Champions League final: Inter trying to live in the present

Just six weeks ago, Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar was in a hospital bed in France recovering from spinal surgery. He had been troubled by a lower back problem for some time and reluctantly decided that endoscopic intervention was required. He has not played a second in competitive football since the early days of March and has not played since.

However, when Internazionale names their team for Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester City – the club’s most significant game in 13 years – Skrinjar will in all likelihood be among the available replacements.

His teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a veteran Armenian midfielder, has not played for three weeks after suffering an injury in Inter’s semi-final victory over Milan.

His treatment began immediately: his sprained hip was treated, even as the celebration of this victory unfolded around him. Mkhitaryan has not yet received medical clearance to train with his teammates. However, there is a good chance that he will be included in the starting XI of the biggest playing club that football has to offer.

Manchester City, the clear favorite to win the Champions League this season, arrive in Istanbul best represented by Erling Haaland: perfectly tuned, purpose built machinerunning smoothly, silently, an irresistible masterpiece of engineering.

Inter, on the other hand, is best represented by the likes of Skrinjar and Mkhitaryan: a team that creaks, strains, pushes its limits, the epitome of a patched-up, jury-rigged club that is held together these days by little more than bandages and hope.

Of course, there have been less likely Champions League finalists than Inter, one of the oldest names in European football: Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, perhaps Monaco a couple of years later, or even Tottenham Hotspur in 2019. this is the grandest demonstration of the game amid such uncertainty.

It’s not just that Simone Inzaghi, the club’s manager, is in charge of Italy’s oldest team, a team in which the center of attack, 37-year-old Edin Dzeko, can consider the 35-year-old to be the cornerstone of defense. Francesco Acerbi as a young ingenue.

And it’s not just that for half of the team this could be the last victory in an Inter shirt: Skrinjar is one of 11 players whose contracts expire or whose loan periods end at the end of the current season. This reality has put the club in front of the prospect of replenishing the squad almost from scratch.

Inter, however, are far more seriously concerned about their future. In 2016, Suning, a Chinese retail conglomerate, paid $307 million to acquire a 70 percent stake in Inter. At the time, this deal was seen as the spearhead of the unexpected, generous and approved by the state investment in European football. Theoretically, the new owner will finance the return of Inter to a leading position. The training base of the team will be upgraded. Just like club offices. And, of course, the players will follow.

Suning’s possession on the field was not disastrous. In 2021, Inter won their first Italian title in over a decade. Inzaghi subsequently added the Coppa Italia to the club’s trophies both this and last season. Inter has become something of a Champions League mainstay; last year he made it to the 1/8 finals, and this time he reached the final.

However, this relative return to success comes at a cost. Inter is the most indebted club in Italy; according to his latest published records, his total liabilities are about $931 million. In the last two years for which information is available, he recorded a loss of nearly $430 million, leading to a sanction by European football’s governing body. He fined the club 4 million euros (about $4.3 million) for violating financial controls last year. threatened with a heavy fine (€26 million, or roughly $28 million) if he doesn’t get his finances in order.

Inter have been in a sort of protracted financial crisis for several years now due to the combined impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese state cutbacks in support for investment in European football and, most notably, Suning’s own troubles.

In 2021, the conglomerate had to accept a $1.36 billion bailout, funded in part by the local government, due to mounting debt. In the same year, he permanently closed his Chinese team, Jiangsu suning, months after she took the title, citing the need to focus solely on her core retail business. Last year, Stephen Zhang, the 32-year-old son of Suning’s founder, who is president of Inter, was sued for $255 million in debt and unpaid bonds in a Hong Kong court.

If Inter was protected from the worst consequences, it continues to exist; his players are still getting money – then he has suffered at least some collateral damage. Suning has been looking to cut costs for years: in 2021, Antonio Conte, the manager who brought the Serie A title, stepped down when it became clear that many of the players who delivered the trophy would have to sell.

Inter’s two most valuable assets are striker Romelu Lukaku, now back on loan, and defender Ashraf Hakimi, who left anyway. To maintain its investment, Suning secured a $294 million loan from Oaktree Capital, a California-based asset management firm, to help cover the club’s running costs.

Since then, the days of abundance at Inter have been more and more a thing of the past. This season, he has spent several months playing without a sponsor on his jersey, a significant and usually reliable source of income for all major European teams, after DigitalBits, a cryptocurrency firm, failed to make scheduled payments on its $80 million deal. .

On Saturday, Inter’s shirts will feature the logo of Paramount+, the streaming service that streams Serie A and the Champions League in the United States. This arrangement is the result of a last-minute $4.5 million deal. For the same fee, the Paramount logo will appear on the back of Inter jerseys next season.

However, this amount does not solve the problems of Inter. The Oaktree loan is due in May next year. With interest, the total amount due is about $375 million. The proceeds from Inter’s surprise Champions League run will certainly help, but another talent sell-off will also help.

If the club fails to meet its obligations, Suning will automatically cede control of the club to its creditor. “Paying back the interest the club pays to Octrey is not worth it,” Ernesto Paolillo, the club’s former general manager, said last month. “Stephen Zhang will not be able to export capital from China and will not be able to cover the debt with other resources. He will have no choice but to break the agreement and sell them the club.”

“That’s not our plan,” Oaktree managing director Alejandro Cano said in March when asked if the firm intended to take control of the club. “We want to work as great partners and offer support. But who knows?”

Suning has reportedly started negotiations with Oaktree to extend the loan, but has also begun to explore another possibility: a direct sale. Zhang has twice denied Inter’s presence in the market, insisting last October that he “didn’t talk to any investors” and confirmed in April that he “didn’t talk to anyone.”

However, in September 2022, specialized investment bank Raine, a firm that dealt with sale of Chelsea Todd Pain and Clearlake and who is currently overseeing the efforts of the Glazer family. abandon Manchester United – received a mandate to search for a new owner for Inter.

Several parties have expressed interest in buying the club, according to executives with knowledge of the talks, who insisted on anonymity when discussing sensitive discussions. The handful, drawn mostly from the United States and including both private families and equity investors, gave a tour of Inter’s facilities and detailed his accounts.

So far, however, there has been one major stumbling block: cost. Suning values ​​the club at around $1.2 billion, and it’s no coincidence that this is exactly the amount that RedBird Capital Partners paid. buy Milan last year. Given the real financial situation of Inter, no one wants to bite yet.

This left Inter in purgatory. In negotiations, the club remains defiant: those who have worked with Inter in recent months note that its leaders have never referred to poverty. The club also maintains an undeniable, unrelenting appeal. Lautaro Martínez, his World Cup-winning striker, was given the chance to leave last summer but decided to turn it down because he felt so good in the city and at Inter itself.

Pride, however, does not pay the bill. There have been times when cash has been so scarce that the club hasn’t updated its share of payments to architects and designers working on a stadium it intends to build with Milan, not far from San Siro.

Inter, perhaps, cannot now afford to think about the future. He appears in the Champions League final battered and bruised, with strings and belts, aging and withering. There is a chance – a small one, but a chance nonetheless – of glory in the near present. What it means, where it goes from here, can wait another day.