This post has been guest written by Michael Jones. Michael is a regular on my European football podcast, which you can listen to here. Of course, times like these serve as a reminder that, ultimately, football is just a game. A beautiful game, yes. A game that, for ninety minutes or so every weekend, offers an ephemeral release from the stress, pressure and worry of everyday life. But, to reiterate, just a game.
Indeed, the thrills of live football, questionable officiating and soaring emotions are fast becoming no more than a distant memory for many of us. Notwithstanding the inexplicable exception of the vodka-fuelled Vysheyshaya Liga (Belarusian football’s top flight), football has quite rightly ground to an almost global halt.
In the current climate, it would therefore be easy and wholly understandable to forget that Italian football finally had a genuine title race on its hands as COVID-19 loomed menacingly in the medicinal shadows. Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan side just about remained in consideration for the Scudetto. This weekend, I was supposed to be heading to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to see Conte’s men take on Paulo Fonseca’s Roma in a match which may well have played a significant role in deciding who would ultimately be crowned champions of Italy at the end of the season.
With my trip naturally shelved for the time being, I asked Michael to recount his visit to see Inter take on Joe Hart’s Torino back in 2016. For me, the passion of Serie A and Italian football generally is perhaps rivalled only by Argentina’s Superliga and those who frequent such fabled South American stadia as La Bombonera, El Monumental and El Nuevo Gasómetro. With his remarkable knowledge of the game and attention to sporting detail, I think Michael’s words have somehow encapsulated that raw Italian emotion…
My involvement with Alasdair’s Road To Nowhere project has increased considerably in 2020. This has been mainly due to the launch of the ‘Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast’ in January. Episodes have been released on a fortnightly basis and I have been corresponding on the latest developments in Serie A.
As my first contribution to the Road to Nowhere movement was an article, it seemed fitting in these uncertain times to provide a written account of my trip to the San Siro in 2016. This wonderfully historic stadium is of course to be demolished in the near future, making my Italian sojourn all the more poignant…
Trips to the biggest grounds around the continent are often meticulously planned out: trying to book holidays in advance to allow everybody in your party to attend; securing well priced flights; and organising accommodation and tickets.
For me however, this was a visit born out of pure spontaneity. A few of my friends and I, cash-strapped just months into our year abroad, had decided to visit Sofia before pit-stopping momentarily at Milan on the journey home. A day trip touring a city brimming with culture, following a transfer in Bergamo for all of 10 euros, was simply too good to turn down.
Departing the coach station in Milan following our transfer, I was greeted by an older Italian man proudly sporting the colours of his nation. He asked me if I had a lighter. I didn’t. ‘Welcome to Italy, you fucking shit!’, he muttered with evident disdain.
We had ten hours to lose ourselves in Milan. With the help of our newfound chain-smoking friend, we picked up a brochure listing the top eight things to do in Milan. Seven of those were conveniently in close proximity such as the Duomo di Milano, the Teatro alla Scala and the Pinacoteca di Brera.
We worked our way through that list in a matter of hours, leaving ourselves with an entire evening in Milan prior to catching our coach back to France. With our bodies spent from taking advantage of the ludicrously cheap alcohol in Sofia, we decided to meander lazily out to the San Siro (known officially as the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza). As luck would have it, we learned mid-route that Inter Milan were hosting Torino that same evening.
San Siro Serenity
Upon arrival we ambled up the pathway towards the floodlit stadium, surrounded by plenteous matchgoers sporting Inter’s timeless navy and black kit.
Over the past five years both Milan teams had failed to live up to their historic standing. Obtaining tickets was therefore not an issue. More pertinent, however, was the cost. Thankfully, we were able to take advantage of our international student status and paid a mere €10 for our tickets. With kick-off just minutes away, and our wallets breathing a proverbial sigh of relief, we hastily made our way towards the ground and took our seats a minute or two after kick off.
Engulfed in a thick smog of cigarette smoke and other herbal substances, one could not help but feel reassured that we were sitting in a more placid section of the iconic ground. There was also the option of ordering food and drink to our seats via an app on our phones. Adjusting myself to the unexpected and unfamiliar surroundings, my focus quickly shifted to the pitch and the action that would soon follow.
Star-studded team low on confidence
Frequently the case with Inter’s well documented failures following their treble in 2010, their starting line-up that evening was star-studded and included the likes of Samir Handanovic, Miranda, Ever Banega, Antonio Candreva and Mauro Icardi. As the season began, hopes were high that Inter would, at the very least, qualify for Champions League football once again. Indeed, there had arguably been cause for even greater optimism: the squad looked strong, rivals Juventus had just lost the instrumental Paul Pogba to Manchester United and new coach Frank de Boer was widely regarded at the time as one of Europe’s most promising tacticians. If only.
