With the dismissal of Frank de Boer after less than three months in the job, it came as little surprise that Internazionale were not suitably prepared to find and subsequently hire his replacement in an efficient fashion. Stefano Pioli has emerged as the coach to take charge of one of Italy’s most revered clubs yet his appointment was not without conflict, confusion and downright disorganisation.
To fully comprehend the discord surrounding the decision to appoint the former Lazio coach from within the Nerazzurri’s hierarchy we must go back to the beginning of the summer transfer window when the club’s ownership took yet another twist.
After the 2013 takeover by Erick Thohir, the part owner of DC United has been true to his word of boosting the club’s competitiveness in the transfer market, but an inability to break back into the Champions League had seen patience at the top run very thin.
In June 2016 the renowned Suning group, who made their name in sport through their association with Chinese Super League giants Jiangsu Suning, purchased a controlling 70 percent stake in Inter Milan.
Crucially this deal would oust the long-time president Massimo Moratti, who subsequently sold his remaining 30 percent stake within the organisation. There was hope that this move would allow the Suning group to move forward with complete control, something many Thohir advocates would suggest the Indonesian didn’t have with the 71-year-old Italian often making statements to the media about events in Milan.
Yet with Moratti gone, many of his former administration didn’t follow, with Michael Bolingbroke – hired during the Thohir era – remaining as CEO whilst a number of Italian directors stayed in their roles.
These directors were leaning towards the appointment of the 51-year-old Italian following the disappointment of de Boer’s spell in charge with their reasoning being that the club needed to opt for a homegrown coach who fully appreciates the complexities of Serie A.
Milly Moratti, Massimo’s wife, had previously held a seat on the club’s board and as recently as June suggested that the perceived failure of the three-year long Thohir era was mainly due to the Indonesian’s tendency to appoint foreign coaches.
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The Suning group were initially opposed to going down this road with two foreign candidates being their preferred options. Former Villarreal boss Marcelino and Guus Hiddink were both lined up by the Chinese owners and this is where the conflict came to a head once the Spaniard had interviewed for the position.
Tensions had been bubbling since the summer when Roberto Mancini was dismissed by the club just two weeks before the start of the campaign. Make no mistake, the Premier League-winning manager was in no mood to hang around but there was a feeling that previous disagreements and a lack of relationship with Thohir had made this decision a formality almost as soon as Moratti officially left the club.
De Boer’s reputation from his time coaching Ajax was sky high; the mild-mannered Dutch thinker seemed set for the Premier League yet when England never came calling it was Internazionale who ended his brief sabbatical following his Amsterdam ArenA departure.
In what seemed a poisoned chalice from the start, the Dutchman walked into a situation where players had been targeted and duly bought by the new ownership structure rather than targets having been planned out months in advance to suit the incoming coach.
Gabriel Barbosa and João Mário were statement signings aimed at boosting the rapport between supporters and the Suning group and the logic in doing this was sound. Inter Milan haven’t been in the Champions League since the 2011-12 campaign and common sense would suggest that two players with the profile and marketability of both Gabigol and Mário would prefer moving to clubs able to offer them the very highest level of competition.
Yet Suning’s financial muscle facilitated the moves and a buzz was created on the eve of the new campaign – but it quickly faded as results under de Boer never materialised.
The club sat 12th in the table after winning just four of their opening 11 domestic matches with only two of those wins coming in front of their own fans at the San Siro. His dismissal was inevitable and whilst the Suning group eventually acquiesced on the appointment of his successor in the interest of harmony, the issues didn’t end there with Bolingbroke departing the club with immediate effect.
He has since been replaced on an interim basis by Suning’s Vice President, Liu Jun, as the Chinese group looks to consolidate power whilst Thohir’s long-term place in Milan is increasingly unclear. From this point, however, the wealthy investors must address issues at the club to avoid falling into the trap so many European teams do following a raft of investment and ownership change.
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History will say Manchester City and the Abu Dhabi United Group did things absolutely right from their iconic takeover in September of 2008, and whilst there have been minor bumps in the road along the way, there was a plan in place and it was largely adhered to.
