Stable Inter deliver Libertadores glory

With a mix of old and new, Brazil's Internacional lifted the Copa Libertadores this week.  Reporting from Rio, Jack Lang looks at the Inter success story.

Internacional, one of the two giants from Porto Alegre, in the South of Brazil, won the Copa Libertadores for the second time in five years on Wednesday night, after seeing off a valiant challenge from Chivas Guadalajara at the Beira-Rio. An exciting 3-2 win on the night (the tie ended 5-3 on aggregate) was an emphatic way to shake off a decade-long hoodoo; this was the first time since 1999 that a Brazilian club had defeated foreign opposition in the final of the competition.

A closer look at Inter reveals a well-organised club; one that has managed in recent years to prosper under the same constraints that leave many of their rivals lurching between crises. We can put this, I think, down to two main reasons. Firstly, Inter have in recent years been more sensible with managerial changes than is the norm in Brazilian football. Since 2003, when the national championship finally switched to a double round-robin format, Inter have had eleven coaches. This figure seems quite steep by European standards, but when compared to some other clubs in Brazil, it’s positively saintly (Fluminense, for example, have had nineteen; Flamengo twenty).

This relative stability has allowed Inter to perform to a consistently high standard in the Brasileirão; only once have they finished outside the top eight. As such, the Colorado have qualified for either the Libertadores or Copa Sul-Americana for eight consecutive years, and have built up a reputation as Brazil’s flagship in continental competition. In the same period, clubs of comparable size (such as Corinthians, Vasco, and city rivals Grêmio) have had to recover from relegation to Série B.

The second reason concerns the structure of the club’s squad. It is usually the fate of Brazilian domestic football to watch the country’s stars play out their best years in foreign climes; clubs here must content themselves with the bookends of successful careers. Inter, however, have had more success than most; with an impressive production line of talents (a good recent example is that of Alexandre Pato, flourishing since leaving the Beira-Rio for Milan) and a knack for resigning players who still have much to contribute.

Wednesday’s victory, for instance, was one borne of a perfect synthesis of experience and potential. Sandro, a defensive midfielder who marries strength with tactical nous turned in yet another sterling performance, marking Chivas’ talisman Adolfo Bautista out of the game. The 21 year-old will this week embark on what should be a lengthy European adventure, flying to London to join up with Tottenham Hotspur, who stumped up €10 million for him in March. Inter’s decisive second goal was scored by a relatively unknown striker by the name of Leandro Damião, whose lightening burst and cool finish suggest another emerging talent.

The real jewel in Inter’s crown, however, looks to be Giuliano, the scorer of a fabulous third in the dying minutes. The 20 year-old was Inter’s lucky charm throughout the competition, scoring important goals in the quarter-final, semi-final, and in both legs of the final. A burly attacking midfielder who makes timely runs into the box, Giuliano has emerged with little fanfare, possibly down to his quiet, modest nature, but looks to have the ability to go far in the game.

Coach Celso Roth has brilliantly offset these raw talents with a wealth of experience; Wednesday’s starting XI contained no fewer than five veterans of the 2006 Libertadores. Of that group, only centre-back Indío has remained at the club through the intervening years, and only his defensive partner Bolívar was at the Beira-Rio at the turn of the year. The remaining three have only just returned to the club, and have had a huge impact on the fortunes of the side. Dynamic midfielder Tinga and nippy forward Rafael Sobis both had impressive games against Chivas, the latter scoring the all-important equaliser on the night. Goalkeeper Renan, too, has injected far more stability into the Inter backline than the hapless Pato Abbondanzieri ever did. The club has also done well to retain the services of Argentine duo Pablo Guiñazú and Andrés D’Alessandro, who have both remained in Porto Alegre despite enormous interest from other South American teams.

When Bolívar lifted the Libertadores trophy just before midnight, then, it was a fitting endorsement of Inter’s heady union of past glory and future possibility. The club captain’s nickname echoes the name of Símon Bolívar, one of the ‘liberators’ after which the competition draws its moniker. The Porto Alegre side’s strategy of production and renewal is one from which, in this writer’s opinion, many clubs in the continent could learn. Congratulations to Internacional, bicampeão da América!

You can read more from Jack at Snap, Kaká and Pop!