The game started cagily with the home side’s creative players seemingly reluctant to take any real responsibility with the ball at their feet. Inter’s opponents, Torino, were organised, focussed and with lofty ambitions of their own. By this point in the season, il Toro had of course themselves started to captivate and enthral a whole new generation of football fans across the continent (many of whom would have been too young to remember the great Torino side of the 1940’s so tragically killed in the 1949 Superga Air Disaster).
Despite the apparent pre-season positivity, Inter had picked up a measly eleven points from their opening nine league games. A run of three defeats going into the game with Torino had left de Boer’s future at I Nerazzurri hanging precariously in the balance. Indeed, many felt defeat that evening would spell the premature end for the former captain of the Dutch national team’s time in the Italian capital.
Death threats and a weakened image
That pressure and underlying tension had perhaps been heightened further by the publication of striker Mauro Icardi’s first autobiography, Sempre Avanti, just days earlier. Schismatic and brilliant in equal Argentine measure, Icardi has never been one to shy away from controversy. Against a backdrop of growing tension with Inter’s ultras following a series of unsavoury incidents dating back to 2015, he had promised in his autobiography that: “I’ll bring 100 criminals from Argentina who’ll kill them where they stand, then we’ll see.”
Icardi’s comments had naturally divided large sections of the Internazionale support. As the game began, his every touch was accompanied by a chorus of boos from the Curva Nord. This was not the only tumultuous narrative undermining de Boer’s time in the San Siro dugout. The Dutch coach had already quarrelled with some of Inter’s talented younger players, namely Marcelo Brozović and Geoffrey Kondogbia.
Those run-ins had considerably weakened de Boer’s image. At Ajax, the Dutchman had demonstrated an impressive ability to both nurture and develop promising young players. Luis Suarez, Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen had all notably benefited from de Boer’s coaching and man management in the early stages of their respective careers. But those individual and collective success stories must have now seemed like distant memories for de Boer. The petty squabbles, coupled with stuttering starts for new signings Joao Mario and Gabriel Barbosa, left de Boer cutting an increasingly forlorn figure on the San Siro touchline.
While there was certainly no love lost between Icardi and the Internazionale faithful, the home crowd were still trying to spur their side on with fervour. Perhaps it was that turbulent passion which got the better of Torino’s goalkeeper, Joe Hart. At the time, Hart was fast becoming a shadow of the once world class stopper who had so arrogantly reigned supreme in the English Premier League. Struggling to recover from a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, Hart had been ruthlessly axed by the incoming Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Things did not get much better for him in Italy.
Hart’s nerves were increasingly palpable as the Nerazzurri began to apply firm pressure. Approaching the end of the first half, the home side finally made the breakthrough. A neat pass split the Torino defence and left Icardi with only Joe Hart to beat. Having timed his run to perfection, the Argentine then benefitted from a fortuitous break of the ball to give his side an important lead. 1-0.
A critical period
At the time, the Italian national team had just enjoyed a relatively successful European Championships. Antonio Conte had built a pragmatic team spearheaded by the surprisingly effective front pairing of Eder and Graziano Pellè. Crucially, the tournament had provided Italy with a platform from which they could look to the future. But a more sustainable solution was needed than the ageing strike partnership Conte had relied on so heavily.
That solution was quickly found in the form of Torino forward Andrea Belotti. Like Ciro Immobile before him, Belotti was the latest Italian striker to win the hearts of the Torino support. In his first season at the club, he netted a respectable twelve goals.
Known as Il Gallo, the marksman from Lombardy then enjoyed a quite remarkable start to his second season. Indeed, he had already netted an impressive six goals in just nine appearances ahead of the game with Inter.
Brimming with confidence, Belotti brought his side back level at the San Siro with just over sixty minutes on the clock. A long ball forward from Joe Hart was poorly dealt with by both Joao Mario and Cristian Ansaldi. Sensing his chance, the potent Belloti kept his composure and lashed a sweet left-footed strike past the despairing dive of Samir Handanovic.
Il Toro, and the Italian national team, had apparently found their new talisman. 1-1.
A fitting finale and the end for Frank de Boer
A combination of goal-line clearances and rugged defending looked destined to keep a revitalised Inter at bay and secure a commendable away point for the visitors. But Icardi would have the last laugh with a moment of Argentine genius. As the game entered the 88th minute, the man from Rosario swivelled on the edge of the box and arrowed a powerful strike into the top right corner. Joe Hart had no chance. The Giuseppe Meazza erupted. The boos, temporarily at least, fell silent. 2-1.
The win would, however, provide Frank de Boer with only the most temporary of reprieves. Following a narrow loss to Sampdoria less than two weeks later, Frank de Boer’s time at Inter was up. Eighty-five turbulent days of misplaced optimism, South American death threats and player dissent had left his managerial reputation in ruin.
Many would of course have hoped that the Dutchman’s appointment in August 2016 would have been Inter’s catalyst for a return to both domestic and European glory. For one reason or another, it categorically was not.