Mourinho, tears and defiance: the story of Inter's 2009-10 season | Nicky Bandini

Of all the enduring images from Inter’s triumph in the 2010 Champions League final, one stands apart from the rest. Inside the Santiago Bernabéu, a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich provoked scenes of joyous release: Diego Milito sprinting toward the fans with arms outstretched; Esteban Cambiasso doing laps of honour in Giacinto Facchetti’s old shirt; Javier Zanetti balancing the trophy on his head.

Outside, however, a different story would be told. As Inter’s players bounded on to the team bus later that evening, their manager, José Mourinho, slipped into a separate car of his own. And then he jumped straight out again, running over to hug Marco Materazzi. The two men folded into one another, and wept.

Inter had just made history, becoming the first Italian side ever to win a treble of Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League. And now we knew that it was exactly that: history. Mourinho’s time with the club was over, he was not coming back.

Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, wearing Giacinto Facchetti’s old shirt, celebrate at the end of the Champions League final.

Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, wearing Giacinto Facchetti’s old shirt, celebrate at the end of the Champions League final. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

To examine a great club side through the lens of an individual season can feel like an arbitrary exercise. There is always evolution in any team sport, always carry-over from one year to the next.

Yet Inter’s treble winners of 2009-10 do feel like an exception: less a glorious chapter in their team’s record book than a sensational short story. One that has a clearly defined ending, with Mourinho riding off into the sunset (well, technically staying exactly where he was that night in Madrid), and the Nerazzurri never crowned as domestic or European champions again since.

There is an obvious beginning, too, in the summer transfer window of 2009. Inter signed a host of players who would lead their charge to the treble: most prominently Milito, Thiago Motta, Samuel Eto’o, Lúcio and Wesley Sneijder.

Mourinho arrived a year earlier, steering them to a Serie A title in his first season in charge, but that was a minimum requirement. Domestic success had come easy for Inter ever since the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, which saw Juventus relegated from the top flight, and further punishments handed out to Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio.

There was little evidence in that first season that Mourinho could take this team higher. Inter finished behind Panathinaikos in the Champions League group stage and crashed out in the last 16. He had asked the club for two wingers to recreate the 4-3-3 that served him so brilliantly at Porto and Chelsea, but Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma both failed to live up to billing.

How much of the tactical evolution that came next was planned, and how much a product of circumstance? Mourinho was determined to get Inter pressing higher up the pitch, telling The Coaches’ Voice last year that his goal had been to bring the defensive line forward by 20 metres. The signing of Lucio, a mobile centre-back, was a deliberate step, but elsewhere Inter’s transfer policy appeared to be driven by opportunity.

The Nerazzurri were not eager to sell Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Serie A’s top scorer in 2008-09, but Barcelona made an offer – €46m plus Samuel Eto’o – they could not refuse. With Milito inbound from Genoa, Mourinho now had two prolific strikers instead of one, with money left over for a further headline reinforcement.

Sneijder arrived on 28 August and walked straight into the starting XI to help Inter demolish Milan 4-0 a day later. In a roundabout way, Inter might once again have had Barcelona to thank. The Catalans’ 2009 treble provoked Real Madrid to go out and sign the previous two Ballon d’Or winners – Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká – leaving Sneijder and Arjen Robben surplus to requirements.

Wesley Sneijder holds off Milan’s Andrea Pirlo on his Inter debut on 29 August 2009

Wesley Sneijder holds off Milan’s Andrea Pirlo on his Inter debut on 29 August 2009. Photograph: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

World-class players had fallen into Inter’s lap, arriving for a fraction of their true value. This context mattered as much as their talent. These were players who arrived with chips on their shoulders: motivated to prove their former employers wrong.

Tactically, Mourinho made missteps. Inter began with a 4-3-1-2 centred on Sneijder’s individual creativity. It was a triumph at home and almost a disaster in Europe, where its narrowness was repeatedly exposed. They drew their first three Champions League group games and looked to be heading out before five minutes of brilliance from the Dutchman – plus one lucky Milito miskick – turned a 1-0 deficit into a last-gasp win away at Dynamo Kyiv.

Emotionally, though, Mourinho understood how to get under the skin of his players. Eto’o had fallen out of favour at Barcelona in part because he resisted Pep Guardiola’s instruction to give up the centre of the attack to Leo Messi. Yet Mourinho was able to persuade the Cameroonian to do exactly that: moving out to the left wing as Inter adapted mid-season into a 4-2-3-1.

