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The long wait for glory

The media's unexplainable passion for numbers has a way of obscuring even consideration for the deepest feelings of legions of fans. Yes, Inter last won a European Cup back in 1965; yes, the last time they were in a final was in 1972, when they did a poor job of impersonating an opponent against a beautiful Ajax side. But it could have been any length of time and it would have made little difference to the fans.

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For Inter supporters believe their club's status warrants the top European trophy every few years, so even a 10-year drought must seem unbearable. Of course, one can mention ten European sides whose followers harbour similar, anxious expectations, although at least a couple of them would do well to win a long-awaited national title first.

Reality, sadly, often throws itself in the path of such self-entitlement. Reality says no club is guaranteed a trophy unless it finds a way to either build patiently - a rarity today, when even fourth place in the league means you take out the champagne - or find the exact combination of one-year wonders, great coaching and a bit of luck.

As paradoxes go, pre-school kids may be able to yell: "I've been waiting 38 years for this", as the exquisite TV commercial by SkySports Italy reminded us at all hours this week, but its creators struck a nerve. In a time when it seems asking "what have you done for me lately?" takes too long to deserve a reply, perception of a trophy-drought gets blown up in such a way that even children may feel one year equals 38.

Since Inter knocked out Barcelona, the pendulum of judgement has swung between a focus on the here and now and a constant display of numbers linking this - er - history-making moment to whatever happened in the distant past, events so far removed from today you remember them in black-and-white.

The past is well known: Inter's last success in 1965 came under the stewardship of oil magnate Angelo Moratti, and son Massimo has been trying - at huge cost - to duplicate the feat ever since he purchased the club in 1995.

Having gone past the status of nationwide joke for their inability to sign the right players, hire the right coach and live down negative moments like the 1998 non-decision by referee Piero Ceccarini against Juventus or the last-day collapse in 2002, Inter have done a U-turn and have become villains in the eyes of many Italians soccer fans. Some are disturbed by their holier-than-thou attitude, which, if you paid attention throughout the years, is based on a lot of substance anyway; others, annoyed by Inter's domestic dominance, point to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, rather than improved competence of general managers and coaches, as the only reason of their turnaround.

This attitude, fuelled by inane player comments like "we've won (so far) in spite of everything and everybody" (think what Chievo fans must feel then!), has created a friction between Inter supporters and those of other teams. Web chatter is no more glorified than watercooler conversation (only more accessible to everyone else), but the vitriol spewed between the two can sometimes be disturbing. All of this has meant there seems to be an ambivalent national disposition as the Champions League final approaches: using a very popular term, the 'haters' seem to be as many as the well-wishers.

And the latter seem to have taken the trip to Madrid as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In some ways, the exodus - yes, that's the operative word! - of Nerazzurri toward Spain has reminded many of a similar trip Milan fans undertook in 1989: back then, Milan were in their first European Cup final since 1969 and close to 70,000 travelled to Barcelona, helped by the fact the Rossoneri's opponents, Steaua Bucherest, were never likely to carry a lot of fans with them because of the different political situation in Romania at that time.

This time, obviously, Inter fans won't be able to outnumber Bayern fans inside the Santiago Bernabeu, but the atmosphere among them since the Scudetto was taken care of, last Sunday, has been electric, with the predictable cries of unfairness over ticket distribution, a last-minute run for spare tickets, worries over the Icelandic volcano ash and possible disruption of air travel.

Their biggest worry, though, centres over Jose Mourinho. As everyone will know by now, the Inter coach is strongly tipped to leave for Real Madrid after the final. His ego may seem so inflated that the giant managers' pictures who regularly adorn Wembley stadium would appear to be actual size in his case, but the last couple of months have seen Mourinho's reputation among Inter fans skyrocket. Few can now remember that back in late October he was being accused of being unable to raise Inter's game in Europe, as the side had then gone winless for eight matches in the Champions League. Once this suspicion was swept away, Mourinho kept being in the news for almost everything he did or said, despite avoiding the media for most of the season.

His masterful handling of most situations he had himself created, sometimes as a response to barbs from an increasingly sceptical media, will be one of the legacies of the current season, especially if he leaves.

And of course, keeping in tone with most of Inter's story in the past couple of years, more focus on him this week means less on the players and on the tactics that will be seen on the Santiago Bernabeu's pitch, whose grass, as Milan's Pato put it, is "so good the ball seems to walk towards you".

Arjen Robben may have stirred a mini-pot of controversy by revealing the obvious - Chelsea's Mourinho were more concerned with winning than getting style points - but it is clear Inter's path through the knockout phases showed they can mix resilience, defensive organisation and the right moves going forward, just like a side hitting top form at the right moment would.

Bayern pose a different threat to Barcelona or Chelsea, of course. Mourinho's thorough preparation will have Inter ready for whatever his former boss, Louis Van Gaal, will have prepared, but the appeal of this - and other matches - comes from trying to pinpoint where the game-breaking move or goal will come from.

Even the way Inter line up will matter for little: while the 4-2-1-3 should be Mourinho's choice again, it can be flexible and versatile, as the Nerazzurri have shown this year. It must be remembered that once Thiago Motta was sent off at the Camp Nou, Inter did not send in a defender or midfielder, but rather chose to stay with three attack-minded players until the 67th minute. So being defensive, or rather organised, is more of a mental disposition than dependent on the identity of the players out there.

Goran Pandev, whose form and health had suffered since late March, seems favourite to man one of the wide attacking places. Mario Balotelli's chances of at least appearing in the match have increased in the past fortnight, though, and the mercurial, unpredictable striker's presence on the Bernabeu's pitch would add more spice to an already oversubscribed menu.

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