E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial. If you were watching Sky Italia and Sport Mediaset towards the end of last week and through the weekend in Italy, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were showing Stephen Spielberg’s film on repeat. They weren’t. They were instead covering another E.T: Erick Thohir, the Indonesian media and entertainment magnate heading the consortium that announced a binding agreement to purchase a controlling 70% stake in Inter last month.
The script felt more or less the same: an alien landing in a new world, the world of Italian football. Thohir was in town with his partners Rosan Roselani and Handy Soetedjo for the first shareholders’ meeting since they signed the paperwork on a deal worth an estimated €255m (£215m). As you can imagine, there was great curiosity, a sense of wonder even. Thohir and co were treated like they had come down from another planet in a spaceship.
The reaction is understandable within its context. Throughout its history, Italian football has been distinguished by insularity, particularly in terms of ownership. Patrons have more often than not come from the cities where their clubs are based. They’ve grown up supporting that team and passed their passion down from one generation to another.
Dynasties have been established. It’s enough to think of the Agnellis running Juventus since the 1920s, Silvio Berlusconi buying Milan in 1986 and Massimo Moratti acquiring Inter in 1995, bringing the club back into the family’s hands after his father Angelo sold up in 1968. Little by little things are changing, though. Italian football is opening up. It’s moving with the times.
Two and a half years ago, the Sensis, owners of Roma since the early '90s, sold a majority stake in the club to an American consortium led first by Thomas Di Benedetto and then James Pallotta. They became the first foreign owners in Serie A. Foreign but familiar. Just think of the shared heritage that exists between Italy and America. Di Benedetto and Pallotta couldn’t speak Italian but they could trace their family origins back to the ‘old country’.
Make no mistake about it, this was the beginning of a new era in Serie A but, perhaps because of the familiarity, perhaps because Roma aren’t one of the Big Three in Italy, it didn’t quite have the same resonance as Thohir’s takeover.
Why is that?
You can put it down to Inter’s status as a member not just of Italy’s elite, with a great 105-year history behind them, but Europe’s too. This is one of the world’s biggest clubs, one that until now has always been under Italian and, more specifically, Milanese control.
Then, you have to say there’s nostalgia for Moratti - an icon of the classic Italian fan owner tradition. There’s appreciation for his family’s passion, their contribution to Inter and Italian football, and with it genuine sympathy for his position: the realisation that if you love something, sometimes you have to set it free in order for it to move forward.
Last and not least, it’s the notion of E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial.
Thohir is no less an unknown than a Di Benedetto or a Pallotta but Italians’ conception of Indonesia is a lot less defined than their conception of America. It isn’t so familiar. The reference points are fewer. It feels more different, more ‘foreign’ and with a lack of understanding comes uncertainty, scepticism at his credentials.
All Interisti had to go on until the weekend - with the exception of some profile pieces on Thohir, the odd interview here and there and his [unspectacular] record as co-owner of DC United and his minority interest in the Philadelphia 76ers - was Moratti’s word that whatever decision he made, it would be for the good of the club: he wouldn’t let it fall into the wrong hands.
“Love her! Crazy Inter! Love her,” goes the anthem. Does Thohir love Inter? Much of his strategy does appear to have been oriented around convincing the fans that he does and that he is in touch with the club’s history. To his credit, after the shareholders’ meeting to ratify the takeover, he not only did a press conference, but went on Fabio Fazio’s A Che Tempo Che Fa talk show and then Pierluigi Pardo’s Tiki Taka to get his message across and engage with fans through the media.
Thohir claims to have followed Inter since the '80s “during the era of the three Germans” - Lothar Matthaeus, Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann. Back in Jakarta, he’s been getting up at 4 and sometimes 2.45 in the morning to watch their games, texting Moratti throughout. That said, there have been some gaffes. Innocent ones, it must be said.
An interview with La Repubblica last month gave the impression that Thohir isn’t a one-club man like Moratti. Asked about his family after it emerged that his 14-year-old son Aga is a fan of Inter’s rivals Juventus, he said: “I am an open father. And we respect everyone’s opinions in my family. On football we agree on almost nothing. In the Premier League I care for Arsenal and my two most football mad sons [support] Manchester United. In Spain, we’re divided on Real Madrid and Barcelona.”
