ITALIAN football probably needed this, the end of a nine-year run of titles for Juventus and the revival of Italy’s other football hub, Milan. Juve have been the only Serie A club who have come remotely close to the very top of European football in recent years, but there were signs of decline a year ago.
By hiring one of Europe’s serial winners in Antonio Conte, Inter brought in a coach who, by hook or by crook, would steer his team to the summit. Inter’s hordes rejoiced, singing and dancing outside the iconic Duomo – despite the cathedral being in the yellow zone for covid restrictions – but the future of their champion team is far from certain.
Already there is talk of the muscular and forceful Romelu Lukaku, the overwhelming symbol of this success, being lured back to the Premier League. Chelsea and Manchester United are said to be interested in him once more, a bizarre turnaround since both clubs let him go. In particular, his time at Chelsea, where he was seen as the young pretender to Didier Drogba’s throne, was a case of a rookie not being given the chance to shine. Lukaku’s time has now come and Inter’s owners may have to raid the war chest to keep him at the San Siro.
And then there is Conte himself. He is the archetypal employee with itchy feet and in theory, he should be anticipating a Champions League campaign in 2021-22. He doesn’t have a good record in the competition, having reached a quarter-final in 2012-13 but little else since. In fact, at Inter, his team has not yet gone beyond the group stage. Inter were once considered European Cup royalty, winning the competition in 1964 and 1965 and then the Champions League in 2010 under José Mourinho.
Rumours also proliferate where Conte is concerned. There is talk of friction between him and the club’s owners and also of a personal desire to go back to the Premier League, with Manchester United a possible destination. Some have even named Max Allegri as his successor should he decide to leave. Conte himself has said, “I took on one of the biggest challenges of my career, let’s enjoy this scudetto,” as if to suggest that talk of the future is inappropriate.
Conte called the title win “a work of art” and that his team had “overthrown a kingdom” in ending Juventus’ nine-year run. Juve have been warned about their ageing team, which they tried to remedy by bringing in youngsters, but there are still too many with long teeth in their side. Cristiano Ronaldo has continued to score goals, but the team has lacked organisation under new coach Andrea Pirlo. Juve are going through the early stages of a rebuilding process, but there has to be doubts about Pirlo being there to see the process through. Critics believe Pirlo simply doesn’t have the experience to take on a job as big as Juve and that’s he’s not a natural manager in any case. It may be that Andrea Agnelli and his committee were a little hasty in sacking Maurizio Sarri and bringing in Pirlo.
For Inter, the title is their 19th scudetto, one more than AC Milan, whose young team faded after a bright start to the season. It comes at a time when Inter have gone through a rebranding that is aimed to take the club’s profile to a new level. They have learned from Juventus, who made the letter “J” their own when changing their identity two years ago. Inter – and their rivals AC Milan – have always believed their rightful place is among Europe’s elite, but over the past decade, they fell out of contention for major prizes. The rebrand also recognises the globalisation of the game and the need for instantly recognisable iconography.
Can Inter now dominate Italian football in the way Juve have for the past nine years? Since Conte took over, Inter have lost just six league games in two seasons and have won more games, accumulated more points, scored more goals and conceded fewer than Juve, who have lost 12 in that timeframe.
But Inter have their own considerable challenges. For a start, the club has lost a lot of money since the pandemic hit Italy. Their net loss was € 102 million in 2019-20 and they have net debt of € 323 million. Revenues were down by almost a fifth. They also have a wage bill that is almost 70% of income. With the title secured, Inter are allegedly looking for a cash injection and have been talking to a number of potential providers.
Suning, the club’s 68.5% owner, has been heavily impacted by the pandemic and recently sold 23% of its shares to state-owned investors to bolster its equity base. They were looking to sell the club and at one point, thought they had an agreement with BC Partners, a UK-based private equity firm. The two parties could not agree on a valuation and the deal collapsed.
Suning has invested some € 700 million since acquiring its stake in Inter, but around € 250 million is required to meet immediate needs and cover the club’s losses. Lukaku, who will be 28 on May 13, is valued at between € 70 million and € 105 million. Other players, such as Nicolo Barella, Achraf Hakim and Lautaro Martinez are worth a combined amount of € 250 million.
Conte will, naturally, look to the owners for indication of transfer funds for 2021-22. If the budget is diminished and Inter cannot strengthen their side, then they may be looking for a new coach for the defence of their title. At the moment, though, Inter and their fans are enjoying the moment, but they have been advised to “celebrate responsibly.”