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Inter's Existential Crisis: Who Are We? And What Are We Doing Here?

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Taking a good, hard look at Inter's current state of affairs

Claudio Villa/Getty Images

(With the international break upon us, and nothing much left in the season to play for, I thought I’d try to put into words something that’s been bothering me about this club for a long time. Apologies for the length.)

When Erick Thohir bought a controlling interest in FC Internazionale Milano (Inter, if you’re nasty) a little over a year ago, he made it clear that his ownership was going to see two primary organizational changes. First off, he was going to run the club like a serious, level-headed business, a far cry from the spending binges that characterized the Massimo Moratti era. And second, he was going to try to expand Inter’s brand all over the world.

"We need to talk to our fans globally," he said to CNN last year, noting that there are 260 million "potential Inter fans" out in the world, waiting to be engaged.

Being Indonesian, Thohir clearly sees the opportunities that the Italian-born Moratti had been missing. Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern – go anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to see people wearing those teams’ jerseys, arguing about their transfer campaigns in bars. Save for the last few months of the 2009-10 season, you couldn’t say this about Inter, and Thohir is smart enough to know that this is where the future of the football business lies. Increasing weekend attendance at the San Siro is great, but if you can get millions of previously untapped fans in Bogota, Beijing, Lagos and Los Angeles to start following along, watching matches and buying merch, that’s a far bigger coup.

Thohir’s theories are dead-on, and ought to be embraced by more Serie A presidents. But so far, his execution has left a lot to be desired.

For one, all the marketing in the world doesn’t do you any good when the team you’re selling is languishing in mid-table, with few stars, playing lackluster football. (For example, Coca-Cola has the most sophisticated advertising campaign on earth, but if one out of every four Coke bottles tasted like rotten apple juice, it wouldn’t help sales much.) And his attempts to find shortcuts to new fans’ hearts with signings like Nemanja Vidic have proved laughably ineffective. People like to watch big-name superstars, sure, but no one’s lining up to see a nearly-retired star centerback ride the bench.

But most importantly, I’m not sure that Thohir knows what the basic product is that he’s selling. Why should fans – both the new ones and the old ones, like me, who are wondering why they’re wasting their time watching this aimless club every week – bother with Inter? Who are we anyway, and where are we going? We’ve never had such a large potential fanbase, and we’ve never had less of an essential identity as a team. And this scares me, because it forces us to ask real questions. Not just about how our team is packaged, but about what we want it to be.

Right now, I'm not sure anyone knows.

***

Sports fandom has always been a strange phenomenon, a sort of substitute for a lot of deeper sublimated desires. And sports fandom in the digital, borderless age is getting even stranger, changing in very fundamental ways. To explain what I mean, allow me a long historical aside.

Back in Renaissance Florence, members of the nobility used to play a sport called calcio fiorentino. As the name suggests, it’s a distant relative to modern-day calcio, with more in common to rugby than anything FIFA-sanctioned. But it served a valuable social purpose: At the time it developed, Tuscany was ever so gradually moving from a feudal, clan-based system into a sort of provisional modernity. Foreign threats were making it less feasible for the city’s dominant families – the Medici, Pazzi, Albizzi, et al – to scheme and murder to get ahead, but they still needed an outlet for all of these generational blood feuds and neighborhood rivalries. Enter calcio: a suitably violent yet non-homicidal game where the city’s districts could let their most athletic young men fight for the glory of their social groups. Sports fandom was just clan warfare by other means.

Flash forward a few centuries to the dawn of modern football, which came several decades after the Industrial Revolution wrought seismic changes on the European landscape. There’s a reason that some of the greatest footballing dynasties tended to be located in cities that were also great factory towns, industrial hubs or ports: Manchester, Munich, Turin, Barcelona, Liverpool…and of course, Milan. As people left the provinces by the thousands to chase factory jobs in these huge, crowded cities, they tended to leave behind their families, homelands and traditions. Crammed into tenements and working 12-hour days, they became alienated and lonely, needing something bigger to belong to. Football gave them a sense of home, something they could rally around and celebrate together. Sports fandom became community by other means.

