100 Days. 14 weeks. 3.5 months. Rewind time by these numbers and it was the day Inter Milan became Scudetto Champions for the first time in 10 years, putting the ‘Pazza’ ghosts of Inter to bed along with the taunts.
The heavy investment had paid off, the 12m per annum gamble on bringing serial winner Antonio Conte to the San Siro paid off. Abiding by his demanding, expensive needs to build a Nerazzurri team capable of a Scudetto win paid off. Spending £266 million in two years, all, paid off. For all the decisions and gambles Suning took in gaining success, they are reversibly paying off the large expenditure spent to achieve their goal.
Inter fans have barely had time to sing and dance about their success before what is quickly unravelling as somewhat of a yard sale of the club’s prized possessions. The war machine has been victorious and is now selling off its most formidable parts.
Suning Holdings Group, the Chinese retailer that owns Inter Milan have a habit of doing this. Splashing the cash, providing the pin code to a luxurious, bundling bank account allowing a club to target big names for big money, before pulling the plug once the club has succeeded. Jolting them into the realisation that their current model is unsustainable.
In December 2015 Suning bought Chinese club Jiangsu FC, just a month later arrived two shiny, new Brazilian players in Ramires of Chelsea fame and Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for a grand total of £59 million. After being crowned Chinese Super League champions for the first time in club history in November 2020, just four months after winning the title the club ceased operations effective immediately due to financial difficulties.
In the case of Inter, Suning aren’t pulling the plug entirely but they are making serious cost-effective budget cuts. It is akin to a brilliant TV series that had a high budget for the first stupendous season but then has to revert to removing fan-favorite, high earning characters because of the maiden season splurge. You still tune in to watch the second season, but it’s just not the same.
Day 24: The Commander Jumps Ship
Fans flocked to the city’s gorgeous Piazza del Duomo to paint the sky in black and blue in front of the godly Milan Cathedral, a breathtaking sight the city had been deprived of for a decade. Without a shadow of a doubt, Milan was palpably black and blue for the day creeping into the night. Romelu Lukaku cruised the streets waving an Internazionale flag yelling ‘Campiones’, club legend and vice-president jumped up and down from his suave Milan apartment to jubilant fans creating a boisterous eruption of celebration.
Little did they know that just 24 days into their title win with the imprint barely ingrained on the trophy, their commander in chief, their tenacious incumbent, would leave his post as Inter manager. The man who had masterminded Inter to the title in such a short period, who gesticulated wildly from the touchline and put the steam back into Inter’s ears was leaving so shortly after his grand target that he was brought in for was achieved. Though the warning signs were there.
Steven Zhang both the club’s president and son of the owner of the Chinese conglomerate asked the club’s players and manager to take a pay cut shortly after the championship was secured. Conte respectfully stated he would not talk to the media for the remaining four Serie A matches, as he wanted to enjoy winning the title. One can’t help but think he knew what was coming.
Eyebrows were raised when Conte leftover ‘transfer disputes’ spun as a smokescreen playing up to Conte’s reputation, ostensibly the Italian was in the know that if offers were on the table it would be more than one talent departing, despite the news that Suning made vehemently clear it would be just one big sale. Conte became aware that not only would he not be able to build on his triumph, but his team would also have to shrivel.
One of the best managers in the world is currently unemployed as he didn’t deem it correct that he would have to double down the winning machine he created, that too without key components that made the machine roar. As the 2021-22 season progresses, every setback for a major European club will have the shadow of Conte looming.
Day 64: The Missing Piece Goes Missing
Achraf Hakimi is the epitome of what football clubs require from a full back in 2021, utilised as an overload with the emphasis of his play on doing damage in attack, and damage is exactly what he incurred on Serie A teams in 20-21. Fast, dynamic and one of the best in his position in the world, devastatingly powerful. His signing in the summer was the last link in the chain, the missing piece of the puzzle.
Lord Knows Inter will miss his seventeen goal contributions from the wing, offering a different outlet combining fabulously with Nicolò Barella in pockets of space on the right. Hakimi featured in one way or another in all but one league game in the season being a constant threat, and now, leaving a gaping hole at full back for the Nerazzuri.
