FFT.com's man in Italy, Richard Whittle, reflects on the latest Serie A disappointment for Balo & Co...
The Milan derby is the most anticipated city meeting in Italy. Inter and AC Milan can count on support from fans the length and breadth of the country, while the 80,000-capacity San Siro has enough room to support the occasion.
But Sunday’s meeting was in danger of lacking the usually-electrifying atmosphere associated with the Derby della Madonnina. The Curva Nord, where Inter’s ultras gather, was closed for two matches after offensive chants during defeat at Napoli last week.
That decision came with an initial ban for AS Roma’s Curva Sud too, after supporters allegedly abused Mario Balotelli and Milan’s other black players during Monday's draw at the San Siro.
Audio and video evidence provided by the club at their appeal demonstrated that the fans had chanted "Rossoneri carabinieri" and not, as was heard, "Rossoneri squarda di neri" ("Red and Blacks, a team of blacks"). Seeking instead to rhyme the second word in the chant, it could have easily been capocannonieri: top scorers.
In that very same match, Milan fans were heard chanting about a Roma fan who died of a heart attack when threatened by home fans outside the San Siro in the late 80s. But still no action was taken against their Curva Sud. It begs the question as to what defines territorial discrimination in the eyes of the Italian Football Federation who, at the start of the season, implemented new UEFA rules on stadium bans for racist chants and then extended them to a wide-ranging clampdown taking in regional insults.
Hardened by experience
Italian football fans are a thick-skinned bunch. Despite being marshalled into antiquated stadiums, having to sign up for fan ID cards which correspond to their ticket (but still having to provide additional identification if requested), reports of heavy-handed policing and away fans hours being kept behind for hours after the full-time whistle, they continue to turn up week in, week out.
But closing the section where the most vocal followers gather has done nothing to hinder chants aimed at the opposition, and even when Juventus populated their stands with youngsters to help fill the Juventus stadium on the back of a ban, the little Bianconeri were heard to chant "Oh merda" ("Oh s**t") every time Udinese goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic took a goal-kick.
The club were fined a mere €5,000 and told to keep their tots in check. Controlling the die-hard fans is another matter, though. Ultra culture is deeply intertwined with the club, who have propped up their '12th man' with easy access to the ground, tickets for away matches and even meetings with players when things are not going well.
Many fans, in a week where the two biggest stadiums in the land were facing a barren Sunday, were asking if it was all worth it. Former AC Milan midfielder and World Cup winner Rino Gattuso, along with another former Rossoneri and until last season a player at Lazio, Christian Brocchi, are under investigation for match-fixing. It is becoming an ever-widening enquiry that has not only taken in the lower leagues but Milan’s title-winning season of 2010/11.
Milan followers were equally unhappy not to have their bitter rivals at the other end of the stadium and had threatened to boycott the match. There was plenty of support from the players as well, with Javier Zanetti and Christian Abbiati vocal backers of a full house, as well as calls in general to punish individuals and not the masses.
In the end, the season of goodwill prevailed and the sporting judges rescinded their decision. The Curva Nord at the San Siro and Curva Sud at the Olimpico were reopened, although with a suspended sentence still hanging over both sectors.
That wasn't the end of it, however. Milan fans were banned from bringing any banners into the stadium so their Inter cousins, in a show of solidarity, decided to forgo their own choreography. Naturally it left something of flat atmosphere as both sets of supporters sat in almost stony silence.
Not that there was much to cheer about anyway, as the men on the pitch struggled to string more than two passes together, gave the ball away and hurtled into clumsy challenges.
There was passion aplenty, but quality was in short supply. It reflected the form of both sides; Inter were winless in the four matches since Iranian businessman Erick Thohir had taken a controlling interest in the club, while Massimiliano Allegri was the proverbial dead man walking at Milan on the back of one win in eight, with reports that Clarence Seedorf had been offered his role for next season.
The second half did at least offer more entertainment as both teams upped the tempo. Rodrigo Palacio was denied a stonewall penalty when challenged from behind by Cristian Zapata, but the Argentine got his just reward with five minutes remaining when he produced a smart backheel inside the six-yard area to finally break the deadlock.
In between there was another subdued outing from Mario Balotelli, who fell over a lot and in the end turned his ire on the referee once again. In fairness, the striker was not helped by the little support offered from Kakà and surprise starter Riccardo Saponara. Sulley Muntari somehow remained on the pitch until the final moments, before being sent off for a push on Zdravko Kuzmanovic. It had been coming since an early reckless tackle, to round off the year in the red in more ways than one for Milan.
Inter, for their part, ended the year on a much-needed positive note, with Walter Mazzarri winning the derby at his first attempt to impress Thohir. But tellingly, it wasn't until the introduction of the more creative Mateo Kovacic that the Nerazzurri fans warmed to their side. The coach might need a rethink to bring better cheer in 2014.