So there we have it. The seeds sown in distant Indonesia earlier this year have finally borne fruit in the heart of Italy. In becoming the first Asian owner of an Italian club, Erick Thohir has broken new ground, make no mistake about it. That isn’t because the Indonesian billionaire is a transformational leader, but because the man has proven that money transcends colour and creed. The cold fact is that Inter Milan needed money and quickly. In Thohir, the club has found a money-bag who was eager and willing to become an investor.
With Europe in the clutches of a distinctly painful recession, there really was no choice but to look towards Asia. The Russians looked at Italy but for all their oil money, failed to see anything beneath the ground that might stoke their investment. The Chinese indulged themselves too, but realized that Milanese sauce was a far cry from the soya sauce that garnishes their meal.
There were no such issues for Massimo Moratti, whose palate evolved on a steady feast of Milanese feats right from childhood. The Moratti family had a long cherished history with the iconic football club. Massimo’s father Angelo had overseen the club during a very successful phase in the 1960s – when legendary Argentine coach Helenio Herrera helped the team clinch two European titles and three Serie A trophies.
Massimo replicated some of that success in the recent past, when Roberto Mancini and then Jose Mourinho produced a string of successes to return Inter to the top of the heap in Italy. In a way, the success of Inter Milan during the second half of the previous decade helped erase some of the pain that gripped Italy in the aftermath of the Calciopoli match fixing scandal. However, the success of the club came at a heavy price.
The owners had spent liberally on luxurious salaries for players and coaches to help scale the peak in 2010. That was the year when the team lead by Mourinho won a famous treble – Serie A, Coppa Italia and the Champions League. But those years of extravagance cost the club dearly as it slipped deep into debt. Since then, the club has lived under six different coaches and suffered an exodus of talent as it has struggled to recreate past glory.
Some estimates place the debt at nearly $300mn, the kind of money that was always beyond the erstwhile owners. With their fate increasingly in the dock, Moratti and his men had no other option but to seek out suitors with the cash needed to resuscitate the ailing club. While European football has long been controlled by the people from within the continent, with passion and piety playing a role, many clubs have been forced recently to look East for succour and a steady hand.
In the recent past, clubs with a rich cultural history such as Chelsea and Manchester City in the Premier League, and Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco in Ligue 1, have turned themselves over to rich tycoons from outside their geographical bounds to salvage honour and pursue success. But even then, Italy would always remain a bastion of the Europeans, thought some of the most seasoned followers of the game.
Recent incidents only underlined the fact that Italy is still a deeply divided nation. Just this September, Serie A officials slapped penalties on Inter Milan after an acrimonious encounter against Juventus. It was widely believed that Kwadwo Asamoah of Ghana and Paul Pogba from France were targeted with some choice abuses during their match at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Inter’s dalliance with racist behaviour is even more ironic considering that the club was found in 1908 due to a rebellion in the camp that sought the inclusion of foreign players. It will certainly be interesting to watch how the Nerazzurri and their fans embrace the Indonesian businessman who is willing to turn saviour for the Milanese team.
The billionaire from Jakarta with interests in media, minerals and everything in between has been a keen basketball enthusiast all his life. Thohir has ownership experience from co-owing Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA and the DC United team in Major League Soccer.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has reported that Thohir has been sold a 70% stake in Inter at nearly $340m by Moratti. The Italian will continue to hold a minority stake in the club in order to retain his umbilical connection with an organization that is very dear to him and his family. Walter Mazzarri, the current coach, has his task cut out as he seeks to please his new masters.
The price paid by the Indonesian billionaire values the club at approximately $480m, which is nearly 20% higher than the value estimated in this Forbes Survey. Even as we await a final confirmation, it is quite possible that Massimo is asked to run the business keeping in mind the cultural fallout from a shift in leadership during this troubled phase in the European region.
But Thohir and his associates, along with the coach, face a litmus test straight after Christmas when the transfer window opens. While debt issues need to be addressed immediately, it is also imperative that Inter re-organise their team and find suitable signings to work their way back into the Champions League. Meanwhile, the fans will expect Erick to find new sponsors and also leverage the nearly 2m strong fan following in Indonesia for his newly acquired team.
The money on the table will eventually provide 35% to Erick and 30% shall remain with Moratti. The balance will be split between Rosan Roselani and Handy Soetedjo, who are business partners to Thohir. Deep in debt, Thohir’s cash will offer much needed oxygen to the ailing club. And even to the most fanatically obdurate of fans, there is no real recourse but to swallow their dirty ego and bite into the gifts from the Indonesian billionaire.
Money has the power to make even the most obdurate men dance to its many tunes. That is precisely why its colour will matter less and less as Europe turns east towards the emerging markets in search of relief from their existential angst.