I first got interested in Inter as a teenager, when I was a young Italophile living in Southern California and feeding off whatever scraps of information on European football I could gather. I became a serious Inter fan as a 19/20-year-old, during a yearlong study abroad period in Milan, when I saved up for rare trips to the San Siro, and less rare trips to sports bars, where I would spend my sparse spare change on a single beer and nurse it for whole matches. Living back in L.A. over the next several years, my fandom deepened as I learned how to follow and watch the team via this newfangled innovation called the Internet, and spent lots of money I didn’t have on shirts, gear and books on eBay. In summer of 2009, I was laid off from my job, and spent the next year living hand-to-mouth as a freelancer. As much as this year destroyed my finances, it let my Inter fandom grow into an obsession: Working from home and making up my own schedule, I was able to watch almost every single league match, domestic cup tie, friendly and European standoff that lead to the treble. Unemployment couldn’t have possibly come at a better time.
I’m now in my early/mid-30s. I have a full-time career, a wife, a young daughter, and a loose yet undeniable grasp on adulthood. With all of those obligations, it’s easy to lose touch with my Inter obsession, and easier still when Inter isn’t giving me much reason to spend my rare free time watching them slump from one defeat to another. After some matches, I wonder why I even bother anymore. But then there are the moments of sunshine streaming through the clouds. Even though we were ultimately eliminated, this team’s heroic comeback from a 0-3 Coppa deficit against Juventus was one of them. It reminded me of old times, of exactly why I still hopelessly set my alarm for the early morning hours on weekends, throw on an old Inter jersey, and sit there feeding my baby while watching a glitchy match-stream.
In that spirit, I’ve done some looking back, and compiled this list of my favorite Inter players of all time. Emphasis on "favorite," not "best." I wasn’t old enough to watch Lothar Matthaus or Alessandro Altobelli back in the day, and I wasn’t even a glimmer in my parents’ eyes during La Grande Inter. But these are the players that never cease to lift my spirits when I think of them. Feel free to offer alternate lists, or tell me why I’m insane, in the comments.
10. Marco Materazzi
Whenever I think about Marco Materazzi, I think about my oldest friend, whose name actually also happens to be Marco. Marco and I have been friends since grade school, and remain close friends today, which is why I can say the following things about him in purest love. My friend Marco sometimes appears to be incompletely evolved: His brow is permanently furrowed in a sort of caveman squint, and he walks with his arms flexed and fists clenched, like an English bulldog. He’s built like a tank, covered in tattoos, and drives a battered old Ford F-150. He is literally incapable of completing a sentence without swearing. Pretty much everyone I know is scared of him when first introduced. And yet I know better. He may carry himself like a thug, but he’s never thrown a serious punch in his life. He talks a good game about girls, but it literally takes him years to work up the courage to ask someone out on a date. He used to wear Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies t-shirts almost every day in high school, but his actual favorite albums are Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever. He’s perfectly happy to let people think he’s some sort of rabid gorilla, while deep down he’s an utter pussycat, a sentimentalist, a sweetheart.
Marco Materazzi is considerably more violent than my friend Marco – there are plenty of pearl-clutching YouTube compilations to prove it – but his reputation as a goon seems just as unearned. Sure, there was that horror tackle on Ibrahimovic, or the time he full-on nailed Shevchenko in the ‘nads, missing the ball he was supposed to kick by a nautical mile. I’m not defending those. But compared to the likes of Pepe, Goikoetxea, Paolo Montero…I legitimately don’t believe Matrix belongs in their company. He was happy to coast on his hardman reputation, but his play was typically a lot smarter, more strategic and more measured than he’ll ever get credit for. (The fact that he was an incredibly gifted passer and goalscorer often goes missing from his player profile.) It’s a fine line between fearless and reckless, and Materazzi sometimes crossed it, but I can’t help but love the guy. He was out to intimidate players, not break them. And he took his licks just as hard as he dished them out. Sometimes you need someone to wear the black hat, and Marco always put his club before his own reputation, later easing into the role of touchline cheerleader/locker room authority figure with remarkable humility.
