benitez, Leonardo and Gasperini in the last two years.
Now it has to be recognised that Inter has a history, with twelve league titles in the post-war period. No mean achievement, but whereas for the average club this would be cause for street parties, Inter’s problem is what Dr Ruth might well have referred to as penis envy: the direct comparison with its more potent, rival calcio conquistatori, Juventus and A.C. Milan which, in the same period put twenty and fifteen notches on the Serie A bedstead, respectively. For a big club with huge support and even bigger financial resources, the billion Lire question remains why such little return on over €300 million of expenditure, if not investment?
The burden of history certainly weighs heavy, as do the ghosts of the past that once again haunt the demons of the present. The 1960’s was a period of unprecedented success with Inter’s European Cup victories in 1964 and 1965 adding lustre to three scudetti (league titles). The president was Massimo Moratti’s father Angelo who, together with the Argentine coach Herrera, oversaw the greatest era in the club’s history that became a huge millstone of expectation and demand. While the coach’s role was crucial, Moratti Snr also bequeathed a legacy of the all-powerful president. While this may have worked for him, his son has proved less capable Caesar. In his fifteen years as president, Massimo has overhauled every single aspect of the internal workings of the club: from coaches, to players, directors, physiotherapists and doctors. There are no survivors from his takeover in 1994.
One Italian journalist once described Moratti as having ‘collected more mistakes than players’, which is quite something. With family millions made from oil, petro-chemical rather than olive, Moratti has money to burn. This has been reflected in an attitude to players resembling Emelda Marcos’ to shoes: if you like them, buy them, and who cares if they fit. Fair play, it’s his money, mainly, but rather than creating an efficient, hive of activity his huge spending has tended to result in an albeit impressive collection of queen bees. Even if spending has been limited this season, the ins and outs smack of a rudderless ship with Oliver Reed at the wheel. Barcelona is probably the only club that could have survived the loss of Samuel Eto’o, let alone Inter for whom he was fundamental in its recent glories. Did they really need the money that badly? Moreover, despite his success in Spain, even if Diego Forlan was big enough to fill his boots how could he be expected to do that when ineligible for the Champions League group stages? If only it was the first time Moratti had overseen such carelessness.
His predecessor Ernesto Pellegrini once bought the Irishman Liam Brady and the German Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the most outstanding forward at the time, only to see Verona snatch its one title from before his eyes.
Back in 1997 Alvaro Recoba introduced himself to Inter fans on the same day as the Brazilian Ronaldo made his debut. Football Italia viewers might recall his spectacular two goals in the last ten minutes that snatched Inter victory from the jaws of defeat. Following a loan period at Venezia he returned to the San Siro, signed a new contract and became the highest-paid player in the world. Yet with the ink not yet dry, the Udine Public Prosecutor conducting an inquiry into false passports found no trace of his alleged Spanish ancestry that had entitled him to a European passport. Receiving a one-year global ban from the game that was reduced to four months on appeal, Inter still possessed the world’s most highly paid non-player.
But among Inter presidents the shopaholic Moratti is not alone in his uncontrollable pre-disposition to spend and fail. His predecessor Ernesto Pellegrini once bought the Irishman Liam Brady and the German Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the most outstanding forward at the time, only to see Verona snatch its one title from before his eyes. But Pellegrini learnt his lesson and recognised the important role of the coach and left that to Giovanni Trappatoni. Adding the Germans Lothär Matheus and Andreas Brehme to his squad, Inter secured the 1989 title with an astonishing record of 58 points from 68. Perhaps, sometimes, the coach does know best? Maybe he might be trusted?
Despite the serial sackings Moratti has strangely been considered a fair man to work for and a genuine fan of the club, both of which probably constitute good reason why he should never have become president in the first place. Yet while he has lost more coaches than Liz Taylor husbands, questions about a lack of judgement have also been raised by his occasional leniency. Gigi Simoni’s UEFA Cup win in 1998, the only trophy won at the time under Moratti, earned him a temporary stay of execution when the president already had the guillotine sharpened and raised. And like a blind man faced with dejá vu he allowed Roberto Baggio’s two goals that won Inter a place in the 2000-01 Champions League to save Marcello Lippi from the sword of Damacles dangling perilously at the end of his first season. On both occasions Moratti’s sentimentality only delayed the inevitable.
