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Beppe Marotta reclines in Inter Milan’s spa-like training complex near Lake Como; a bust of the club’s European Cup-winning patron Angelo Moratti, meanwhile, stares impassively like a Buddha in the luxurious black, blue and gold wellness facility that carries his name. Marotta is on the phone. When isn’t he? The transfer window is upon us and news is breaking that Inter are missing out on a target – Nacho on a free from Real Madrid. 

Far from crumpling into his chair, the 66-year-old chief executive, who doubles as Inter’s head of recruitment, doesn’t get creased up about it. Marotta will move on. Dressed like a Chigista, one of the power brokers who best rides the corridors of Palazzo Chigi, Italy’s White House or 10 Downing Street, he knows there will be others. 

After all, Marotta built his reputation as Italian football’s most influential transfer strategist on a series of Bosmans (Andrea Pirlo, Sami Khedira, Fernando Llorente, Patrice Evra), the most glittering of all being Paul Pogba at Juventus in 2012. “We signed him for nothing and sold him back to the same club for €110m,” he recalled when elaborating on why it was his best-ever signing. 

When his phone call is over, Marotta steps out into the overcast afternoon and hops on an Inter branded golf buggy to pick up a contact down by the training ground gates. He returns to watch the team he assembled train ahead of Saturday’s game in Istanbul, the biggest game facing Inter since that night at the Bernabeu 13 years ago when the club’s current vice-president, Javier Zanetti, wore the captain’s armband and placed the European Cup on his head. 

It’s the third team built by Marotta to reach a Champions League final after the last great Juventus sides in 2015 and 2017. Some of the players jogging in front of him were trademark get-something-for-nothing freebies. Andre Onana, aka The Reflex; Scudetto-winning centre-back Stefan de Vrij; Queen’s Gambit extra Henrikh Mkhitaryan; and the man with a cannon for a right foot, Hakan Calhanoglu, who Marotta persuaded to cross the divide from AC Milan in the hours after Christian Eriksen’s heart attack at Euro 2020, which forced him to explore alternatives. 

Eking out the tension in his muscles on a foam roller is Romelu Lukaku, a player Marotta bought for a club-record €74m, sold for a club-record €113m and loaned back less than 12 months later for a fraction of the cost. Deals like that are why Marotta is regarded as a modern-day Italo Allodi or the successor to Adriano Galliani; the general managers who defined eras in Italy and Europe. 

His stock has only risen, if that were possible, since 2018 when Juventus’ then-chairman, Andrea Agnelli, surprisingly moved him out as he rejuvenated his executive team and rewarded Marotta’s deputy Fabio Paratici for pulling off the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. Juventus decadently won the league a couple more times but the decline and fall of their domination was spectacular. Nine long years of apparently unassailable power came to an end by fault of their own. 

Inter appointed Marotta and entrusted him with knocking down the house he built. Pitching up at Juventus’ bitterest rivals caused a stir. “He’s a professional but maybe he was never Juventino,” Juventus’ former vice-president Pavel Nedved said, just as Marotta began putting together a team capable of stopping his old club winning 10 in a row. Only last month, Lapo Elkann, the most flamboyant member of the Agnelli dynasty, tweeted: “In my opinion, Juventus lost a lot after Marotta’s departure. You need strong and capable figures in football which is a world unto itself. Otherwise getting Juventus back to the top is unthinkable.” 

As the football season reaches its climax and the transfer window takes over, it is worth reflecting on Marotta’s remarkable rise. If it were a film, it would follow the screenplay of Cinema Paradiso. Marotta has always identified with Salvatore, the kid from the 1989 Oscar-winning flick, who discovers a passion for film when the projectionist at his local cinema, Alfredo, benevolently takes him under his wing. Those formative years set Salvatore on the path to make him a successful film director. 

Marotta can relate in his own way. He grew up 500 metres from the Stadio Ossola in his hometown of Varese. “I must have been around eight years old,” he recalled. “I showed up outside the ground and asked the kitman, Angelino, if I could help out. After some hesitation, he consented on one condition: that I clean the boots, pump up the balls and put the jerseys on to wash. In exchange, I got to wear a Varese tracksuit and watch training.” 

Marotta started at the bottom. He did a bit of everything. “I was a ball boy at a Varese-Juventus game. I was 11. It was February 4, 1968. I remember the day because it was a historic result. Varese won 5-0. Pietro Anastasi scored a hat-trick.” In the meantime, Marotta attended the same school as a future Italian Prime Minister (Mario Monti) and other prominent politicians like the governor of Lombardy (Attilio Fontana) and Roberto Maroni, the late leader of the Lega Nord. 

“It’s no coincidence they call me the (Henry) Kissinger of football,” Marotta laughed. This is why, in addition to acting as Inter’s chief executive, he serves on the executive committee of Serie A and the Italian Football Federation; a sphere of influence he could never have imagined in his late teens when he began to formally work for Varese as the academy director. 

Within no time at all, Marotta was running the club. The first of thousands of signings over a career spanning four decades was a little-known goalkeeper from Pattese by the name of Michelangelo Rampulla, who went on to play for Juventus and make a name for himself by scoring goals as much as stopping them. 

Quietly, Marotta gained credibility. At Monza, he put together a team that won the third division, but it wasn’t until Venezia that he started to go mainstream. Marotta is renowned for working the loan market as much as making free transfers. If we look at the Inter squad flying to Turkey, Francesco Acerbi is borrowed from Lazio and Lukaku is due back at Chelsea at the end of this month. 

