Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Got, Got, Need – Do Inter Milan’s Swap Deals Ever Work?

Posted on 16 March 2021 by Nakul Pande
Image: Kevin Dieckmann/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Few big clubs like a swap deal as much as Inter Milan.

Swaps are rarely the simple Panini-sticker-style exercise of popular imagination, but they have been a remarkably common feature of the Nerazzuri’s recent history.

We’ll go on to unpick the mechanics of player-for-player trades – but first, let’s lay out the case.

Swapping Yourself In The Foot
Inter’s love of a swap deal dates way back to the boom days of Italian football, when Serie A ruled Europe and James Richardson ruled the ratings.

It went well enough in 1994, when Inter brought in Italian number one Gianluca Pagliuca from Sampdoria.

In return, Sampdoria got Walter Zenga, still a solid keeper even though Pagliuca had replaced him as first choice goalkeeper for the Azzurri.

But many of the Nerazzurri’s attempts at playing the game of ‘Got, Got, Need’ have been nightmarish failures.

Remarkably, within 12 months in the early 2000s, they managed to trade a world-class midfielder to neighbour-rivals AC Milan not once but twice.

Andrea Pirlo had by 2001 only shown glimpses of the player he would go on to become. But, as Roberto Baggio can testify, those glimpses were magnificent.

Not magnificent enough for then-Inter chairman Massimo Moratti, however, and off went Pirlo to join Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan.

In return, Inter got Dražen Brnčić, who didn’t play a single game for them, and Andrés Guglielminpietro, who played only eight more games than his name has letters.

If Inter traded away a mere potential star in Pirlo, a year later they managed to simultaneously lose an undisputed great and set up the heart of the last great Milan team.

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Clarence Seedorf, already a double Champions League winner, went on to combine with Pirlo in a midfield that helped the Rossoneri to two more Champions Leagues and two Scudetti.

The trade-off? Francesco Coco, who played more games in one year on loan at Livorno than he managed in five at Inter.

To add injury to insult, Inter so mismanaged Coco’s back injury that he spent two years out of the game when he had initially been told he would miss only a month.

‘Thank You For Selling Roberto Carlos’
Inter have come out on the wrong side of a few other swaps.

In 1999, they traded Diego Simeone, described by Gabriele Marcotti as ‘the soul of the club’, for the shiny bauble of then-world-record signing Christian Vieri.

A few years later Vieri, surely the only Italian international whose childhood sporting hero was Allan Border, spent an entire year refusing to celebrate when he scored.

But no deal has so haunted the blue side of the San Siro than when, in 1996, Roberto Carlos left for Real Madrid with Iván Zamorano plus £4.5m coming the other way.

There’s a reason then-Inter boss Roy Hodgson has never been forgiven for his part in the Brazilian’s departure transfer.

Even for the time, and even with a good striker in Zamorano arriving, £4.5m was a pittance for a player of Roberto Carlos’ rare gifts.

The Brazilian could, as legendary former Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque put it, ‘cover the whole wing all on his own.’

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He won three Champions Leagues and four La Ligas at the Santiago Bernabéu, and revolutionised the role of the full-back.

Zamorano was not a failure at Inter, and his partnership with O Fenômeno Ronaldo and Baggio was at times breathtaking.

However, he only won a single UEFA Cup in his time at San Siro, and is perhaps best remembered for being so reluctant to give up his number 9 shirt that he wore 1+8.

But in one heady mix of financial skulduggery and warring personalities, Inter undoubtedly won – and left a European great with egg on their face.

Winning The War Of Egos
Pep Guardiola and Samuel Eto’o did not get on at Barcelona from the very beginning. It was only Xavi’s intervention that kept Eto’o at the club for the 2008-09 season.

Coach and striker alike were driven enough that they made it work, and spectacularly so.

Eto’o scored 36 goals, combining thrillingly with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry as Barcelona stormed to the treble.

Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be Guardiola, but even so, the solution Barcelona came up with was baffling.

For all of his wearisome bluster, Zlatan Ibrahimović was and is a remarkable footballer. 

But even taking into account the labyrinthine details of the trade, it beggars belief that Barcelona felt the Swede was worth paying Inter €49.5m and giving away Eto’o, valued at a further €20m.

Eto’o was not someone to take even a minor slight lying down. And if ever there were a manager who could put that anger to good use, it was Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho somehow convinced Eto’o to play left wing, sometimes effectively left wing-back, and the Cameroonian once again became a key part of a treble-winning team.

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Ibrahimović scored his share of goals, but he was not a good fit, and by the time Barcelona and Inter met in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final he and Guardiola were barely on speaking terms.

That tie,
volcano and all, has gone down in history as the ultimate clash of footballing philosophies, and one of the great defensive performances.

Symbolically, Eto’o ended as an auxiliary right-back as Inter repelled wave after wave of Barcelona attacks, while a peripheral Ibrahimović ran only 400m more than his own goalkeeper.

Eto’o is still an Inter legend. Ibrahimović ended up being paid to leave and being replaced at great expense by David Villa – who, admittedly, worked out pretty well at Camp Nou.

Swaps Aren’t Really Swaps
It’s hard enough to balance the needs of two clubs, a player and representatives without throwing another party into the mix.

But swap deals do happen, not just to Inter, and they usually happen for reasons more about balance sheets than teamsheets.

As 90min senior writer and UK editor Chris Deeley explains, swap deals may be complicated, but when they work they are financial godsends.

“You can put through, for example, a deal for a player who might normally go for €40m swapped for one who might normally go for €30m,” Deeley explains.

“You can, between you, call that a sale of €70m and a purchase of €60m, because the actual value of the players doesn’t make much difference [as long as] it’s still vaguely plausible in the market.”

And, crucially, the fee paid and fee received show up differently on clubs’ accounts.

While fees received go on the books in one go, the cost of an incoming player transfer is spread over the length of their contract.

This is called amortisation, and while it is a universal accounting practice across all sorts of businesses, it is crucial to understanding why clubs like swap deals despite their complexity.

Deeley uses the Miralem Pjanic-for-Arthur swap between Juventus and Barcelona to illustrate: “Rather than them just ‘swapping’ the players when they’re accounting the deals, they count as a €70m sale [in which all the money is added in one] and a €60m purchase [which is accounted over the course of the player’s initial contract].”

“So for accounting purposes, your immediate accounts go up €70m for an initial €15m outgoing, and then [further outgoings of] €15m a year for the next three years.”

In the era of Financial Fair Play, and with COVID-19 biting into budgets, clubs may need much more such creativity to leave year-end financial statements looking healthier.

Sticker books at the ready, everyone – but beware the lure of the shiny.