Perhaps, with hindsight, we should have paid more attention to the title of Mauro Icardi’s new autobiography: Sempre Avanti – Always Ahead. For as long as he has been in the public consciousness, the striker has always carried an air of impatience, the manner of someone who is eager to skip forward to the next chapter.
This is a man who joined Barcelona at 15, played his first Serie A game at 19 and was named Inter’s captain three years later. One who leapt eagerly – and very publicly – into a parental role when he took up with Wanda Nara, soon sharing intimate photographs of himself caring for her three sons by his former team-mate Maxi López. By 21, he had married Wanda, and within eight months, they had a daughter of their own.
So when Icardi stood smiling with the Inter directors Michael Bolingbroke and Piero Ausilio on 7 October, holding up a special shirt to commemorate a new five-year contract extension, we ought already to have been asking: “What’s next?” The answer to that question arrived when his book hit the shelves little more than one week later.
In it, Icardi relives an episode from the 2014-15 season. After a 3-1 defeat away to Sassuolo, he had gone with Fredy Guarín to face the Ultras who had travelled to see the game. During a heated exchange, he handed over his shirt, only to have it thrown back at him. Icardi was seen cursing at his antagonists, but after heading down the tunnel later returned with more team-mates for what appeared to be a more conciliatory dialogue.
The whole affair had largely been forgotten, until it popped up in the pages of his book. “I took off my shirt and shorts and gave them to a kid,” writes Icardi in an incendiary retelling. “It’s a shame that a head Ultra flew over to him, took the shirt from his hands and threw it after me with disgust. In that instant I was beside myself, I would have punched him for that bastard’s gesture he’d just pulled.
“So I started to insult him harshly. ‘Piece of shit, you act the big man and all powerful with a little kid to show off in front of the Curva. You should only be ashamed. You should all be ashamed.’ After saying that, I threw the shirt in his face. In that moment, everything kicked off like the world was ending.”
Icardi goes on to claim that, “In the changing room, I was applauded like an idol”, even if the club’s directors expressed the fear that fans might wait outside his house for retribution. “But I was clear,” he continues, “‘I’m ready to face them one by one. Maybe they don’t know that I grew up in one of the South American neighbourhoods with the highest rates of crime and people killed in the street.
“How many of them are there? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? OK, record my message and let them hear it. I will bring 100 criminals from Argentina who will kill them on the spot.”
If that conversation did truly happen, then the directors in question were wise enough not to relay his words at the time. The lingering question is how Inter could possibly have permitted them to be published in a book 20 months later.
The backlash against Icardi from the Ultras was as inevitable as it was swift. First came a statement from the Curva Nord, which defined his version of events at the Mapei Stadium as: “Lies. Lies. Lies.” It continued: “One concept must be clear to everyone. The Inter captain cannot allow himself these kinds of remarks. An individual like this cannot wear the captain’s armband.”
They may yet get their wish. No punitive action was taken by the club before Sunday’s game against Cagliari, with both Ausilio and the club vice-president Javier Zanetti stating that they intended to discuss the matter with cool heads on Monday morning. It is tempting to ask what took them so long, given that the book was launched at the start of last week. Is it possible that no director had even read it until the reaction became a furore?
Either way, the result was a toxic atmosphere at San Siro. Icardi had sought to calm the tension with a lengthy Instagram post in which he declared himself “surprised and sorry”. He insisted that he had only been trying to put across the heated atmosphere of that moment and how he himself had lost his head. Icardi added that wearing the captain’s armband for Inter “represents the realisation of my childhood dreams”, and implored fans to support the team even if they could not support him.
The Curva Nord was in no mood for a reconciliation. A banner was hung with the message: “Icardi: you’re the bastard, making shit up to sell more copies. You heinous mercenary.” Another read: “You use a child to justify yourself and throw mud in our faces. You’re not a man … you’re not a captain … you’re just a cowardly piece of shit.”
The rest of the crowd, though, was divided. There were plenty of fans elsewhere in the stadium prepared to stand with their captain. When the Curva Nord whistled Icardi, some attempted to drown them out with a round of applause.
The situation came to a head in the 24th minute, when Icardi won a penalty. It was a bizarre scene from the start, the striker falling after contact with Bruno Alves in the box, but play continuing for a good 10 seconds before the referee Paolo Valeri whistled, seemingly on advice from his goal-line assistant.
When Icardi stroked the eventual spot-kick wide, San Siro’s divided sentiment only became more apparent. Some home supporters openly mocked him, happier to see him suffer than their own team take the lead. Others attempted to encourage Icardi with a defiant ovation.
Obvious though it might seem to blame the tension inside the stadium for his miss, the truth is a little more nuanced; Icardi had already failed to convert two of his last three penalties in Serie A.
