Inter Milan president and majority owner Erick Thohir promised to roll up his sleeves. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli just wished he would pick up the phone. As the mooted exchange deal that would have sent Mirko Vucinic to Inter in return for Fredy Guarin slowly unravelled over the first two days of this week, Agnelli sought on multiple occasions to get his opposite number on the line so that they might have a frank conversation about what exactly was going on. But if the Bianconeri’s version of this story is to be believed, Thohir replied only in 160-character bursts.
“At 10.48am on Tuesday, Agnelli received from Thohir, whom he had tried to contact several times, a text message that gave definitive approval for the whole transfer,” said Juventus’s general manager Beppe Marotta in his statement to the press on Wednesday. “Then everything got cancelled and we don’t understand why.”
That final comment was rather disingenuous. Marotta knew very well why this deal collapsed, as did the rest of the country. On Monday morning, news of the potential transfer had leaked out into the public domain, sparking a furious reaction among Inter’s supporters.
What began as an online protest, with fans raging on message boards and social media, escalated quickly into something more serious as Ultras from San Siro’s Curva Nord issued a statement that condemned their club and its president, warning that: “The sale … of one of the most important player’s in Inter’s squad to another Italian club is the drop that will make the vase overflow.” By Tuesday afternoon, a group was preparing to march on the team’s offices in corso Vittoro Emmanuele.
Representatives of the two clubs had been engaged in face-to-face negotiations for the best part of two days by that point, switching between various hotels and offices in Milan. Although they had initially pushed for a straight swap, Juventus were reportedly willing to throw in a €1m cash sweetener, with a further €500,000 in potential bonuses. In the meantime, Vucinic had already cleared out his locker at their Vinovo training base and travelled north to undergo his medical in Milan on Monday night.
But the strength of the fans’ reaction was enough to give Thohir pause. As the head of a substantial media empire in Indonesia, he understands well the importance of PR. Pressing ahead with a move that would anger such a large part of his consumer base was difficult to justify. Somewhere around 6pm on Tuesday evening, he finally pulled the plug, cancelling the transfer shortly before those Ultras arrived outside Inter’s headquarters bearing banners with angry slogans.
The Curva Nord celebrated its “victory”, issuing a further statement thanking all those who had added their voices to its campaign, but for their club itself, this was another unedifying scene. Inter, after all, had been the ones who initiated the deal in the first place, enquiring about Vucinic’s availability as they sought to reinforce an attack that has scored just once in its last four games.
Although they had not initially planned to offer Guarin in exchange, the midfielder had been agitating for a move and appealed to Juve’s manager Antonio Conte. His €2.3m annual salary was not so far apart from what Inter would expect to pay Vucinic, meaning that they could make the switch without doing further damage to their already precarious finances.
That is not to say that the fans’ concerns were unjustified. At 27 years old, Guarin is three years younger than Vucinic and has a contract running through to 2016, whereas the Juventus player is scheduled to become a free agent in 18 months’ time. And while the Colombian has flattered to deceive on occasion, he has still been one of Inter’s better performers this season. Vucinic has made just four league starts for Juve, losing his place in the side following the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente.
Inter, furthermore, have been burned by similar trades with their rivals before now. The Nerazzurri infamously sent Fabio Cannavaro to Juventus in 2004 in exchange for back-up goalkeeper Fabian Carini. As James Horncastle detailed in a piece for ESPN this week, it was not the first time that they had made a bad deal with the Old Lady.
But if the outcome looks like the right one for Inter, then the route they took to get there has damaged both the club and Thohir’s credibility as an owner. After all, it should not have required a fan revolt to alert Thohir to these concerns. If the club’s negotiators felt that they were getting a bad deal, then they should have dug their heels in much sooner. Conversely, if this was a transfer strategy they believed in, why relent so easily?
In truth, this story is all too familiar. Incoherent hiring strategies are a long-established fact of life for Inter, and they extend not only to the acquisition of new players but also the appointment of managers. In 2011, the club approached Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa and Andre Villas-Boas about the possibility of replacing Leonardo before finally settling for Gian Piero Gasperini. Good luck discerning any common thread linking that particular foursome.
Although fully aware of Gasperini’s preference for a three-man attack, the club then failed to arrange its transfer campaign accordingly, retaining Wesley Sneijder—for whom there was no natural role in the new manager’s schemes—but selling Samuel Eto’o. Inter subsequently signed Diego Forlan, without noticing that he would be cup tied for that season’s European competition. They ignored Gasperini’s requests for an additional midfielder and, as if to rub salt into the wound, did not sign the one player he had specifically requested—Rodrigo Palacio—until a year later, after the manager had been fired.
Countless more examples could be drawn from Massimo Moratti’s time as owner, during which incredible sums of money were wasted on the likes of Ricardo Quaresma and Francesco Coco while players as good as Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci were allowed to slip away for much less than they were worth.
Things were supposed to go differently under Thohir, with his stated commitments to good business practice and to helping Inter get back to a self-sustaining financial model. In November he insisted that the club’s January transfer plans would be focused around signing more young players to complement those who would be promoted from the youth team. “We need to be confident,” he said. “I think a number of younger Italian players are worth giving a shot.”
Perhaps Inter’s disappointing performances have necessitated a shift in that mindset. A team that started the season brightly enough has now won just twice since November 9th. Though they remain in fifth place, the prospects of hanging on to a Europa League spot look slim unless something changes soon.
But the greatest concern for many Inter fans is simply that Thohir continues to entrust the day-to-day running of Inter’s transfer policies to the same people who have been guilty of so many mistakes in the past. The main driving force behind the Vucinic-Guarin trade was Marco Branca, the technical director who has held that job since 2003 (he had previously spent a further year with the club as a scout).
Working alongside him were sporting director Piero Ausilio and general manager Marco Fassone, whose overlapping roles do not always allow for a clear line of command. Until recently, it was always Moratti who took ultimate responsibility, applying his own personal judgement to every deal that got done.
Thohir, though, does not seem inclined to take such a hands-on role. Although he considers himself a fan, he is also quick to acknowledge that he lacks technical expertise. When it comes to transfer business, he would prefer to stand aside and let the football people do their job, working within the financial parameters that are set for them.
But while a hands-off approach makes good business sense, it only works if you have the right people in place. Although Branca helped to oversee a period of great success for Inter in the wake of Calciopoli, his successes are coloured by both the fact that Inter’s domestic rivals were so weak at the time.
Those successes were achieved, furthermore, without any pretence of trying to balance the books. In 2010, the year that Inter won the treble, they posted losses of €69m. In each of the two previous years, that figure had stood closer to €150m. Given that Thohir has no intention of supporting such losses going forwards, he must also ask himself whether Branca is up to the task of rejuvenating this squad on a far more modest budget.
When Thohir completed his takeover of Inter last October, he made a point of maintaining continuity with the old regime, even pleading with Moratti to stay on as a full-time president. The latter eventually settled for an honorary role (and Thohir did call him for advice this week before making his final decision on the Vucinic-Guarin swap), but with his son serving as vice-president and many directors remaining in place, much has stayed the same.
At this stage, it is tempting to wonder whether it might be too much. Inter’s performances have been in decline ever since Jose Mourinho stepped aside in the summer of 2010. To reverse that trend will require strong leadership. It might also require a break from the past that Thohir seems reluctant to make.