It may have found it’s beginnings as the result of a dispute within the Milan Cricket and Football Club, but there is no denying the purebred pedigree of Internazionale. Since their formation in 1908, they have enjoyed great success, tying city rivals AC Milan for 18 Scudetti each, as well as having no less than 6 European titles to their name. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that Inter have the prestigious honour of having had one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game. The wonderful ‘Grande Inter’ side of the 1960s dominated both domestically and in Europe. Over a 10 year period, the Nerazzurri won 2 European Cups and 3 Serie A titles. Led by pioneering Argentinian coach Helenio Herrera, they made famous the lauded catenaccio defensive system that would go on to influence the Italian game for the next 50 years.
Inter may have had periods of severe underperformance in the decades since and, some would argue, are in the middle of one of those at this very moment. However, there can be no doubt that they remain one of football’s most decorated and distinguished institutions. Here, in my second of the Favourite 11 series for The Counter Press, I name my favourite Internazionale team of all time. Enjoy!!
Goalkeeper: Walter ZengaEmbed from Getty Images
Walter Zenga has become better known these days for being a nomadic and somewhat haphazard manager, whose eccentric coaching techniques have taken him from Europe to North America, to Asia and back again. Wolverhampton Wanderers’ director Jeff Shi famously described the Italian’s appointment as ‘a big mistake’, a rarity in the modern world of empty cliches and media-trained interview answers.
It’s easy, then, to forget that Zenga was at one time perhaps the greatest goalkeeper in world football. Having won the prestigious Guerin D’Oro award in 1987, he played a vital part in Inter capturing the Scudetto in 1989. This led to a period of dominance for the stopper, where he was named the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper for 3 consecutive years from 1989 to 1991. Throughout that time, he was also number 1 choice for his national team, keeping five clean sheets on home soil at Italia 90 and helping the Azzurri capture a 3rd place finish at the tournament.
As expected for a keeper of his class and ability, Zenga was incredibly athletic and reactionary in his movement. Nicknamed Deltaplano, hang glider, his ability to reach seemingly unstoppable shots of any height and trajectory were what made him such an outstanding goalkeeper. “I love when people don’t like me,” he famously said on his arrival in Britain. Whether true or not, there is certainly plenty to like about his goalkeeping ability and that’s why he stands between the sticks in my Inter favourite 11.
Defender: Giuseppe BaresiEmbed from Getty Images
Ask anyone to name one of the greatest Italian defenders of all time, and they’ll no doubt come up with the name Baresi. Franco cemented his place as one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game in a 20 year career with AC Milan, in which he captured no less than six Serie A titles and 3 European Cups.
What is perhaps less well known is that older brother Giuseppe was no slouch either. While his younger sibling was making his mark for the Rossoneri, Beppe was making his own indelible mark on football history in blue and black. In a 24 year career with the Nerazzuri, he won two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup, as well as captaining the club for four years. Baresi was known for his incredible ability to read the game, intercepting passes and closing down attacking play from opposition often before it posed any real danger. He was an extremely versatile player, often filling in competently in both full back and defensive midfield but it’s clear that it was as a central defender that he dominated most.
Baresi has continued to give back to the club with whom he spent a near-quarter century as a player. As well as serving as head of youth development, he helped secure the famous treble in 2009/10. Acting as assistant manager to Jose Mourinho, Baresi played a key role in helping the Nerazzuri capture the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League in a feat that has gone down in history as one of the greatest achievements in modern football.
Defender: Giuseppe BergomiEmbed from Getty Images
There are some players whose identity is so ingrained with the history of their club side, that even the sight of them in their national team colours stands out as an anomaly. Guiseppe Bergomi is definitely one of those players. Joining Inter at the age of 16 in 1979, he went on to make over 500 appearances for the club. At the time of his retirement two decades later, Bergomi held the honour of the most appearances of any player in the Nerazzuri’s history,a record which would stand for 12 years.
Bergomi’s time at the Giuseppe Meazza was undoubtedly successful, as he helped Inter secure three UEFA Cups and a Serie A title, but it’s perhaps his other, less illustrious periods in Milan that mark him out as a Nerazzurri great. His career took in the decade of the 1980s, famously one of Inter’s periods of greatest struggle. Despite this, he remained loyal and was rewarded with success later in his career.
Despite being primarily a right back, he earns his place in the side through his ability to play anywhere along the back line, including as a sweeper. A physically imposing player, he was as well known for his strong tackles as his on the ball technique. He may have been sent off 12 times in his career, but no one was left in doubt that Giuseppe Bergomi gave his all for Inter, and his place in my favourite 11 for the club is thoroughly deserved.
Right Back: Javier ZanettiEmbed from Getty Images
Manchester United had Charlton. Milan had Maldini. Barcelona had Cruyff. Every great club has an equally great player who epitomises everything that institution stands for. And for Inter, that player was Javier Zanetti.