Then there was Thohir’s response to a question about which Inter player he liked watching through his years as a supporter. He could have named Ronaldo, Youri Djorkaeff, Javier Zanetti, Paul Ince, Christian Vieri or Alvaro Recoba. Instead he went for … Nicola Ventola. A nice story emerged after the fact - Ventola’s wife is of Indonesian origin and her family speak Indonesian at home - but by the time that came out Thohir [who was unaware of it] found himself being sneered at.
It was a little harsh. The only thing you could really reprimand him for here was trying too hard to impress. “If I mention Ronaldo or Figo everyone knows them and considers themselves a fan of those players. But I also remember the Inter of the Salvatore Fresi and Ventola era, which had a lot of bad luck. I’m not a Ventola fan just because of his wife,” he laughed.
Another faux pas was the picture he had taken with the 76ers basketball player Allen ‘The Answer’ Iverson. Thohir had presented him with a personalised ‘Iverson, No.3’ Inter shirt, apparently unaware that the No.3 is retired in honor of the great Giacinto Facchetti.
To be fair to E.T, he is learning about his new world. Thohir did well to quote Facchetti’s line that “the secret of every triumph lies in your own belief” at his press conference last week. The five words of Italian he did speak - ‘Chi non salta Rossonero è! Who doesn’t jump is a Milan fan’ - got the desired reaction too even if he does need to work on his pronunciation. His English isn’t perfect either, as he said ‘patience’ over and over again when he meant to say ‘passion’.
But the predominant sensation you get from Thohir is that he means well and his intentions are good. Just look at how respectful he’s been towards Moratti.
“The first time I met him - and I’m speaking in all sincerity here - I told him I didn’t come to replace him but rather to create a kind of team spirit that would support Inter. I told Moratti I would never be able to do what he did and that by working together we could become stronger.”
Why not stay on as president? Thohir proposed to Moratti. Without any expertise themselves in Italian football, they could sure use his. And besides, Thohir will be an ‘absentee owner’: Moratti would be a useful guide for the men he’s putting on the ground. Moratti, however, declined. “I think it’s right that the person who carries the liability for an operation should also be the president of the club,” he said.
He instead accepted a role as ‘honorary’ president. Moratti’s son Angelomario has been made vice-president. Their continued presence offers reassurance. So what does Thohir bring to the table? Aside from clearing Inter’s debts, he opens up new markets and new revenue streams. Covering the club’s losses wasn’t an issue for Moratti, growing its turnover was.
“This is one of the most important things we discussed with Mr Moratti and between partners,” Thohir said. “Asia is more than 2.5 billion people. Indonesia 250 million. China and India have more than a billion. We have to bring more Inter fans from those regions… In the United States there are 250 million people beginning to love what they call soccer - not football. I think we have to find Inter fans in those regions to become part of our family.”
Building a new stadium is also a priority. This issue was apparently raised in a meeting with the Mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia. The area of the city where the 2015 EXPO is due to be held, Rho, has been identified as a possible site. San Siro’s designation as the venue for the final of the 2016 Champions League final has also become a target to aim at [at least in the media’s eyes]. “I don’t know if we can win it, but with focused preparation we’ll be back in the competition soon,” Thohir insisted.
How much money will be invested in the team remains to be seen. Asked if he had any plans to sign Lionel Messi as he was leaving Inter’s training ground following a 1-0 defeat in a friendly with Chiasso, Thohir joked: “Let’s discuss with the management.” The next day, Il Corriere dello Sport’s front page headline was: “Thohir open to Messi.” He didn’t say that and will have to get used to his words being twisted.
Thohir is not an Abramovich, a Rybolovlev or a Sheikh Mansour. The expectation is that Inter will spend much like Roma have in the last couple of years. Pallotta is the first foreign owner to see his club top the table in Serie A. Thohir must aspire to be the next. It’s still taking some getting used to, Inter under new ownership. But if ever there was an Italian club founded to be globalised it is Internazionale. “We are brothers of the world,” wrote one of its founders Giorgio Muggiani on March 9, 1908. They are, indeed.