(Plus, as a fan of the Azzurri as well, his heroics during the 2006 World Cup still make me smile. A team filled with Juventus legends, coached by a Juventino, and yet they wouldn’t have won the final without the contributions of Inter’s most-hated player. That’s A+ trolling.)
9. Christian Vieri
Unlike Materazzi, I can’t make any case that Christian Vieri was secretly a stand-up guy. His personal life makes Icardi look like a choirboy, he was often a moody prick on the pitch, and he engaged in a drawn-out legal battle with Moratti for years after his departure. (If in fact Moratti did send private investigators to follow him, that’s totally inexcusable. Though it also must be said that he’s the only Inter player whom you could imagine Moratti needing to do something like that to.) At the same time, Vieri was an absolute monster who perfectly summed up his era at the club. He was to the front lines what Materazzi was to the backline, a bludgeoning, bullheaded, single-minded battering ram. Having watched him play live from near the curva, it really was like witnessing an unstoppable force barreling toward goal. Vieri’s goalscoring rate during his peak years here was stunning: 22 league goals in 25 appearances in 2001/02, and 24 goals in 23 appearances in 2002/03. That’s an average of 0.95 goals per match for two seasons straight. That’s the kind of number we’re more used to seeing out of guys like Cristiano Ronaldo, and Vieri did this while playing for the most defensively-rigorous league on earth.
8. Obafemi Martins
This will probably be the most controversial inclusion here, and I can see why. The other nine players on this list were objectively world-class, and Martins certainly was not. But that’s the difference between "favorite" players and "greatest" ones. What always got me about Martins was his sincere joy at being able to play the game. For three seasons he was a very good player for this team – never great, but very good, and his genuine enthusiasm and knack for key goals never failed to make me smile. (That backflip after scoring in the Champions League knockouts? Glorious.) Martins was also the first promising player I was aware of who emerged from the youth ranks into the senior team, and he seemed to point toward a bright future where we could start developing our own superstars, instead of relying on Moratti to mortgage his vacation homes every time we needed a striker. Oh, how innocent I was…
7. Ivan Cordoba
If you were to cast a film about the Wu-Tang Clan using nothing but Inter players of the 2000s, you’d have Zanetti as RZA and Cambiasso as GZA; the Clan leader and his faithful deputy. Ronaldo would be Method Man, the crossover star, and Materazzi would be Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the loose cannon who was smarter than he let on. Ivan Cordoba would be Inspectah Deck – the modest, unassuming guy in the back who has every bit as much talent as the superstars, but lacks the charisma to stand out. Until the arrival of Walter Samuel, Cordoba was the best defender Inter had seen in many, many years, and he did his job with such minimal fuss and lack of ego that it was easy to take him for granted, even when he was doing things that were seemingly impossible. He was great in such a matter-of-fact way that his greatness almost went unnoticed.
6. Dejan Stankovic
Probably my favorite element of Dejan Stankovic’s play was that I watched him for nine years, and I never quite put my finger on what type of player he was. Was he a tricky, technical winger? Once in a while. An enigmatic, imaginative trequartista? Often. A salt-of-the-earth defensive midfielder? Frequently. An all-action box-to-boxer? Yeah, sure. Even his persona seemed to shift: When we were winning, he was an irrepressible goofball; when we were losing, he was a machete-between-the-teeth drill sergeant trying to get his teammates’ heads into the game. Deki had an uncanny ability to be whatever the team needed at the time. And his long-range rockets against Roma, Milan, Chievo, Genoa and (especially) Manuel Neuer’s Schalke remain some of the most spectacular Inter goals I’ve ever witnessed.
