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FOOTBALLERS OFTEN LET THEIR PERFORMANCES on the pitch do the talking for them; silence the critics, earn the big payday and dream move, and ultimately justify their status in the beautiful game. Many, however, fall victim to their own personal shortcomings and allow off-field happenings to define who they are as not only a professional but also a human being.

For a while, that was Mauro Icardi, a gifted footballer whose tabloid life off the pitch made him an afterthought in the conversation of top strikers, and just another captain in a side desperate to regain relevancy in Europe once again.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Italian giants underwent a massive transition of their organisational structure at the top and prepared for wholesale changes all over. In 2013, owner and chairman of 18 years Massimo Moratti sold a 70 percent stake to a purchasing group led by Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, who then handed over the majority of the club to the Suning Commerce Group in 2016.

Behind this new look Nerazzurri came the lofty expectations of an immediate revival, and one that would require a concerted effort from all involved.

The first season under Suning rule didn’t get off on the right foot. A few short weeks prior the 2016/17 Serie A campaign, manager Roberto Mancini mutually agreed to part ways over differences regarding the direction of the club. Scrambling around to replace the former Sampdoria forward, the club appointed Dutchman Frank de Boer to fill the seat.

Initially, De Boer earned some encouraging results, despite having just a few weeks to assimilate in Lombardy. Though he was lauded for pulling the right strings in a thrilling 2-1 defeat of Juventus in the Derby d’Italiathe honeymoon period came to a screeching halt.

De Boer was sacked on 1 November after a string of four defeats in five league matches, and just 85 days in charge. To make matters worse, not only did Inter have their work cut out for them on the pitch, their captain’s personal baggage nearly threatened to derail not only his future but also the club’s.

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Just days after penning an extension with a hefty buy-out clause of €110 million on 7 October, Icardi was in hot water over the words released in his autobiography, Sempre Avanti. As if Icardi’s controversial marriage with Wanda Nara hadn’t already caused enough animosity, the release of his book sparked serious outrage in Milan amongst the supporters immediately as it hit the shelves.

In his book, Icardi detailed a run-in he had with a group of fans after a defeat to Sassuolo in February 2015. Supposedly, hooligans threatened to pay him a visit, behaviour that would naturally make one fear for both him and his family’s safety. Through his book, the star striker told of his retaliation, explaining that he’d “bring 100 criminals from Argentina” to “kill them where they stand”.

Prior to kick-off versus Cagliari on 16 October, Icardi clarified his end of the story and issued an apology, saying: “It’s true that in the book I spat out some exaggerated phrases. As for the issue of getting assassins from Argentina, as people continued to tell me that I would’ve found some hooligans under my house, I said that phrase. In the biography I also wrote that ‘I used threatening words towards the fans’ and I shouldn’t have done that.”

Icardi sought to put out the fire and express his love for the ultras, but they weren’t having any of it. ‘You are not a man. You are not a captain. You are just a piece of shit’, read their banner placed on the Curva Nord.

In the 25th minute, Icardi stepped up to take a penalty and hoped that with the ball in the back of the net, the fans would ease off on him. Approaching the ball, boos rained down from all over.  Those then turned into sarcastic cheers after Marco Storari saved his effort. Inter eventually fell 2-1 that afternoon, and Icardi faced heavy criticism from all over the Italian football spectrum. Former Inter icon and acting vice-president Javier Zanetti chimed in on the matter, deeming his behaviour unacceptable.

At 23, Icardi’s reputation seemed broken beyond repair. The ultras had called for him to relinquish his captaincy, which he obtained prior to the 2015/16 season, and were ready to rid themselves of the Argentine. Words would not be enough to mend the gap between him and the supporters. If Icardi wanted redemption, it would all have to come on the pitch in the form of what he did best – scoring goals.

Since then, that’s all he’s done.

Over time, gaudy goal sums gradually enabled Icardi to rebuild his reputation with the fans and put behind him the distractions of the past. By virtue of his killer instinct and eye for goal, the former La Masia product finished the 2016/17 season with 24 goals under three different managers.

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Entering the current season, expectations for the Milan club were mixed. The summer transfer window promised so much in the form of a robust spending spree that would match what their cousins AC Milan were doing in the market under new ownership.

