Nicknamed “Il Toro” (The Bull) for his perfect blend of power and pace, Christian Vieri was the face of Inter for half a decade. However, he is frequently overlooked in the annals of history. One might think that scoring 103 goals in 143 appearances for one of Europe’s top clubs would be hard to forget. Unfortunately, great individual efforts often take a back seat to a team’s overall accomplishments. Inter were not one of Europe’s top clubs during his tenure with the club. What Vieri achieved, perhaps unknowingly at the time, was keep Inter on the cusp of Serie A’s elite. Without him, a life of mid-table mediocrity would surely have not been out of the question. This is the story of one of Inter’s most unsung heroes.
Christain Vieri came to Inter right ahead of the millennium. Inter manager Marcello Lippi was familiar with Vieri from their time together at Juventus. Vieri had also caught the eye of Inter chairman Massimo Moratti. Inter would pay Lazio a record fee of €49 million for the player in 1999. This immediately placed immense pressure on Vieri to help lift the club back to greatness.
Inter finished the 1998-99 season in eighth place in the Italian top flight. That season was full of promise. The club already had the world’s arguably best striker in the form of Brazilian legend Ronaldo. The club went through four managers that season and Ronaldo simply could not stay fit, missing nearly half of Inter’s league matches due to injury. Vieri was to be the insurance policy.
As Inter’s title drought had now passed the ten year mark, supporters of the club were growing restless. Adding Vieri to the squad gave Inter perhaps the best scoring duo in the world at the time. He was a pacey forward who simultaneously possessed good strength and excellent technique. His ability to assist his teammates in the build-up play made him an unbelievable asset for Lippi.
In many ways, Vieri was the complete forward. He was a lethal finisher in front of goal, though, was equally skilled at finding an open teammate for the easy tap-in. The Vieri-Ronaldo connection, as well as the tactical genius of Marcello Lippi, would surely guarantee Inter’s first Scudetto since 1989 and see the club have sustained success in all competitions for the first time since the days of “Grande Inter.”
The kryptonite to building chemistry within a team is not having the necessary components on the pitch together for any length of time. This was the story of Ronaldo and Christian Vieri during their three years together at the club. When Ronaldo actually played, he was magnificent. He was a world class, once-in-a-generation striker that could score with the utmost ease. Ronaldo rarely played, however. In four seasons with Inter he managed to see the pitch a mere 68 times. Inter would eventually be forced to move on without him.
Inter improved upon their disastrous 1998-99 season with a fourth place finish during Vieri’s debut campaign. Vieri managed to score a team-best 13 goals in his 19 league appearances. Lippi was building a solid foundation, but key injuries continued to plague the squad. Now, it was Vieri’s fitness that had come into question, especially considering his large price tag. Untimely injuries, not poor form, had drowned Inter’s title hopes again.
The club’s front office did not necessarily agree with the sentiment that injuries, and not poor management, were preventing Inter from achieving it’s goals. After a season-opening defeat to Reggina on October 1st, 2000, Marcello Lippi was sacked. He was replaced by Marco Tardelli who achieved inconsistent results and would not be retained at the conclusion of the 2000-01 season.
Though Inter stumbled to a fifth place finish in 2001, Vieri enjoyed a successful season as the undisputed leader of the Nerazzurri attack. He netted a team-high 18 goals in 27 league appearances and was quickly becoming the face of the club. Though, it was under the leadership of Inter’s next manager, Hector Cuper, that the world would see Vieri blossom into a superstar.
Inter’s 2001-02 season saw them compete for the Scudetto until the bitter end. The team famously lost the league title to hated rivals Juventus after a 4-2 defeat to Lazio on the final match day. The end result of this campaign, while tough to endure, gave hope to the supporters of the club that their Nerazzurri had turned the corner and were on the verge of something truly special. Christian Vieri had nearly shot Inter to the league title with his astonishing 22 goals in 25 appearances.
Cuper preferred a more disciplined system at Inter, but more importantly, it was one in which Vieri flourished. In the season that followed, Vieri formed an attacking partnership with Hernan Crespo that saw Inter score the most goals in Serie A (64, tied with Juventus). Unfortunately, the Nerazzurri defense was not on equal footing with the attack. Despite Vieri’s efforts, (24 goals in 23 appearances) and winning the 2002-03 Capocannoniere, Inter could only muster a runners-up finish in the league.
In their return to the Champions League, Inter were nearly successful at booking their trip to the final. In a series of unfortunate events, Christian Vieri was injured in the second leg of Inter’s quarter-final triumph over Valencia. He was therefore a non-factor as Inter were knocked out of the competition by their arch-rivals Milan in the semi-finals. This defeat was particularly agonizing, as the two sides finished level at one goal a piece at the conclusion of both legs. Inter were eliminated due to the away goals rule. Many saw the past two seasons as massive opportunities wasted. The loyal supporters of the club would have to wait another year for a chance at glory.
Only a season into his Inter career, it was decided that Hernan Crespo would be sold to Chelsea. This did not sit well with Christian Vieri. Additionally, after two missed chances at winning the Scudetto, the squad’s performance would take a dip as the 2003-04 season got underway. Hector Cuper would be sacked only six match days into the new campaign as Inter found themselves in eighth place in the league table.
Though Vieri would again lead the team in goals during the 2003-04 season, he did not get along with the club’s new manager Alberto Zaccheroni. Despite his goal output, there was a noticeable difference in Vieri’s demeanor. His heart was not fully in it. He appeared in 22 matches and scored 13 goals for the Nerazzurri during the 2003-04 season, which saw Inter fall back to fourth place in the final league table.
Roberto Mancini would take over for Alberto Zaccheroni as Inter manager prior to the 2004-05 season. This would be Christian Vieri’s final season in the colors of the Nerazzurri. Mancini would deploy a two-pronged attack with Vieri and Adriano leading the front line. The duo would combine for 29 goals (Vieri – 13, Adriano – 16) in what would be the Serie A’s second most prolific attack that season.
Adriano’s team-leading 16 league goals in 2004-05 ended a streak of five consecutive seasons in which Christian Vieri topped the Inter scoring list. As previously stated, individual efforts are often forgotten in lieu of team accomplishments.
In Vieri’s entire time at Inter, the club he played at the longest over the course of his successful career, he never won the Scudetto. In fact, he only won a single trophy during his Inter tenure, the Coppa Italia, which came in his final season at the club.
Inter and Vieri decided after the 2004-05 season to mutually part ways, terminating his contract. Though Vieri was never able to deliver a league title to the Nerazzurri faithful, his amazing individual achievements should never be discarded, nor forgetten. He remains to this day, one of the greatest players to ever play for Inter Milan.
Sadly for Vieri, the season after his departure Inter would go on a run of five consecutive Serie A titles, culminating in a treble-winning season in 2009-10. Timing is everything. For Ronaldo, Crespo, and certainly for Christian Vieri, the timing simply wasn’t right.
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