Likewise, we could not attribute Inter’s disjointed, sloppy performance to a single cause. They took the lead through João Mário in the 55th minute, and Icardi missed a golden opportunity to double their advantage when he headed wide from six yards out after losing his marker. But the Nerazzurri were desperately ponderous at times and there was a grim inevitability as they conceded twice in the final 20 minutes to throw the points away.
This was already Inter’s fifth defeat of the season in all competitions, albeit the first in which they had opened the scoring. A month removed from a brilliant win over Juventus, consistency remains an elusive goal for Frank De Boer.
On a day when Icardi had brought so much negative attention, it was poetic to see Cagliari inspired by a striker who has made headlines for more positive reasons. Federico Melchiorri thought his footballing career was over in 2010, when he was diagnosed with a cavernoma on the brain and obliged to step away from football for seven months to undergo treatment.
He had made his Serie A debut for Siena four years previously, but his career was on a downwards trajectory prior to the condition, as he bounced between teams and struggled for goals in Italy’s third and fourth divisions. When Melchiorri finally did return to action it was with non-league side Tolentino, playing in Eccelenza – the sixth tier.
Suddenly, he was banging goals in at a rate he had never come close to before. His prolific form continued as he climbed up through the divisions, joining Maceratese, Padova, then Pescara. Just when he had helped fire Cagliari to the verge of promotion from Serie B, he tore his cruciate ligament. He overcame that, too, marking his return to action with a goal off the bench against Sampdoria last month.
Sunday’s game was his first start since the knee injury. Once again, he delivered, scoring Cagliari’s first goal and effectively their second as well, when his deflected cross was pushed across the line by Inter’s keeper, Samir Handanovic. “On a sporting level, this is the best afternoon of my life,” said Melchiorri afterwards. “If I had given in, I would never have been able to live a moment like it.”
His experience made for a stark contrast with Icardi, who returned home to find another banner waiting for him. “We’re here,” it read, ominously. “Will you let us know when your Argentinian friends arrive?”
There were reports that a group of 40 or so Ultras had been there, too, and perhaps even attacked the car he was travelling in. Wanda subsequently denied these claims, saying: “Nothing happened on our return. We entered our house without any problems.”
Whatever the truth of that situation, it is hard to see how the broader tensions can easily be defused. Icardi will be eager to look ahead to the next thing and move on. But the impression is that this unhappy chapter still has a long way to run.
• Saturday’s Derby del Sole more than lived up to expectations, Napoli and Roma serving up a highly entertaining encounter. You could call the Giallorossi’s 3-1 win a tactical triumph for Luciano Spalletti, whose hybrid 3-4-1-2/4-1-4-1 formation (a “three-and-a-half man defence”, he called it), was certainly fascinating to watch, though it was also clear that their opponents had been dealt a heavy blow by the loss of Arkadiusz Milik to a cruciate ligament injury. His replacement, Manolo Gabbiadini, is a talented forward, but made from a completely different mould. There were times when the lack of a target man for Napoli’s array of explosive wide men to aim at felt painfully apparent. By contrast, Roma got the best version of Edin Dzeko, as has been happening more often of late. His two goals take his Serie A tally to seven already – only one fewer than he managed in the entire 2015-16 campaign.
• This, by the way, was Napoli’s first home defeat in Serie A under Maurizio Sarri – ending a run of 19 wins and three draws at the Stadio San Paolo. Curiously, it was also Roma’s first away victory of the season.
• This has not been the greatest spell for Gigi Buffon, whose blunder gifted Spain an early lead over Italy in World Cup qualifying 11 days ago, and who followed that up by letting a Jakub Jankto shot squirm underneath him on Saturday. It did not cost Juventus in the end, as Paulo Dybala scored twice to secure a 2-1 win over Udinese. Ultras in the Curva Sud showed their own support for the goalkeeper with a banner that read: “Even Superman is sometimes only Clark Kent… Gigi, always our superhero”.
• Can that really be Milan, joint-second in the table after eight games? With 16 points in the bag, this is now officially the Rossoneri’s best start to a season since 2010-11 – the year of their last Scudetto. Nobody is seriously suggesting a repeat, but there was plenty to encourage in a 3-1 win away to Chievo – who had previously taken seven points from three home games against Inter, Lazio and Sassuolo – not least an promising first start for the 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli in central midfield.
• Lazio would have had a share of second place, too, if they had beaten Bologna at home. Instead they wound up needing a dubious 97th-minute penalty from Ciro Immobile just to salvage a draw. It felt a cruel blow for Bologna’s Angelo Da Costa, who had previously made a string of saves to keep his team in front.
Results: Chievo 1-3 Milan, Fiorentina 0-0 Atalanta, Genoa 0-0 Empoli, Inter 1-2 Cagliari, Juventus 2-1 Udinese, Lazio 1-1 Bologna, Napoli 1-3 Roma, Pescara 1-1 Sampdoria, Sassuolo 2-1 Crotone
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