The fourth official had already signalled the three minutes of added time when Julio grabbed hold of the ball. I knew that we’d done it. I started to cry. The rollercoaster of emotions, of hardships, memories and suffering, it had all finally come to an end. I turned around and said to Walter: “We’ve won, it’s ours.”
Walter didn't bat an eyelid: "There's still three minutes left, play the game."
Time. I learned to measure it, to weigh it, to feel it inside me. Three minutes. Three minutes or 5,382 days? Since Inter vs. Vicenza at the Bernabeu in ’95. The final whistle made that time stretch out, compress together, and then explode. In my heart and in the hearts of millions of Inter fans.
Are your efforts worth less if you lose? No.
Did I put in less work in training, less intensity, if the victories didn't come? No.
Have I ever failed to put in all of my effort or energy? Have I ever backed down? No.
On the evening of the Champions League Derby against AC Milan I got home to Paula, distraught. It had been two weeks of unspeakable tension. At Appiano Gentile, in Milan, among people on the street, with friends, everywhere: the only thing on my mind was those two games. Two draws, elimination. We’d left everything out there on the pitch. Everything. We had already experienced big disappointments, but the feeling of regret that night was deep and painful.
But I’ve always been a positive person, the kind of captain who tries to convey a clear message to all of his teammates: hard work pays off. And it’s in difficult times that you need to go again. We don’t give up. Training after training, sprint after sprint: persevere, fall down and improve. Give your all, always. Is it hard to remember that in those moments? No, I’ve always believed it. Firmly.
You know that phrase: winning helps you win again? When Ivan Cordoba lifted the Coppa Italia in 2005, it was like a Champions League trophy for us. Something important started there, an awareness: we were on the right path, one that could last for some time: for seasons, years. The day comes where you say: ok, now I don’t want to lose anymore. And in fact we went to Turin and won the Italian Super Cup, in a game that felt like it would never end.
Stoppage time always seems to run slower when you’re winning, while it flies like the wind when you need a comeback. But if you keep on believing until the end, even the smallest of instants are enough. Against Sampdoria we managed to turn it all around in less than six minutes. Goal, ball on the centre spot. Goal, ball on the centre spot. Goal. Nothing is impossible.
And then it happens that time stops. There were four minutes to play in the game away to Siena on 16 May, and it took less than two seconds for Alejandro Rosi’s cross-cum-shot to leave his boot and sail past the back post, brushing against it on the way. I worked it out: one second and eight milliseconds. Julio Cesar didn’t move, we were all frozen. I turned to Maicon and saw him lifeless. He put his hands to his face, my heart began to beat again. The ball went out of play.
That was a final too, just like all the games in the final month of that season. Even just to get there, we had to get through... Kiev. I can still hear José’s words in the dressing room at half-time: “We’re out of the Champions League.” We risked everything. Chivu off, Balotelli on. Cambiasso off, Thiago Motta on. And then Samuel off, Muntari on. We finished that game with just two players in central defence: Lucio and yours truly. But it was a sign: we were a team ready to take risks, ready to give everything right until the end. One moment we were out, the next Mourinho was running onto the pitch to embrace Julio.
I however was running to hug my teammates on the bench after the goals. I always thought that those who play the least are the most important in the group, always ready to help you in your times of need.
The closer it came to May 2010, the more we felt like Formula 1 drivers: we couldn’t get a single corner wrong. We were always playing, training was a chance to keep our focus high. I could always sleep the nights before games, others, like Cambiasso, had much more difficulty sleeping.
I have so many snapshot memories of that game in Madrid that light up my face, a bit like when I raised the trophy itself. When we came out to warm up and I saw the Inter fans, I could hardly believe it: there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. I said to myself: they’re here for us, we can’t let them down. They showed me pictures of Milan in the post-match interview. The Piazza del Duomo was full, the people filled the streets and were going crazy with joy. It moved me, because I realised that my happiness, the happiness of all of my teammates, was second to the joy of our Nerazzurri people.
Have you ever seen a stadium open and full of people at dawn? I think that San Siro was the most extraordinary example in history. We landed in Milan and went to take the trophy straight to the Meazza. The fans waited for us until six in the morning. It still gives me chills, they’ll never go away. It was pure joy: nothing tangible, just a genuine embrace. Just being able to say: yes, it’s finally ours. Coming home was an endeavour in itself, with the wings of the crowd escorting our cars.
I’ve always admired the resilience of Nerazzurri fans, their ability to be close to you as a player. The empathy, ever since I arrived, was just natural. Inter fans are special: always there, pushing you, with a depth of feeling which is well out of the ordinary. That’s also why when I tore my Achilles tendon in Palermo, while they were taking me back into the dressing room, I thought: ok, I’ll undergo surgery in a few days, then I’ll start my rehabilitation and in a few months I’ll be back on the pitch. I owe it to myself and to the Nerazzurri people, we have to say a proper goodbye.
I was 39 years old. A lot of people thought my career had reached its end that day. I’d never suffered an injury that bad, but I wasn’t scared, I didn’t make any drama. I got back to work, step by step, all the way until Inter vs. Livorno, my return to the pitch less than 200 days after the injury. The roar that welcomed me that day made all of my final efforts worth it. Once I was back in the dressing room I said: ok, this will be my final season.
Time and love have formed both the axes and ordinates that plot the trajectory of my life. I married Paula, who I knew from when she used to play for my neigbourhood basketball team back when we were kids. I loved football even before that, from when I used to chase the ball on those clay pitches in Argentina, screaming out the commentary of my dreams: the National Team, Serie A. I used to fantasise, but I also wanted to repay the sacrifices my parents had made for me. I’ve managed to realise that lesson from my family in the Fundacion Pupi with Paula: an attempt to give a better future to many children.
I have three children of my own: Sol, Ignacio and Tomas. On some of these days we spend the afternoons together on the sofa, rewatching games from 2010. We were watching our 2-0 win in the Derby a few days ago, and I said to Tomy, who never really saw me play: “Watch what Milito’s doing now,” or “check out this free kick from Pandev.” And then we all hug. He’s eight years old, he’s studying our history.
That’s important, fundamental. I carry it with me every day in whatever I do. I arrived in 1995 with my football boots in a plastic bag, and now I’m Vice President of this Club. It’s an extraordinary journey, but one brings with it great responsibility. I’ve studied, put my heart into, used my experience and knowledge in dealing with everything that passes over my desk. It’s more complicated than when I had to chase after a ball, but it’s enormous: I still have the chance to work on building the future of this Club firsthand.
I try to do it with fixed stars to look up to: the Nerazzurri fans, our history, the Nerazzurri shirt, the suffering and the joy we’ve experienced. I’m focused on the future, I want it to be beautiful for us Inter fans.
Let’s continue building it, together.