If Rome wasn’t built in a day, then Jose Mourinho’s Inter certainly won’t be built in a season. The foundations have been laid, the plans chartered, the objectives clear, but the construction will take time, patience and understanding.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, we all know what happened during 2008/09. The Scudetto was delivered, the European Cup was not. After four seasons of domestic dominance, all associated with Inter realise the need to be consistently challenging for club football’s biggest prize. At the moment, the Nerazzurri are way off the pace, languishing behind the English clubs and Barcelona in terms of the quality and depth of their playing personnel. But, to simply state that Inter find themselves unable to compete with these clubs in Europe would be short-sighted. So too would be to argue that a few decent signings and a lick of paint would transform il Biscione to a level ready to compete with Europe’s elite. The problem lies much deeper than that, for Inter, and for Calcio as a whole.
Barring Milan’s successes in 2003 and 2007, Italian performances in the European Cup have been weak since the turn of the Millennium. Out of 22 finalists since 2000, only four have been Italian, three of which have been courtesy of Milan. Over the same period of time England and Spain boast 12 final appearances between them and six winners. Look at semi-final records and over the same period of time England have produced 15 semi-finalists, Spain 13 and Italy six. The fact of the matter is that Italy’s stronghold as the dominant league in Europe is over, well and truly, graphically illustrated this week when it’s prized asset, Kaka, absconded to Real Madrid, devoiding Serie A of one its handful of undoubted world class performers.
Money talks, and money saw Kaka leave the peninsula. Madrid has it, Milan do not. On a broader extent, the English and Spanish clubs have more cash than the Italians and this financial power has transcended itself on-field. The ability of the Berlusconi’s, Agnelli’s and Moratti’s to buy success has been usurped by that of Abramovich, Mansoor and the Glazers. Football works in cycles, and whereby the chequebooks of wealthy Italian families dominated the 1980s and 1990s, that mantle has now been passed onto the sheikhs and oligarchs. Italian clubs cannot match the transfer fees and wages commanded by the very best football players in the world, who are now turning their back on Calcio. At the same time, Serie A itself falls short of what la Liga and the Premier League offer investors as commodities. The major money being injected into individual leagues comes from global TV deals with the product being broadcast around the world and once again Serie A cannot claim to be as marketable, as sellable, or as profitable as la Liga and the Premier League. All of which broadens the revenue gap between the English, Spanish and Italian leagues.
Already this summer there is a tendency amongst Italian clubs to stick to an almost incestuous inter-trading of domestic products, which is a commendable trait to keep money within the country, but the question must be asked, how do Italy’s best intend to catch up with the continents finest? And at present, that question is best directed at four-times reigning champions, Inter.
An interesting paradox is immediately raised between the situations of Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at their respective clubs, and how those clubs respond accordingly. Inter’s immediate desire is to win the European Cup, whereas Milan’s primary focus is to rebuild a team to challenge their neighbours for lo Scudetto. For the Rossoneri to begin to achieve their objective, Kaka has had to leave – the Nerazzurri do not have to sell Ibra, and it is this factor which will severely test la Benemeata’s resolve and ambition this summer, as well as further indicating where the appeal of Italian football lies in comparison to that of England and Spain.
Economics will not solely dictate Ibrahimovic’s future as in Kaka’s case. Inter do not need the money, but the intrigue comes in Ibra’s motives for a move. The utterances of his agent suggest that Ibra wants to play for a team capable of winning the Champions League. Now this could be interpreted as an excuse to leave the San Siro, or it could be perceived as a realisation from the Swede that in the next two or three seasons – the peak of his career – Mourinho’s men will not be in a position to sufficiently challenge for that honour. This stance puts the ball firmly in Inter’s court, with their intent to succeed in Europe paramount to keeping hold of their star striker.
