Nicola Berti does not need to be told of his cult status among Tottenham Hotspur supporters. Indeed, he is even aware of the song that still gets an occasional airing in his honour. “My name is Nicola Berti,” he sings, booming out the opening line of a ditty that ends with the refrain “Hey gorgeous, what’s your name?”
‘Gorgeous’ was certainly one way to describe the tall, dark and handsome midfielder who arrived at White Hart Lane on a six-month contract in January 1998, with over 300 Inter Milan appearances to his name – and a playboy reputation that did not exactly disappear during his 21-match spell in north London. “We didn’t have an overnight stay before games like in Italy so I was in an Italian restaurant for a party one Friday night,” he says, summoning an example. “Out of the blue Christian Gross [Tottenham’s then manager] appeared and he asked me: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I told him: ‘It’s my girlfriend’s birthday.’ It was the very first thing that came into my head. “Where is she?” he asked, so I just grabbed the nearest girl and presented her as my girlfriend.”
Berti is sitting in the Sala Meazza, an interview room in Inter’s club offices, located on Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II in the centre of Milan, a short walk from the city’s cathedral. At 51, the former Italian international with the still-floppy fringe is a larger-than-life character, removing his pink jacket and throwing his arms about like a semaphorist on speed as he starts evoking a very different era at White Hart Lane.
Champions League encounters of the kind Berti will witness at the San Siro on Tuesday night were then a distant dream for a club battling for Premier League survival. A Christmas phone call from Jürgen Klinsmann, his former Inter team-mate newly returned for a second spell at Spurs, precipitated Berti’s arrival in London. “I’d had three serious injuries but at 31, I still wanted to prove myself,” he says. “I arrived in January and made a huge contribution to Tottenham avoiding relegation – scoring three goals and getting three or four assists.”
For Berti, leaving Inter for Spurs was then a “step down”. Regarded as a box-to-box midfielder in his Serie A days, he says he was past his prime yet still able to shine. “At that time in England it wasn’t like now, there were fewer foreign owners, fewer foreign players so although the pace on the pitch was very high, it was completely disorganised and someone like me could play well, despite being at only 70 per cent of my capacity. I was playing in the Pirlo role, as a deep midfielder, a distributor, and I did it well thanks to all my experience in Serie A. Now it’s totally different. The Premier League is the most important league in the world.”
The first of his three goals in a Spurs shirt came in a 3-0 win at a Blackburn Rovers side managed by his former Inter boss Roy Hodgson. He once described Hodgson as the worst coach he worked with but is more diplomatic now, insisting they got on well as he cites their habit of swapping cigars. “Before each game I’d give him a Cuban cigar, and the next day he’d give me one back.”
Of Gross, meanwhile, the Swiss coach who had an unhappy eight months managing Spurs, Berti suggests his biggest problem was an obsession with tactics. “He was very tactical. At that time English players typically didn’t like it a lot, they used to be very tactically undisciplined, they played with a lot of heart, they gave everything but they were poor tactically. Today it’s totally different, 20 year later, they’re all very aware tactically thanks to all the foreign coaches they’ve had.”
There are plenty of chuckles from Berti as he reminisces about the “beat-up cars” his colleagues would turn up in, “driven by others” owing to drink-driving bans. “In Italy the police were more relaxed if you were a footballer but I remember after my first game with Tottenham, I got stopped 200 metres from White Hart Lane. It was a shock.
“I played with some great characters,” he continues, “including [Les] Ferdinand, [David] Ginola, [Darren] Anderton, Sol Campbell, [Steffen] Iversen, Allan Nielsen, [Chris] Armstrong.” He enjoyed the “obligatory” post-match beers but bristles at the memory of having to foot the bill after a night out during a pre-season training camp in St Moritz. “I invited all the squad to join me at a place I knew. At some point I left and I thought the others would have paid for their drinks but the day after, just before starting this friendly game against an amateur team, the owner of the bar appeared at the ground demanding that I pay him!”
It was 20 years ago this Wednesday that Berti made his last appearance for Spurs and he still remembers the opposition that day, Southampton. David Pleat, who took him off early that afternoon, gets short shrift – “Brutto” (ugly), he sniffs while trying to remember the name of the then sporting director who had taken temporary charge after Gross’s sacking. He is even less complimentary about George Graham, whose subsequent appointment as manager shut the door on his English adventure, despite his having only just agreed a new 12-month contract. “He had this prejudice against foreign players and wanted only English players in his team. He got rid of me immediately because I was living in London.
“He knew I was the only one not living near the training ground as I lived on Fulham Road. I commuted an hour and half there and an hour and a half back.” Laughing again, he adds: “I’d come to London not to live in Chigwell but to experience London. I was ready to do all that driving so that after training I was in London and not the stupid countryside.”
Berti spent a chunk of his post-football years living on the Caribbean island of St Barts but is now back involved with Inter. An ambassador since 2016, he works with the club’s former players’ project, Inter Forever, and will be present at San Siro on Tuesday for their first appearance in the Champions League since 2011/12. Outside the room we are sitting in is a reminder of the club’s rich history – a corridor display that includes three European Cup and three Uefa Cup trophies.
Berti, who won two of the latter, remembers “a huge gap” between the clubs when he joined Spurs but says: “Today the two teams are very close but I think Inter are still slightly better. Tottenham are fantastic in attack, very good in midfield, but so-so in defence. They concede too many goals.”
Inter, he adds, have a “lion” up front in Argentina’s Mauro Icardi, scorer of 91 league goals over the past four seasons, albeit yet to score this term, and Berti is particularly encouraged by the Croatian trio of right-back Šime Vrsaljko, midfielder Marcelo Brozović and winger Ivan Perisić, England’s nemesis in the World Cup semi-final who “had a great World Cup”. He continues: “The squad is a lot stronger thanks to the Croatians who have grown in confidence after reaching the World Cup final.”
Yet there is one player he does fear, Harry Kane. “Harry Kane is the only English forward of the last 30 years who I really like. I admire him a lot because he is a complete footballer – he can play for the team, he is good with the right and the left foot, with the head. I don’t often like English forwards but he’s an exception. He’s the best Spurs striker since Klinsmann.”
High praise indeed given his old pal Klinsmann’s feats in a Spurs shirt, including the goals which helped save Christian Gross’s team back in 1998. With the help, as he has reminded us, of a certain gorgeous Italian.