5. Walter Samuel
The Platonic ideal of a modern football defender. He had the icy gaze of a Bond villain, the physique and physiognomy of a street gang enforcer, the mind of a military commander, and the soul of a true believer. (The fact that he tended to be incongruously thoughtful and soft-spoken in conversation only added to his mystique.) One of the three outright transfer robberies we performed on Real Madrid in the past decade, Samuel was my favorite, and save for two serious injuries, he was arguably the best defender at this club (and on the short list for best defender in Italy) during every season he was on the team sheet. Aggressive enough to earn the nickname "The Wall," he somehow managed to only earn one straight red for the last eight seasons he played here, a testament to his immense intelligence.
4. Samuel Eto’o
Strange as it sounds to say, Samuel Eto’o might be one of the most under-appreciated Inter players of the past decade. Not that you’d catch any reasonable person arguing against his greatness, but the commentariat so often got Eto’o wrong, and never seemed to acknowledge how wrong they’d been. When he arrived from Barcelona in summer of 2009, the talk was all about his troublemaking disposition. He was too arrogant, they said, too individualistic to fit in with Pep Guardiola’s game plan, too selfish to cede the spotlight to a superior player like Messi. And it took only a few weeks at Inter for him to disprove that theory. Playing typically as a support striker or a winger, Eto’o allowed himself to become second fiddle to Diego Milito, a player who -- at least on paper -- was just as inferior to Eto’o as Eto’o was to Messi. But Eto’o did this willingly, and sacrificed his own stats and goal tallies to make Milito into the hero. (Would Messi have done that? Would Messi have consented to play fullback in a Champions League semifinal match away to the club that had just shipped him off like leftovers?) But as much praise as he got for his treble-year teamwork, Eto’s decline in scoring nonetheless prompted some commentators to wonder if he’d lost his poacher’s touch after the 2009/10 season. Maybe time had caught up with him, they said, and maybe he’d have to settle for being the working-class provider, instead of the target man. In response, Eto’o took up the mantle from the jaded, exhausted Milito the next season and went on a tear. His final 2010/11 stats in all competitions: 37 goals and 15 assists. I believe it was the most prolific single-season attacking performance in the history of the club.
3. Diego Milito
I went full-on emo for this site back when Diego Milito left Inter, so I’ll keep this one brief. Milito probably reminds me of myself more than any other player who’s been at this club – but the best possible version of me. The version of me I still hope to someday become. His incredible success here is also a testament to how important it is for a footballer to find the right time, place and management to truly expand his talents. If Mourinho hadn’t seen something in Milito and known how to bring out his best, it’s possible he would have ended his career as one of those terminally underrated provincial club strikers, rather than a world-famous treble winner. Sometimes players let their clubs down, and sometimes clubs let their players down, and I shudder to think of how many potential Militos we’ve had come through this team who were misunderstood, misused, and squandered by the environment around them. Milito himself was the great exception to the rule. Plus, he and Martins remain the two Inter players I’d most want to grab a beer with.
Like untold thousands of people who didn’t grow up in Italy, I might never have become an Inter fan if not for Ronaldo. I was too young and too geographically removed to witness any of his legendary first Inter season firsthand, but even as a kid living in pre-YouTube, pre-Fox Soccer Channel SoCal, I was still aware of the kinds of waves he was making, and later made a point to find "whatever team that guy is on." Watching clips of his early heroics now, his skill still seems otherworldly. Messi may be a better all-around player, and the other Ronaldo might be more chiseled and precise, but I’ve never seen anyone who could alter the fabric of spacetime like Ronaldo. Watch some of his dribbles, and it’s not just that he’s doing tricks. At times he seems to be moving in slow motion, offhandedly shielding the ball and calmly plotting his next move while defenders around him flail about like the Three Stooges; and then a millisecond later he’ll take off, moving at the speed of sound as those same defenders suddenly appear to be caught in a vat of molasses, watching him fly by helplessly. Ronaldo on the ball was like watching some alchemic combination of the Bolshoi Ballet, grad-school trigonometry, and Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix.
