Inter reached the final of the Champions League with the oldest team in Italy and the highest debts. No matter what happens in Istanbul, the coming financial tightness cannot stop it.
Barely six weeks ago, Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar lay in a hospital bed in France, recovering from spinal surgery. He had been suffering from a lumbar condition for some time and he had reluctantly decided that endoscopic intervention was necessary. He had not played a second of competitive football since the beginning of March and has not played since.
But if Internazionale name their squad for Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester City – the club’s most important game in 13 years – Skriniar will most likely be one of the available substitutes.
His teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the veteran Armenian midfielder, has not played for three weeks after being injured in Inter’s semi-final against AC Milan.
His treatment began immediately: His thigh strain was addressed even as the celebration of that victory erupted around him. Mkhitaryan has not yet received medical clearance to train with his teammates. Still, there’s a good chance he’ll be named in the starting line-up for the biggest game club football has to offer.
Manchester City, the overwhelming favorite to win this season’s Champions League, arrives in Istanbul, best represented by Erling Haaland: a perfectly tuned, purpose-built machine, running smoothly and quietly, an irresistible engineering masterpiece.
Inter, on the other hand, is best represented by the likes of Skriniar and Mkhitaryan: it’s a team that cracks, strains, pushes to the limit, an avatar for a patched-up, jury-rigged sort of a club that has come together these days. is held by little more than connection and hope.
There have certainly been fewer likely Champions League finalists than Inter, one of the great old names of European football: Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 perhaps, or Monaco a few years later, or even Tottenham in 2019. game against a backdrop of such uncertainty.
It’s not just that Simone Inzaghi, the club’s coach, is in charge of the oldest team in Italy, a team in which the focus of attack – Edin Dzeko, 37 – could be the cornerstone of defense, the 35 year-old Francesco Acerbi, as a youthful ingénue.
Nor is it the case that this could be the last hurray in an Inter shirt for as many as half the team: Skriniar is one of 11 players whose contract or loan expires at the end of the current season . season. That reality has confronted the club with the prospect of having to replenish its squad almost from scratch.
However, Inter is much more concerned about his future. In 2016, Suning, the Chinese retail conglomerate, paid $307 million to take a 70 percent stake in Inter, a deal that was seen at the time as spearheading China’s sudden, lavish and state-approved investment in European football. The new owner would theoretically fund Inter’s return to the game’s main table. The team’s training facility would be upgraded. This also applies to the offices of the club. And of course the players would follow.
Suning’s ownership has not been disastrous on the field. In 2021, Inter won its first Italian title in more than a decade. Inzaghi has subsequently added the Coppa Italia, both this season and last season, to the club’s honour. Inter has become something of a Champions League mainstay; it made it to the round of 16 last year and has reached the final this time.
However, that relative return to success comes at a price. Inter is the most indebted club in Italy; according to the most recently published accounts, total liabilities are approximately $931 million. In the last two years for which information is available, it posted losses of nearly $430 million.
It has been in a sort of rolling financial crisis for years, thanks to the combined impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the declining support of the Chinese state to invest in European football and, above all, Suning’s own problems.
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, it permanently shut down its Chinese team, Jiangsu Suning, months after securing the title, citing the need to focus solely on its core business. Last year, Steven Zhang, the 32-year-old son of Suning’s founder and Inter’s president, was found liable for $255 million in debt and defaulted bonds in a Hong Kong court.
If Inter is protected from the worst of the consequences, it will survive; its players are still getting paid – then it has taken at least some collateral damage. Suning has been trying to cut costs for years: in 2021 Antonio Conte, the coach who delivered the Serie A title, stepped down when it became clear that many of the players who had delivered the trophy would have to be sold.
Inter’s two most valuable assets, striker Romelu Lukaku, now returned to the club on loan, and defender Achraf Hakimi left anyway. To save his investment, Suning secured a $294 million loan from Oaktree Capital, a California-based asset management company, to cover the running costs of the club.
Since then, the days of Inter have faded further and further into the past. This season, it played several months without a sponsor on the front of its jersey, an important and normally reliable source of income for all major European teams, after DigitalBits, a cryptocurrency company, was unable to make the scheduled payments from its $80 million deal. to carry out. .
On Saturday, Inter’s jerseys will instead bear the logo of Paramount+, the streaming service that broadcasts both Serie A and the Champions League in the United States. The arrangement is the product of a last-minute deal reportedly worth $4.5 million. For the same amount, Paramount’s brand will appear on the back of Inter’s jerseys next season.
However, that amount does not solve Inter’s problems. It risks a fine of 26 million euros (around $28 million) if it fails to comply with European football’s cost containment rules. The loan to Oaktree expires in May. With interest, the total amount to be repaid is approximately $375 million. The revenue from Inter’s unexpected run in the Champions League will certainly help with that, but so will giving in to another fire sale of talent.
If the club is unable to meet its obligations, Suning automatically transfers control of the club to its creditor. “Paying a debt with the interest the club pays to Oaktree is not sustainable,” Ernesto Paolillo, the club’s former general manager, said last month. “Steven Zhang will not be able to export capital from China, nor will he be able to cover the debt through other means. He will have no choice but to breach the agreement and sell the club to them.”
“It’s not our plan,” Oaktree general manager Alejandro Cano said in March, when asked if the company’s intention was to take control of the club. “We want to work as excellent partners and provide support. But who knows?”
Suning has reportedly opened talks with Oaktree to extend the loan, but it has also begun exploring another option: an outright sale. Zhang has twice denied that Inter is in the market, insisting last October that he “didn’t speak to any investor” and reaffirming in April that he had “spoken to no one”.
But in September 2022, boutique investment bank Raine – the company that handled the sale of Chelsea to Todd Boehly and Clearlake and currently oversees the Glazer family’s efforts to divest Manchester United – won the mandate to launch 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 to discuss the sensitive discussions. A handful, largely from the United States and including both private families and equity investors, have been given a tour of Inter’s facilities and a broad overview of its accounts.
Until now, however, there has been one major bottleneck: cost. Suning values the club at around $1.2 billion, not coincidentally the exact amount RedBird Capital Partners paid to buy AC Milan last year. Given the reality of Inter’s financial position, no one is ready to bite yet.
That left Inter in purgatory. Throughout the negotiations, the club remains defiant: those who have worked with Inter on transfers in recent months have noted that at no point have the executives advocated poverty. The club also maintains an undeniable, undiminished appeal. Lautaro Martínez, the World Cup winning striker, was given the chance to leave last summer but chose to turn it down, so familiar did he feel in the city and with Inter himself.
However, pride does not pay the bills. There have been times when funds were so limited that the club was unaware of its share of the payments for the architects and designers who worked on the stadium it intends to build, along with AC Milan, not far away. from San Siro.
Inter may not be able to afford to think about the future now. It arrives at the Champions League final battered and bruised, taped and tied, aged and fading. There is a chance – small, but a chance nonetheless – of glory in the immediate present. What it means, where it goes from here can wait another day.
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