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Sunday, October 24, 2021

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The Parable of Inter Milan

This is a preview of the On Soccer With Rory Smith newsletter, which is now reserved for Times subscribers. Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly.

The first alarm rang in February, a warning from thousands of miles away.

Jiangsu Suning was one of the mainstays of that strange period, five or six years ago, when soccer awoke — almost overnight — to discover that China had arrived, its pockets bottomless and its ambitions unchecked, intent on inverting the world.

At first, Europe saw this new horizon as it sees everything: as a market. China’s corporate-backed clubs were, as Turkey’s and Russia’s had been years before, a convenience and a curiosity, a place where they could offload unwanted players from bloated squads.

And then, when the Chinese teams kept coming back, attempting to coax away not the supporting cast but the headline acts, Europe realized that this was something else: a takeover. China’s clubs were buying not just players, but things that were more valuable, things that made them a threat: interest and prestige and relevance.

There was, suddenly, something of a backlash, a degree of pearl-clutching and garment-rending at the very idea that a new league could just come along and drive up prices, an approach that no European league would ever dream of adopting. There were fears that the Chinese Super League would distort the market so much that it would drive European clubs to the brink of financial destruction, a job Europe had long been capable of doing itself, thank you.

Jiangsu was in the thick of that, along with all of the other names of that era: Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai S.I.P.G. and all the rest. It was Jiangsu that signed Ramires, a Champions League-winning midfielder in the prime of his career, from Chelsea. It was Jiangsu that outbid Liverpool to sign Alex Teixeira, a player Jürgen Klopp had identified as his first-choice reinforcement after taking over at Anfield.

It proved a bubble, of course. The world’s best players never did make it to China. But, occasionally, one of the Chinese teams would try. In the summer of 2019, Jiangsu approached Real Madrid to inquire about the possibility of signing Gareth Bale. It intended to pay him, according to reports, more than $1 million a week. Bale prevaricated, and decided against the move. It proved a wise decision. Eighteen months later, in February of this year, not long after winning the Chinese title for the first time in its history, Jiangsu ceased to exist.

This was the warning. Jiangsu was not the Suning conglomerate’s only soccer operation: The company had also owned a majority stake in Inter Milan since 2016, installing Steven Zhang — son of the company’s principal — as the youngest president in the club’s history. Suning’s arrival had been greeted as Inter’s salvation: a chance, at last, to restore the team to the ranks of first Italy’s, and then Europe’s, elite, to give it the financial firepower to compete with the superclubs.

In February, Suning seemed set to deliver, at last, on its promise. Inter was marching toward a first Serie A title since 2010. It had the best coach in the country, Antonio Conte. It had the finest player in the league, Romelu Lukaku. It had a squad constructed with no expense spared, brimming with bright young talent and seasoned old heads.

The collapse of Jiangsu, though, hinted at what was to come. Suning had cited financial difficulties as the cause of the Chinese club’s dissolution, though the suspicion remains that the decision had a political element: The company had vowed to concentrate on its “core” retail business, dispensing with other investments, in line with China’s abiding state policy.

Suning had already sought a bridging loan from Oaktree Capital — an investment management firm specializing in distressed assets, a description which would not have made Inter fans especially confident — to see out the Italian season. “I hope what happened to us does not happen to Inter,” the former Italy striker Éder Martins, who had played for both clubs, said.

Inter has been spared that fate, of course, but that is scant solace for its fans. It was only at the start of May that tens of thousands of Inter fans poured onto the streets of Milan, in defiance of the social distancing regulations then still in place, to celebrate confirmation of its Serie A title. Zhang, on the ground in Italy for the first time in months, vowed that his company remained committed to Inter for the “mid-to-long term.”

Since then, the championship team has unraveled at lightning speed. First, Conte left, as he had tried to do last year, with ominous mention of the fact that his “project had not changed” as he did so: The club’s, it went unsaid, very much had. Then Achraf Hakimi, the player whose acquisition and performance had lifted Inter above all of its domestic rivals, was sold, the money raised earmarked not for the squad but to balance the books.

That was supposed to be it: Simone Inzaghi, the man tapped to replace Conte, insisted when he was introduced as Inter’s new coach that he had been assured that nobody else would be leaving.

A few weeks later, though, that reassurance was proved hollow. Chelsea paid Inter $132 million for Lukaku, the club’s great shining star. He had always wanted to play for Inter — his childhood idol had been Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker — and he was happy in Milan and, for all the problems he had faced, in Italy. He wanted to stay. The club, though, could not afford not to sell him. And perhaps not only him: Lautaro Martínez, his strike partner, had been offered around, too, to Tottenham and Arsenal and Atlético Madrid. The protests against Suning’s continued ownership have been long and loud.

This is not the future as Inter had envisaged it. Its fate, compared to that of Jiangsu, is hardly a miserable one: Inzaghi is a fine coach, and he will retain the core of the squad that won Serie A last year. The club has signed Edin Dzeko to replace Lukaku; Marcus Thuram, from Borussia Mönchengladbach, or Duvan Zapata, of Atalanta, may follow. Nicolò Barella, Marcelo Brozovic and the best defense in Italy are all still in place.

But the title, won after such a long wait, no longer looks — as Zhang had promised — like the beginning of something. Rather, it has the air of a definitive end. Juventus, reunited with Massimiliano Allegri this summer, is expected to reclaim primacy as Serie A starts this weekend. Roma, under the aegis of José Mourinho, and Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli may both pose more of a threat than Inter. So, too, may A.C. Milan and Atalanta.

