It was the 90th minute, the game was won. But the ball flew up into the air. I’m Nicola Berti, I couldn’t just let it go. I couldn’t help but go and contest it. I couldn’t hold myself back, never. I had to throw myself at it.
I’d heard a lot of rubbish. People that complained after injuries, people who said: “Who knows when I’ll be back on the pitch.” I had torn my ligament and I said: “Ok, this is something I want to deal with.” I took it head-on. I got on a plane and flew to the United States, to Vail, Colorado. Dr. Steadman took me into his clinic, which was built right on the ski slopes. I didn’t even have time to think, after four and a half months I was already running. I destroyed that injury.
I had left Inter on 8 September 1993 when they were top of the table, when I came back I found something that had never happened before: an Inter side fighting to stay up. Ask Gianpiero Marini to this day what he thinks of my return. I was decisive. I came back against Lecce on 8 April, scoring the goal to make it 4-1 with a diving header: Inter hadn’t won for a lifetime. My legs were fairly tired and I had to miss the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final against Cagliari where we lost 3-2. The return leg came at San Siro. I was on fire: I won the penalty for our first goal, scored our second, we won 3-0 and flew through to the final. All of that despite Marco Sanna’s suffocating man-marking. Berti was back.
Yes, I was back and Inter was back with me. It’s still strange to say, but we secured safety (also thanks to my goal against Roma). Think of the legacy: never relegated to Serie B, thanks to Nicola Berti!
But my work was far from finished. It was in Vienna, the first leg of the UEFA Cup final, Sosa played me in. I was wearing the No.9 shirt that day. I didn’t control it too well but the turn was perfect. A 1-0 win and we all went back home, waiting anxiously for the grand finale at San Siro a few days later.
I started from there, but I could have also gone from Salsomaggiore, from Combisalso, where I was able to to channel my energies into a defined area, instead of chasing after stray balls on the streets. I was strong already. And I already had that signature hairstyle, of course. Only two people could pull it off: Elvis Presley and Nicola Berti. I ran, hair in the wind, oh how I ran. I always came in first place in cross country races. I had a natural predisposition, I was resilient. It just happened.
A few days ago I looked back over the report cards that the great Gianni Mura wrote for that record-breaking Inter side:
“Berti has to learn how to discipline himself, but when he decides to push forwards he’s unstoppable. It’s a spectacle to watch, with his Ethiopan style of running which is so bad to watch yet so efficient.”
I don’t know if my running style was bad, but it certainly was extremely effective. I felt a bit like a gazelle, I was comfortable even in the scorching heat of USA ’94. While plenty were asking to be subbed off at the end of the first half, and it was almost impossible to play in the high humidity, all I thought about was having fun, enjoying the moment and keeping on running.
I was also mistaken for Aldo Serena due to the way I moved about the pitch. But this didn’t happen on any old occasion, it happened in Inter vs. Monopoli in the Coppa Italia back in August 1988. In other words, my first Inter game. It wasn’t a debut like most, however. I was coming from a strange summer: I was an idol for the fans in Florence, everyone wanted to buy me, and Pellegrini paid seven billion for my signature. I was already in the National Team, but I then discovered I had a kidney deformity. I had to undergo an operation and missed out on the Euros. I remember Azeglio Vicini’s visit to see me in the hospital.
In short, my debut in Varese was not memorable because of my performance, but because of my appearance. I wasn’t wearing shinpads, they weren’t required. Not even Serena wore them at Inter: he, like me, wore his socks low and rolled up. However, I did it for a specific reason: I wanted to prove I was brave, I wanted to challenge everyone.
I dragged myself around the pitch in the game against Monopoli and I could hear people shouting from the stands: “Serena, you have to run!” It was a shame that the tall, skinny one with short socks who wasn’t running was, yes, me…
But after that I did a lot of running for Inter. We won the Scudetto of ’89 in the first few days. We beat Roma 2-0 at San Siro on matchday four: I scored the opener. On matchday five Vialli and Mancini’s Sampdoria came to visit, go and rewatch the goal now. I literally flew past Matthäus who broke forward quickly and fired at goal, but Pagliuca’s save fell to me and I scored: 1-0.
Two huge wins and a massive sign that we were the strongest side, and one that would go on to break records.
You can’t beat winning, of course, even if I was the one who said “I’d rather lose than play for AC Milan”. What stories, those Derbies. It’s true that everyone always reminds me of my best goal against AC Milan as being Sebastiano Rossi’s own goal. But in reality the one that has stayed in my heart was that from April ’93. I always tell the story: it was a song, not a goal. It lasted minutes and minutes. Every time, I hear the noise of San Siro, the shouts on the pitch. With just one move I drove Maldini, Baresi and Costacurta crazy. I dribbled the ball forwards, slotted through legs, got fouled, I took blows and I even got booked. It was crazy stuff.
I was there, in front of the Curva Nord, I let everyone know: now I’m going to score. And I did just that. Berti, in front of the Curva Nord, against AC Milan. Inter’s end!
I loved this shirt so much that I was even willing to give up my beloved number 8. It’s true that I wore the number 4, the number 9 and the number 11 at times. But the number 8 was my number. When Paul Ince joined from Manchester United, he said: “The only thing I know about Inter is that Nicola Berti plays for them.” That was the first year when players were required to wear their numbers and names on the back of their shirts. So Paul and I headed over to the Pinetina Sports Centre to compete for the number 8 through a game of tennis. We came off the court and I said to him: “Paul, you’re the guest and have just arrived, the number 8 is yours.” So I ended up wearing the number 18!
Leaving Inter wasn’t easy. At Christmas time in ’97, I got in touch with Klinsmann to pass on my holiday greetings. He was at Tottenham at the time and asked me: “Why don’t you come here?” I hadn’t taken to the pitch in a long while, it had been a complicated period. My father’s illness and death had been hard to deal with, but Moratti had always been there for me. I was no longer a key player. I welcomed new arrivals and imparted my knowledge on Inter as a Club, but I then spent most of my time in the stands or on the bench. A few days after Inter 1-0 Juventus on 4 January 1998, there was a Derby clash in the Coppa Italia. It was a game that I’d often thrived in. I remember my life being defined by one colour at that time: the grey of the sky, which reflected the feelings I had inside me. Everything was vanishing in amongst the freezing rain and fog that was trying to impede my plane’s departure for London. ‘Saying goodbye in this way is a real damper’, I thought to myself. I was sad, but it was the right time to go.
The journey I went on before stepping foot in San Siro again was a long one, it had even taken me to the other side of the world. But something was missing, there was a need to return. I arrived at the Meazza with a football school on a Sunday. I sat in the Primo Arancio and suddenly realised that the whole of the Curva Nord knew I was there. With a match being played out on the pitch, the fans kept looking at me and singing:
“E facci un gol, e facci un gol, Nicola Berti facci un gol.”
And even today I continue to feel their warmth and affection on the streets. I walk in the midst of the never-ending enthusiasm that emanates from Inter fans. They know that I ran for them, that I I got injured fighting for their cause, that I was able to get back up and go again. They know that I won for them. I won for all of us Interisti.