Why Conte's exit could spark a mass exodus at Inter

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"This is no longer 'Pazza Inter' ('Crazy Inter'), " Milan Skriniar proudly told Tuttosport in April. "This is Conte's Inter."

Not anymore, though. 

On Wednesday evening, Inter confirmed that Antonio Conte's contract had been terminated by mutual consent.

Just three days after the Nerazzurri had lifted the Serie A trophy, their coach quit.

It might seem shocking, yet it was wholly unsurprising.

Conte, of course, has a history of falling out with his employers over player recruitment, but this is very different.

This was no disagreement over transfer targets. This was Conte refusing to accept that at least one – and most probably two – of his Scudetto winners would have to be sold to balance the books.

We are not talking about reserves or bit-part players here either. As well as cutting wages by 15-20 per cent, Inter's owners, Suning, informed Conte that they also have to make a €90 million (£77m/€110m) profit in this summer's transfer window.

That means Lautaro Martinez, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi, Alessando Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij, Nicolo Barella and Skriniar are all on the market.

Conte has received some criticism for walking away, with Inter icon Beppe Bergomi admitting that while he understood the coach's frustration, he would have liked to see him stay to steady what looks like a sinking ship.

"He's strong, he's good, he's decisive, so I wanted to see him try to keep Inter at a high level despite all the difficulties, because maybe only he could do it," Bergomi told Sky Sport Italia.

However, Conte, a man utterly obsessed with winning, saw the Scudetto as a significant first step on the path towards global domination.

Was that overly ambitious on his part? Perhaps. But remember, Suning had similarly lofty goals.

Inter Serie A trophy 2020-21 GFX

“We are Inter and want to conquer the world," club president Steven Zhang had stated at the club's Christmas dinner in 2019.

Suning put their money where the mouth was too. They invested approximately €600m (£518m/$732m) in the club between their takeover in 2016 and the summer of 2020. However, Inter did not spend a cent during the January transfer window.

"It's a strange situation," a bewildered Conte told Rai Sport on February 2. "It's pointless to hide it. We had a project but it stopped in August."

And now it is in danger of total collapse. Indeed, Conte's departure is a massive problem for Inter. 

His bond with Lukaku has been well documented and it was telling that the Belgium international was among the first to react to his mentor's departure.

“You basically changed me as a player and made me even stronger mentally and more importantly we won together!" the forward wrote on Instagram.

“Winning is all that matters to you and I’m glad that I have had you as a coach. I will keep your principles for the rest of my career (physical preparation, mentality and just the drive to win). It was a pleasure to play for you!

“Thank you for all that you did. I owe you a lot..."

Hakimi, meanwhile, has also repeatedly stated that he joined Inter to work with Conte and there are several other players who are now just as close to the Italian.

Coaches come and go at clubs, of course. That is the nature of the game, particularly in Italy.

But Nerazzurri fans will now be extremely concerned by the fact that Lautaro and Bastoni will not be receiving bumper new contracts this summer. Instead, they will be asked to take pay cuts.

With Conte going, and at least a couple of top players likely to follow him out the door, it is hard to see why in-demand young players would want to stick around to see who takes over next.

A mass exodus is now a very distinct possibility, and Inter only have themselves to blame.

There is some sympathy for Suning, who, for the most part, have been canny owners. Nobody could have predicted the economic crisis caused by Covid-19.

However, CEO Beppe Marotta was fooling nobody when he argued on Sky Sport Italia that Inter's situation "isn't anyone’s fault".

"There was a catastrophic effect that this pandemic had on the whole football world," he argued. "The club invested hundreds of millions over the last few years, but this was a global pandemic and there wasn’t anything we could do about it."

They could have tried living within their means, though. Like every other elite club now facing serious liquidity problems, they committed far too much money to wages and left themselves in a vulnerable position. 

Suning even had to take a €275m (£238m/$336m) loan from American company Oaktree capital just to cover their immediate costs, which left many frustrated fans wondering why the Chinese group did not sell up when they received offers earlier in the year. 

"Zhang, take your share of the responsibility," read one banner unveiled by furious Inter ultras earlier this week. 

Suning may well have been fully committed to transforming Inter into one of the best clubs in the world, but the cold hard reality is that they made the same mistakes as so many other owners. As Marotta admitted himself, "the current football model is unsustainable". 

But it was just as fragile before the pandemic, and what is clear now is that Inter over-spent in their bid to dethrone Juventus as the top team in Serie A.

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Unfortunately for them, they are now set to pay a heavy price for their recklessness, with vice-president Javier Zanetti recently admitting on Sky that "it could take a couple of years" for Inter to recover. 

The entire club is shrouded in uncertainty once again. There is no telling who might leave next. 

All we know for sure is that Conte is gone. And Pazza Inter are back.