Initial spending saw talent brought to the club to bridge the gap between supporters and Sheikh Mansour with Robinho the highest-profile signing, yet the club were sensible, bringing in players who could gradually increase the level of quality in the squad and then be comfortable slipping into backup roles once it was necessary to boost the depth of the squad.
Gareth Barry, James Milner, Craig Bellamy and Kolo Touré can all be placed under this banner and the success they enjoyed was tremendous. Following a stable base being built, players were then signed for the manager, which somewhat ironically was Roberto Mancini initially and later Manuel Pellegrini.
Aleksandar Kolarov and Mario Balotelli were both signed from Serie A with Mancini having worked with the young forward at Inter, and the two formed a strong part of the first Premier League winning team the club had.
Some years later, the veteran Chilean saw Jesús Navas, Álvaro Negredo and Martín Demichelis all arriving from La Liga with the Argentine centre-half having played under Pellegrini at Málaga.
Yet many other clubs have not been as sensible in their planning. Anzhi Makhachkala spent a fortune in the hope of cracking Europe’s elite – including making Samuel Eto’o the world’s highest paid footballer at the time – only for the project to quickly disintegrated as managers left and the finance was pulled.
Dmitry Rybolovlev’s takeover of principality club AS Monaco was perhaps the highest profile in recent memory as well the shortest lived. Cash was pumped into the club, much to the chagrin of other French clubs, as stars such as Radamel Falcao, João Moutinho, James Rodríguez and Geoffrey Kondogbia were all brought to a club which plays their home matches in front of an average attendance of 9,000 supporters.
Claudio Ranieri had no input in the recruitment and although he was able to challenge Paris Saint-Germain for the Ligue 1 title in 2013-14, a second-place finish saw him dismissed. The project quickly collapsed with the Russian’s divorce settlement seeing him lose just over half of his reported net worth of $8 billion, and many suggest his enthusiasm for goings on at the Stade Louis II went with it.
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Inter’s arch-rivals AC Milan have had issues of their own with regards to ownership transition in recent years as long-time president Silvio Berlusconi has sought to leave the club, first by handing over control of footballing matters to his daughter Barbara and more recently the protracted sale to a Sino-Europe Sports/Yongda group hybrid consortium, which is expected to reach a conclusion in December.
Serie A is unique, its traditions are protected and there isn’t a vast amount of wealth flowing through the division as opposed to the boom periods of the late-1990s and mid-2000s. It is no coincidence that as of January 2016 only three teams in the nation’s top flight totally own their own stadium, with Juventus, Sassuolo and Udinese having made such plans in order to boost revenue.
A move away from the San Siro may well be necessary down the line, especially with FFP rules making revenue streams important for foreign owners. The Suning group cannot become bogged down in that as has been the case with James Pallotta at Roma, who continues to search for a way to leave the Stadio Olimpico behind.
Palermo chief Maurizio Zamparini suggests sacking Pioli just before the start of the 2011-12 season remains his biggest mistake; the tactically astute Italian is well versed in getting teams organised in a calm manner although his win percentage throughout his career has only been above 40 percent on three occasions in 10 reasonable positions of employment.
There is a feeling emanating from the blue and black half of Milan that Pioli is a safe stop-gap until Diego Simeone becomes available in 2018. The Argentine is believed to dream of a return to his former club and it would represent the club’s greatest coup since José Mourinho arrived in June 2008.
Having a long-term hiring plan for a coach is understandable and not dissimilar to how Manchester City wooed Pep Guardiola before his eventual arrival in 2016. However, the Suning group have to be careful with how they act in the years before this is a possibility.
Pioli has to be backed in footballing terms, in the transfer market, and in PR matters. De Boer was often undermined by mixed messages from the different sectors at the club – this has to stop and the board has to move forward as a united front despite having not been all in agreement about the appointment itself.
Stability is what the club needs or else stars will leave, it’s as simple as that. Stefano Pioli has already made clear his desire for Champions League qualification this season, and whilst that may be a tough ask, he has to be supported with astute signings in January that will be able to be useful to the club for many years, even after his departure.
The Suning group has to start planning for a stable future in order to avoid falling deeper into a hole that they inevitably won’t be able to get out of before selling the club and setting it back even further, something which Internazionale are far too big an organisation to accept for a second time.
By Chris Winterburn. Follow @Chriswin4