It’s October 2014 and Inter Coach Walter Mazzarri is talking to the Press before a defeat to Fiorentina. “I’d tell you what is happening within the team right now, but whatever I say will be interpreted as an excuse. I have been through this many times before. Believe me the less I say, the better.”
A month later and he was gone, with few bidding him bon voyage. It was the first dismissal of his career. As he prepares to welcome his former club on the Torino bench, there will be no love lost from either side.
In any relationship that ends in tatters, there are two sides to every tale. From Mazzarri’s perspective, the club was not in a good place when he arrived, the ownership and strategy were changing as Erick Thohir was in discussions with Massimo Moratti about buying a 70% stake in the club and from the off it was clear that the new ownership preferred their own man in charge.
It is also true that the players the now 57-year old Coach had to work with at that time were far from elite. Fans of the Nerazzurri still wake up in cold sweats remembering the likes of Hugo Campagnaro, Rene Krhin, Gaby Mundingayi, Ishak Belfodil, Ruben Botta and the infamous Zdravko Kuzmanovic. One could argue that a hybrid of Helenio Herrera and Pep Guardiola would have struggled to get a tune out of these players.
Every corner of San Siro felt colder and greyer in these times, the frustration was everywhere. The man who had set Napoli on their way to becoming what they are today, playing a brand of cavalier football, was now reduced to answering questions on how the Partenopei (on the fixture horizon) might be the nail in his coffin.
In fairness, the appointment had seemed doomed from day one. La Gazzetta Dello Sport had never helped matters, claiming that Mazzarri, whose brief was simply to bring stability to the club after the Andrea Stramaccioni tenure, was a man who divided opinion. They claimed at the time this success at Napoli had been circumstantial and the assembly of players meant that most credible Coaches could have achieved a great deal with them.
In fairness to Mazzarri, the Tuscan Coach performed reasonably well under the conditions. They qualified for the Europa League, finishing fifth albeit with a 43.8%-win rate and 15 draws to boot. His away form was also terrible and with one win and a defeat in the Derby Della Madonnina, his mediocre image was being formed. Even so Thohir was patient, as the only form of entertainment seemed to be Dani Osvaldo (both on and off the field), but it was becoming painfully clear that it would take more than Mazzarri’s frantic biting of water bottles on the touch line, yes that happened, to restore Inter to the upper echelons of Champions League football.
In 2014 it all spiralled out of control. Despite a seven-goal thrashing of Sassuolo, defeats to Cagliari and Fiorentina plus horrendous mistakes in the Torino and Palermo games proved damaging. The Coach showed stubbornness to stick with a 3-5-2 formation that clearly wasn’t working. For a man who was so dramatic and vocal on the touchline, it was unbelievable how little the players listened. In the end they parted company and it would be fair to say that Coach, club and fans all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
When Inter travel to Torino this weekend to face Mazzarri, it will give them mixed feelings. They will certainly think that their current situation, ownership, playing squad and relationship between board and Coach are much better than the dark days of 2014. Mazzarri will also be thankful that he is now progressing well with Torino in a better environment, as one only needs to look to Gian Piero Gasperini’s progress with Atalanta these days to release Inter wasn’t a good place to be post-2010.
The reunion will be a cold yet polite one, bad memories exist on both sides. Despite frustrations this season, they can look at their projects and be proud of where they are this term. The lesson of the story is that monumentally bad situations in football are always linked to more than one failing element - and nothing good comes from starting Zdravko Kuzmanovic.