When discussing the best goalkeepers in Europe, talk almost always turns to the same exclusive group of names. But while Gigi Buffon, David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois are regularly mentioned, Samir Handanović is rarely included. He should be.
The Inter Milan keeper has been the Nerazzurri’s most important player in recent seasons, often the only man offering resistance when this largely underperforming team has come under fire.
Inter’s struggles have seen Handanovic rank among the Serie A leaders in terms of both saves and clean sheets, second only to Juventus record-setter Buffon in the latter category in 2015-16.
But with Roberto Mancini’s men – who finished the campaign in fourth place – once again missing out on Champions League football and Slovenia failing to qualify for Euro 2016, Handanovic has been forced to remain on the outside looking in when it comes to continental competition.
Transfer rumours have linked him with clubs ranging from Barcelona to Liverpool and teams searching for security between the posts should surely recognise the ability of the Ljubljana native. But he seems content to remain with the San Siro giants.
“Inter is a unique, special, classy and exciting club,” Handanović tells Sport360 in an exclusive interview, aware that he is following in the footsteps of some truly iconic goalkeepers.
Walter Zenga has long been an icon to the passionate supporters on the Curva Nord, while the likes of Francesco Toldo and Gianluca Pagliuca have since donned the gloves. However, it is two other men who a young Samir dreamed of emulating.
“I was inspired by my cousin Jasmin Handanović, who plays for Maribor,” Handanovic explains. “He’s six years older than me and I fell in love with the position when I used to go and watch him, but I also liked Peter Schmeichel growing up. His presence in goal. His long throws were so powerful and allowed his team-mates to create danger at the other end. Coming off his line, he wasn’t afraid to take chances and his approach was clearly ahead of his time.”
While Schmeichel enjoyed sustained success with Manchester United, there is an inescapable feeling that Handanović arrived at Inter at just the wrong time. Having previously played for Udinese, Lazio and Rimini, he joined the Nerazzurri two years after the historic 2009-10 campaign that saw the club lift an unprecedented treble.
After winning the Serie A title, the Coppa Italia and Champions League under Jose Mourinho, Inter headed into decline and by the time Handanovic was signed, they had already made five appointments in their search for a worthy successor.
“I joined when there was a changing of the guard in terms of a generation of players and the club’s ownership,” Handanović says. “All this gave me added motivation, although it’s only natural that you struggle at times with such a massive turnover in playing staff. It’s been strange but every team goes through unsuccessful periods in football.”
That calm, level-headed approach has helped him blossom in Milan; he has been lauded as an outstanding shot-stopper and also earned a reputation as something of a spot-kick specialist. Indeed, when he saved a penalty from Lazio’s Antonio Candreva back in December, it marked the 22nd time he had done so in Serie A, bringing him within two of Pagliuca’s all-time record.
“I think he’ll beat my record for penalty saves. I would be happy to keep it, but he will overtake me soon and having such a good goalkeeper is a great advantage,” Pagliuca – who helped Inter win the UEFA Cup back in 1998 – said last year.
But while Handanović never looks flustered when staring down an opponent from twelve yards, he shifts awkwardly in his chair when asked about his prowess in this aspect of the game.
32 - Selamat Ulang Tahun Samir Handanovic, kiper dengan penyelamatan penalti terbanyak di Serie A sejak 2007. Ahli. pic.twitter.com/5NZwsxI76Q— OptaJaya (@OptaJaya) July 14, 2016
“It’s always nice to hear praise from great goalkeepers of the past because only they really know what it’s like to play between the sticks,” he says, adding that “any save that wins you a match or changes the course of a game is important.”
Such is Handanovic’s cool demeanour, Inter Channel commentator Roberto Scarpini has taken to calling him Batman. With the Dark Knight often portrayed as a brooding loner, it is an even more apt moniker for a goalkeeper, a role in which isolation from team-mates is the norm. But the nickname is one Handanovic can certainly live with.
“I like it,” he says. “It’s partly down to the way I come off my line and, like any kid, I loved those cartoons! The time alone is just something you get used to. You’re always on your own in goal during matches too. There’s a great bond between the goalkeepers at Inter, though. We all help each other out, it’s very important. Above all its vital that there’s mutual respect and that you work well together.”