There wasn’t much left by the time Hector Cuper arrived in 2001. An Argentine with a strong reputation for getting results, brought to Inter from Spain by a Moratti in crisis, Cuper’s arrival conjured comparisons with Herrera, Moratti Snr’s 10th coach at the time. Appointed on the back of consecutive European Final appearances (1999 UEFA Cup with Mallorca, 2000 & 2001 Champions League with Valencia) that all ended in defeat, it didn’t augur well for that all essential element, lady luck. Finishing third and second in Serie A, the 4-2 loss to Lazio, in 2002, that cost the club its first title for thirteen years was followed by defeat to city-rivals AC in the 2002-03 Champions League semi-final, on the away-goals rule. Despite what might have been considered a solid start, it was more than Moratti’s ever-stretched patience could bear and the pattern continued.
So, in fact, just where did it all go right? Five titles from 2006-10 and the Champions League trophy in 2010 seems solid evidence. But scratch beneath the surface and there was little change. In July 2004 Roberto Mancini was appointed as Inter coach, not by Moratti but new Inter President Giacinto Facchetti. With a modest management record at Fiorentina and Lazio, Mancini appeared to be the latest in a long line of impatient, knee-jerk reactions. But what he might have lacked in experience was made up for in cussedness, self-confidence and presidential backing.
With Mourinho waiting in the wings, it was arguably less audacious than it seemed, and the Portuguese duly delivered two further titles served on a plate and garnished by the pre-ordered Champions League, in 2009, that had been a long time coming.
Under serious pressure in his first two seasons but doggedly refusing to consider the words failure or resignation, it was Luciano Moggi not Mancini who finally broke Inter’s hoodoo and woke the giant. Among the various punishments following the corruption scandal investigation in 2006 was the deduction of points from Juventus and Milan, who had finished first and second in Serie A that year. Quite why the authorities didn’t leave this year blank, as they had for the previous season, is unfathomable, but with the dirty laundry bleached in private, Inter and Mancini found themselves celebrating the club’s first title since 1989, having finished third. Better still, with the thoroughbreds Juventus and Milan lamed, the only realistic rivals for the coming years were themselves and calcio’s very own Devon Loch, AS Roma, who fell at the last in 2007.
At the beginning of that season President Facchetti became yet another statistic among ex-Italian players to have died a premature death. In May 2009 Mancini was released from his contract for speaking his mind. With three titles – two, depending on your point of view – under his belt, it was a bold move by Moratti who had returned to the throne following the Facchetti interregnum.
With Mourinho waiting in the wings, it was arguably less audacious than it seemed, and the Portuguese duly delivered two further titles served on a plate and garnished by the pre-ordered Champions League, in 2010, that had been a long time coming. While churlish to draw too much attention to the all-important element of luck, Barcelona fans must still be questioning quite how their team managed to lose the semi-final. Not loved enough by the Italian press, Mourinho left for Madrid. Could he have been stopped? Probably not, but there was little sense that Moratti was tearing his hair out and spraying messages of unending of love on the pavement outside Mourinho’s door, as lovestruck Italian boys tend to do when they’ve screwed up and know they can’t do any better. Unfortunate to lose one multiple-title winning manager, it was damned careless to lose two in the space of three years. Or was it?
Unlike Mancini or Mourinho, Moratti’s last three appointments had neither the status nor the self-assurance of their potent predecessors, which seems to be what he likes. While Gasperini worked wonders at Genoa, the Inter suit was never going to fit the maturing manager properly: his shoulders weren’t yet broad enough and his coglioni still slightly on the small side. Besides, it wasn’t exactly his fault if he wasn’t Moratti’s first choice coach, as the president was quick to explain as if this somehow disassociated him from the mess. In fact, Gasperini’s appointment, sacking and replacement, by Claudio Ranieri, suggests Moratti’s return to the erratic form that served Inter so badly in the wilderness years. If one Tinkerman plus another doesn’t equal a scudetto new blood will be required yet again, but if Inter are to become the super-club that it unquestionably has the potential to be, one wonders if it might not just be the eternally beleaguered manager’s head that needs to tumble from the block.
‘Sport Italia’ by Simon Martin, was published in July 2011 by IB Tauris. It narrates the history of modern Italy through the national passion of sport.
Other recent stories you might like:
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook