The Guardian-Jonathan Wilson
Exits for Conte and Zidane, together with talk of Pochettino returning to Spurs, epitomise the chaos of modern football
Club finances at Internazionale and Real Madrid left Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane struggling to rebuild. Photograph: Claudio Villa – Inter/Inter/Getty Images
At first glance, Antonio Conte leaving a club in dispute with the owners soon after leading them to a league title may not seem particularly significant. This is what he does. His departure from Internazionale follows ostensibly similar departures from Juventus and Chelsea, and he left the Italy national job early as well.
But this is about far more than Conte. What is happening at Inter is emblematic of the chaos of modern football and the struggles of an industry that had become a stage for the soft-power machinations of various states and oligarchs and was in need of major financial recalibration even before the pandemic hammered revenues. And as crisis looms, the distressed securities investors begin to hover.
Conte and Inter are just one part of a much larger picture: this summer will see a great reshuffle of managers with at least two other clubs who committed to the European Super League having vacancies to fill. There will be consequences, and they could be profound. A time of flux is always a time of opportunity. But the reshuffle is just the most visible consequence of far deeper financial rumblings, of which thebreakaway proposals were just the most obvious eruption.
Inter’s debts were reported in March to be €630m. Their majority shareholder is the retail conglomerate Suning, which holds 68% of shares. Suning itself is 23% owned by investors tied to the Chinese government. But whereas the involvement of Abu Dhabi and Qatar in football club ownership has so far been a guarantee of security, offering investment that is not reliant on results on the pitch – which is what makes them such a threat to the traditional elite – the Chinese government is more concerned with balancing the books.
It has sought to curtail excessive loans, which is why lucrative transfers to the Chinese Super League clubs have all but ended. Suning owned Jiangsu FC, who won the Chinese title last season for the first time in their 63-year history before being wound up because they were considered too great a drain on Suning’s resources.
That will not happen to Inter, but they did take out an emergency loan of €275m from the US asset firm Oaktree Capital Management earlier this month. They do not have to look very far to see the possible consequences of that: Elliott Advisors Limited took charge of Milan in 2018 after their owner Li Yonghong defaulted on loan repayments.
For Conte, as he sought further investment to consolidate a first scudetto in 11 years and propel a serious Champions League campaign, this meant he was asked to raise €80m from player sales. Given his personality and past record, the surprise would have been if he hadn’t walked. He will be replaced by Simone Inzaghi, who left Lazio on Thursday.
Conte is a major presence on the managerial merry-go-round. He may be difficult, but he has a sustained record of success, from taking Bari to the Serie B title in 2009 to three league titles with Juventus and one each with Chelsea and Inter. The only real doubt, beyond his combustibility, is his record in Europe. Both Real Madrid and Tottenham are viable destinations, not least because his ability to impose and aggressive pressing style is exactly what both need.
Madrid over the past two seasons have looked increasingly weary, playing a slow, old form of football in desperate need of rejuvenation. Zinedine Zidane essentially acknowledged he could not face that rebuild when he quit after the 2018 Champions League success; three years later, the situation has barely changed other than that Cristiano Ronaldo has left, everybody is older, and the supposed solution of buying up young Spanish talent has failed so catastrophically that, for the first time in history, there will be no Real Madrid player in the Spain squad for a major tournament. Debts exceed €900m and the club president, Florentino Pérez, is at war with Uefa, having been exposed as a buffoon across Europe – if not quite yet Spain – by his self-pitying vacuity in discussing the Super League.
But however ludicrous Pérez’s bleating may be, it does expose the basic fact that Real Madrid’s finances are shot and that they desperately need to offload about a dozen players into a depressed market just to be able to begin their rebuild.
There is a reason they have not made a major signing since Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic in 2019 – and it is not that they have learned their lesson after splashing £150m on two forwards who have totalled 27 league starts and scored six goals. The salary and prestige would offer some compensation, but it’s hard to think of a worse time to take the Madrid job in the past 70 years.
And then there’s Tottenham, their spectacular new stadium at risk of becoming a gleaming monument to the hubris of the pre-pandemic era, the cost of paying for it leading to the reduced investment that led to the squad going stale that led to Mauricio Pochettino’s dismissal that led to José Mourinho’s appointment that led to a seventh-place finish and Harry Kane wanting to leave. The road to the Europa Conference is paved with the best of intentions.
Pochettino returning would make sense from both a sentimental and a practical point of view, particularly given a relatively disappointing first season at Paris Saint-Germain – though many of the problems were inherited. That potentially opens another vacancy and there could be another one at Barcelona – who are massively in debt but do have plenty of young talent. Massimiliano Allegri is returning to Juventus to replace Andrea Pirlo, but that still leaves Maurizio Sarri, the man who initially replaced him, without a job.
But as the tiles are frantically shuffled around the table, it may be that what really matters is what is going on beneath and the ramifications of the economic disruptions of the past year – which themselves are the result of much deeper problems in the financial structure of modern football.