The high profile targets supporters hoped would arrive never did and, with the exception of a few shrewd signings, there was no telling what calibre of team we’d see week in and week out. However, that would all begin to change once former Roma boss Luciano Spalletti stepped in and sought to bring Icardi’s game, as the captain, to whole new level.

Despite missing most of the pre-season due to an injury sustained in May, Icardi immediately took to the Tuscan tactician’s methods from the jump, bagging a brace inside 15 minutes in Inter’s opening day victory over Fiorentina. A week later, the number 9 revelled in a repeated feat, notching another double in a 3-1 win against Champions League contenders Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

Icardi, Spalletti and his rejuvenated Inter jumped out of the gate with a roaring start. Meanwhile, rivals Milan, led by Vincenzo Montella, laboured after spending north of €200 million on fresh new talent built for a return to Europe. On 15 October, the black and blue confronted the struggling Rossoneri with aspirations of delivering a crushing blow to their chase of a top-four finish in the season’s first Derby della Madonnina.

In front of a capacity crowd at the San Siro, the sides exchanged punches over 90 minutes of action. The first half belonged to Inter who went ahead after Icardi slotted home Antonio Candreva’s whipped cross towards the far post. Milan would answer through Suso in the 56th minute but were cancelled out yet again by the Argentina hitman with a superb volley. An own-goal from goalkeeper Samir Handanović brought the game level at 2-2, but Icardi responded with a 90th-minute penalty to cap off his hat-trick and the 3-2 victory for Inter.

Icardi was hoisted by his teammates as he lifted his own shirt towards the supporters in the Nord – symbolic of the striker’s efforts that had Inter back to relevancy. Momentarily following the massive victory, Spalletti spoke highly of his match-winning “bomber”, telling Inter TV: “He is not your average kind of attacker. I have always told that he has the backbone like Ibrahimović, because he wants the responsibility, he is a special kind of person and football player. A great guy and a great professional.”

After Napoli fell to Juventus at home 1-0 at the San Paolo, the door opened for Inter to leap into top position with a win over Chievo. Sure enough, within the friendly confines of the San Siro, the Nerazzurri kicked down the door and battered the Flying Donkeys 5-0 on the back of an Ivan Perišić tripletta, in the process, sending a signal to all of Europe that they are officially back.

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For the second time in the club’s history, Inter collected 39 points from 15 Serie A rounds; the first dates back to the 2006/07 campaign in which they won the Scudetto. The last player to have scored 16 goals at this stage of the season was Luca Toni in 2005/06 for Fiorentina, and though the collective effort is what has Inter at the very top of the table, you can’t help but look Icardi’s way for the feat.

To no surprise, his performances this season have alerted Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who fancy his scoring clout up front. Los Merengues have the financial means to spend big on a striker immediately, yet while they eye the Rosario-born scorer, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to convince him to leave Italy.

When asked what if Florentino Pérez rings for his signature, Icardi reassured his fans with the reply  “I won’t answer the call. I’m fine in Italy. We’re first and I’m top scorer, what more could I ask for?”

Last month, Tuttosport reported that Inter are preparing to raise Icardi’s current buy-out clause during the season. Spalletti addressed the situation by saying he believes the current Capocannoniere leader can stay at the club forever. Only his wife, who is also his agent, has the true answer to his future.

Over the past few years, Inter haven’t had many constants that could be relied upon. Managers have come and gone and players failed to live up to media hype. Undisputedly, in the good times and the bad, it’s been Icardi’s boots that have kept the club afloat and eliminated any reasoning for the board to shell out millions in an otherwise inflated market for top scoring talent.

Despite his off-field life and rocky relationship with the fans, Icardi never seemed fazed to the point of low performances. He has maintained a body of work as a scorer who’s finally garnered praise from the mainstream football media that once was never there, and a long overdue call-up to the Argentina national team.

In the span of 12 months, Icardi has not only solidified his captaincy of Inter and repaired his reputation with the fans, but, under the guidance of Luciano Spalletti, has lifted the Nerazzurri back to the summit of Italian football – just as a captain should 

By Matthew Santangelo