Arriving in Milan from his home country of Argentina in 1995, Zanetti embarked on a spell at Inter that would see him become perhaps the greatest individual player in their history. A player known for his peak physical fitness, which continued into his late 30s, he was nicknamed El Tractor. He possessed an engine seen in few other players, and one that allowed him to power tirelessly up and down the right flank for Inter.
He made the Giuseppe Meazza his home for 19 years, making over 600 appearances in the process. It was Zanetti who broke the previously mentioned record for appearances, held by Giuseppe Bergomi, in 2011. 5 Serie A titles, as well as a UEFA Cup, Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup mean that Zanetti isn’t just remembered because of his loyalty but for his ability to deliver titles too. Perhaps the biggest marker of the esteem in which he is held at the club is shown by fact that he is only the second player in Internazionale history to have a squad number retired in his honour. No other Inter player will ever wear the number 4 jersey after Javier Zanetti – and they wouldn’t deserve to either.
Left Back: Giacinto FacchettiEmbed from Getty Images
Zanetti was the second player in Inter history to have a shirt number retired in his honour. The first? Giacinto Facchetti. The ultimate one-club man, Facchetti made the left back position his own over his 18 year career in the first team.
Facchetti’s time at Inter coincided with what is undoubtedly the greatest period of success in the club’s history. Few would say there was any coincidence about it, however. Despite being a primarily defensive player, he had previously played as a forward in his younger days, and used this experience to be as much of a goal threat in the final third as he was a defensive powerhouse at the other end of the field.
Facchetti possessed all the power, pace and stamina you would expect of a modern day full back. This, combined with his ability to strike a football more purely than some attacking players, meant he contributed an incredible 59 goals from defence throughout his career.
Led by the great Helenio Herrera, Facchetti was an integral part of the famous Grande Inter side of the 1960s. In a period of dominance that lasted just over a decade, Facchetti and his teammates secured four Serie A titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. His place in football history has never been in doubt and was further confirmed after his playing days ended. Named by Pele as one of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004, Facchetti would go on to receive the prestigious FIFA Presidential Award posthumously after his death in 2006. Giacinto Facchetti may have been one of Inter’s greatest players but, perhaps more importantly, he is recognised as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and deservedly so.
Midfielder: Esteban CambiassoEmbed from Getty Images
Every great side needs an anchor. A lynchpin on which the team can rely to orchestrate the play, both defensively and into attack. Few were better at taking on that role than Esteban Cambiasso.
The diminutive Argentinian midfielder was 24 years old when he arrived at Inter in 2004, having been unable to cement his place in a Real Madrid side featuring the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Claude Makelele. In Milan, however, Cambiasso found a home. He remained one of the first names on the team sheet throughout his decade-long career with the Nerazzurri, and few would contest the fact that his presence was a vital part of all the success the club enjoyed in that time.
A highly intelligent playmaker, his deep playing position often disguised the danger he posed going forward. Though never a direct goal threat, his vision and passing ability meant that most successful attacking moves started with him. 5 Serie A titles, as well as an integral role in securing the famous treble of 2009/10, are a testament to that.
Reflecting on his Inter career, Eurosport described Esteban Cambiasso as the ‘heartbeat’ of the side during his time with them. There are few better fitting metaphors to describe the importance of Cambiasso to Inter in that period and it’s arguable that, in the four years since his departure, they’ve struggled to find an adequate replacement.
Midfielder: Lothar MatthäusEmbed from Getty Images
You would think that a club with as illustrious a history as Internazionale would have seen multiple players claim the Ballon D’Or while representing the Nerazzurri. Surprisingly, however, only two have achieved it. The first was Lothar Matthäus.
Matthäus arrived at Inter in 1988 along with compatriot and Bayern Munchen teammate Andreas Brehme. As I wrote for Gentleman Ultra, their arrival continued a long history of Germans playing in the famous black and blue stripes. Of them all, though, Matthäus was undoubtedly the greatest.
His stay may have been relatively short, lasting only four seasons, but there are many who would argue Matthäus was at his peak during his time with Inter. He helped them secure a Serie A title and UEFA Cup in a period that saw their fortunes pivot dramatically. Having spent much of the 1980s not even being included in the conversations for silverware, Matthäus’ spell at the club helped propel them into a successful decade in the 1990s. He even transferred that winning mentality to the international stage, winning the World Cup with West Germany in 1990.
As stated by colleague and friend Mark Neale, again for Gentleman Ultra, legend of the game Diego Maradona once said of Matthäus, “He is the best rival I’ve ever had; I guess that’s enough to define him”. You can’t really praise anyone more highly and it seems Inter fans agreed, with the number 10 being inducted in the Internazionale Hall of Fame in 2018.
Attacking Midfielder: Youri DjorkaeffEmbed from Getty Images
Inter’s Curva Nord, the section of the Giuseppe Meazza which houses the majority of the club’s Ultras, are a famously hostile group. It takes a lot for a player to find their way into the minds and hearts of this particular group of supporters. As experienced by Paul Ince, sometimes a lot of work is required to find a home in the affections of the Interisti.
