Just six weeks ago, Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar was lying in a hospital bed in France, recovering from spinal surgery. Problems with his lower back had plagued him for some time, and reluctantly he decided he needed endoscopic treatment. He has not played competitive football since early March and has not since.
But when Internazionale pick their squad for Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester City, the club’s most important game of the last 13 years, Skriniar will likely be among the replacements.
Team-mate veteran Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan has not played for three weeks after being injured in Inter’s semi-final victory over AC Milan.
His treatment began immediately. His thigh injury was being treated as victory celebrations swirled around him. Mkhitaryan has not yet been given medical clearance to train with his teammates. Still, he could well be selected as a starter in the biggest game club football has to offer.
Arling Haaland’s overwhelming favorites to win the Champions League this season, Manchester City, arrive in Istanbul. A perfectly tuned, purpose-built machine is a fascinating engineering masterpiece that runs smoothly and quietly.
Inter, on the other hand, are represented by players like Skriniar and Mkhitaryan. Inter is a team that creaks, strains, and pushes the limits of its capabilities, the embodiment of a kind of patched-up, jury-engineered team. This club is united today by more than bandages and hope.
Certainly, one of the great old names in European football, Inter, is less likely to be a Champions League finalist. Maybe Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, Monaco a few years later, or even Tottenham in 2019. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, gaming’s most spectacular showcase takes place.
It’s not just that club manager Simone Inzaghi is leading Italy’s oldest side. In this team, Edin Dzeko (37), who is the center of attack, may be focusing on the 35-year-old player who is the cornerstone of defense. Francesco Acerbi as a young genius.
And it’s not just that this could be the last hooray to wear an Inter shirt for half the team. Skriniar is one of 11 players whose contract or loan period will expire at the end of the season. season. With this reality, clubs face the prospect of having to replenish their teams almost from scratch.
But Intel has far more serious concerns about the future. In 2016, Chinese retail conglomerate Suning paid $307 million to acquire a 70% stake in Intel, a deal at the time that spearheaded China’s sudden, lavish and state-sanctioned investment in European football. was considered In theory, the new ownership could fund Inter’s return to the top table. The team’s training facility will be upgraded. The same goes for club offices. And of course the players will follow suit.
Suning’s ownership wasn’t disastrous on the field. In 2021, Inter won their first Italian title in over a decade. Inzaghi has since added the Coppa Italia to the club’s laurels both this season and last season. Inter have become something of a Champions League mainstay. Last year, they made it to the round of 16, and this time they made it to the finals.
But the relative return to success came at a price. Inter are Italy’s most indebted club. According to its recently released financial statements, it has total liabilities of about $931 million. In the last two years for which information is available, the company has posted losses of around $430 million, leading to sanctions from European football governing bodies. Last year he fined the club €4 million (around $4.3 million) for breaching financial controls. threatened with greater penalties (26 million euros, or about $28 million) if the finances were not in order.
Inter has been in a sort of financial crisis in recent years due to the combined effects of the coronavirus pandemic, reduced state support for investment in European football, and most notably Suning’s own problems. Falling.
In 2021, the conglomerate faced mounting debt and had to accept a $1.36 billion bailout funded in part by local governments. That same year, the company permanently closed its Chinese team, Jiangsu Suning, months after winning the title, citing the need to focus solely on its core retail business. Last year, Stephen Chan, 32, the son of Suning’s founder and Intel president, was found guilty in a Hong Kong court for $255 million in debt and defaulting bonds.
Even if Intel is shielded from the worst effects, it will continue to exist. Players still receive rewards, but they suffer at least some collateral damage. Suning has been working on cost reduction efforts for years. In 2021, it became clear that many of the trophy-winning players had to be sold, and Serie A title-winning manager Antonio Conte resigned. .
Inter’s two most valuable assets, forward Romelu Lukaku, has returned to the club on loan and defender Achraf Hakimi has left anyway. To save money, Suning secured a $294 million loan from California-based asset manager Oaktree Capital to cover the club’s operating expenses.
Since then, Intel’s prosperous days faded further into the past. This season, after cryptocurrency firm Digital Bits failed to make a scheduled payment on an $80 million contract, it failed to sponsor the jersey, an important and usually reliable source of income for all European major teams. played for several months. .
On Saturday, Inter’s jerseys will instead feature the Paramount+ logo, the streaming service that broadcasts both Serie A and the Champions League in the United States. The deal is reportedly the product of a last-minute deal worth $4.5 million. For the same fee, Paramount branding will appear on the back of Inter’s kits next season.
However, this amount does not solve Intel’s problems. The loan to Oaktree is scheduled for next May. The total repayment, including interest, is about $375 million. The revenue from Inter’s unexpected run in the Champions League would certainly help, but it would also allow for a fire sale of new talent.
If the club fails to meet its obligations, Suning will automatically transfer control of the club to its creditors. Ernesto Paolillo, the club’s former general manager, said last month that “it is not sustainable to pay the debt at the interest levels that the club is paying Oaktree”. “Steven Zhang will not be able to export capital from China or cover his debts with other resources. Let’s go.”
“That’s not our plan,” Oaktree managing director Alejandro Cano said in March when asked if the company’s intention was to take control of the club. “We would love to work together and provide support as great partners. But who knows?
Suning is reportedly in talks with Oaktree to extend the loan, but is also exploring the alternative of a full sale. Zhang has twice denied Intel is in the market, claiming last October that he had not spoken to any investors, and again in April that he had not spoken to anyone. bottom.
However, in September 2022, specialist investment bank Raine (the company responsible for the sale of Chelsea to Todd Bawley and Clearlake and now overseeing the Glazer family’s efforts to sell Manchester United) announced that Inter’s Won a mandate for new ownership. .
Several parties have expressed interest in buying the club, according to executives familiar with the negotiations, who would like to remain anonymous about the sensitive discussions. A small group of attendees, primarily from the United States, including both individual family members and equity investors, toured Intel’s facilities and provided an overview of its accounting.
But so far there’s been one big problem: cost. Suning values the club at around $1.2 billion, not coincidentally with the amount Redbird Capital Partners paid to buy AC Milan last year. Given the reality of Intel’s financial situation, no one is actively trying to bite yet.
This sent Intel into purgatory. In negotiations, the club remains defiant. Those who have worked on the Inter move in recent months point out that the executives never complained of poverty. The club also retains an undeniable and undiminished charm. World Cup-winning striker Lautaro Martínez was offered the chance to leave last summer, but he chose to decline it, feeling he had settled into the city and Inter itself.
But pride alone cannot pay the price. At one point, cash was so tight that the club could not keep up to date on the payments to the architects and designers of the stadium it plans to build in collaboration with AC Milan. Far from San Siro.
Intel probably can’t afford to think about the future now. The Champions League final arrived tattered, bruised, taped, strapped, aged and faded. Although small, the opportunity is still there. There is a chance for glory. What that means and what happens from here can wait another day.