In the digital age, the whole equation is changing. These days, no one feels particularly tied down to their specific little neighborhood or city, and people move around the world more often than ever before. What’s more, now that we spend huge portions of the day online, it’s entirely possible to feel closer to friends hundreds of miles away than the unknown neighbors across the street. Hence we have a sports landscape where dozens of strangers can meet on a website like this and discuss the minutia of a team that plays in a city where most of us don’t live. (My house is two miles away from Dodger Stadium, but I’m much more concerned with the fate of an Italian soccer team. My next-door neighbor, on the other hand, follows the Pakistani cricket team religiously.) It’s a pretty profound shift in the way teams foster a sense of community and belonging. But it also means that we value teams for more than simply representing our city or our clan – they become much more subtle conduits of personal identity and association. They become brands. And like all modern brands, they’re aspirational.

The way I see it, there are two essential types of footballing brands that are positioned to flourish in the digital age: the heritage brands, and (to borrow a Silicon Valley buzzword) the disruptors.

The heritage clubs are, obviously, clubs with long and storied histories. But they’re also clubs with distinct and immutable identities that transcend their immediate surroundings. Barcelona is mes que un club, with their own particular style. Real Madrid give us los Galacticos, the last vestiges of haughty Iberian imperialism. Manchester United represents a sort of fetishized Northern English working class; Arsenal represents a fetishized London working class. Juventus stands for a traditionalist idea of Italian nationalism. Bayern Munich functions as a symbol of the whole West German football tradition. All of these clubs have an identity that is easily exportable, easily understood throughout the world. In the broadest sense, they appear to stand for something.

The second type encompasses Manchester City, PSG, Monaco, Chelsea.* These are clubs without meaningful histories or identities, but which simply project wealth, success and power, and which barge in to disrupt the heritage clubs’ established order. In other words, they’re perfect late-capitalist attractions. Being a PSG fan in 2015 is like being a fan of Apple, or a die-hard Lexus supporter – it’s not the soul of the team you like, but the conferred sense of superiority, celebrity and strength. In a weird, sick way, this might be the most modern sort of fandom, though it’s quite precarious. After all, for every Facebook there’s a lot of MySpaces and Friendsters – just ask Anzhi Makhachkala how patient their brand-new fans have been.

So…where does Inter fall here? Considering our shaky finances and poor recent results, we certainly don’t fall into the second category. But what about the first? What does Inter represent? We have a storied history, but history alone isn’t enough – Ajax has history too, so does Leeds United. We represent internationalism, but that’s meaningless now – almost every top team is equally "international" these days.** We used to be pazza Inter, the lovable losers, but then we became the hate-able winners, and now we’re just the losers. We still have a cultural identity within Italy, but that identity doesn’t make sense in a global context. And for Erick Thohir, global context is everything.

***

I became an Inter fan roughly 13 years ago. I had always loved football and supported the Italian national team, but living in America at a time before streaming, I was only moderately aware of the bigger European clubs, and I was only aware of Inter because they were the team Ronaldo was on. But when I spent a year studying in Milan at age 19, that was enough to get me interested in the club, and my interest was only furthered by the fact that all of my Italian friends were either Juventus or Milan supporters.

Inter piqued my natural affinity for underdogs – they always had some pretty good players, and they were a "big" club, but they had at that point only won the title once in the last 20+ years. Being an Inter fan was seen as a sort of psychological disorder, equally admirable and pitiable, but that was part of the aura that intrigued me. I liked the role that internationalism played in the club, as it seemed to reflect the diversity of the city. (Living in Milan, I was friends with just as many Moroccans, Chinese and Slavs as native-born Italians.) I liked the fact that Inter was run by a harmlessly eccentric billionaire, rather than a dangerously psychotic billionaire like Milan. And of course I loved Ronaldo, even if he was always injured. But there was just something intangible that drew me to the club, and learning more about their history and visiting the Meazza for matches turned my interest into die-hard love.