Even then, there were growing pains. For significant stretches of their greatest-ever season, Inter weren’t actually very good. Between 16 January and 10 April, they won five out of 14 Serie A games, with Roma leapfrogging them into first place.

Yet there was a spirit of defiance that overcame any deficiencies. Mourinho was the right manager at the right moment for the likes of Sneijder, Eto’o and Goran Pandev – an inspired January pickup, who freed himself from his Lazio contract after being frozen out by the club’s owner. If these players arrived feeling slighted, then Mourinho reaffirmed that emotion, making out that Inter – winners of the past four Serie A titles – were fighting against nebulous forces of establishment prejudice.

He railed against “intellectual prostitution” in the Italian media, and gestured handcuffs on his wrists as decisions went against Inter in a draw with Sampdoria. So relentless were his attacks on Serie A officials that reports circulated of referees threatening to boycott Inter’s games altogether.

It was all nonsense, transparent distraction, but what mattered was that his players bought in. Sneijder said that he would “kill and die” for Mourinho; Dejan Stankovic said that he “would have thrown myself into a fire”. Eto’o spoke with his actions, filling in as an auxiliary full-back for more than an hour after Thiago Motta was sent off in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final away to Barcelona.

Thiago Motta clashes with Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets after being sent off in the Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou.

Thiago Motta clashes with Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets after being sent off in the Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Inter had their share of luck. The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull had obliged Barcelona to travel to Milan by bus for the first leg of that tie, where the Catalans slumped to a disjointed 3-1 defeat.

Yet to focus on that would be to ignore what made this Inter team special. The modern history of the Nerazzurri had been one of underachievement, of becoming brittle when pressure was raised. Inter were the team that threw away the league title on the final day in 2002, and who had never threatened to win Europe’s top club competition during Massimo Moratti’s 15-year presidency to date, despite lavish transfer spending.

Mourinho’s Inter upended the stereotype: a side that delivered its best football in the tightest spots. They had Sneijder sent off after 26 minutes of January’s returning meeting with Milan, then their closest rivals in the standings, but still won 2-0.

In April, just when the wheels were threatening to come off their title challenge, they found themselves locked at 0-0 after 75 minutes against a Juventus side that had retreated into a defensive bunker formed of Fabio Cannavaro, Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon. Maicon smashed the door down with one of the best goals scored anywhere all season.

UEFA Champions League

⚫️🔵 José Mourinho’s Inter beat holders Barcelona at the San Siro #OTD in 2010…#UCL | @Inter_en

April 20, 2020

Then came Camp Nou, Thiago Motta’s red card and Sergio Busquets peeking out between his fingers. How many other teams could have resisted, even with a two-goal advantage, for 62 minutes away at the best attacking side in the world? Things got a little hairy at the end, but Júlio César had only made one noteworthy save before Gerard Piqué broke the deadlock with six minutes remaining. Even then, was he offside in the buildup?

Diego Milito scores his second goal in the Champions League final.

Diego Milito scores his second goal in the Champions League final. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The final against Bayern was more straightforward. Milito scored the decisive goals, just as he had in the Coppa Italia final and Inter’s Scudetto-sealing win over Siena on the final day of the Serie A season. Sneijder provided the assist on the opener – his sixth of the tournament, more than any other player – and launched the counter that led to the second as well. He subsequently carried the Netherlands to a World Cup final, and somehow still finished fourth in the voting for the Ballon d’Or.

Perhaps that was a fitting epilogue – further evidence that nobody gave this team and these players the respect they merited. If Mourinho had returned, he might have used it to reinforce that us-against-the-world mentality. Instead, he never even went back to Milan to celebrate.

A tearful José Mourinho and Marco Materazzi embrace after the Champions League triumph.

A tearful José Mourinho and Marco Materazzi embrace after the Champions League triumph.

“I had not signed a contract [with Real Madrid] yet,” he explained some years later, “but I had already decided. I had turned them down twice before and I couldn’t do it a third time. But I knew that if I went back to Milan that would have changed my mind.”

Materazzi had only started a handful of games that season, but he was a kindred spirit, a player who bought into the Portuguese’s approach absolutely. What did they say to each other in that disarmingly tender moment outside the Bernabéu, when they knew that the adventure was over?

“I told him: ‘You’re a shit’,” recounted Materazzi in an interview with La Repubblica. “You’re going and you’re leaving us with [Rafa] Benítez. I’ll never forgive you for it.’ I did forgive him, though, in the end.”


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