Like a well-tailored Italian suit or the clinical excellence of a German sports car, there’s a certain pleasure to be taken from a football club conducting an immaculately executed summer transfer campaign – one in which each new addition arrives at a reasonable cost in line or less than market value, then performs brilliantly to transform a team from also-rans into potent challengers.
This is a rare feat to pull off; most clubs’ transfer campaigns, historically, appear to be underpinned by the principle of throwing muck at a wall – throw enough of it at a wall by buying lots of players and hope that at least some of it will stick. This is especially true of Italian club presidents who seem to relish best the opportunity to sack coaches and wheel and deal extensively in the summer market.
This is even more especially true of Internazionale of Milan, a club that has spent (and wasted) more on acquiring footballers in the past 60 years than any other club in Europe – invariably to very limited effect.
And yet it was Inter who bucked their usual underperforming trend to enjoy a brilliantly successful market in 1988, one that turned their usual hotch-potch of big names who played together like strangers into a lean and resilient outfit who became runaway champions of Italy.
Giovanni Trapatonni had spent a hugely successful decade winning all there was to win with Juventus. Inter hired him in 1986 to try and reverse their fortunes and his first two seasons were very typical of what had gone before – some fine moments, a high Serie A-placed finish but never serious title contenders. That would all change in the 1988 close-season.
In conjunction with the then-President, Ernesto Pellegrini, he identified five main positions that needed strengthening – left-back, a forward to partner Aldo Serena and three new midfielders. The need to restructure virtually half a team successfully then get so many new players ready to hit the ground running for the new season was an onerous demand, and that Inter were trying it yet again showed they had learned little from making wholesale changes so frequently in the past. But this time, miraculously, it worked.
The focus of the recruitment was on new foreigners and out went the ageing Argentinian defender Daniel Passarella and the underperforming Belgian midfielder Enzo Scifo. In their place came the experienced Bayern Munich pairing of Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus. Both were seasoned West German internationals; Brehme cost £900,000 and was a smart and technically accomplished two-footed left-back, while Matthaus, a midfield force of nature who could defend and attack, was a bargain at around £3million.
Also, new to the midfield, the club welcomed two up and coming Italian prospects: 21-year-old, Nicola Berti, was signed for around £3million from Fiorentina and brought huge spirit and surging attacking intent. He was joined by by another clever creative player, the 22-year-old right-sided-midfielder, Alessandro Bianchi, a snip at £1.5 million from Cesena.
The final piece of the transfer jigsaw did involve, as Trapatonni later acknowledged, a sizeable element of good fortune. Casting around for a striker with none of their main targets proving attainable, on the eve of the season the coach settled on a player who had not previously been on his radar at all.
The Argentinian forward Ramon Diaz was something of a Serie A veteran who had spent six seasons in Italy with Napoli, Avellino and Fiorentina. His record was reasonable, if not considered remarkable enough to attract the interest of the giants of the division. So when Inter swooped for him to general surprise it was seen as a move borne out of desperation – but what a move it would prove to be.
Diaz was a cunning and smart penalty box operator who bonded brilliantly with the more physical target man Aldo Serena. The pair were unstoppable for the entirety of the 1988/89 season and Diaz himself contributed a dozen league goals, his best-ever Serie A return.
Inter romped to the title winning 26 of their 34 fixtures and finishing with a then-record total of 58 points. Matthaus was the outstanding player in the division with his dynamic midfield play and ferocious long-range shooting. Berti was an energetic presence alongside him, always running, always tackling, always a goal threat; Bianchi was a calm and composed presence on the right, adding assists and defensive cover, while Andy Brehme’s influence was so huge that he was quickly touted as Inter’s best left back since the days of Giacinto Facchetti.
The quintet that transformed Inter virtually overnight cost around £8.5million, a bargain sum when you consider that Milan paid £6million alone for Ruud Gullit, the previous summer. Some clubs can make a successful set of summer transfer acquisitions and some clubs can shop highly cost-effectively for their new players. It’s rare for any club to manage both simultaneously as Inter did during that impressive summer of 1988.