Inter fans rejoiced in bafflement of the stunning coup that they possessed one of the hottest prospects in world football, only to experience the flip side of the fleeting joy of seeing the Moroccan in black and blue for a solitary season. Hakimi barely being at Inter for a season is the representation of current events unfolding, the high of winning the Scudetto and the painful realisation that the band is being broken up.
Though a quintessential part of the team, as soon as it was clear (according to Suning) that they would declaratively need just one big sale it would be Hakimi who would fetch the price needed, and that would be it. Or so it was thought. If there is one small credit to pay Suning throughout all of this is the rapidness by which they set about replacing Conte with the extremely astute incoming Simone Inzaghi who said when arriving ‘I knew about Hakimi leaving, the other important players will stay.’ Awkward.
Day 90: The Untouchable One Departs
Lukaku arrived in Milan with a point to prove and fire in his belly. Leaving Manchester United with taunts of him flopping and having a ‘bad touch’ mainly a result of the increased pressure for playing for the English behemoth was unjust, something he proved right at Inter. He came, he saw, he conquered.
He became King of Milan and under Conte’s stewardship one of the best forwards in the world, rampaging at defences, bullying them, he was the face of this new steely Conte Inter team. Pazza? I’ll show you some Pazza. The Belgian became the explosive forward everyone knew he could be at Inter Milan, where even when he had an extremely respectable scoring record at his previous English clubs, there was still the staunchest of unconvinced critics, but no more.
Hakimi was a loss for this Inter team, but a blow that was softened as it was expectant, the blind-side, confusion and shock horror at Lukaku’s transfer to Chelsea is a signal for the emergency alarm bells to go whirring off. Inter Chief Giuseppe Marotta claimed ‘ Lukaku is untouchable’ just a few weeks ago, and now at the current time of writing Lukaku is somewhere in Monaco making haste for England.
The Lukaku transfer confounds the fear and trepidation from the Inter fans about Suning’s deceit and just how desperate for money they are. The wage cut, Conte leaving and admittance of needing to sell Hakimi had all been clues to the big picture, that Inter weren’t good for all the money they’d been spending.
The loan secured from American firm Oaktree Capital of $336 million was not obtained for investment but for stabilisation, of the combined 175 million euros the sales of Lukaku and Hakimi will bring, only 35 million will be available as transfer fund. Replacing Edin Dzeko with Lukaku in 2021 feels like breaking an iPhone 11 that would’ve lasted for a few years and opting to buy an iPhone 6. It’ll do the job of course, but that’s mainly why you bought it.
It may become more of a mass exodus yet, as if Suning are capable of breaking up the brilliant ‘Lula’ partnership and selling the man who powered this Inter resurgence then nobody is safe. The sales for Hakimi and Lukaku were pursued serendipitously by clubs whose finances wouldn’t have been affected despite the coronavirus.
PSG and Chelsea respectively smelt blood and conducted aggressive, potent business. Inter’s loss was their gain. They remain the two of three clubs in the world where if a player is available no matter the finances, they will be in with a shout.
Simone Inzaghi still has the bulk of this Scudetto winning team, a fabulous defence and the majestic Nicolo Barella, there will be less of an expectation on this Inter team to do well and with rumoured incoming players like Denzel Dumfries and Duvan Zapata being mentioned, this is still a very capable Inter side with just as capable as a coach. This isn’t the car breaking down and being sent to the heap, it is more the car stopping for repairs and gaining less of a better engine to continue.
It is tempting to ponder what Suning’s actions would’ve been if Inter hadn’t won the league, would they have doubled down so quick? Would they have scrambled to keep Lukaku at the very least? We will never know, but it is ironic Lukaku’s departure comes in a week where we’ve witnessed that even the greatest player that ever lived isn’t exempt from being a victim to the avaricious environment of football in 2021. The Inter situation is yet another example of off the pitch politics messily spilling on it. The Pazza ghosts have still not left.
By: Dharnish Sizlak / @DharnishSizlak
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Nicolò Campo / LightRocket / Marco Luzzani / Getty Images