By the time I got to see him live, Ronaldo wasn’t the same player. His injuries were chronic, and his years at Inter saw him mutate from the impossible superhuman he was at Barcelona to the more earthbound, yet still extraordinary, striker he was at Real Madrid. But criticizing Ronaldo for only being the best forward of his generation, rather than the greatest player of all time, is exactly the kind of attitude that saps the magic out of football. Brian Phillips put it beautifully in his piece on Ronaldo’s retirement:
And so, in the retirement stories, you get bizarre summations like this one, from Paul Wilson's oddly half-hearted Guardian write-up: "His career choices may not have been ideal, his lifestyle questionable and his fitness, particularly his knees, suspect throughout, but in spite of all that Ronaldo deserves to be remembered as a remarkable player." In spite of being the person who became a remarkable player, Ronaldo deserves to be remembered as a remarkable player. This is where you can either stay alive to what's wonderful about sports or give up and admit you see players as oil wells. Ronaldo isn't a quantifiable reserve of potential that was never efficiently tapped or a set of character traits that never reliably pumped out his natural talent. He's a person, the interface of whose personality with the world produced some breathtaking moments in a game.
When Ronaldo was at this club, we could honestly say that the undisputed greatest footballer on earth played wearing nerazzurri. Have we been able to say that since?
1. Javier Zanetti
I probably gave this one away with the photo, but who else could it be? When Javier Zanetti was named Inter captain in his fourth year at Inter, it seemed certain that he, like everyone else who had worn the armband in recent decades, would fail to live up to the impossible standard set by Giacinto Facchetti so many years ago. When he retired 15 years later, Zanetti had emerged alongside Facchetti as the second great pillar on which the club’s legacy stands. For all the bad luck and heartbreak that goes with being an Inter fan, we’re incredibly lucky to have had two such men in our history.
Zanetti seemed to have come from a different time. It’s not hard to imagine him providing crosses to Giuseppe Meazza in the ‘30s, or breaking through midfields as a libero in the ‘60s – he wouldn’t have even had to change his hairstyle. And he is the only great modern athlete I can think of who remains untouched by the slightest hint of scandal or personal shortcomings. (I highly recommend reading his memoir – it will only increase your respect for him.) He provided more moments of athletic brilliance and inspirational leadership than I could account for here. His bitter tears after losing the Champions League tie against Milan in 2003, or his tears of joy after winning it in 2010 (as the Big Lebowski taught us, strong men also cry). His class after being absurdly omitted from the Argentine national team. His refusal to go rogue and criticize his coaches, even when so many of them deserved it. His ability to man-mark Lionel Messi into obsolescence at the age of 37. His innumerable runs all the way down the touchline long past the point at which he should have reasonably been expected to do that.
During the late-1990s through most of the 2000s, each of the four major Serie A clubs had a signature bandiera representing them. All of them were great players, and all of them deserve their reputations among club supporters. But even here, Zanetti's career was the most fairy tale-like. Roma’s Francesco Totti was a great player, but he’s also the guy who got sent home from the Euros for spitting on someone, and the guy who cynically attempted to shatter the teenage Mario Balotelli’s shin from behind. Juve’s Alessandro Del Piero was a great player – and like Zanetti, a thoroughly admirable, charitable man – but his performances went through substantial ups-and-downs as he struggled with injuries over his career. Milan’s Paolo Maldini was the best defender of his generation, and also a good man, yet the last match of his 24-year career was marred by idiots jeering him and holding up disparaging banners. Zanetti, on the other hand, never wavered. Even when the team was bad, he never was. Even a fanbase that once threw a Vespa onto the pitch knew that insulting Zanetti was heresy, and he went out with a tribute proper to his legacy, a late injury and the obstinacy of Walter Mazzarri notwithstanding.