The other man to figure prominently in Handanovic’s career is former Padova goalkeeper Adriano Bonaiuti, a specialist coach during the Slovenian’s time at Udinese before reuniting with him at Inter. When the conversation turns to the 49-year-old, he opens up, lavishing praise on the man who can be seen firing shots at him and offering advice during pre-match warmups.
“I’ve got great respect for him; he’s crucial. First and foremost, I admire him as a person and obviously as a goalkeeping coach too. I think he’s ahead of the game in terms of his philosophy – in how he sees the role of a goalkeeper – and his mentality.
“That’s made me change both the way I think and the way I train. It’s his whole working approach that’s hard to explain in just a few words because it’s so detailed. From developing goalkeepers physically and in terms of their positioning in goal to the intensity of training sessions, he’s great.”
Looking to his own future, Handanović refuses to be drawn on links to the Premier League or La Liga, but admits that “it’s nice to receive interesting offers as they confirm that you’re working well.”
He adds: “I want to progress from a personal perspective and win things with the team here at Inter. There’s always pressure when you want to compete for big targets. That’s normal in the life of any sportsman. You have to handle it and a lot depends on how you deal with it.”
The club changed hands again this summer, and the new Chinese owners seem focused on returning to the Champions League and contending for the Serie A title once again. So what would it mean to deliver the Scudetto to the black and blue half of the majestic Stadio San Siro after their recent struggles?
“I think a club like Inter has to compete for big targets like that year in, year out but you can’t talk about it until it happens,” he says with a smile. “So I’ll tell you then!”
The life of an elite footballer can be a dream and as the game’s biggest superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo’s is unsurprisingly more eventful and extravagant than others.
Fresh from his Euro 2016 triumph with Portugal, Ronaldo has been living it up on holiday in Las Vegas.
The Real Madrid star caught up with UFC fighter Conor McGregor on Sunday and was even brave enough to step into the Octagon with him.
McGregor is expected to return to the Octagon at UFC 202, where he will be relishing the opportunity to have a rematch with Nate Diaz.
Ronaldo was later spotted at Jennifer Lopez’s concert before meeting the pop star in person and even joining in her birthday celebrations.
Cristiano Ronaldo partying with Jennifer Lopez on her birthday in Las Vegas pic.twitter.com/twXJjJXETA— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) July 24, 2016
Just a day in the life of Cristiano Ronaldo, eh?
Longevity is an increasingly rare commodity in football. Successful coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho get itchy feet after only a few seasons, while players swap clubs as frequently as their sports cars. There are some exceptions of course, but it is widely accepted that the ‘one-club man’ concept now belongs to a bygone era.
How AC Milan fans would love to be transported back to that era, particularly given the club’s current malaise. A time when loyalty and success went hand in hand, when Milanese royalty like Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta ruled at home and in Europe.
Those three defensive icons offered Milan a combined 65 years of service between them, with Maldini leading the way. During 24 years at the San Siro, he lifted 26 major trophies. Since his retirement in 2009, however, the club has had a sole Scudetto (2010-11) to celebrate. And of that title-winning side, just one player remains – Ignazio Abate a long-serving anomaly of modern Milan.
“It’s not so easy anymore,” Maldini tells Sport360 ahead of his participation in the Abu Dhabi Summer Season. “I was born in Milan and I found everything with the club of my city. It’s not very common. Different players have different goals. When I started it wasn’t so common for an Italian player to go and play in another country. Now it’s changed and that is almost the norm.
“I believe if the right people find the right club at the right moment it can be unique. There are a lot of former players like Franco Baresi [20 years] and Alessandro Costacurta [21 years] who played their whole careers for AC Milan. For us it was much easier because our winning era was so long that nobody wanted to leave the club.”
So what is the secret to playing at the pinnacle of your sport for two-and-a-half decades?
“First of all, genes from my father and my mother for sure,” Maldini explains, smiling. “After that, it was all about dedication and passion. I was also lucky not to have any really bad injuries in my career. That’s why I was able to play for 25 years for AC Milan.”
