Max De LucaComment

WHEN INTER WERE KINGS OF EUROPE

Max De LucaComment
WHEN INTER WERE KINGS OF EUROPE

It's hard to fathom that six years have passed since a beaming Javier Zanetti thrust the Champions League trophy above his head and let out a scream that reverberated all the way to the Piazza Duomo. There was more than four decades of pent-up frustration in the captain's visceral shout. Internazionale had built a well-earned reputation in the art of capitulation.

Inter grew increasingly adept at finding new ways to lose and became so proficient in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that their infamous collapse on May 5th 2002 to hand Juventus the Scudetto has been immortalized in Calcio lore. 

Inter not only shed their tag as perennial under-achievers when the final whistle blew on May 22nd 2010. They exorcised 45 years of demons in the 2-0 win over Bayern Munich. Their celebrations triggered scenes reminiscent of the 1982 World Cup final, when jubilant Italians paraded around the Santiago Bernabeu pitch while the despondent Germans could only stare with sharp pangs of envy. 

It was a delightful twist of irony that Inter - Serie A's loveable losers - became the first Italian team to win the triplete. A tortured Inter fan base could revel in the historic achievement and, more importantly for some supporters, hold it over the heads of Juventus and AC Milan. My only regret was I wasn't in Madrid to see it.

I remember sitting at my desk trying to figure out the repercussions of leaving my seven-and-a-half month pregnant wife at home in order to travel to Madrid to watch the final. We were in the period when traveling - especially across the Atlantic - was not generally recommended, especially since this was going to be our first child.

And the first child has a propensity to pop out whenever they feel like it, due dates be damned. My wife had already agreed that I could honor Jose Mourinho by using Josephina as our soon-to-be-coming daughter's middle name if Inter won the competition and I knew I was already pushing my luck.

She said all the right things about my potential flight from Toronto to Madrid and let me make the final decision. It took three days of self-deliberation before deciding that the Nerazzurri would definitely lose if I made the journey to the Bernabeu.

I had lost track of the amount of times Inter had lost in the Champions League when I'd called in sick for work in previous years, and I was wary of jinxing them in their biggest moment. I was staying home.

At the time I was a sub editor for a football website and I was scheduled for a copy-editing shift during the final, so I secluded myself in the basement with some essentials: Espresso, Gatorade, biscotti Milano and a chunk of soppressata.

The pre-game ceremonies were torturous as time seemed to drag on at a snail's pace like it does when you find yourself squished between two annoying strangers in an uncomfortable chair inside of a crowded government office.

Inter were slight favorites but that did little to calm the nerves of their supporters. They knew only too well that the club had a tendency to implode on the big stage, and even though they had ten players who could easily walk into any starting line-up in the world, there was still a sense of despair bubbling below the surface.

A jittery first half-hour didn't help reassure Nerazzurri Nation and it wasn't until Diego Milito played a neat one-two with Wesley Sneijder before firing high past Hans-Jörg Butt in the 34th minute that Inter supporters had an inkling that things might be different this time around.

It was a counter-attack typical of Mourinho's reign; nothing fancy but effective nonetheless. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar punted the ball down the pitch to a waiting Milito, who nodded down to Sneijder, and the Dutchman played a perfectly weighted return pass to Milito with the Argentine finishing with punishing accuracy. It was route one football all the way but it resulted in the opener and Inter went into half time a goal to the good.

This wasn't your father's Inter. They had beaten the champions of England, Russia, Ukraine and Spain to advance to the final and they were 45 minutes away from hoisting the European Cup for the first time since 1965.

My wife waddled down the stairs to ask how the game was going and I told her the score. A look of shock came over her face and she said, "So Inter might actually win? I only agreed to Josephina because I thought they would never win the Champions League. Inter always mess things up."

"There's still 45 minutes to go," I reassured her. "Still plenty of time to blow it." She waddled back up the stairs seemingly appeased with my response, as the second half was about to begin.

Inter had a chance to double the lead early in the second session but Goran Pandev's curling effort was expertly tipped over the bar by Butt. The tension was building as Bayern started to pour forward and Arjen Robben forced a good save from Julio Cesar.

Inter fans were fearing the worst and their heroes were on the back foot until, suddenly, they weren't. Thomas Müller pounced on a loose ball inside of the penalty area and was all set to equalize until Walter Samuel made a vital diving block.

Inter countered straight away as Samuel Eto'o played a diagonal ball to Milito, who undressed Daniel Van Buyten with the ease and efficiency of a loquacious lothario before side-footing into the far corner to send the Inter supporters directly behind the goal into raptures.

Legendary Inter announcer Roberto Scarpini was hyperventilating on live television but still managed to inform the viewers of "E sole duo! E sole duo!" while frantically gasping for air.

Inter were ahead 2-0 and were a mere 20 minutes away from making history, but there was still more than enough time to blow it. Losing their nerve now would be like dropping a bottle of 1947 Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne minutes before the wedding toast and this thought sent shivers down my spine.

My mind started to revisit late collapses from the past. Inter had a penchant for wringing their fans through the spin cycle, leaving their emotions bone dry, and I figured the next 15 minutes were going to be no different.

There is rarely a dull moment for Interisti but the final 15 minutes played out with minimal suspense and Mourinho even felt secure enough to walk over to the Bayern dugout and shake Louis van Gaal's hand before the final whistle blew.

It was an astonishing act of atonement. Inter were saying, "Hey ladies and gents, we know that last 45 years have been rough on you so we're going to play out the last portion of the final with minimal fuss, it's the least we can do for you. We all square now?" 

Inter were the Kings of Europe. Two moments of magic from Milito proved to be the difference and it was only fitting that he was the man of the hour. He scored the only goal against Siena to clinch the Scudetto and fired the winner in the Coppa Italia final versus Roma. Milito - the seemingly insignificant summer signing from Genoa - completed his own personal triplete.

Inter veterans Marco Materazzi and Ivan Cordoba, who had survived some lean years with the club, were rewarded for their perseverance and celebrated with child-like zeal. Zanetti found Mourinho and they shared an emotional embrace with the two whispering words of thanks to each other.

Inter were in dreamland and attained sporting enlightenment on a mystical night in Madrid. They made an indelible impression on their supporters in their own distinctive fashion.

Of course, it couldn't be a night of unbridled joy for Interisti as Mourinho's long, tearful salute to the Nerazzurri faithful during the celebrations all but confirmed the rumors he was leaving the club to coach Real Madrid in the summer. It was Pazza Inter at their best. Even their greatest achievement was tinged with sorrow.

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