MILAN - "Passion and personality has always been in my blood. No one ever went away from a match thinking, 'If only Ivan had chased down that ball...' because I went after each and every one."
Every applause, every word of praise and every cheer from the crowd was fully warranted when it came to the tireless Ivan Zamorano. This was never more true than during his spell at Inter, where he swiftly established a deep bond with the environment around him.
The Chilean is celebrating his 50th birthday today and while his face - unmistakable and proudly South American - may show a few more wrinkles, there seems little that has changed from his four and a half years spent in Milan.
Throughout his career - spanning Chile, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Mexico and Chile again - Zamorano went by the moniker of "Bam-Bam", a pun on his name but also an appropriate reference to a character in The Flintstones: Barney Rubble's small, young, tireless and energetic son.
Zamorano had initially moved to Europe from El Salvador club Cobresal, where he spent an entire season improving a key facet of his game that he had been honing since he was a boy: heading. As a child at home in Maipu, Santiago, he would run up and down the hallway, leaping to try and reach the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. He was already beginning to show the qualities that would later distinguish him as a player: fearlessness, bravery, determination and hard work.
Swiss club St. Gallen were the first to welcome the 20-year-old to European football and the young striker was magnificent during his time there, to the extent that even today fans remember his name with a flash of emotion. Next up was a move to Sevilla in Spain, where his knack for scoring goals and dominating the penalty box prompted Real Madrid into acquiring his services.
The Nerazzurri beat Bayern Munich to Zamorano's signature in the summer of 1996, after he had managed to win over the most sceptical coach he'd meet in his career, Real Madrid's Jorge Valdano. Looking back some years later, the Argentine manager, who would later become a director at Los Blancos, made a revealing confession.
"I made my biggest mistake with him; I had underestimated his enormous pride and ability to inspire the team," Valdano explained. "That's before we even talk about his leap: he didn't just jump but rather fell down straight from the sky."
It didn't take long for Nerazzurri fans to witness Bam-Bam's aerial ability. During his first season at the club, after finding the net against AC Milan in a 3-1 derby victory, he scored a goal against Cagliari where he appeared to walk on air while powering in a cross from Paul Ince with his head.
No longer in the hallway back in Maipu, no longer jumping to head bulbs on the ceiling, Zamorano was now in Serie A wearing the shirt of a club he had dreamed about, and whose history he had, by his own admission, studied. From Helenio Herrera to Alessandro Altobelli, without forgetting Luis Suarez, Giacinto Facchetti and Sandro Mazzola, he knew it all.
In 1997/98, he helped Inter rejoin the high table in Europe once again, starring in the UEFA Cup semi final against Spartak Moscow with yet another headed goal before breaking the deadlock in the final against Lazio at the Parc des Princes. The Nerazzurri would go on to lift the trophy and Zamorano's achievement was celebrated the length and breadth of his native Chile, a new idol for a proud nation.
Ivan's famous No.9 shirt throughout his career was in tribute to his father Luis, who passed away when Zamorano was only 13. The way he played football, perennially sniffing out that loose ball to rifle into the net, came across as a response to the pain of losing the man who passed down his love for the sport. There was a piece of his father in every goal that Ivan scored. However, when his strike partner Ronaldo had to give up his No.10 shirt following the arrival of Roberto Baggio to the club in the summer of 1998, Bam-Bam graciously allowed "the Phenomenon" to take his beloved shirt number.
Nevertheless, Zamorano made sure he kept No.9 in his own way, taking No.18 instead and putting a plus sign in between the numbers. Thus, the legendary 1+8 shirt was born, the shirt that would make Ivan famous all around the world. It still hangs in his house in Santiago, the symbol of a special bond with his father, with Chile and with Inter.
And it was precisely at Inter where Bam-Bam showed that pride, hard work and determination could make the difference, where a burst, a jump and a goal became recurring motifs of a great love story that continues today.
Happy birthday from everyone associated with Inter, Bam-Bam, the striker who fell down from the sky.
Carlo Pizzigoni and Davide Zanelli