It is more than six months since FC Internazionale Milano won the UEFA Champions League, but for the players who had ended the Nerazzurri's lengthy wait for a third triumph in the competition, the memories are as fresh as if the game in Madrid had been played yesterday.
Not since 1965 had Inter won European football's top prize, and after getting the better of a dangerous Chelsea FC side plus holders FC Barcelona to set up a date with FC Bayern München in the final, they were not going to let their chance slip.
"I remember [coach José Mourinho] saying we were there because we deserved to be in the final and that he didn't want to return to Milan without the ultimate satisfaction [of winning it]," Maicon told UEFA.com. The defender and his colleagues soon ensured that the Portuguese tactician did not go home disappointed.
The Serie A giants jumped in front on 35 minutes when Diego Milito flicked Júlio César's clearance on to Wesley Sneijder. The Argentinian forward raced on to his team-mate's perfectly weighted return pass and coolly finished from close range.
"It's difficult to describe," said Milito. "It was a nice goal. First there was the pass by Wesley; I didn't have much time to think about what to do and decided not to shoot immediately.
I saw the goalkeeper move then took the shot. Luckily, it went in."
Sneijder picked up the tale: "I remember the moment very well. I got the ball with my back to goal and turned quickly.
I saw Milito running into space and gave the right pass at the right moment, at the right speed. It was an amazing, fantastic moment."
Inter's good work was almost undone by Thomas Müller early in the second half, but Júlio César's brilliant, instinctive close-range save kept the Nerazzurri in front. "The second half had just started," the Brazilian international goalkeeper recalled. "It was a one-on-one situation and I was able to make an important save that kept the team in the lead."
Milito added: "
My heart stood still for a second, but he made an extraordinary save which secured us victory." As telling as that intervention surely was, however, it was Milito's second goal, with 20 minutes remaining, that made the game safe.
The striker received a pass from Samuel Eto'o on the break and, after bursting into the area, left Daniel Van Buyten in his wake before firing past Hans-Jörg Butt. "I was so tired I didn't even have the strength to think about [what I had done], but I quickly realised the final was almost decided," he said. "We were looking good and I knew the second goal really hurt them."
The same thought flashed through Maicon's mind: "
I looked up into the sky, then to my family in the stadium and to Milito. He deserved to enjoy this moment, because he worked so hard for it. That second goal decided the match." Sneijder concurred: "I felt it was really over then and our opponents felt the same."
Soon after, the celebrations began in earnest. "There's nothing to say about that," explained Maicon. "For a player like me, who had a lot of difficulties at the start of his career, to overcome the hurdles and get to Europe and a club as big as Inter with the goal of winning big titles, and then to win the Champions League ... It was the nicest moment of my life."
For Júlio César, the emotions proved very similar. "When Mourinho came to the club, I told him to make me kiss that trophy," he recalled. "
That was the happiest moment in my career. Every player wants to kiss that trophy and I did so with my team-mates. It was a fantastic moment, one I will always remember."
As for Mourinho, the final whistle brought with it the end of an era. "
I cried because I was saying goodbye," explained the Real Madrid CF-bound coach. "In Porto it was the same: [winning the UEFA Champions League] was my last match. It's the best way to leave a team and to leave a job. With the emotion of the victory plus the emotion of saying goodbye to my players, it was an incredible night for me – one of my best in football."
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