Had Nemanja Vidic known the David Moyes era would end sooner rather than later, perhaps he would still be a Manchester United player. Instead, the 32-year-old is already preparing to face his past. United are in Washington D.C. to participate in the Guinness Champions Cup. Their former captain is there too, but with Inter Milan, his new club.
The move was announced at the beginning of March. Vidic had entered the final year of his contract at Old Trafford, but an offer of an extension wasn't forthcoming. He didn't adhere to Moyes' philosophy. So Vidic made the decision to leave. He couldn't unmake it after the manager was sacked in late April, having already given his word to Inter, inking his signature to a three-year contract. But what if he could do it all again with the benefit of hindsight? Would he have chosen to remain in red?
"It's not an easy question to answer," he told the Daily Telegraph's Mark Ogden in May. When asked whether that meant yes, Vidic replied: "It is not a yes. I am trying to answer it properly. Sometimes you don't make a decision instantly, especially one like this. You have to think about it. Is it the right thing to do? Sometimes there are many reasons. If I am going to do something. I ask myself why. If there are more than two reasons to do it, I think it is time to change."
One of them was presumably a curiosity about playing in Serie A. "I nearly came to Italy 12 years ago," Vidic explained at his unveiling, "but clearly it was my destiny to come now." Fiorentina in particular have never forgotten how close they were to signing him in the winter of 2005. The Viola had an agreement with Vidic when suddenly United entered the frame and he backed out of it. Pantaleo Corvino, their ex-director of sport and the talent scout who discovered Mirko Vucinic (at Lecce), then Stevan Jovetic and Matija Nastasic, still thinks of him as the one who got away.
Returning to the present, Vidic was the first high-profile arrival under Inter's new owner Erick Thohir. The Indonesian entrepreneur had initially come under a lot of pressure over his failure to make a statement signing in the January transfer window. "Thohir where are the acquisitions?" asked Il Corriere dello Sport. Inter's offer to exchange Fredy Guarin, a player many considered to be their best, for an out-of-favour and unfit Vucinic with rivals Juventus had led fans to demonstrate in the streets. That pressure infamously prompted Inter to withdraw from negotiations. The supporters had made the club see sense. But Thohir lost face and credibility within the game and did not inspire great confidence among Interisti.
To recover it and win them back, Inter changed strategy. After insisting they needed to sell to buy, out of nowhere Inter found the 20 million euros required to bring Lazio midfielder Hernanes to San Siro. They then rushed forward the Vidic announcement. It meant Inter fans had something to tide them over for the present as well as something to look forward to.
But the reaction to the Vidic move was mixed in the media. On one hand, he was a big name secured without big investment, a shrewd operation. On the other, the fear was that Inter had signed an injury-prone player now in decline. Since suffering a serious knee injury against FC Basel on Dec. 7, 2011, Vidic had missed 56 of the 100 Premier League matches United played. Approaching his 33rd birthday, he appeared to have lost mobility and was vulnerable on the turn.
NEMANJA VIDIC - FACTS AND FIGURES
Born: Oct. 21,1981 - Titovo Uzice, Yugoslavia
Clubs: Red Star Belgrade, Spartak Subotica, Spartak Moscow, Manchester United, Internazionale
Major honours: English Premier League (5), Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup, League Cup (3)
Individual: Serbian Player of the Year ('05,'08), Premier League Team of the Year ('07,'08,'09,'11), FIFPro World XI ('09,'11)
International: 56 caps and two goals for Serbia
While Vidic would be missed at Old Trafford, it looked like his best days were behind him. This was not another Jaap Stam, a case of United letting a top-class defender go too early. Besides, the Netherlands international was only 29 and still at his peak when he was sold to Lazio. It seemed unlikely then that Vidic would be as transformative a free transfer as Andrea Pirlo had been when he left AC Milan for Juventus three years ago. Different position. Different influence, granted. But that Bosman is the one by which all others are judged in Italy these days.
Still, Vidic felt that Italian football would suit his game. Playing in a three-man defence for the time being means there's an extra centre-back to cover. Take his performance during Inter's encouraging win over Real Madrid (on penalties) on Saturday as an example. At one stage, Gareth Bale was running at the Nerazzurri's defence. Vidic came out to meet him and misjudged his challenge. Bale flew past. It wasn't a fatal mistake, however, as Andrea Ranocchia was on hand to sweep up.
Although Vidic has no experience of it, this system is why there's belief he can be a success at Inter. It compensates for his lack of pace, which speedsters like Juan Cuadrado, Jonathan Biabiany and Victor Ibarbo -- to name but a few -- could all expose. Udinese's new assistant coach, Deki Stankovic, an Inter legend and former teammate of Vidic's at international level, revealed to La Gazzetta dello Sport that he had told his friend: "Nema, in Italy there is great attention to detail when it comes to organisation and tactics. For years you have faced the best strikers in the world in one-on-ones with a motorway of space behind you. Here you will play with a cigarette in your mouth."
Though it is admittedly still early days, it must be said that Vidic impressed discreetly in the friendly with a makeshift Real. He was a handful in the opposition penalty area, offering Inter a reminder -- if they needed it -- of the threat he can pose from set pieces. Nearly five years ago now the Serb memorably headed in a corner against them as United knocked Inter out of the Champions League. He is still a warrior. "You've seen 'Braveheart,' right?" asked Stankovic. "I don't know how many times I've said to him: 'Nema, think about your health.' He's broken his nose and opened up his forehead so many times by throwing himself here, there and everywhere without thinking about the consequences."
That spirit is required at Inter. The team needs leaders now that the clan degli Argentini -- comprising Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito and Walter Samuel -- has gone. Ranocchia may have been given Javier Zanetti's armband, but responsibility is spread throughout the team. "We are all captains," is one of his early mottos. Vidic will be more than most. He's a natural and knows no other way.
Humble -- "First of all I have to earn my place in the team!" he recently said -- Vidic hasn't hidden his ambition. Inter haven't won anything since 2011. He wants to change that. "When I moved to Manchester United they hadn't won the title for three years -- there too it was a new project." It will likely take longer for Inter to get back into contention for the Scudetto than it did United for the Premier League back then. Meeting them again so soon will be an emotional occasion, even for someone Stankovic describes as "colder than me." One wonders what Vidic will make of this United. They're playing a back three under Louis van Gaal like he is at Inter. Perhaps there really was still a future for him at Old Trafford. Now, though, it's at San Siro.
Vidic's new fans are convinced he can make them competitive again. They have adapted Julius Caesar's famous saying for him: "Veni, Vidi[c], Vici." I came, I saw, I conquered. It's some claim. The question is: can he live up to it?