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Inter financial crisis: Could Lautaro, Lukaku & Conte really leave San Siro this summer?

5:00 pm AEST 17/5/21
Romelu Lukaku Antonio Conte Lautaro Martinez Inter GFX
The Nerazzurri's owners, Suning, have been hit hard by the economic chaos caused by the pandemic, leaving the club's project shrouded in uncertainty

Antonio Conte and Lautaro Martinez had a touchline row last Wednesday night.

The following day, they participated in a mock boxing match in front of the whole squad at Inter's training ground, with Romelu Lukaku serving as the Master of Ceremonies.

Afterwards, they all enjoyed a barbecue together.

How Conte must wish all his problems at Inter could be resolved in such a swift and light-hearted nature.

The sad fact of the matter is, though, that Lautaro could end up leaving San Siro this summer – and not because he has a problem with his coach, but because his employers have a problem with liquidity.

Just two weeks after winning a first Serie A title in 11 years, Inter are dealing with a pandemic-caused cash-flow crisis, and everyone is now fully aware of the extent of the problem.

Indeed, Conte has stopped fulfilling his general media duties because he doesn't want to spend more time talking about finances than football.

It had been hoped that Steven Zhang's return to Milan after a seven-month absence would bring an end to all of the uncertainty surrounding San Siro.

Instead, it has caused further chaos. 

A week after the Inter president joined Conte and his players at Appiano Gentile to celebrate Inter's first Scudetto since 2010, Zhang was back at the training centre last Monday explaining why Suning, the club's owners, needed everyone to take wage cuts.

According to CEO Beppe Marotta, Zhang "drew a picture of what the European football system is dealing with right now, including Inter. He just wanted to make people aware of the difficulties that all clubs are going through, but there was absolutely no diktat, there were no orders."

Just a desperate request to agree to give up two months' salary in order to save the club €25 million (£21m/$30m) before June 30.

Help is on the way, in the form of a €200m (£170m/$240m) loan, which is set to arrive this week via an as-yet unknown American investor.

But the simple truth of the matter is that Inter still require cuts and they have already decided to reduce their operating costs by 15 per cent next season.

Persuading players to give up wages is proving far more problematic, though. 

Firstly, each case is different, as was repeatedly pointed out in the Italian press last week. A first-team regular on a long-term contract is far more likely to agree to a small cut – or deferral – than an ageing fringe player facing an uncertain future beyond the expiration of their deal this summer.

Then there's the fact that the entire squad is upset that the negotiations are being played out in public, which brings with it a certain degree of pressure to put the club first. 

Footballers' wages are a contentious issue at the best of times, even more so during a global economic crisis that has left so many people broke or unemployed. 

Former Lazio ace Paolo Di Canio argued on Sky Sport Italia, “I would surely take a pay cut if the club is struggling; it’s fair to help. Footballers are privileged and earn a lot of money. It is a pity to take a pay cut when you win the title, but I would accept it."

Some won't, of course, and that's their prerogative.

Marotta has already confirmed that all contractual obligations, including Scudetto bonuses, can be fulfilled by the club before the June deadline but they nonetheless have to make an "appeal to the conscience" of each and every player to bail out their bosses.

And Inter aren't the one ones struggling right now.

Last Friday, all of Italy's top clubs assembled for a Lega Serie A meeting and, according to Tuttosport, unanimously voted to take two steps towards easing their financial concerns.

Firstly, they are hoping that the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) will agree to postpone the payment deadlines for the last four months of the season until the end of the year.

Secondly, they intend to ask the Players' Association (AIC) to convince all of its members to give up two months' wages.

At the end of the day, the players are entitled to argue that their respective clubs' financial problems are not their fault but it's clear that everyone is going to have to make some sort of sacrifice in these challenging times.

As for Conte, he obviously isn't best pleased that his troops have been put in such an awkward position, given their heroics during this most stressful and congested of seasons.

However, of even greater concern to the coach is what happens at San Siro this summer.

Conte wanted to meet with Zhang this week to discover what players he'd be able to sign when the transfer window reopens, not who he'd have to sell.

According to the latest reports, the Inter boss considers Lukaku, Lautaro, Nicolo Barella, Alessandro Bastoni and Achraf Hakimi 'untouchable'.

However, Lukaku has been linked with Manchester City, while Lautaro and Bastoni's agents have already publicly expressed their concern and dissatisfaction with the current situation, which doesn't bode well.

Thursday's boxing and BBQ combo underlined once again that Conte and his squad have a very special bond. It sustained their title charge.

But it also means that if one of them decides to leave, they all could. As it stands, he'd probably just settle for being able to keep his first 11 intact. 

Of course, he's keeping quiet for now. His media silence is set to continue until after he discusses the future of the club, and that of its most prized possessions, with Zhang.

One thing is already certain, though: when Conte does finally speak at the end of the season, he's going to have plenty to say.