The current Milan side is a shadow of those great teams for whom Maldini was such a stalwart. But with Silvio Berlusconi set to end his 30-year reign as Rossoneri owner, there is hope that Milan may emerge from the doldrums after successive Serie A finishes of 8th, 10th and 7th in the past three years. Maldini, though, is keen to temper any optimism.
“I think the time is right for Mr. Berlusconi to sell. He doesn’t want to invest more money. He doesn’t have the time to follow the team as he did,” Maldini says. “Still, Milan will always be in his heart – he really does love the club. But probably, yes, this is the right time to sell.
“The new season is not going to be very easy. We still don’t know who is going to be the new owner; we still don’t know if they will want to buy 100 percent of the club. We are nearly at the start of the season so I don’t think there will be a lot of new players coming this year either. There are a lot of question marks.”
One new face already at the San Siro is former Roma and Italy striker Vincenzo Montella, who has taken up the coach’s job. It has been something of a poisoned chalice of late, with Montella the eighth man to lead Milan since Carlo Ancelotti – and Maldini – departed in 2009. But Milan’s legendary No. 3 feels Montella represents a solid appointment.
“As a player he was incredible, he was really very hard to play against. And as a coach his teams usually play very good football. They like to play the ball. We will have to see who is going to be in the squad and what he can do but I think it’s a good move from Milan.”
“To go from a player to a coach is a big step – you have to be ready, and Conte has always been ready. He is one of the younger coaches who is going to write history in this sport.”
Maldini is well used to seeing former opponents in the dugout, with ex-Juventus midfielder Antonio Conte another who has forged a successful path as a coach. Having also encountered him as a team-mate at international level with Italy, Maldini is not surprised at all by his progress, and believes it is only a matter of time before he prospers at Chelsea.
“Usually midfielders like Antonio Conte, like [Carlo] Ancelotti, like [Frank] Rijkaard – they are born to be coaches. To actually change your life and go from a player to a coach is a big step – you have to be ready, and Conte has always been ready. Since his first team in Serie B he has shown something different. He is one of the younger coaches who is going to write history in this sport.
“As a player, he never gave up and he always wants the same from his players. There were a lot of problems with Italy before Euro 2016, especially because of the midfielders missing through injury but he didn’t seem to worry and he was right.
“I hope that he will be successful at Chelsea but the Premier League is a different world – I think he will need to try and understand the league and to make the players understand what he wants; it’s not easy but I think he will do well there.”
Coaching is not something that has ever appealed to Maldini, who is now simply happy to watch his sons Christian and Daniel play for the Milan’s youth teams. Christian captained the Under-19 side earlier this year shortly after the death of grandfather Cesare, and should he ever reach the senior team, he will pull on his dad’s iconic No. 3 shirt.
“Christian didn’t play too much the last two years because he broke the same knee twice,” Maldini says. “For a young kid like him it’s not easy to come back. That’s why they gave him the captain’s armband. It makes me very proud when I watch them.”
BEST DEFENDER IN THE WORLD AT THE MOMENT?
Thiago Silva. Even though he didn’t play so good in the last year, I still don’t understand why he hasn’t been in the national team because he is still the best for Brazil. He has everything – good positional awareness, skill, very strong, he can jump well. He has everything needed to be the best.
BEST PLAYER YOU EVER FACED?
Diego Maradona for sure, and also Ronaldo when he was playing for Inter Milan. He was very tough because he was a huge guy, more than 80kgs, fast like crazy and great skills too. He had everything.
TOUGHEST OPPONENT IN TRAINING?
I remember in 1994, Ruud Gullit was playing on the right wing in training and I was on the left – he didn’t usually play there in the first XI but it was very hard to play against him. A great player.
DO YOU STILL WATCH MILAN PLAY?
I love watching football. I’ve never been a football fan because I have been a professional but yes I still love it. And when I have the chance to go to the stadium, yes I really like to watch Milan games, particularly the big games.
YOU’RE A TENNIS FAN, WHO’S YOUR FAVOURITE PLAYER?
My knees are not too good but I still like to play tennis with friends now. In terms of players to watch Roger Federer I love. Even if Djokovic has been very good recently, Federer is still brilliant.