Speaking of that legacy, and of strong(ish) men also crying, I will confess I shed actual ugly-cry tears on December of 2011. Until this point, Javier Zanetti had never received a red card in league play; that’s 548 consecutive matches of astoundingly unerring discipline. This was a record that clearly meant the world to Zanetti, a man who all but embodied the term "fair play." Then, in the 85th minute of a match against Udinese, he went in late for a challenge in the box, and saw that horrible red card. Walter Samuel and Julio Cesar surrounded the ref, not so much angry as simply incredulous, and Zanetti’s head dropped as he wandered away. Only for a second, though: He didn’t argue, he didn’t make a scene – he shook the referee’s hand and jogged off the pitch with head held high. In one way, I desperately wish that hadn’t happened, that he’d been able to go his whole career with a perfect disciplinary record. But in another way, it was even more inspiring to see the way he handled it. After all, which one is harder: Achieving perfection, or behaving with perfect dignity and grace after falling just short of it?
I’m an adult. I have very few illusions about the way the world works. When it comes to footballers, I’m not looking for role models or heroes. As long as they play their best and don’t commit major crimes, that’s all I really ask. But Zanetti is, and will always be, my hero.
Honorable Mentions and Explanations
This is probably the biggest omission from my list, and I would never try to argue that Cuchu didn’t mean the world to this club, or that we could have achieved what we achieved without him. He was unquestionably more important to Inter than at least half of the players on this list. He was a phenomenal player, massively intelligent, hugely versatile, and bled black and blue. But once again, it’s that whole favorite vs. best conundrum. Cambiasso held the team together, but he was never quite the guy who inspired you to dream. Which isn’t his fault – the engineer is always less interesting than the artist.
Ibrahimovic is quite possibly the most purely entertaining footballer we’ve seen in our lifetimes, but he’s not really an Inter player. Nor a Juve player, a Milan player, a Malmo player, an Ajax player or a Barca player. He’s been temporarily waylaid in Paris, but he’s not truly a PSG player either. Zlatan is a Zlatan player. His loyalties are to Zlatan. He plays as Zlatan, with Zlatan, for the glory of Zlatan. Zlatan is an inhospitable planet orbiting a distant star which is also named Zlatan. If you gave Zlatan the option of winning the Champions League final with PSG, or losing the Champions League final but scoring a late consolation goal from midfield while doing a backflip so fast that it causes his shoes to catch fire, I am 100% positive he’d opt for the latter. There’s no one like him on earth, and it was a privilege to watch Zlatan being Zlatan in nerazzurri, but he was never truly an Inter player.
To paraphrase Neil Young, is it better to burn out, or to fade away? Sneijder kind of did both. He spent exactly one season as one of the best players around, and we were lucky enough to take advantage.
There are no goalkeepers on this list, which is probably crazy. Because for the entire time I’ve been an Inter fan, no matter how mediocre the rest of the team is, our keepers have always been world-class. Francesco Toldo, Julio Cesar, Samir Handanovic – it’s hard to imagine a better succession in the position. I plead the fifth.
With all apologies to strong runners-up Adriano and Fredy Guarin, Recoba was the most frustrating Inter player of the current millennium. On his good days, he seemed to have enough natural talent to rival his contemporary Ronaldo: outrageous dribbling ability, eye for goal, and an audaciousness that made you stand up in your seat. And those good days came almost often enough to make you forget his long periods of ineffectiveness, half-assed performances, injuries, and that one nutty passport issue. But not quite.
There are no current Inter players on this list – hopefully that will change in the years to come. But if I were forced to include one, I’d give the nod to Palacio. Hardly anyone was excited about his arrival here (I certainly wasn’t), but Palacio’s deeply committed performances turned everyone into believers. He had the misfortune of arriving a little too late in his career, and a few years too late on Inter’s downward trajectory, to really stamp his name on our history. But what if we had scooped him up in his 20s? What if we’d signed him instead of Goran Pandev or Giampaolo Pazzini? The mind reels.