Few foreign imports have achieved this feat to quite the same level as French magician Youri Djorkaeff. Arriving in 1996, he would go on to become a mainstay in the Inter side of the late 90s. He may have only been there for 3 years, but, in that time, the man affectionately nicknamed ‘The Snake’ provided the Nerazzurri with countless moments of magic, helping them capture the UEFA Cup in 1998. This a year after he managed to capture the prestigious Pirata D’Oro in his debut season.
Djorkaeff is probably amongst the least decorated Inter players in this line up but he’s no less deserving of his place. Technically gifted, he posed a constant threat from the edge of midfield and scored a more than respectable 30 goals in just over 80 appearances. His quality is without question, as displayed in the pivotal role he played in helping France secure the World Cup on home soil in 1998.
Despite his relatively short stay, Youri Djorkaeff had an undoubted impact in his time with Inter. To this day, he continues to have strong ties with the club and an affectionate relationship with its’ fans. Referring to the picture of him on Inter’s season ticket during his time there, he said, “I don’t need my passport when I come to Italy, I just pull that season ticket out.” You can read more about the great Frenchman in a piece I wrote for Gentleman Ultra in 2016.
Attacking Midfielder: Giuseppe MeazzaEmbed from Getty Images
There are few players in history whose name adorns the stadium in which they once played, and even less who do it having played on both sides of the city’s divide. Giuseppe Meazza, then, must have been a special player because that’s exactly what he did.
Rejected by AC Milan as a youngster, Meazza would find a home with Inter. In a first stint with the club which lasted 13 years, he made over 300 appearances and scored an incredible 241 goals. Strong and robust in his playing style, the physical and defensive nature of the Italian game never stopped Meazza and he gained a reputation as one of the most lethal attackers in the game at the time. An unfortunate side effect of his resultant notoriety was his adoption as somewhat of a figurehead for far right fascists in Italy at the time. His strength and good looks earned him the nickname Il Balilla, a reference to the youth movement of that era under leader Benito Mussolini.
Meazza won 3 Scudetti in his first spell at Inter, obtaining the status of Capocannoniere in 3 seperate seasons. His form never quite reached those heights again after he left in 1940 and despite spells at AC Milan, Juventus and Atalanta amongst others, it was in the blue and black of Inter that Meazza felt most comfortable. He would go on to manage the club in 3 separate spells, making him one of the Nerazzurri’s greatest and most loyal servants.
Attacking Midfielder: Wesley SneijderEmbed from Getty Images
There are some Interisti reading this who will wonder how Wesley Sneijder made it into this side because the truth is, it’s unlikely he would make it into the equivalent line up of any of the other clubs for which he has played.
The truth, however, is that at Inter, Sneijder ascended to the summit of world football. For a time, some may argue, he was the best player on the planet – and he did it while representing the Nerazzurri. Like Cambiasso and Zanetti, Dutchman Sneijder was a vital part of the famous Inter side that, under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, completed perhaps the most famous achievement in Inter’s history. Capturing the Scudetto and Coppa Italia in an immensely successful season, Sneijder and co completed an unforgettable treble by winning the Champions League in 2009/10.
Sneijder was the creative heartbeat of the side. Though only contributing 8 goals that season, every piece of meaningful play flowed through the playmaker. He won the award for top assist maker in the Champions League that year and Mourinho once described the former Ajax and Real Madrid man as his ‘perfect number 10’ – high praise indeed from a man who has managed the likes of Deco, Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba.
Players don’t have to be one of the greatest in history to make it into a club’s greatest 11. Sometimes it’s their undeniable contribution to an individual club that elevates their status. Wesley Sneijder was one of the main reasons Inter were as successful as they were in his time there and, for that, he deserves to be recognised.
Striker: RonaldoEmbed from Getty Images
He’s undoubtedly the most naturally-gifted footballer of his generation and one of the best of all time. No one was going to take the coveted number 9 spot in my Inter favourite 11 other than one man – Ronaldo.
Transferring from Barcelona in 1997 for a world-record $27 million, Ronaldo quickly adapted to the more physical nature of the Italian game. His explosive pace was unlike anything seen before in the league and he racked up and incredible 34 goals in his first season in Milan. AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini would later state that Ronaldo and Diego Maradona were the two greatest player he ever faced, describing the former a ‘phenomenon’. It was as a result of this praise that he earned the nickname Il Fenomeno from the Italian press.
Ronaldo’s time at Inter was struck by great tragedy, however. Rupturing a tendon in his knee in November 1999, he managed only 7 minutes on the pitch during his comeback in April 2000 before repeating the injury. He wouldn’t appear again until late 2001 and it’s felt by most that he never regained the lightning speed for which he had become renowned.
Regardless, Ronaldo is remembered as perhaps the best striker ever to play for the Nerazzurri. It’s frightening to think what he may achieved with the club, had his time there not been so mired by injury. Ronaldo would no doubt be the number 9 in many people’s greatest 11 of all time and it’s therefore no surprise that for Inter, he was the only real choice.
That’s my Favourite 11 for Inter. Disagree? Let me know your thoughts here or on Twitter @LBrad88!!