Inter president Steven Zhang revealed that Romelu Lukaku did indeed tell him that they would make it all the way to the Champions League final this season. The Nerazzurri are making final preparations ahead of the final against Manchester City in Istanbul, and Zhang took time out to speak with La Gazzetta dello Sport about their season, the players and coach Simone Inzaghi:
Seven years as Inter owner with the Suning Group, four and a half as president winning five trophies in the last three seasons. And now the Champions League final: Zhang, tell the truth, did you expect it?
“To be honest, I had only dreamed of it. And I thought, looking at the moment in football and the differences between some leagues, that it would be difficult to reach such a goal. Despite the huge resources Suning has invested in Inter Milan, sometimes spending even more than some English teams, because of the different income from TV rights there is still a huge gap between Premier League and Serie A. However, the great appeal of sports and football is that money is not always everything and the difference in resources can sometimes be made up for with ideas, expertise and passion. We obviously hope that tomorrow will be one of those times.”
We often see you cheering or suffering in the stands, having a great relationship with the players and the coach. How much has Steven Zhang changed in his years as president and how much has football absorbed him?
“Inter absorbs me totally. I live the club with enormous intensity, but I almost never get into the technical or tactical aspects concerning the team. I don’t even talk about it with Inzaghi, whose every choice I respect. As president I hate those who want to teach me how I should run my club, so I don’t make the same mistake with other people’s roles.”
You now live in Milan and seem perfectly settled in the city. Do you feel a bit Milanese as well?
“I love Milan very much. I have learned about Italian culture, traditions and mentality. I often tell my friends that today I feel 40% Chinese, 30% American, 20% Italian and 10% world citizen. I still don’t speak Italian properly but I understand it. And the Chinese way of thinking is quite similar to yours.”
Football is a peculiar business: it requires managerialism but also passion. How important is it to find the right balance? And has the growing passion for Inter led you to some not very rational choices?
“It’s a risk I take during the football market when I want to buy the best players right away and I don’t look at the budget or the balance sheet. Yes, sometimes it happens that passion overwhelms the rational part, when making purchases or deciding not to sell…. I often ask our ds Ausilio: ‘Piero, aren’t we making a mistake?’ The dialogue with my managers is fundamental to seek that famous balance between rationality and passion.”
With Skriniar, this balance is off. You could have sold him in the summer to PSG for 50 million, but instead he’s going to leave now for zero. Was it a mistake to keep him?
“Skriniar has always been one of my favorite players. We did everything to have the best team to win. But this question I will answer after the final… Before the game with City I don’t find it right to talk about individuals. With the management, team and fans we are now one body, all focused on tomorrow’s challenge.”
On Lukaku, however, you can at least confirm an anecdote. In September Romelu allegedly predicted to her: ‘President, never say never, we will reach the Champions League final.’ And you smiled without replying. Is that true?
“Yes, I smiled thinking ‘he’s crazy.’ And instead he was right.”
With this happy prediction did Romelu win a place at Inter?
“No questions about the players, please….”
I tried… Inzaghi, however, is not a player; you can talk about him. You have shown that you know how to choose your coaches: Pioli, Spalletti, Conte and now Simone. Three of them have won the last three Scudetti and one is in the Champions League final. Can you give us a judgment on each?
“They have all taught me something. Pioli was the first coach I worked with in my life. I wanted to have an Italian coach who knew the league perfectly-Stefano gave me the basics. I am very close to Spalletti because he traced a furrow made of play, work and results, taking Inter back to the Champions League: a fundamental goal at that time. With him we had one of the best defenses and I understood the importance of a great backline if you want to win. Do you know what Moratti once told me?”
No, tell us about it.
“Dear Steven I made so many mistakes during my presidency, focusing only on the big striker, but when I started to buy the big name defenders, then I started to win. And he quoted Samuel to me… That’s an important lesson I learned from him.”