“Dad, why are you standing in the back like that? You can barely be seen in all the photos.”
My son Leandro always asks me that question. I had just scored two goals against Bayern Munich, and he was three years old at the time: I put him on my shoulders and walked down the steps towards the cup, towards glory. There was a lot of excitement on that stage and there I was, stood in the back corner, half blocked off, with Leandro holding his hands over my head, almost covering my eyes, while Pupi raised the Champions League. He had the best seat in the house. Leandro is now 12 years old, he’s left-footed and plays up front for Racing. He’s also an Inter super fan.
I know that you want to find out what I did the night before Madrid: if I got any sleep, if I dreamed about the final. But to get there, to the Bernabeu, I have to start in Quilmes, in Viejo Bueno where I grew up, just south of Buenos Aires. You could say that I grew up just like Leandro, with a ball under my arm. It was a great passion of mine, thanks to my cousin Pablo. It was him who took me to play from the age of six. I always followed in his footsteps, even when I joined the Racing de Avellaneda team at the age of nine. Racing against Independiente, my younger brother Gabriel’s team, was a match in which tough challenges and scraps were always the order of the day.
I was able to focus on football because of my family’s constant, extraordinary and unwavering support. The deal they offered was clear: don’t drop out of school. And, in fact, I kept my side of that deal until the second year of university, where I was studying to become an accountant. I remember the car rides straight from school to practice, eating a sandwich on the way; or vice versa when I’d train in the morning and have to reschedule my classes to the afternoon.
What’s Argentinian football like? How you’d expect it to be really: full of pressure, with an immense competitive spirit, even in kids’ games. We come from nothing and want to win at all costs.
And Racing, the team I’ve always supported, hadn’t won the league for 35 years until the Apertura title returned in 2001. How can I explain it? I’ve always felt the suffering of that club and those fans within me, and I never gave up an inch because, for me, that result was unbelievable.
I played centre-forward for Racing too, and that’s where I learned how to develop my qualities: I had always loved the game and enjoyed getting into dangerous areas with my movement. It was that quality that allowed me to embark on that great trip to Europe, to Genoa: I was 24 years old when I left my parents’ house for the first time and flew to Italy with my girlfriend, who later became my wife. She was 21 years old and gave up everything to leave with me; her enthusiasm has always been unfailing. We went to the Marassi, then to Zaragoza with my brother, and back to Genoa before arriving at Inter.
I found settling in easy, because I already knew Cambiasso who had been my brother’s former U20 national teammate. Cuchu became my roommate, and we shared so many great moments for five years: he was serious, intelligent, and luckily I always used to fall asleep before him! Then there was Zanetti, whose brother Sergio I had played with in Argentina. I felt at home there, and without a doubt the asado ritual, with Samuel as head chef, contributed to that. I know all my teammates have said that all I did was eat, but believe me, sometimes I helped Walter out too and I can prove it: look at this photo!
We’d often stay at the Pinetina even after training to have a good time and spend our evenings laughing and eating. We were a really tight-knit group, and everyone worked hard in training because that was our philosophy: how you train affects how you play. The character in that team was incredible. And Mourinho was close with everyone.
I promised you Madrid, but I still have to make a couple of detours before we get to the Bernabeu. The first is to Kiev, just because I simply have to rewatch Sneijder’s goal once more. I remember those moments as if I were watching a film: I didn’t want the ball to go out of play, so I went to get it but then realised we didn’t have a corner. I thought the only thing I could do was hit it as hard as I could at the goalkeeper, then something might happen. After I shot, I fell to the floor. By the time I’d got back to my feet I saw Sneijder celebrating like crazy: I hadn’t even realised he’d scored!
Yes, I’ve got a lot of memories of those days, they’re moments I like to call extra special. And in fact I remember the clock at Camp Nou so well: it looked like it was made out of salt. I looked at it after a lifetime had already passed on the pitch and it said 15 minutes: endless, but the courage shown by everyone that evening! I also remember the foulest of moods on the train from Florence to Milan, as we travelled back from a gutting 2-2 draw. But Pupi kept us optimistic that day too. And he was right to do so, with the help of an incredible evening too... we were eating pizza at my house while we watched Roma vs. Sampdoria. You already know the story, but it remains a thrilling moment of that exceptional season: Roma ahead, all of us sad. The pizzas arrived and my wife put Augustina, my little daughter, into my arms, and Pazzini equalised. From that moment onwards, I didn’t let go of Augustina even for a second, and Sampdoria won!
Winning the Champions League was my dream, it was everyone’s dream. Just like Racing fans had to wait 35 years, Inter fans had to wait 45. The night before the game was just like any other, I can say that I was calm and focused, I knew it would be hard, but we were sure of ourselves and determined.
Our ritual was the same as always, drinking mate in Walter Samuel’s room. That night, to help us relax but also to provide some motivation, us Argentinians watched “Iluminados por el fuego”, a film about our nation’s heroes in the Falklands War. Chills. Then everyone to bed.
Julio knocked it long, I watched the ball drop and went up against Demichelis for the header, he was huge. Here too, I can still see it in my mind, frame by frame. I saw Wesley ready to make the pass: I knew that with him he always got it to you. So I started my run straight, from deep. My first touch was good, and I saw Badstuber coming from my right. I pulled out a fake shot, we call it an amague where I’m from, and just a moment later I was running off to celebrate.
For the second goal you need to rewind the tape all the way back to 2001: Racing 2-0 Lanus, the penultimate day of the Apertura. I’d held that bit of play in my mind for nine years: it was at El Cilindro de Avellaneda, I squared up to the defender, pretended that I was going to bend one into the top corner, but instead cut it back with my right. I hit it with the outside of my foot, crossbar, and Chatruc tucked away the rebound. My fake shot to beat Van Buyten in Madrid was identical to that one nine years earlier: I was just better at keeping the ball at the right distance to open up my body and slot it in at far post. In that moment I would have liked to embrace every Nerazzurri fan across the world.
I was happy, and I still am now, when I think about what we did, all together. The mark we left on the history of this Club, our Inter.
And I’ll tell you now: never in my entire life had I seen a stadium full of people at dawn, at six in the morning. Our return from Barcelona had already been fantastic with the welcome we received at the airport.