Andrea Agnelli looked skeptical, but the Juventus chairman, as usual (except when Juventus is playing, perhaps), kept his cool. It was last October and, as a speaker at the International Football Arena, a conference in Zurich, he had been asked about Inter Milan's Indonesian owner Erick Thohir, the latest non-Italian businessman to invest in a Serie A club (and one who is also an owner of MLS club D.C. United).
"We welcome everyone into this league, but it's too early to say if others might follow," he said.
Three months later, it would be fascinating to hear Agnelli's answer to the same question. Last week Inter fans planned a protest outside the club's headquarters, demanding Thohir call off a proposed swap deal that would see Juventus's out-of-favor striker Mirko Vucinic, 30, head to Inter in return for Fredy Guarin, 27, one of the team's best players.
Such was the storm that gathered on social media that Thohir relented, and, hours before the deal was due to go through, it was canceled.
"In 30 years in this business, I have never seen anything like it," Juventus sporting director Beppe Marotta said at a press conference. "If we can't say there's a lack of reliability, you can certainly talk of a lack of seriousness. I won't deal with them again."
With two days still left in this transfer window, Marotta may yet go back on his word, but the bigger picture is that Inter now looks like a club that bows to fans' pressure. Since Massimo Moratti sold 70 percent of the club to an investment group fronted by Thohir (valuing Inter at nearly half a billion dollars) last November, it has lacked a strong figurehead. In short, Inter is a club in need of a leader.
For 18 years, Moratti was that man. OK, so his decision-making was not always sound - he sifted through 20 coaching changes in those 18 years - while his habit of releasing great players to rivals became infamous. Swap deals with Milan saw Clarence Seedorf, Dario Simic and Andrea Pirlo all leave Inter in return for Francesco Coco, Umit Davala and Guly; with Juventus, it was no better, as Fabio Cannavaro left Inter going on to win two Scudetti and the World Cup. In return, Inter received Fabian Carini, who played four games for the club. It is understandable to see why the fans wanted to avoid a repeat of that.
Thohir has changed his narrative from Inter being a team ready to challenge for Champions League qualification (as he said in November) to a club in transition that requires patience. He begged Moratti to stay on as honorary president and he has. Moratti still talks to journalists far too often, and acts like a fan rather than a boss. In a way, nothing has changed. And that seems to be the problem.
Thohir has kept in place the same management structure: Marco Branca, technical director since 2003, sporting director Piero Ausilio and general manager Marco Fassone. All have come under pressure following this latest embarrassment.
"There seems to be little communication between the club and the players and the proof is in the number of contracts that are running down," wrote columnist Mario Sconcerti in Corriere della Sera. "There needs to be someone there who can represent the club totally. And the new management need to clarify their future plans with the players immediately."
Marco Tardelli, former player and coach at Inter, was more succinct: "I don't know what Thohir is trying to do, and where he wants to go," he told Gazzetta dello Sport.
On Sunday, Inter travels to Turin to face Juventus in what has become known as the Derby d'Italia. It is one of Italy's biggest grudge matches, and its history is littered with controversy - from the pitch invasion in 1961 that forced a replay for which Inter, in protest, fielded youth players and lost 9-1; to the 1998 title decider when Juventus was awarded a penalty and Inter denied a clear one, which led to a suspension in Italian parliament after two deputies fought over the game.
Inter is in fifth place, already 23 points behind leader Juventus. During January, focus has been on Thohir and the failed market moves - Alvaro Pereira's loan to São Paulo has been the only activity so far, though Italian paper Corriere dello Sport Wednesday said Danilo D'Ambrosio would join, Hernanes and Vucinic also possible, with Andrea Ranocchia and Guarin likely to leave - and there is sympathy for coach Walter Mazzarri, who has insisted the players are still behind him and that the recruitment is a red herring.
"We need to focus on the players, not the ones that aren't here. I am working on new tactics with the players and this takes patience," Mazzarri said at a press conference.
Thohir's generosity toward Moratti can be admired, but it has come at a price. You might say the new owner is damned either way, but he has surely seen enough in the last three months to realize that a management overhaul is the best solution if he wants Inter to challenge for the Scudetto anytime soon.
It has been reported that a delay in receiving bank guarantees has prevented Thohir from making structural changes at the club (another reason for this week's trip to Milan). The sooner that is resolved, the sooner Thohir can get out his broom and start sweeping.