“That Inter was a very strong team, full of very good and clever players. I have only two regrets: with two more great defenders, we could have been one of the best teams in the world; the other is that I never met (referee Piero) Ceccarini…”
Gigi Simoni was the coach of Inter in 1998 when Ceccerani was at the centre of the most famous and discussed Juventus-Inter meeting in Italian football history.
Juve were top of the table and had booked their place in the Champions League final, with a young Alessandro Del Piero leading the line.
Inter, with the newly-crowned World Player of the Year Ronaldo de Lima up front, were a point behind and in the UEFA Cup final. In an era of Serie A dominance, these were the two outstanding teams.
Juve had taken an early lead through Alessandro Del Piero, but the defining moment of the game came in the second half when, in the space of just 15 seconds, Ronaldo was denied a clear-cut penalty after a foul by Mark Iuliano before Juve broke down the other end and won a spot-kick of their own when Del Piero was taken out by Taribo West.
Two decades on, Massimo Moratti still speaks of the Scudetto Inter ‘won’ that season.
Simoni is more diplomatic, but the pain of that defeat in Turin clearly still remains.
“I don’t know if we would have won that league, but I am sure they didn’t allow us to compete,” he says. “There were too many strange events that year, but it is not worth it to look back now.
“The only thing I didn’t like is that Ceccarini never admitted he was wrong, he always defended himself despite the fact the situation was very clear. I don’t blame him, because being a referee is not easy, but I can’t forgive him.
“If after 20 years we are still talking about that match, it’s clear that something wrong happened. Once I was in Los Angeles and some fans stopped me to talk about that penalty. Imagine that, in Los Angeles. That event will remain in Italian football history.”
The psychological effect of losing to Juve was clear: Inter won only one of their remaining three Serie A games and ultimately finished five points behind Juve as the Bianconeri claimed their 25th Scudetto.
Ceccarini’s mistake cost Simoni more than most. Despite delivering the UEFA Cup, he was sacked after just a few months of the following season, less than a week after a superb 3-1 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League, and remarkably on the same day as he won the Golden Bench award for being the best coach in Italy, as voted for by his counterparts.
“We were just one point behind Juventus and that match was decisive: I am sure that we could have won that Scudetto and then I could have worked more than just one year and some months with Inter. This is my biggest regret.”
During the press conference for the launch of Simoni’s autobiography (Simoni si nasce, Goal Book Edizioni), Massimo Moratti admitted he got it wrong in sacking the Inter coach in 1998.
“I thought we had a very strong team,” Moratti said, “which, in my opinion, wasn’t playing well enough, but I underrated Simoni’s importance, and, in fact, the season was a nightmare after his sack.”
“I never had any resentment against Moratti, I can’t, I’ll always thank him for giving me the opportunity to train a so strong team,” Simoni says.
“Being the coach of players like Ronaldo, (Javier) Zanetti, (Diego) Simeone, (Iván) Zamorano and (Roberto) Baggio was worth more than being sacked.
“I’ve always known that Moratti was wrong, that dismissal was inexplicable to me but also to the fans, so I was not sorry for that, because I was sure I did a great job.
“It could be even greater, I know, but not everything depended on us. And the following season when I went back to San Siro as Piacenza’s coach, all Inter fans welcomed me with a standing ovation. They understood that we did our best and that the sacking was unfair.
“I never asked Moratti why he sacked me, but I know he realised he was wrong, even if he never said it to me directly, because in the following year he contacted me, he invited me to his parties. We had – and we still have – a good relationship and I am proud of that.
“I am very proud of what I did in my career, but also of the good relationship I had with all my players, presidents and managers I worked with – we are still friends nowadays.”
Many of those friends – Moratti, Andrea Pirlo, Giuseppe Bergomi, Zanetti and lots more – were at the book launch.
“Pirlo arrived directly from USA to be there and we worked together only six months. There was Nicola Berti, who was at Inter with me but never played that season. That explains the feeling among us in that team, even the players who didn’t play so much were very committed and motivated.
“I always said training that Inter team was the easiest experience of my career because it was full of wonderful champions but above all wonderful men. Before coming to Inter, everybody warned me: ‘You’ll see, it is a nightmare over there’. But, for me, it was like to be in heaven.”
Speaking at the book launch, Moratti praised Simoni for that togetherness he fostered, and in particular the way he handled Ronaldo after his transfer from Barcelona.
“In that year we felt a winning mentality, there was a happy atmosphere and the climate of a really great team,” Moratti said.
“We had Ronaldo, who was fantastic, but Simoni managed to introduce him into a team without creating any sense of jealousy in the others. Everyone was happy to play with him.”
That is not to say, however, that Ronaldo did not receive any special treatment.
“Ronaldo was our leader and we treated him as he deserved to be treated,” Simoni says. “He was not a primadonna, but everybody knew he was special and that he could bring us to the top, so everybody supported him.
“There was not any kind of envy among the other players towards Ronaldo, also because he was so friendly: I never saw him blaming some team-mates for a bad pass, he always was in a positive mood. He was a model for everybody in and outside the pitch.
“I never thought that all players should be managed in the same way if someone is special – and Ronaldo was exceptional.
“I never asked him to run, he just needed to train and play with the ball, someone else would have run for him. And his team-mates were glad to do that because they knew to be part of a strong team with a genius on the top.”
Ronaldo, of course, was not the only fuoriclasse in that Inter team.
“I’d like to talk about Zanetti, a very intelligent player, but also Simeone, (Youri) Djorkaeff, Zamorano.
“Unfortunately, Baggio was injured quite often, but when he played, he showed all of his talent. After Ronaldo, he is the best player I’ve ever worked with. And then Simeone, a leader, and Zamorano, the soul of that team.
“I remember when I met Diego Pablo some years after in his house, he showed me a big book in which he wrote down all the strategies and training session of his former trainers.
“He was crazy for Marcelo Bielsa, he loved him so much that he knew everything about him.
“It’s not a surprise he is one of the best coaches in the world now because he already was a coach on the pitch.
“And I still remember how Zamorano incited the team before going on the pitch, every match was like a war for him, but it was not only a matter of determination, because he was a very good player too.
“Baggio always had some problems with his former trainers but not with me. In his book he said that it was because I always explained my reasons to him when he wasn’t in the starting line-up. By the way, it was an easy decision for me: if he was OK, he would have played.
“We are still very close friends, we’ve had dinner together in the past and we’ll try to meet as soon as we can.”
Simoni is known in Italy as L’allenatore gentiluomo, which means ‘The gentleman coach’, but he doesn’t like the nickname: “You can’t be always a gentleman in your life, otherwise you’ll never reach your target, even more in football.
“Probably in my career I was too much of a gentleman.
“But I am very proud to have done what I did always respecting the rules, never looking for shortcuts or without being managed by an agent. That’s why I probably earned less than I deserved (he laughs).
“By the way, I don’t care about that, because fans’ love is priceless. And I don’t talk just about Inter fans, because wherever I go, I always find some football fans greeting me. And this is worth more than a Scudetto.”
More than 60 years spent in (and for) football, leaving records and memories which will remain unforgettable.
Thank you Mister Simoni, allenatore gentiluomo. Because being a gentleman could never be a fault.