SERIE A in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a fiercely competitive landscape with all-star line-ups comprising some of the world’s best players. Italy was a magnet for top talent, including Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Diego Maradona, Gianluca Vialli and Michael Laudrup, to name but a few. The rest of Europe just sat back and envied the Italian public, who were watching the greatest football on the planet.
AC Milan had won Serie A in 1988, fighting it out with Maradona’s Napoli, who had lifted their first Scudetto in 1987. Inter Milan were struggling to keep pace, but in the summer of 1988, they followed the example set by their San Siro neighbours of acquiring two or three players from the same country. Milan had three Dutchmen in the form of Gullit, Van Basten and, latterly, Frank Rijkaard. Inter went German, signing Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme from Bayern Munich for over £ 4 million. A year later, they would sign Jürgen Klinsmann from VfB Stuttgart.
Inter also signed the sought-after midfielder Nicola Berti from Fiorentina, paying the equivalent of £ 3.33 million. He quickly developed a good understanding with Matthäus. The Nerazzurri were also trying to sign Porto’s Rabah Madjer, who had been instrumental in his club winning the European Cup in 1987. Madjer failed the medical and so Inter turned to 29 year-old Argentinian striker Ramon Diaz, also from Fiorentina. He was a technically gifted player who had a superb left foot. The fans loved him, but he stayed just one season with the club before moving to Monaco and then on to River Plate and finally, Yokohama Marinos. Bizarrely, he managed Oxford United between 2004 and 2005.
Inter had assembled a team that could square-up to AC Milan and Napoli, making the 1988-89 Serie A campaign difficult to forecast. Inter’s coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, was in his third season with the club and the pressure was on him to deliver after a disappointing 1987-88. AC Milan had charmed Europe with their Dutch-infused take on “total football”, a refreshing alternative to the Catenaccio of the 1960s and 1970s, and were about to dominate the European Cup with three triumphs in six seasons. As for Napoli, they had their Argentinian talisman, who was still in good shape, and their title team still had some mileage left in it.
The key to Inter’s revival in 1988 was really Matthäus, a strong midfielder who was considered to be one of the most complete players of his time. As well as excellent passing ability and tough tackling, he could unleash tremendous shots as he drove through to the penalty area. West Germany’s captain, Matthäus had won three Bundesliga titles in the previous four years but later said his success with Inter in 1988-89 was the greatest achievement of his club career.
Inter started their Serie A programme in exceptional form, going unbeaten until February – a total of 16 games without defeat. They beat AC Milan in the first Derby della Madonnina of the season, 1-0, thanks to a goal by Aldo Serena and held Napoli and Juventus. They conceded just five goals in those 16 games, keeping 11 clean sheets. Their defence was solid, with Walter Zenga in goal, arguably the best keeper in the world at the time. They also had Giuseppe Bergomi at the back, an accomplished full back or sweeper. Brehme, a penalty and free-kick expert, was at left back, a player who would go on to score the winning goal in the 1990 World Cup. He had been recommended to Inter president Erensto Pellegrini by former Inter forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Inter also had Riccardo Ferri at the heart of the defence, a tenacious player who was a specialist man-marker. Forwards didn’t like playing against Ferri and Marco van Basten called him the toughest central defender he faced during his career.
Inter’s first defeat was on February 12 in Florence, a see-saw seven-goal thriller which Fiorentina won 4-3. Inter were still on top, where they had been since the first league tables were compiled, but Napoli were breathing down their necks.
Trapattoni’s team remained focused, though, and won their next eight Serie A games, extending their lead to seven points by mid-April. Napoli had lost some of their impetus and after Inter thrashed Bologna 6-0, with Diaz and Serena on top form, they only had to beat Maradona and co. to clinch the title with four games to spare.
The San Siro was heaving but was stunned by Napoli taking the lead through Careca. Inter turned the game around, however, and Matthäus scored the winner to claim Inter’s Scudetto amid scenes of ecstasy.
Three of the remaining four games were won, with Inter’s second defeat coming in the penultimate fixture against Torino. Only two sides came away from the San Siro with a point, AC Milan and Juventus and Inter’s margin of victory, 11 points, was a record for an 18-team, two points-for-a-win season.
What was the secret of Inter’s success? Consistent team selection was key – 11 players played more than 30 Serie A games and the team essentially picked itself. Their fast, powerful, a compelling mix of Italian flair and German determination, simply overran opponents. They also retained the traditional Italian qualities of an iron-clad defence and hence conceded just 19 goals in 34 games.
Inter lost their title in 1989-90 to Napoli, despite the arrival of Klinsmann, and surprisingly went out of the European Cup in the first round to Sweden’s Malmö. The following season, they won the UEFA Cup, beating Roma in the final. Trapattoni left the club in the summer of 1991, joining Juventus. Matthäus, Brehme and Klinsmann all departed in 1992. Things were never quite the same again.
The investment in the German duo of Matthäus and Brehme paid off in 1989 and the team produced some stunning football on the way to the Serie A title. It was a golden, almost decadant time for the Italian game and a year later, one of football’s great nations hosted the World Cup. Inter’s German contingent would triumph again in different circumstances.