The list of great goalkeepers who have played for Inter Milan over the years is a long and illustrious one, featuring the likes of Giuliano Sarti, Walter Zenga, Gianluca Pagliuca, Francesco Toldo, Ivano Bordon and, more recently, Julio Cesar.
Today a new name can be added to that fabled group: Samir Handanovic, an inclusion that meets with the approval of the greats themselves.
Making light of a decidedly cool welcome from the Inter tifosi, who were less than pleased at the departure of Brazilian international Cesar, the Slovenian quickly won over the doubters, nailing down a first-team place within a few weeks and proving himself worthy of the position.
Born in Ljubljana, Handanovic was something of a late starter, making his debut at the age of 18 with a youth team in Domzale, a town in central Slovenia. Two years later, in 2004, he was spotted by scouts from Udinese, the big Italian club from just over the border.
Renowned for nurturing young talents, I Zebrette loaned the player out for three straight seasons, allowing him to pick up some valuable experience. The aspiring custodian made the most of his spells with Treviso, Lazio and then Rimini, where he distinguished himself as the second-best keeper in Serie B, eclipsed only by Gianluigi Buffon during Juventus’ short stay in tier two.
Now pretty much the finished article, the consistent Handanovic is a commanding presence in the air, where he brings his 6’4 frame to bear, and is not afraid to come off his line, proving impressively secure when he does so.
The hard-working Slovenian is also calmness personified, rarely showing his emotions on the pitch, no matter whether he has pulled off a spectacular save or let in an avoidable goal.
“Throughout my career I always had a preference for consistent keepers rather than ones who make a miracle saves every now and then,” said Zenga, an Italian goalkeeping icon and not known for paying compliments. “Handanovic stays cool, keeps things simple and does his job efficiently. He’s got presence and character.”
No fears from the spot
Following his various loan spells Handanovic was given the No1 slot at Udinese and held on to it for the next five seasons, making 179 appearances and maintaining a high standard throughout. In the process he earned a reputation as a penalty-save specialist, stopping 22 of the 53 spot-kicks he faced, a remarkable 41.5 per cent.
That success rate owes little to luck. During training sessions, Handanovic goes through drill after drill in a bid to improve his reaction times, helping him acquire the kind of reflexes rarely associated with keepers of his size.
“You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. It has to be something you enjoy,” he said when asked to explain the secret behind his special ability. “You always have to work on the basics because there are some things that come naturally to you and others that you can only pick up by working at them. If you don’t do that, then you’re going nowhere.”
Aside from the work he puts in on the training ground, Handanovic spends hours watching DVDs of his opponents. No sooner does he come off the pitch after a game than he asks for a recording of the match so he can analyse his performance.
Explaining his attention to detail, he said: “Technology is important. You have to keep up with the times. It’s something that can help you, though there are times when it’s not so important.”
A seamless transition
When Inter decided at the start of the season to trim their considerable wage bill and part company with Julio Cesar, their second-highest paid player, they went straight for the Udinese custodian, whose reasonable wage demands and extensive Serie A experience made him an even more attractive target.
Though a knee injury hampered the early-season progress of the Slovenian international, it was not long before he dispelled the doubts, easing into the position as if it had been his for years.
“I’ve settled in without any trouble,” said Handanovic, capped 60 times by his country and the cousin of NK Maribor goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic. “I haven’t had any problems fitting in and my team-mates have really been there for me. I’ve got to know the group pretty quickly because a goalkeeper needs to find out what makes his colleagues tick. He has to get on with them and know what to expect during a game.
His Nerazzurri team-mates certainly know what to expect from the new man between the posts, as Giuliano Sarti, who manned the Inter goal between 1963 and 1968, explained, illustrating the Slovenian’s worth to the side: “A good keeper can save his team 17 to 18 points over a championship season. And I can tell you, he’s a good keeper.”