It is a fixture that comes coated in history. Inter Milan’s first European Cup came at the expense of Real Madrid, an ageing Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas beaten in the 1964 final.
Their chances of becoming the second team to record a hat-trick of wins were ended in the semi-finals in 1966 as Real went on to regain their trophy. Fast forward more than four decades and Inter’s third Champions League was won at the Bernabeu, but their manager stayed at the scene of his triumph, with Jose Mourinho hired by Real.
Wednesday’s reunion may be a shared chance to lament what they have lost. Real’s double over Inter last season came with Raphael Varane at the heart of their defence in both games and Sergio Ramos scoring at the Bernabeu. Like Inter, they were plunged into decline by the departure of a catalytic Portuguese who had inspired them to a Champions League win: Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018.
If it arguably took Inter a decade to recover from Mourinho’s move to Madrid, 2021’s Scudetto was the prelude to another raid on San Siro. Their glory came at a cost that they could not afford. Antonio Conte’s two-year reign amounted to Inter’s Faustian pact, trading short-term gain for long-term pain, restoring them to the summit of Serie A but facilitated by spending money they did not really have.
The summer sales of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi formed part of a bigger picture, in which Inter took out a €275 million loan from American investment firm Oaktree Capital: the terms included cutting costs. If the debt is not repaid, Oaktree could reportedly take control of the club. Vice-chairman Javier Zanetti had spoken of “serious financial problems” and admitted Inter needed a “return to normality.”
And Inter’s expenditure on transfers and loan fees in the Conte era came to around €300 million. They saw a footballing return on it: a first Scudetto in 11 years, a Europa League final, annual participation in the Champions League. There was a financial return, too: Conte can point to the sizeable profits made on both Lukaku and Hakimi as evidence of his acumen, while both delivered on the pitch. They were excellent signings.
Yet it is hard to escape the sense that a manager who always wants more players and who shows little interest in balancing the books was indulged. Conte’s preference for the ageing and the expensive meant the wage bill ballooned and that costs were certainly not confined to transfer fees. Their five top earners last season, if leaked figures are to be believed, were all Conte signings.
He never seemed to worry too much about resale value and Inter’s squad contains rather too many thirty-somethings: Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Aleksandar Kolarov and Matteo Darmian were all Conte recruits, along with the now-departed Ashley Young, who is older than all.
Of their three remaining players who could probably command the highest prices – Lautaro Martinez, Milan Skriniar and Nicolo Barella – only the Italy midfielder was a Conte buy.
Inter are obviously unfortunate to be deprived of the sidelined Christian Eriksen’s class, even if the Dane was a player Conte wanted, soon dropped and then reinvented, but looking at the squad, it is tempting to wonder where the money went and to think that, after making 20 signings, Conte’s on-field legacy ought to be better.
It is not his fault that his expenditure came at the worst time. Inter posted a €102 million loss for 2019/20; presumably, 2020/21’s figures will be worse. COVID and empty stadia rendered Inter’s plight worse, but they did not create it.
Inter’s short-termism bought them a title and considering Juventus had won the previous nine, that still feels a considerable feat. But it was unaffordable. They have begun Serie A well under Simone Inzaghi but servicing debt feels the greatest priority. If Inzaghi can qualify from a pool featuring Real – something Conte, in an expensive failure, could not last season – it would ease their fiscal worries. That seems to be Inter’s new normality.
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