Pitchside

‘Johnny’ be good for Internazionale (finally)

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This is an underdog story. An improbable tale of redemption. Its hero is Jonathan Cicero Moreira, a boy from Brazil. Once upon a time, not so long ago, he was considered a villain. Maybe ‘villain’ is too strong a word. But for fans of Inter Jonathan came to represent everything that was wrong about their club. He became an unwitting symbol of their decline after the triplete in 2010.

Signed from Santos, ‘Johnny’ was presented as the new Douglas Maicon. Those were big shoes to fill. Remember this was before Maicon had to put up with shouts of ‘Taxi’ every time he touched the ball following Gareth Bale’s break-out performance at San Siro for Tottenham. Expectations were high. But as with so many of the signings made at the time by Inter’s then technical director Marco Branca this one appeared to be a calamitous flop.

For a while, it seemed Jonathan was to this team’s right back position what Vratislav Gresko had once been to its left-back spot. Bought in 2000 from Bayer Leverkusen, Gresko followed in the footsteps of Andreas Brehme and Roberto Carlos. He tripped over, it might be said. A lot. The headed back-pass Gresko made to goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, which Karel Poborsky intercepted and scored from on May 5, 2002 has gone down in folklore.

Inter were 2-1 up against Lazio at the time. It was the final day of the season. Had they won, Inter would have claimed the Scudetto for the first time in 13 years. Instead they collapsed, losing 4-2 and Juventus, victorious in Udine, overtook them at the last. Years later, Inter fans would create the ‘Gresko prize’, an award acknowledging the worst performer at the club. In contention for it last season, Jonathan missed out to coach Andrea Stramaccioni.

Out of Europe for the first time since the turn of the millennium, he’d led Inter to a ninth place finish, their poorest in nearly two decades, so you can perhaps understand why the panel went with him even if he was not at all exclusively to blame for Inter’s woes. In all fairness, last year’s Gresko should have gone to the club as a whole.

Unlike fellow nominees in an Oscar category who didn’t receive the academy award, Jonathan wouldn’t have begrudged Stramaccioni it. He would have been relieved. But his miss from six yards out away at Siena and the falls he made tracking back and in his own penalty area not once but twice at Samp wouldn’t go unrecognised. They’d form the basis of a cult video in Italy. Its producers parodied a series of documentaries on Sky Italia in which Federico Buffa, a great raconteur, tells the story of sporting legends.

This one told of the divine Jonathan, born in Bethlehem to Mary, the Madonna, and Joseph, a boy who neither wanted to be a pop singer like his mother, nor a carpenter like his father. He wanted to be a footballer instead and is discovered in Jerusalem by a holidaying Pele, who takes Jonathan back to Brazil and proclaims: “If I’d had half your talent, I would have been the best player in the world.”

The famous image of the original Ronaldo in an Inter shirt, arms out-stretched imitating Christ the Redeemer at the summit of Corcovado is Photoshopped to show him with Jonathan’s name and number on the back. Down on the Copacabana, Branca, taking a break from scouting in Rio, sees a kid performing kick ups, not with a football but, heavens above, with grains of sand. It’s the divine Jonathan. Branca has to sign him. He calls Inter’s then owner Massimo Moratti to say he’s found someone “10 times better than Ronaldo.”

You get the idea. Jonathan was a figure of fun. And yet now he’s having the last laugh. Man of the match in Sunday’s 2-0 win at Hellas Verona, Jonathan set-up Rodrigo Palacio’s opener and scored the closer. It didn’t feel like an inglorious exception either like his wonderful goal against Roma in the Coppa Italia last season, the build up to which featured Ricky Alvarez and Tommaso Rocchi exchanging back-heeled one-twos with him, a move that left spectators eyes wide in disbelief, their jaws on the floor. Did that really happen? All involved were considered flops at the time.

But Jonathan [and Ricky are] no longer. Together with Palacio, he has arguably been Inter’s best player this season. And to think the 28-year-old was seriously pondering a return to Brazil last summer. That is, until his mother intervened. “When I was sad at Inter,” Jonathan explained, “my mother comforted me by saying: ‘This is your dream. You have to live it’. Being a footballer is every Brazilian’s dream. I must thank her again.”

Her and Inter coach Walter Mazzarri. When the club reviews his first season, he’ll be able to point to how he made something of players many thought of as lost causes: Jonathan, first and foremost, then Ricky and to a lesser extent Yuto Nagatomo. That’s been a real positive. “Mazzarri is a great coach,” Jonathan told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He has changed my life by explaining things to me a lot and convincing me through work. I’ve even learnt to make a diagonal.”

If you see a gap, hit it has been Mazzarri’s maxim. Jonathan has done it so well, the papers in Italy are beginning to talk up the prospect of an international call up. Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is apparently well aware of him. Recall, he was at the Derby della Madonnina which Inter won 1-0 before Christmas. But wait. Jonathan could also play for Italy. His wife and childhood sweetheart Luana is of Italian ancestry. Her great grandparents, Signor and Signora Grossi, were from near Lucca. “If Prandelli calls me, I’ll go,” Jonathan said on Sunday. Yet it remains to be seen if he will.

Once a scapegoat, il gabbiano or the Seagull as Inter commentator Roberto Scarpini has nicknamed him, is flying high. “Johnny, it’s almost magic,” the Cristina d’Avena song goes. It really is. His transformation from zero to hero has to be seen to be believed.

James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle)

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