Ronaldo, Pavarotti and Beating Zeman At His Own Game: Roy Hodgson’s Second Coming At Inter Milan

The 1990s had been a bleak decade for the blue and black half of Milano. Three victories in the UEFA Cup had provided little comfort as rivals Milan and Juventus asserted themselves on proceedings in Serie A.  

Determined to break the cycle of disappointment, in the summer of 1997, Inter President Massimo Moratti opened his chequebook to capture Barcelona’s Ronaldo for a world record fee. A pervasive wave of optimism washed over the club; there was a growing expectation that their domestic drought would soon come to an end. With Roberto Baggio joining the following summer as a mentor for their young talisman, Interisti began to dream once again. 

But things didn’t quite go to plan. An exhausting 1998 World Cup campaign with Brazil saw Ronaldo return to Italy physically and mentally sapped. And with his star man only intermittently available, coach Gigi Simoni struggled to get a tune out of his charges. 

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President Moratti soon disposed of Simoni and, not long later, his replacement Mircea Lucescu met the same fate. Moratti secured an agreement to bring Marcello Lippi to the club, but league rules prevented the recently-deposed Juventus coach from taking charge of Inter in the same campaign. The President needed a stop-gap solution. 

The first man given the nod was long-time Inter goalkeeping coach Luciano Castellani. His feeble record of just one win in four matches did little to enhance Inter’s European qualification prospects. Moratti rolled the dice once last time, this time turning to his former coach and old friend Roy Hodgson. 

South-Londoner Hodgson was a fascinating mix of old and new. Like the pioneering British coaches of the 1940s and 1950s, he had built his CV the hard way with coaching assignments in Sweden and Switzerland. He was decent, honest and gentlemanly; exactly the kind of coach that chairmen liked to employ. On the field, he possessed a tactical nous and gift for communication that allowed him to pursue innovative ideas; exactly the kind of coach that players liked to work with. The combination of these traits had won him friends and admirers across Europe. 

“I think he is one of the best. Tactically he is always extremely prepared and he appreciates players with good technique.” – Ronaldo on Hodgson, 2013

“He was an honest, sincere person but, above all, a great coach with a lot of knowledge. He prepared for matches extremely well and taught us a lot.” – Pagliuca on Hodgson, 2021

“He earned the respect of the dressing room because he is so knowledgeable, he knows what he wants and how to communicate that to the players. That came across straight away.”  – Aron Winter on Hodgson, 2013

Hodgson had spent two transitional seasons at Inter (1995-97), peaking with a third-place finish and defeat in the UEFA Cup Final. Arguably, his greatest accomplishment had been to wean Inter off an increasingly out-dated man-to-man marking system and persuading stalwarts such as Giuseppe Bergomi to buy into his ideas. However, his intervening experience with Blackburn Rovers had been a bruising one, leaving the club at the foot of the Premier League table. Moratti’s choice did not inspire confidence amongst the Italian press. Hodgson had endured a strained relationship with the hacks during his first spell, with his high defensive line and zonal system being points of particular contention. 

In making the appointment, Moratti also faced resistance from sections of the support. Hodgson had made a favourable impression during his first spell; learning the language and achieving progressively better results. But he hadn’t left San Siro on the best of terms. His decision to substitute cult hero Javier Zanetti in the final minute of the 1997 UEFA Cup final provoked an angry response from the Curva Nord. Over time, his tenure also became synonymous – probably unfairly – with Inter’s regrettable decision to allow Roberto Carlos to leave the club. But Moratti was unmoved by these protests and doubled down in his support of Hodgson. (NB. There’s a great The Italian Football Podcast interview with Hodgson that covers this episode in some detail).

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The returning coach inherited a dysfunctional squad that had spectacularly failed to live up to their potential. On paper, the experience of Baggio, Bergomi, Ivan Zamorano, Diego Simeone and Youri Djorkaeff looked like the ideal complement to the emerging talents of Ronaldo, Nicola Ventola and Andrea Pirlo. But the results hadn’t followed and the ultras were turning on the team. Even the celestial Ronaldo was not immune from their ire. 

Hodgson had a clear mandate to restore stability and secure European qualification in his four-game spell. With column inches to fill, the Daily Mirror reported that Hodgson had “hit the jackpot”, earning a reported £50,000 per match to take on the task. Though many years later, Massimo Moratti set the record straight, “He didn’t want to be paid. He told me ‘no, no, no, I don’t want to be paid by you. I’ll do it because we are friends and you need me.” Moratti’s version of events saw Hodgson eventually accept payment in the form of tickets to see Luciano Pavarotti at La Scala. 

For Hodgson’s first game, Inter headed to Roma tooled up with a fearsome front three of Ronaldo, Baggio and Zamorano. He took on Zdenek Zeman at his own game – and won. Roma 4-5 Inter. The fickle Italian press quickly changed their tune towards the Englishman, with the Corriere della Sera reporting “Inter needed to get its dignity back and with a few changes you have given it back to them”. 

But those plaudits transpired to be premature as Hodgson presided over two successive 3-1 defeats. If the first, at home to Parma, was hard to take then the second at Venezia was a dagger to the heart. Inter loanee Alvaro Recoba set up Venezia’s first goal and created the second with a wicked free-kick that cannoned into the goal via an unwitting Sebastian Frey. 

The final day of the regular season witnessed Hodgson and Inter clawing their way into 8th place courtesy of a home victory over soon-to-be-familiar opponents, Bologna. This result secured their place in a two-legged play-off for UEFA Cup qualification – against Bologna, with all three matches taking place in the space of eight days. 

However, just halfway through the first leg, Inter’s hopes rapidly evaporated. At home and two goals down, a blighted Ronaldo failed to emerge for the second half. It transpired to be his last action of the season and the Nerazzurri tamely capitulated by an aggregate margin of 4-2.

As the curtain came down on his caretaker spell, a philosophical Hodgson reflected “The work over the last five weeks has given me a lot of satisfaction, but unfortunately the results haven’t. For a coach, it’s always hard to accept when good work doesn’t lead to success“.

For Inter, this disappointment signalled the need for a reset for the new Millennium. Bergomi retired, senior players of the calibre of Djorkaeff, Simeone, Gianluca Pagliuca and Aron Winter were allowed to leave and youngsters Pirlo and Ventola went out on loan. Inter invested heavily to bring in Christian Vieri, Clarence Seedorf and Angelo Peruzzi – and Recoba was brought in from the cold. Despite this investment and the arrival of Lippi, that elusive scudetto didn’t arrive until 2006. 

Never short of options, Hodgson turned down an offer to coach the Australian national team, seeking instead to rebuild his reputation with Grasshoppers of Zurich. The following decade witnessed a return to Italy with Udinese and coaching assignments in Denmark, UAE, Norway and Finland. In late 2007, Hodgson was on the verge of rejoining Inter as a technical advisor, when Fulham swooped to give him another chance in the Premier League. 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this check out our articles on the Milan Derby and Inter’s former home Arena Civica.

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