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!”