Football: Pain, envy and Baggio fuel the Inter dream

Tim Collings visits the Italian club charged with the task of reviving old glories
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LIFE, as Gigi Simoni found out last week, is short and spectacular for any coach employed as "il allenatore" at Internazionale. Sacked for winning without conviction, he became another statistic on the road from past glories towards uncertain future. Honoured by his peers as Coach of the Year only two hours earlier, the 59-year-old silver-haired survivor of a dozen postings was sent packing on Tuesday and replaced by the former Romanian national coach Mircea Lucescu, briefed to replace pragmatism with spectacle and break Manchester United's hearts by winning the European Cup.

Caesar himself might have been proud of the club president Massimo Moratti's swift brutality. "If it brings the right results, it will be good for Inter," said Sergio Di Cesare of La Gazzetta dello Sport. "If not, it will be someone else's turn." The long-term betting is that it will be Juventus' eminence grise Marcello Lippi, if Lucescu labours in vain amid the cereal plains at Appiano Gentile, north of Milan, where the grim reaper can flicker like a ghost at the training camp.

Like United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Internazionale is a club consumed by a passionate pursuit of success but with impatience of volcanic proportions. It is reflected in the Nerazzurri's San Siro crowds, the baying for results, the envy of Juve and the hated city rivals Milan and a quest to revive the glories of the 1960s when Helenio Herrera's catenaccio conquered the continent and the world. It is demonstrated, too, in noisy smoke-filled city ristoranti long into the night after home matches, and by the use of Moratti's chequebook, sponsored by Pirelli, and an arrivals list to make any world dream team selector swoon. Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano, Youri Djorkaeff, Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, the ageless Giuseppe Bergomi. Such riches.

Yet, for the suave Moratti, such frustration. His club's most recent successes did not bring sustained joy. The team's Serie A title of 1989, inspired by Lothar Matthaus, was Inter's 13th and last scudetto, now long forgotten. Even the Uefa Cup triumphs of 1991, 1994 and this year are seen only as consolation prizes. While Juventus, Milan and even Sampdoria have reached the Champions' Cup final, Inter have watched and waited. Even with a squad of high-lux stellar intensity, it has been tough this season. Results have been erratic (on Thursday, in Rome, Lucescu's maiden game in charge produced a 2-1 defeat by Lazio in an Italian Cup quarter- final first leg), they are only seventh in the league, key players have been injured and a spectacular last-gasp 3-1 victory over Real Madrid, sealing an almost- certain passage to the quarter-finals of the Champions' League 11 nights ago, was not enough to save Simoni.

Yet the fans remain loyal. All 60,000 season-ticket holders. All 47,630 official club members. All 84,725 patrons of the 909 recognised supporters' clubs. All know the story of how Inter was formed by dissident members of the original Milan Cricket & Football Club, aka AC Milan, in the Orologio restaurant. They are rebels, breakaway men, not followers of media moguls such as Silvio Berlusconi or industrial barons such as Giovanni Agnelli. They are bound by pain and envy, fuelled by a famine that can only end with another scudetto or, better still, a Champions' League triumph. It is a quest shared, but one that, this season, they believe they can fulfil. If the union of Roberto Baggio, the once "divine ponytail", and Ronaldo, the fallen Brazilian wonderboy, gels (as it did for 25 minutes against Real Madrid) anything is possible. Knee injuries permitting.

"I am sure we can work well together, but we do need time," said Baggio, a smile playing on his face in a crush of excitement after that famous 23-minutes two-goals turn as a substitute and match-winner in Milan. "Why not? It is more about time and fitness and hard work by the whole team than it is about anything else. This is a great club with a squad of great players. We all want to succeed. We want to work to win."

The 1993 European and World Footballer of the Year has grown used to the weary media cynicism that surrounds his partnership with Ronaldo, the European and World Player of 1997. Even after nine goals in three different World Cup finals tournaments, 27 goals in 52 internationals and, most dramatically, a smart boyish haircut, something of the unfulfilled still hangs around Baggio. Joining Inter in June was expected to end all this.

Not even after lifting a sell-out 85,000 to its feet with his two strikes against Real could Baggio be allowed to bask in his glory. Too many old stories, injuries and tantrums obscure the view. Ronaldo's curious illness- and-injury blighted progress since 12 July and that mad night in Paris hardly help. Last week, in Rome, he was out again. He has played in only nine of 23 games this season. "It is only precautionary," said the Brazilian. "I am improving, but not fast enough yet to play in every game."

Inter's club doctor Piero Volpi believes Ronaldo will be back at full fitness by March, when all connected with the club are synchronising their watches for a major offensive. "We are not scared of anyone, but we must not lose to ourselves," said Baggio, now 31, but still blessed with sinuous skills and a football brain sharp enough to scalpel any defence. His brace against Madrid, the newly crowned world club champions, proved that; particularly his second. "Yes, it was a nice goal. I liked it. I scored it for myself, for the team, but mostly for the club and the president. It has been tough. Everyone knows it. But I think, now, we are ready to be the team we should be."