The club’s initial movements are not overwhelming. Thiago Motta and Diego Milito have enjoyed fantastic individual seasons at Genoa, demonstrating an ability to perform well in Serie A, but as we’ve already established, the Nerazzurri’s problems are not domestic, but beyond the countries boundaries, where Motta and Milito’s impact is unknown. Of course, their introduction will add depth to the squad – vital over the course of a long campaign – but such players cannot be described as world class, and would not break into the first teams at Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. From this angle, you can sympathise to a degree with Ibrahimovic if he feels his club is not matching his ambition. There is a great divide between where Inter is and where they need to be, and only a select band of footballers can significantly contribute to reducing this gap. Will, or can, the Nerazzurri attract those players?
The conundrum facing President Massimo Moratti is how to countenance this gap when economics and desire put particular players out of the reach of Serie A’s top clubs. If Italy falls behind England and Spain as a preferred destination for the elite players, should Moratti’s expectations be lowered, or expenditure be increased? For a club the size of Inter, the first option is out of the question, and rightly so, but can expenditure be increased beyond that which Moratti is likely to reward Mourinho with anyway? Probably not.
The reshaping of the Nerazzurri squad will be based around the replacing of some of their ageing limbs. Luis Figo has retired, Julio Cruz and Hernan Crespo are on their way out, but none of these players have a resale value, in fact not many of the side do apart from one man, Ibrahimovic. All funds for new recruits will be done knowing a huge net loss is in hand, unless Ibra is sold, which begs the question, is Inter holding back Ibra from winning the Champions league, or is he prohibiting them from building a squad to match? The powers that be may decide that one step back can bring two steps forward. Ibra’s sensational season was crucial to Inter’s defence of their title, his showings regularly inspiring his side to earn vital points, but one suspects the Interisti – sections of whom took to jeering the Swedish striker during a recent league match – wouldn’t be totally opposed to his sale should it improve the side overall.
The Special One recently said his side still need a centre-forward, a central midfielder and a centre-back. Last week Portuguese schemer Deco stated he was in talks to reunite with his former mentor from Porto, and a move for another ex-Porto man, Ricardo Carvalho, has also been muted. Deco could provide that creative spark often lacking from il Biscione’s play last season, whilst Carvalho will improve the defence. However, both transfers, although far from certain, would follow the trend set by the Motta and Milito deals. Would they improve Inter’s chances in the Champions League? Both players played peripheral roles in Chelsea’s season, and would be allowed to leave the English club unobstructed. Do Inter need to resort to acquiring players who aren’t deemed to be needed by teams they are trying to catch? And how much impact would two players over 30 have past next season?
Mourinho does not give the impression he is a Coach ever to be involved for the long haul, and certainly his transfer dealings this summer will give an indication whether his plans are short, medium or long term. The ages of his confirmed and rumoured signings suggest he is after players for a quick fix. If that is at his behest, or President Moratti’s, is hard to tell. The Portuguese Tactician was challenged to bring home the European Cup for the first time since 1965, but have his taskmasters armed him well enough to launch the assault? Still standing highest on Mourinho’s long list of managerial achievements is the 2004 European Cup success with Porto, which he achieved with an average group of players. If you care to remember that season’s competition, Porto only got past Manchester United thanks to a linesman’s flag, Milan self-destructed in the quarters to Deportivo la Coruna, and Chelsea imploded in the semi’s against Monaco. Credit to Mourinho’s Porto for not succumbing to these pitfalls, but the outlook could have been much different. Recent victors Barcelona and Manchester United have both been recognised as the best side, with the best players in that year’s tournament, prior to winning it. Porto’s feat should be seen as an anomaly, and not as a managerial masterclass guaranteed to bring success.
It will be interesting to see how much President Moratti backs Mourinho this summer. Come August 31 and the end of the transfer window, someone, somewhere will produce a table of how much money each club has spent. Where Inter lie in this table and where their European competitors lie remains to be seen. Mourinho may claim to be special, but he’s not claimed to be able to make wine from water…yet.