At the time, Inter was a very different beast from the Grande Inter of the 1960s, but they retained some of its important traces. For one, it was a family business, with Massimo Moratti continuing the legacy of his father Angelo and pouring his heart, soul, and irresponsible quantities of his fortune into the club. Giacinto Facchetti was still on the board, providing a direct link to the past. Inter didn’t play catenaccio anymore, but the tactical principles of maintaining a stout defense and building from the back were still very much in place.

And most importantly, the players seemed to exist on a continuum. Baresi was always visible on the touchlines. The era of Toldo gave way to the era of Julio Cesar, but Toldo stayed on as backup. Materazzi and Cordoba held down the fort at the back for years, with Samuel seamlessly taking over for the former. One or both of Stankovic and Cambiasso anchored the midfield with whomever else happened to be around. Figo played a few good years and then stayed to become our club ambassador. And of course, capitano Javier Zanetti maintained the core Inter identity for nearly two decades. Superstars could come and go, some players would flop, some seasons would be thrown away (okay, most seasons), but there was always an essential center to the team, a spine of devoted players who bled black-and-blue.

In the past few years, we’ve lost our owner, all of our veteran players, and our generally respectable record. Currently, our three most senior players are Ranocchia, Nagatomo and Jonathan, two of whom could be dropped from the lineup without anyone noticing. Of those three, only Ranocchia was ever positioned as a natural heir to the departed veterans (taking Materazzi’s number and Zanetti’s armband), but he’s proven himself sadly unworthy of the mantle.

The rest of our squad is composed of mismatched odds and ends, players recruited to serve wildly different coaches with wildly different tactical systems, so that there always seems to be at least one person playing out of position. Our playing style changes completely from one week to the next. And what's more, there isn’t a single unsellable player on the team, no one whose club loyalty is unquestionable, no one you could call the club’s "heart and soul" with a straight face.

So what exactly is our pitch to prospective fans?

"Come watch Mauro Icardi, the next Diego Milito…unless we sell him, which we could do at any moment since he won’t sign a new contract."

"Mateo Kovacic is the future of Inter, although we might drop him for a month because we can’t figure out where to play him and we have two other trequartistas."

"Want to see the exciting new ways our defense will collapse under pressure? Tune in on Sunday!"

Even when Inter was disappointing in the early 2000s or post-treble years, they still always seemed like Inter. Now we have a disappointing team who just happen to be wearing blue-and-black jerseys. (Unless, you know, they’re inexplicably wearing light blue or bright red jerseys to keep our sponsors happy…)

***

To be fair, this isn’t the first time Inter has lost its identity, and the last time we did, it was also shortly after getting a new owner. Inter’s mid-90s run was hugely forgettable, and it took Moratti several years of expensive trial-and-error to reassemble a core group. Maybe Thohir will be capable of doing the same with less waste; it’s still too early to judge.

But 20 years ago, Inter faced a very different landscape. Back then, we were a struggling club, flush with money, in the best league on earth. Now we’re a struggling club with limited resources in a league that seems to be dying more and more each season. The gulf between top clubs and cannon-fodder is growing rapidly too, and new fans have less time to waste on dysfunctional teams clinging to past glories.

Thohir can try to position us as a global brand all he wants, but first he needs to figure out what kind of team we are, what players are worthy to represent us, where we’re going, and what we should expect. We need to be better, of course, because no one in Jakarta or Tokyo is going to start following a team because they suck, but we also need to give fans something to care about. A tradition, an ethos, a style, a soul…something. We haven’t seen much of that lately, and every weekend we complain that our players have "no heart." That’s partly down to the players themselves, but it’s also down to the management for failing to give these players a sense that they’re playing for something larger than themselves. And if the players can’t see that, how can we expect the fans to?

*

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*As a side note, Chelsea is at an interesting point in their history, where having disrupted their way into the established order, they’re starting to act more and more like a heritage club. There are surely young Chelsea fans out there hardly aware that the club was known as a minor also-ran prior to the current millennium.

**Not to mention our inexcusable support of Carlo Tavecchio, a borderline racist whose policies seem to be almost directly opposed to the principles on which this club was founded.