As good as both players have been recently, neither have made the impact Alvaro Recoba had in six months on the Grand Canal. Working alongside the father of transfer reporter extraordinaire Gianluca Di Marzio, Marotta leased him from Inter. He felt sorry for Recoba warming the bench behind Roby Baggio, Youri Djorkaeff and a kid called Andrea Pirlo who, in those days, fancied himself as a No 10. “Recoba is one of the exceptions to Michael Jordan’s axiom that talent on its own can win you games, but teamwork wins championships,” Marotta said. 

The magnificently talented Uruguayan, with his headband and black unsponsored boots, upstaged his parent club in a memorable 3-1 win at the Pierluigi Penzo. In all he scored 11 times in the second half of a wonderful season and, while he may not have led the Lagooners to the Scudetto, he single-handedly kept them up that year. 

Taking chances on genius was a hallmark of Marotta’s emergence. He repeated the Recoba trick at Sampdoria in 2007 when he persuaded Antonio Cassano to leave Real Madrid, the hotel sex and the pastries, and come back to Italy, initially on loan. Cassano was so gifted that by his own admission: “If I’d had the right head on my shoulders, I would have been playing on the moon.” 

When people wonder why Italy hasn’t produced another Baggio, Totti or Del Piero, that’s because it was supposed to be him. Cassano claims to have realized “30 per cent” of his potential, “at most 40 per cent”. But that was still enough to get Samp into the top four and the Champions League preliminaries in 2010 when his strike partnership with Giampaolo Pazzini brought back memories of the one between Luca Vialli and Roberto Mancini. 

Unsurprisingly, Cassano claimed all the credit. “If we did well at Samp, he owes it to me,” Cassano said in one of his trademark rants about him. “I was a phenomenon when it came to football. He’s good at selling himself.” 

Whatever they wrote, maybe in one of the family newspapers, managed to catch the attention of Andrea Agnelli, who was in the process of becoming Juventus chairman. Smitten with Samp, the Old Lady hooked up with their chief exec (Marotta), his right-hand man (Paratici) and their coach (Gigi Delneri). 

It was a time when Juventus had lost appeal. Players like Robin van Persie and even Toto Di Natale turned them down. Calciopoli and a few years outside the Champions League had diminished the brand and the budget. Delneri flopped, unable to build on the foundation he found. The club had to be shrewd with its resources and generate revenue through player trading. 

No one expected an unprecedented near-decade-long period of uninterrupted success to start with the €600,000 signing of Andrea Barzagli, the free transfer of Pirlo and another bargain in Arturo Vidal (€12.5m). Delneri’s replacement, the relentless Antonio Conte, did the rest, turning a team that finished seventh into champions. All of a sudden, the aura around Juventus was reactivated. Players like Carlos Tevez (€9m) wanted to come and play in Turin and a combo of Champions League money and profits on players like Coman (€28m) made the team even more competitive. Conte’s resignation at the beginning of pre-season in 2014 threatened to compromise everything, as would his decision to leave Inter in 2021, but Marotta nailed the succession on both occasions (with Max Allegri and Simone Inzaghi). 

Juventus began reaching Champions League finals again — just like this Inter team — and the record windfall from Pogba allowed Juventus to neuter their rivals in Serie A, as the proceeds were reinvested in Napoli and Roma’s best players, Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, whose buy-out clauses were ruthlessly activated. 

In hindsight, the model changed with the signing of Ronaldo. It was a hubristic watershed moment in the recent history of Juventus. Marotta’s exit shortly afterwards was interpreted as dissent. “It’s normal that there are different positions and visions within a club,” he clarified. “But this doesn’t mean I was against the move because CR7 is an icon, a champion. That wasn’t the reason for my divorce from Juventus.” 

He is missed. Particularly now Juventus are right back where he found them in 2010: seventh, albeit because of the 10-point punishment doled out in the scandal that led to bans for Agnelli, Paratici and other executives like Federico Cherubini, who was caught on a wiretap saying: “With Fabio (Paratici) there’s no reasoning. For as long as Marotta was there he could put brakes on him, but once he left, Fabio had carte blanche.” 

Marotta likes to talk about prudence and sustainability, but how consistent he is on that is open for debate. Inter sacked Luciano Spalletti at great cost to hire Conte, inflated the wage bill and broke the club transfer record twice in one summer to sign Nicolo Barella and Lukaku. Buying Eriksen for €27m six months before his contract was due to expire didn’t make much financial sense either and when Covid-19 hit, Inter and their owners, Suning in China, got squeezed, a liquidity crisis playing out in the background of their first league title since the treble. 

As a consequence, Inter have been on a strict diet these past couple of years, seeking to remain a force while trimming the fat. Conte left, unconvinced the club could build on the Scudetto. They’ve lost players like Ivan Perisic for nothing and will get zilch for Milan Skriniar in the summer. But the team Marotta and his deputy Piero Ausilio have stitched together is in a Champions League final for the first time in 13 years. 

They have done more with less and Marotta walks around Inter’s training ground, La Pinetina, as if this were exactly the regular occurrence that it is for him. A normal day at the office. So normal it would come as no surprise to stumble across him reading one of those Paulo Coelho novels he’s so fond of. A line from one of them has always stayed with him: “If you want miracles to come true, then you have to believe in miracles.”

In Istanbul, Marotta and Inter believe. 

(Top picture: Marotta and Inzaghi celebrate victory in the Italy Cup final. Photo: Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images)



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