It was the 70th minute of the 1998 UEFA Cup final, Internazionale had a comfortable 2-0 lead over Lazio, and, suddenly, the world’s best player found himself in acres of space, with only the goalkeeper left to beat.
The outcome may have felt certain but the sheer impudence and class of what would follow still managed to take the breath away. Ronaldo bore down on Lazio’s goal, not a defender in sight, before feinting majestically one way and then the other, sitting the goalkeeper down and taking him out of the game without even touching the ball. The finish was a formality and so, from that point onwards, was the victory, with Inter closing out the game to seal their third UEFA Cup in eight years.
It is this sort of memory that the mind conjures when one thinks of Inter in the 1990s, reflective perhaps of a collective nostalgia for the wonderful players and the famous moments that we associate with the club during this era. The reality, however, is that the 1990s were one of the most fallow periods in the Nerazzurri’s history, and the first decade since the 1940s in which they failed to win a single Scudetto.
Despite the success that they enjoyed in Europe’s second-tier competition, Inter’s domestic form was mediocre at best, with three runners-up spots dotted between a handful of mid-table finishes and one season in which they marginally avoided relegation. When you consider the players that wore the iconic blue and black kit during this period – Ronaldo, Recoba, Bergkamp, Klinsmann, Matthäus, Djorkaeff and Roberto Carlos to name a few – this domestic drought seems all the more remarkable.
Add into the equation that the club broke the world transfer record twice in the latter half of the decade – once for Ronaldo in 1997 and again for Christian Vieri in 1999 – and it starts to look unquestionably like an underachievement.
So why, despite the array of talent they boasted and the lavish money they spent, did Inter find it so difficult to add to their 13 Scudetti during the 90s? There are a multitude of reasons, but perhaps the most significant is the quality of competition they faced. Indeed, it was Inter’s neighbours and fierce rivals, AC Milan, who posed the biggest obstacle to success for the club during these years.
As the 1990s began, the Rossoneri were coming off the back of a period of unprecedented European dominance, with Arrigo Sacchi’s magnificent team, regarded by many as the best club side of all time, having just retained the European Cup that they’d claimed the year before.
Not only did Milan boast a sensational team, with the homegrown core of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi complemented by the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, they also had the biggest spending power.
Silvio Berlusconi had acquired the club in 1986 and was happy to spend freely in order to secure AC’s status as Europe’s dominant club. Berlusconi broke the transfer record to sign Gullit in 1987, and then repeated the feat in 1992, paying Torino around £13m for winger Gianluigi Lentini.
This sustained investment meant that, even after the departure of Sacchi in 1991, Milan continued to go from strength to strength under Fabio Capello, claiming four out of the five league titles on offer between 1992 and 1996.
In fact, the Milan team which won the Champions League in 1994, famously thrashing Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in the final, was at least the match of the 1990 side, with the attacking verve of the Dutch triumvirate now supplied instead by the brilliant playmakers Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savićević.
Inter simply weren’t capable of this level of investment in the first half of the decade, with Juventus, who themselves briefly held the record after their £12m signing of Gianluca Vialli, also pumping considerable money into their squad.
Granted, the Nerazzurri could still outspend the majority of Italian clubs – deals such as the £7m they paid Ajax for Dennis Bergkamp in 1993 were out of the question for most sides – but it wasn’t quite enough to take them to the Scudetto that they craved. It wasn’t until Massimo Moratti took over as president in 1995 that Inter could begin to match the extravagant spending of their rivals.
As well as the record deal for O Fenômeno – the club capitalising on the Brazilian’s contract impasse with Barcelona – Inter also added Roberto Carlos, Javier Zanetti, Paul Ince and Youri Djorkaeff to their squad within the first two years of Moratti’s tenure.
Despite this increase in spending, though, the period of domestic dominance that Moratti had envisaged did not materialise. Part of the reason for this was the irrepressible form of Juventus, who were rapidly developing into one of the most feared sides in Europe, winning three Serie A titles between 1995 and 1998, as well as the Champions League in 1996.
Another significant factor was the worrying trend – one which had been evident as well before Moratti’s takeover – of Inter failing to make the most of the world-class players at their disposal. Throughout the 1990s, there were several examples of high-profile, and much-hyped, signings who failed to live up to the fanfare with which they were greeted or the potential which they clearly possessed.
When Bergkamp joined the club in 1993, he was widely regarded as one of the most exciting footballers in Europe, and his arrival, along with that of fellow Dutchman Wim Jonk, was expected to inspire the team to the league title the following season. In spite of these lofty predictions, Inter’s domestic form in the season that followed was wildly inconsistent, with a UEFA Cup trophy providing only minor consolation for a hugely disappointing 13th-place league finish, which flattered them after a season in which relegation was a genuine possibility.
Bergkamp’s singular technique and ability was not harnessed anywhere near as effectively as it could have been, with the defensively-minded manager Osvaldo Bagnoli failing to provide the Dutchman with the creative freedom or the attacking support that he required in order to thrive.
This trend continued throughout the decade, with signings such as Roberto Carlos, who left after one season, citing differences with then manager Roy Hodgson, and Roberto Baggio, thanks to a feud with Marcello Lippi, failing to have the impact that had been expected of them.
The same could also be said of Ronaldo, although it would be harsh to blame the club for the tailing off of his form, which was almost entirely due to a cruel and unfortunate injury record.
As well as the mismanagement of some of their best players, the instability of the club contributed massively to their underachievement, creating an environment where it was near-impossible for the team to find any kind of consistency. Over the decade, Internazionale changed their manager an astonishing 13 times, with 11 different coaches at the helm at one time or another. Hodgson, Luis Suárez and Luciano Castellini each took charge on two separate occasions. Of these eleven 11, only Bagnoli, Luigi Simoni, and, to a lesser extent, Hodgson, can be considered successful appointments.
Ultimately, it is difficult to look at Inter during this period without wondering what could have been. If only Ronaldo had stayed fit a little longer; if only Dennis Bergkamp had stuck around for a couple more seasons. How we would have loved to see the partnership they might have formed together.
Instead we are left to cherish those memories – Ronaldo’s goal against Lazio, Álvaro Recoba’s stunning free-kicks, Youri Djorkaeff’s bicycle kick against Roma – and content ourselves with the moments, fleeting though they may have been, when the 1990s belonged to Internazionale.
By Nick Fitzgerald @Fij99