For all football fans, he will always remain Ronaldo’s first manager in the Serie A. Luigi “Gigi” Simoni passed away on Friday at 81 in one of the dearest days to Inter fans – May 22, the anniversary of the Nerazzurri’s victory in the Champions League 2010 Final.
Perhaps it is not by chance that the Crevalcore-born coach, who had been hospitalized since June 2019 after suffering a stroke, chose such an important day for the Interisti to bid farewell. That’s what we would like to think.
Call it a last, classy act from an individual who’s always been unanimously regarded as a true gentleman – one who always managed to keep his temper while navigating the perilous, hysterical waters of the golden age of calcio. A coach that, despite a 30-year-long managerial career spent trotting around the whole of Italy, is mostly remembered for an 18-month stint at the helm of Inter between 1997 and 1998.
Gigi Simoni got his once-in-a-lifetime chance when Inter President Massimo Moratti chose him to lead the Nerazzurri in the summer of 1997. The black-and-blues where hungry for domestic silverware – having not won a Scudetto since the days of Giovanni Trapattoni – and their passionate chairman had not hesitated to crack open his wallet to build a roster up to the task.
Moratti had already signed players the likes of Javier Zanetti, Youri Djorkaeff, and Ivan Zamorano in the previous seasons. He followed along with Diego Simeone, an unknown Uruguayan young striker named Alvaro Recoba, and, moreover, the Fenomeno – Ronaldo Luis Nazario da Lima – who was the undisputed state of the footballing art back in the days. It seemingly took a strong manager to keep together such an impressive collection of striking power and personalities.
Massimo Moratti, however, quite shocked the world by choosing a coach whose last achievement was a sack at Napoli during the previous Serie A campaign. If truth be told, Simoni’s sacking was rumored to be exactly the consequence of the coach being already negotiating his move to Inter the following season. Still, the mild-mannered Luigi Simoni seemed to have landed a task bigger than himself.
Simoni’s best successes to date were conquering an Anglo-Italian Cup in 1993 with Cremonese, promoting the traditionally lower-division-battling Grigiorossi to Serie A, and managing to keep them in the top-flight for three seasons. Not exactly a proven track record for the Emilian coach, who at least had reached a cult-hero status in Cremona during the most glorious years for the local club.
At Inter, Gigi Simoni found an extraordinary roster assembled with the one and only goal of winning the Italian title, a potentially explosive blend of youth and experience. According to veteran defender Giuseppe Bergomi, Simoni immediately announced that players were all equal to him, no matter whether they were 18 or 35. It would be the training camp to decide who was to play and who not. Only once, he added, Simoni let himself go and admitted that perhaps there was just one player who was “a little more equal than the others.”
Such Orwellian, likely apocryphal statement, however, exemplifies how Simoni understood that Ronaldo needed some sort of special attention and protection. The Fenomeno was just 21 and was at the center of a gargantuan media campaign, facing overwhelming pressure from fans and sponsors. The magnitude of his transfer from Barcelona to Inter was comparable only to Diego Maradona’s landing in Napoli or Juventus’ signing of the other Ronaldo – both players joining the Serie A at a more mature age, however.
Chairman Massimo Moratti’s intuition was that, to get the best out of Ronaldo, he didn’t need to put a watchdog on him. He needed to get him a paternal figure. Luigi Simoni proved instrumental to the Fenomeno fully expressing his potential – his first season at Inter being by far his best. As the news of Simoni’s passing spread, Ronaldo was among the first to pay tribute to his former mentor, whom he called “a wise and good man” and a “conductor” of Inter’s orchestra.
The 1997-98 season didn’t quite go as expected for Inter as the Nerazzurri narrowly missed the Italian title but conquered a UEFA Cup at the end of an exciting crescendo. Still, failing to catch the Scudetto remained an open wound for all the Interisti and Simoni himself: Inter lost 0-1 to Juventus in a decisive Derby d’Italia which went down to history as the black-and-blues were denied an apparently crystal-clear penalty. Juventus went on to capture the title, but the controversy is far from concluded even more than 20 years later.
