All periods of dominance come to an end. Even if and when they seem as permanent as the rising sun, they always find a way to fizzle out.
A few years ago, it seemed as though Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona would never go a season without winning 78 trophies. But, of course, Pep burned-out, Carles Puyol retired and Xavi set sail for Qatar. Just like that, that particular golden era of Barca was all over.
But these things go in cycles, always. There’s various reasons for this, the primary one being that rebuilds are constantly happening. Players age, and squad lists turnover as that happens. Teams are forced to take the old dogs out back with a shotgun, leaving them no choice but to attempt to put the puzzle back together again.
Like Barcelona, Inter Milan were the kings of Europe not long ago. As the first side to topple Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semifinal, the Nerazzurri fulfilled their quest of an early-2000’s rebuild to perfection: they kept their best players up-to-and-through their peaks and were able to strike at an opportune time when Juventus had been relegated over a match-fixing scandal and Milan seemed oddly hyper-focused on European competition. It also didn’t hurt that two of the game’s most successful managers, Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho, were in charge of directing the ship at various times throughout.
From 2005 to 2010, Inter won five Scudettos, four Coppa Italias, four Supercoppa Italias, one Club World Cup and one Champions League.
In 2009, Inter lost superstar and leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona in return for Samuel Eto’o plus €43.5 million. Although the deal was questioned by critics on both sides of the argument, the acquisition of Eto’o, who ended up seamlessly partnering with Argentine forward Diego Milito, transformed Inter into a European juggernaut rather than just a domestic threat. But the high was swift and poignant, and the real fall was lingering around the corner.
As soon as Jose Mourinho left the San Siro for Real Madrid in 2010, things began spiraling out of control at Inter. Rafa Benitez was hired as Mourinho’s replacement and Inter immediately finished in second place in Serie A, relinquishing the Scudetto to AC Milan in the process. And things have only gotten worse. Inter haven’t finished above fifth in Serie A since and have changed managers seven times in the last five years.
Regardless of who was or wasn’t in charge during the downfall, Inter simply regressed into a group of elders. Mainstays like Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, and Marco Materazzi began settling into their 30s, while other like Lucio and Patrick Vieira left for challenges elsewhere. Once all of the veterans left, Inter became a clan of young and inexperienced pseudo-stars.
Marginal talents like Freddy Guarin, Yuto Nagatomo, Ricky Alvarez, Walter Gargano and Zdravko Kuzmanovic all represented the new, underwhelming international status of the Nerazzurri. The captaincy eventually fell to academy boy Andrea Ranocchia, who has yet to fulfill the on-pitch requirements worthy of the armband previously rocked by the likes of Zanetti and Giuseppe Bergomi. Not exactly your grandfather’s Inter Milan.
The first significant pillar of the rebuild was constructed in 2013, when Inter signed Croatian starlet Mateo Kovacic from Dinamo Zagreb. Only 19 at the time, Kovacic was immediately given the No. 10 shirt and was — obviously — dubbed “the next Modric” by European media, although a deep cut into his repertoire affirmed the moniker.
Like Modric, Kovacic is a superb technician who likes to dribble and can play anywhere in midfield; a perfect piece to build a team around. While still plenty green, Kovacic was and is a symbol of what Inter can become over the next five-to-10 years with the proper leadership. They’ve managed to keep the Croat around so far, which hasn’t been easy. Surrounding him with enough reasons to stay is the next logical step.
With old boss Roberto Mancini back at the wheel, Inter have started acquiring more and more assets for their new-and-improved outfit. The biggest and most important recent buy has come in the form of blossoming young French defensive midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia. Though the transfer fee paid to AS Monaco was hefty at €35 million, Inter managed to beat rivals Milan, Barcelona and Arsenal, among many others, to the promising 22-year-old’s signature.
Mancini has also been busy on the defensive end of things with Miranda and Jeison Murillo both coming over from Spain, while Barcelona right-back Martin Montoya is also set to sign on a two-year loan-spell. These types of signings add much needed physicality and depth to a side that traditionally values such attributes.
Alongside emerging Kovacic, Mauro Icardi, and Juan Jesus, the spine of Inter’s team has been reimagined and revamped. With 32 points to make up between themselves and Serie A champions Juventus, they’ll need as much of an upkick as possible.
But with any rebuild, there are delays and hold-ups. On Wednesday, reports leaked of Inter accepting a €17 million bid from Stoke City for Swiss sparkplug Xherdan Shaqiri (though the player has yet to agree). Why exactly Inter would accept any bid for one of their best attacking players — other than concern over an ever-growing wage bill in order to stay inline with Financial Fair Play rules — is a mystery but perhaps an expected one.
After all, rebuilding commitments are long-term; it’s the only way they’ll ever work. Sometimes, that means letting Ibrahimovic or Shaqiri leave for the right offer. Consider this: Juventus’s current golden generation had to win promotion from Serie B post-scandal, then go through stages of distress when their most exciting players were Milos Krasic and Sebastian Giovinco, just to get to a point where challenging for a Scudetto wasn’t a laughable endeavor.
You could say that Juve have only just truly peaked by making it to a Champions League final in May. And that pinnacle wasn’t even shared with the man who first headed the rush — Antonio Conte — at the helm. These things take time, for Inter, Juve, and anyone else who wishes to try them. And even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever produce the fruit they were planning for.
Fortunately, there’ll always be another cycle to try it all over again.