During the pre-Christmasweekend of last year, as Internazionale were preparing a Serie A clash with Piacenza, a reporter asked the club’s Argentinian coach Hector Cuper if the players would be given time-off to do their last-minute Christmas shopping. “Shopping is for the wives”, he replied, “Let the players concentrate on their football.”

Outwardly taciturn and distinctly understated in demeanour, Hector Cuper may well prove to have been precisely what the doctor ordered for ailing giant Inter. For those unfamiliar with recent Inter history, let us remind you that the last three seasons have been both eventful and unsuccessful. This was a period when some of the best coaches in contemporary football, from Mircea Lucescu to Marcello Lippi andon to Marco Tardelli, came and left with revolving-door regularity.

With no recent silverware on the sideboardand with 8th, 4th and 5th placed Serie A finishes in the last three years, these have been tough times for Inter fans who have been waiting since 1989 for the club to win a 14th Italian title. Furthermore,that recent wait has been punctuated by the on-off, stop-go soap opera surrounding the club’s most famous player, Brazilian striker Ronaldo.

By the halfway point in this season, however, Inter fans could hardly believe their eyes. For a start, Inter were right up there at the top of the table, either leading the way or lying second behind champions Roma. For a second, the season had been noticeable for the lack of scandal and off the field polemics that have made recent life and times at La Pinetina so newsworthy.

Gone were the public slanging matches between Roberto Baggio and Marcello Lippi (a series that was joyfully restarted elsewhere). Post-match dressing-room scuffles of the sort that led one senior player to offer to hang Mircea Lucescu from the nearest coat peg were also a thing of the past, while newshounds hoping fora re-run of the much reported evening of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll involving Inter players during Tardelli’s time last season were also to be disappointed.

Dour, determined and defensive in footballing attitude, Hector Cuper was born to coach, and coach successfully, in Italian soccer. Furthermore, his low-profile, no nonsense attitude – so far, he has not really bothered to learn Italian, preferring to give interviews in a hybrid footballspeak of Spanish and some Italian – sits comfortably in the hallowed halls of a club which, after all, is the footballing expression of Italy’s no-nonsense, hardworking business capital.

“If I have brought anything to Inter, it has been optimism. In Argentina, all the clubs, even those that in theory have no chance, they all think to themselves at the beginning of the season, well, who knows, maybe this year will be our year,” Cuper told Gazzetta Dello Sport recently.

Clearly, it would be simplistic to suggest that Inter owe their revival exclusively to Cuper. His arrival last summer came within the context of a happy series of co-incidental factors. First and foremost, there is the return to form of long time injured striker Chrisitan Vieri. When Vieri is in the sort of form he has shown this season, then nothing is impossible for Inter (or indeed Italy at this summer’s World Cup finals). Cuper is the first to acknowledge this, saying: “I have already said, and I will repeat it, about Vieri.He’s a player born to win.Everything else, the fact that he knocks himself out in training, that he is totally inspirational for the team, that he is a point of reference in the dressing room, that is merely a consequence.”

It is also true that Inter look much the stronger with Marco Materazzi (a player bought before Cuper was even hired) in defence. Materazzi might lack the experience of his predecessor, Frenchman Laurent Blanc, but he has a lot more pace and covers many more defensive holes (Manchester United fans can probably expand on this).

Nor has the Inter defence suffered with the purchase of the ‘Hero of Amsterdam’, former Fiorentina goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, who along with Gigi Buffon of Juventus, can rightly be considered the best in the land.

Likewise, former Roma midfielder Cristiano Zanetti was precisely what Cuper wanted in his hard working midfield. Not for nothing, more creative players like Dutchman Clarence Seedorf and Uruguyan Alvaro Recoba struggle to get into the side. Not for nothing, too, was Roma coach Fabio Capello reportedly furious when he learned last summer that the champions had agreed to sell Zanetti back to Inter.

If Cuper can take little credit for Vieri’s return to form or indeed for the purchases of Materazzi, Toldo and Zanetti, the same hardly applies to his handling of the Inter squad. Take a player like Sierra Leone striker Mohammed Kallon. Farmed out by Inter to Reggina and Vicenza in recent seasons, he has looked like an outstanding talent, scoring 11 and eight goals respectively with those clubs. Recalled to Inter last summer, Kallon was given every chance by the canny Cuper who knew only too well that the role of understudy to Ronaldo could prove to be a long drawn-out one asthe Brazilian ace struggled to find fitness and remain injury free.

In the end, Kallon has emerged as one of the “surprises” of the Inter season. So far, and we write this with all due respect to Ronaldo, the Inter attack has looked much more dangerous when it has been Vieri and Kallon rather than Vieri and Ronaldo, given that the latter is still a “player on the way back”.

Another element in the thus far successful Inter mosaic concerns Cuper’s most basic football instincts. Criticised for much of this season for being too cautious and too reliant on the goalscoring intuitions of Vieri, he recently addressed his detractors: “For the person who really likes football, acres of space and little closing down can end up being just boring. For me, though, I like to think back to our 0-0 draw with Roma. That game was a perfect example of a football in which you have to think and act quickly, do everything in a flash and in a tight corner. If my Inter takes its time getting the ball to the opponents’ penalty box, that’s no problem because I like my teams to be able to hold onto and play with the ball.”

Spoken like a true devotee of catenaccio, and with right good accent, too. One of the intriguing aspects of the rest of this season is that, in theory at least, both Inter and Cuper can only get better. At this stage, the coach has thoroughly acclimatised himself whilst the team is becoming used to the unfamiliar taste of success.

Furthermore in a championship contest that realistically looks like a three horse race with Roma and Juventus, Inter will be advantaged by not being involved in the Champions League, unlike the other two. Even if Inter continue to make progress in the UEFA Cup, in today’s football that competition represents nothing like the physical and mental challenge of the Champions League. Not that

Cuper, the man who took Valencia to two successive losing finals, does not know all about the Champions League. Perhaps, he will yet get the chance to make it third time lucky, this time with Inter. That may come further down the road but, in the meantime, Inter have to win the scudetto.

Inter fans will be glad to know that, even whilst Cuper continues to keep his low profile and refuses to make propagandistic declarations re winning the title, not all members of the Inter camp are quite so shy. Goalkeeper Toldo, asked recently what Cuper had brought to Inter, replied cheerfully: “I would prefer to think of what he might still bring us, further down the road, namely the title.”

This interview appeared in the March 2002 issue of World Soccer