Simoni’s campaign start had been all but unimpressive: Inter seemed off to a home defeat to Brescia in Ronaldo’s debut day, if it weren’t for Alvaro Recoba, who came from the bench to conjure two long-range screamers and overturn the score.
But, as the Fenomeno warmed up, the Nerazzurri started to collect one win after another. Juventus fell 0-1 at the San Siro in the first leg of the Derby d’Italia. Inter’s unexpected losses to Udinese and Bari, however, forced Simoni’s squad to face Juve in the second leg from the runner-up spot in the table, just one point behind the Bianconeri.
The match played on April 26, 1998 at the Delle Alpi Stadium is a calcio classic, if only for the key episode which saw Ronaldo and defender Mark Iuliano involved. With Juventus trailing 1-0, Ronaldo’s progression into the Bianconeri’s box was abruptly stopped by Iuliano, who “body-checked” the Fenomeno ice hockey-style. Referee Piero Ceccarini didn’t allow any penalty and let the game continue. On the contrary, he gave a penalty to Juventus in the immediate next action.
As all hell broke loose on the pitch, Simoni was unprecedently seen losing his composure and repeatedly shouting “shame on you!” at the referee, scoring a red card in the proceeding. For the record, Ceccarini has continued to defend his decision until today, claiming that the foul was rather on Ronaldo’s part. “If we were playing basketball,” he noted, “I would call it a charging.” More than 20 years after the game, the Ronaldo-Iuliano contact is still a bitter source of debate between Juventini and Interisti.
Like it or not, Inter were forced to put their hopes for glory on the European path. Gigi Simoni indeed had better fortunes during his UEFA Cup season, which culminated with the Nerazzurri demolishing Lazio 3-0 in an all-Italian Final at the Parc des Princes in Paris. It was an exciting campaign, which saw Inter evidencing themselves for an odd tendency to throw many first leg games away, only to storm back in the retour matches.
In the 2nd Round, Simoni’s squad lost 1-2 to Lyon at the San Siro but managed to beat the French 3-1 away. In the Round of 16, the Nerazzurri recovered a two-goal deficit to beat Strasbourg 3-2 on aggregate.
After taking their revenge against Schalke 04, which had beaten Inter in the previous UEFA Cup last act, Inter disposed of Spartak Moscow in the Semi-Finals, before wrapping their cup win by means of Javier Zanetti, Ivan Zamorano, and – of course – Ronaldo’s goals.
Gigi Simoni’s domestic and international exploits earned him the Panchina d’Oro (“Golden Bench”), a prize awarded every year to the best Serie A manager by the Italian Football Coaches Association. On the very same day, however, his tenure at Inter abruptly came to an end as President Massimo Moratti sacked him.
Despite the signing of Roberto Baggio, Inter were struggling to maintain the previous season’s results. Getting the boot, however, still came unexpectedly for the Crevalcore-born coach who, after his moment of notoriety, quietly came back to the dimension that perhaps suited him best – the Italian provincia.
Gigi Simoni spent a few more years coaching Serie A and Serie B mid-table clubs before retiring in 2012. On top of his Cremonese exploits and his Inter underdog tale – which he is mainly remembered for – he also holds the record for the most promotions from Serie B to Serie A (seven) achieved.
He had a good life and earned the respect from virtually all actors of the Italian football landscape. Even 20 years later, however, he still couldn’t chase away the memory of the Ronaldo-Iuliano incident and a Scudetto which seemed within his grasp. Simoni once admitted that he had refused to re-watch video footage of the episode for years. And, when Ceccarini recently reiterated his belief that his decision was right, he bitterly commented: “He is not even that smart (…) if he still refuses to admit that he was wrong.”
That was, perhaps, the only time when the gentleman coach raised his voice.