Bandini: Massimo Moratti’s Inter legacy nears its end as he prepares to sell

Massimo Moratti could think of no better place to be. As a second-generation oil tycoon, the 68-year-old could afford to spend his weekends travelling the world or relaxing at its most luxurious resorts. But none of it would make him nearly so happy as what he found on Sunday at modest little Mapei Stadium in the north-east corner of Reggio Emilia; two goals, a patch of grass and his football team.

In the most literal sense, Inter will not be Moratti’s team for very much longer. On Wednesday he reached agreement to sell a majority share in the club to a consortium led by the Indonesian businessman Erik Thohir. The deal has not yet formally been signed off, but should go through by the end of next month.

Asked by reporters if he might stay on as president, Moratti replied at first: “I don’t’ know,” and then: “I don’t think so.” He is expected to retain a 30% stake in the club, and the new owners would be open to him continuing in that role in the short-term at least. But for Moratti, that thought for now is too painful—the idea that he would just be running somebody else’s business too challenging for him to consider.

Because the truth is that Inter will always be his team—not in the proprietary sense, perhaps, but in the same way that any supporter feels bonded to their club. Moratti was always a fan first, one who grew up with greater access than most as his father Angelo owned Inter from 1955 to 1968, but one whose passion could be just as raw as those Ultras who occupied the Curva Nord at San Siro.

As a boy he attended every game that he could, which turned out to be quite a few. He was just 19 when he saw Inter lift the European Cup for the first time, and he watched them do it again one year later. In football, as in life, he had been spoiled—his formative years as a fan having coincided with Helenio Herrera’s time as manager of what came to be known as ‘il Grande Inter’: ‘the Great Inter’.

After Angelo Moratti sold the club in 1968, Massimo dedicated himself to the family’s other business concerns, eventually taking over as CEO of their energy company, Saras, when his father passed away in 1981. His support for Inter, though, never waned. He watched as the team’s fortunes dipped under new presidents Ivanoe Fraizzoli and Ernesto Pellegrini. Although some trophies were won under their stewardship, they were nothing compared to the triumphs of the first Moratti era.

By 1995, Pellegrini no longer felt able to keep up with the rising costs of team ownership. Moratti stepped in, buying the club outright and launching himself into the task of restoring it to its former glory. He hired the Inter players he had looked up to as a youth, players like Giacinto Facchetti to Sandro Mazzola, to be his new directors.

Together they sat and viewed videotapes of foreign stars in the grand halls of the Palazzo Serbelloni, an 18th century Neo-classical palace where the Moratti family had hosted rich oil traders and Sheikhs in the past. The new Inter owner was living any fan’s dream, working with his footballing heroes to draw up blueprints for the construction of his very own club.

Paul Ince and Roberto Carlos were the first stars to arrive, but others soon followed, from Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Zamorano through to Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio. Moratti poured his own personal funds into the club at a startling rate, and yet it seemed that money could not buy him success. Prior to the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 his Inter teams had won a single Uefa Cup, and not a lot else besides.

Everything changed thereafter, with Inter winning four consecutive Serie A titles, in addition to having the 2005-06 Scudetto awarded to them retrospectively. Inter’s dominant spell would culminate in the treble won under José Mourinho in 2009-10. It was the first time in the history of Italian football that any team had won Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the European Cup all in the same year.

It is that achievement, more than anything, which has made it possible for Moratti to walk away from the club that he loves. From a financial standpoint, one might argue that he had little choice; Saras is no longer in the rude financial health as it once was having posting a net loss of €90.1m for the last financial year, while Inter are themselves expected to record losses of around €70m on their next annual accounts.

Even so, it is hard to imagine Moratti giving in to harsh financial reality if he did not feel he had fulfilled his duties to the club. This is a man, after all, who has already invested €1.2bn of his own money in Inter over the course of his 18 years in charge.

And while Moratti has enjoyed the personal glory that comes with being the club’s owner, there is no question that he feels a certain obligation towards Inter as well. Part of that comes down to the desire to honour his father’s relationship with this team. Reflecting on the imminent sale, Moratti described Inter as “…a son who needs to start learning how to walk on his own.”

More than that, though, he has felt a duty to his fellow fans, recognising that he, unlike most of them, is in a position to help the team that they all love in a very tangible way. “It took me five minutes to understand that football, and Inter, are his life,” said Jose Mourinho last week, reflecting on his first meeting with Moratti. “He never speaks about them as ‘his’ Inter; to his mind, the team always belongs to the fans.”

That sentiment has played heavily into the owner’s negotiations with Thohir. For a long time Moratti avoided selling the club outright, choosing instead to seek out a minority investor who might help him to shore up the club’s finances. But even once he had accepted the need to step aside, he resolved to do so only if he could find somebody else that could be trusted to place Inter’s best interests above their own.

On the face of things, at least, it appears that he has found what he was looking for in Thohir. The Indonesian businessman, whose broad investment portfolio is focused predominantly around the areas of sport and media, might not be a lifelong fan like his predecessor, but he has been keen from the outset to keep Moratti involved, and will reportedly allow him to appoint three of the seven directors who make up the club’s new board.

Thohir already owns a majority stake in Major League Soccer’s DC United, as well as a minority holding in the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, but seemingly has no interest in running any of his business interests in an autocratic manner. “It’s hard to find a business which we own 100%,” he told Forbes last year. “That’s my father’s belief, when you run a business, you have to find partners to check and balance.”

Thohir is understood to favour a hands-off approach, leaving the running of Inter to people who better understand its day-to-day needs. In the immediate term, many of the club’s existing directors will be retained, albeit with Thomas W Shreve—an American lawyer who has worked with Thohir’s consortium partner Rosan Roeslani for many years—overseeing the whole operation.

The consortium’s financial commitment to Inter is understood to be significant. Over the next two years they will spend nearly €200m to eliminate the majority of Inter’s debts; Moratti himself will receive just €50m from the sale, although any outstanding club debts pertaining to him will also be transferred to the new ownership.

Fans ought not to expect aggressive spending from the incoming ownership group, whose ambitions are to help the club get back to a self-sustaining model. They will hope to achieve this, in part, by growing the international brand. In order to achieve either goal, a swift return to the Champions League is required. This is the first season in 14 years that Inter have been excluded from European competition.

Moratti, for now at least, is expected to step aside, nominating his son, Angelomario, as one of his directors and otherwise giving advice to the consortium only when it is sought.

He will, however, maintain a close interest. Gazzetta dello Sport reported last week that the takeover deal includes several clauses obliging the new owners to run Inter according to certain guidelines laid out by Moratti during their first three years in charge. If these are breached, then the club will automatically be restored to its former owner.

As powerful a threat as that might be, it is not the outcome that Moratti wants. The owner spoke to his players at training on Saturday, reminding them that, as always, Inter was the most important thing. Even if he were no longer president, he said, he would always be there for them and the club.

Perhaps he might even serve them better, in a new, relaxed, mode. Before Sunday, Moratti had not been to an away game since March 2012; he certainly brought them luck on his return, watching them demolish Sassuolo 7-0.

His love for this club shone through in his reaction to each goal, but especially the brace scored by Diego Milito – returning to the field and the scoresheet 220 days after tearing his cruciate ligament during a Europa League game against Cluj. In the words of Gazzetta, Moratti celebrated, “as though a member of his family had just scored”.

That is, of course, how Moratti views Inter, as a part of his extended household. He may be stepping down from leadership duties, but families are one thing you can never truly quit.

Bandini: Massimo Moratti’s Inter legacy nears its end as he prepares to sell
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