There is a sorrow in that, of course, for Inter’s fans: a simple story about risk and reward, about cost and benefit, about the price of a dream made flesh. There is an undeniable cruelty in the proximity of the celebration and the collapse, though perhaps that is — boiled down — what sports are all about: The absence of Lukaku this year makes last season all the more special, the memories of it all the more potent.

For the rest of us, though, there is a warning, one from far closer to home. What has happened, overnight, to Inter — and what happened, even more dramatically, to Jiangsu — is what happens when clubs are bought and sold not in pursuit of sporting glory or even, as distasteful as it may be to say, eventual profit. It is what happens when soccer allows itself to be used for politics and for posturing and, above all, for power.

Inter is not the only club that has been bought for reasons other than love of the game, and it is not the only club whose success depends not on the decisions it makes on the field — or even off it — but on social, political and diplomatic currents that have little or nothing to do with the game itself. Inter is not the only club that should hear the alarm.

They are all, on the surface, sound ideas. A little more than a year since a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and the Court of Arbitration for Sport brought an end to UEFA’s first attempt at introducing the concept of fiscal responsibility into European soccer — yes, that’s right, this bit is about Financial Fair Play, but I promise it’s not boring — the outline of F.F.P. 2.0 is starting to emerge.

Quite what form the regulations will take once Europe’s competing clubs and leagues and their many and varied lobbyists have had a run at them is anyone’s guess, of course, but UEFA’s ideas are certainly worth exploring.

Real-time enforcement of the rules, so that teams in breach are punished immediately, rather than at some ill-defined point in a distant future. A luxury tax, borrowed from Major League Baseball, for transgressors, which would function as a solidarity mechanism more in theory than in practice. Some form of a cap on how much of a club’s revenue can be spent on its squad. This all makes sense. Some of it could work. But, even now, it is possible to say with some certainty that it won’t.

Reading the proposals brought to mind a line in “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” the Joshua Ferris novel concerned with identity theft, religion and dentistry. “The history of making money in this country is a history of exploiting the policymakers,” one of his characters, a Wall Street billionaire who made his money shorting the market in 2008, says at one point. “Let the policymakers act, and then study the places ripe for exploiting.”

This is the fundamental problem with F.F.P., whatever form it takes. No matter what the rules are, no matter how much sense they make, no matter how pure the intent or dire the punishment, none of it will have any effect if those meant to be governed by the new system set out to circumvent it.

The previous iteration of F.F.P. was flawed, of course. There were considerable and meaningful problems with the “financial” part of it. But that was not what scuttled it, in the end. What brought about its demise, ultimately, was that quite a lot of clubs were much happier if things were not especially fair.

It is not just in Europe that competitive balance is a pressing issue. The semifinals of this year’s Copa Libertadores contain three Brazilian teams: the reigning champion, Palmeiras, as well as Atlético Mineiro and Flamengo. It could have been a clean sweep, too, if Fluminense had not lost to the Ecuadorean side Barcelona S.C. on away goals on Thursday night.

That kind of one-nation dominance had never happened, but it feels as if it has been coming. Brazilian teams have won the last two editions of the tournament — Flamengo’s last-gasp defeat of River Plate in 2019 and Palmeiras’s victory in a stultifying, pandemic-delayed all-Brazilian final against Santos in July — and three of the last four.

Still, the nature of the domination is troubling. Brazilian teams topped five of the eight groups this time around; Brazil had six teams in the last 16 (admittedly the same as Argentina). In the quarterfinals, Flamengo swept past the Paraguayan team Olimpia, and on home soil Atlético Mineiro made short work of River Plate. Palmeiras qualified in style, too, in a game that was a win-win, from a Brazilian perspective: Its opponent was its city rival, São Paulo.

The explanation, though, is simple. Brazilian teams have access to far greater resources than the vast majority of their opponents. Only a couple of Argentina’s giants have anything like the revenues of the powerhouses from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Pôrto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.

In one sense, of course, the rude economic health of the Brazilian game is welcome. In the long term, the hope has to be that it can provide some sort of counterweight to 30 years of European domination of what is meant to be a global sport. The risk is, in the short term, that yet another of soccer’s crown jewels becomes the plaything of a small coterie of clubs.

Kudos to all of those Liverpool fans (I presume) who noticed that Jürgen Klopp’s team did not make an appearance in last week’s swift Premier League preview. “Are you not writing them off rather early?” asked Ron Bartolini. “You didn’t mention Liverpool!” pointed out Ronak Shah, though he put it all in capitals, to let me know he was shouting at me. “You’ve already written off Liverpool as a contender?” said David Nolan.

There were, needless to say, others, and they deserve an explanation. The truth is that I prevaricated, just a little, on where to put Liverpool. My instinct is that the Premier League season will play out with a cigarette-paper top four until March or so, at which point Manchester City and Chelsea will pull away, leaving Manchester United and Liverpool to the comfort and consolation of a return to the Champions League.

But at the same time, I’m aware that there is a tendency — particularly prevalent during the summer months — to assume that every transfer will prove to be a resounding success; we presume that there is a direct correlation between how much a team spends and how well it will fare over the coming season. Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United have spent a lot, and therefore their prospects are brighter than the (comparatively parsimonious) Liverpool.

That is, of course, basically true in the round; in individual cases, though, it is far less accurate. Which, all in all, is a long-winded way of saying that yes, I have written off Liverpool (to emerge as champion, anyway) but that I know I am wrong to do so. With all that in mind, then, it felt safer just not to say anything.

And a note from Brian T. Love, who has the sort of name that demands a middle initial. “There were no reminders of the fan protests at soccer grounds that brought down the breakaway Super League. Maybe I noticed a green scarf at Old Trafford during the Manchester United match. Four months removed, are fans placated?”

There is no brief answer to that, Brian, but it is a subject worth returning to, I think, in time.

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