THE CROWD AT THE GIUSEPPE MEAZZA WAS DELIRIOUS. Mauro Icardi just converted a penalty in the 90th minute to clinch a 3-2 win for Inter over AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina. As the stadium announcer belted out “Mauro”, the fans emphatically responded with shouts of “Icardi” while the Argentine held his shirt aloft to the supporters.
Icardi bagged a hat-trick that night and is still the talk of the town. Yet his image at the club was severely tainted last year following the release of his autobiography. The 25-year-old recalled an incident with the Inter ultras after a 3-1 loss at Sassuolo during the 2014/15 season. His retelling of the story, coupled with the direct threats to the ultras, did not sit well with the fan base.
“I took off my shirt and shorts and gave them to a kid. 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. In the changing room, I was applauded like an idol. But I was clear. 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.”
Icardi then proclaimed he “will bring 100 criminals from Argentina who will kill them on the spot.” The ultras were justifiably upset with the statement. They went on to say that the words were “lies” and that “the Inter captain cannot allow himself these kinds of remarks. An individual like this cannot wear the captain’s armband.” There were calls for Inter to sell Icardi following the book’s release. The ultras went as far as to say their captain was “dead” to them. Even when he was on the scoresheet in an Inter victory, the talismanic forward was jeered, whistled and insulted by the curva.
Nowadays, all is well with Icardi and the ultras. Inter’s hot start to the season has a lot do with those eased tensions, but the Argentine is among the top scorers in Serie A yet again, which has the Nerazzurri dreaming of their first Scudetto since 2010.
Inter have a deep and illustrious history with international players, hence the club’s official name of Internazionale. South Americans have been an especially vital part of the club’s pedigree. From Jair in the 1960s to Javier Zanetti, they have greatly contributed to some of Inter’s most notable achievements.
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South Americans in general have been tremendous in Italy. Brazilians and Argentines are usually the most popular expats, but there have been some talented players from Uruguay, Colombia, Chile and Peru that have graced Serie A. For a league that has so many well known and successful Italian players, South America has certainly been crucial for the top-flight clubs.
Several South Americans tend to struggle after a move to Europe. Some deal with language barriers, culture shocks or general homesickness. There are many Italian migrants in South America, which certainly helps players settle in Italy faster compared to other leagues. Both regions share many similarities. They are crazy about their football, and proclaiming the sport as a religion in South America or Italy would not be a stretch. The fans are passionate and the players demonstrate that love of the game on the pitch with their flair, dribbling, technique and tenacity.
This is why so many fans idolise South American players. Diego Maradona still has a lasting impact in Naples after winning two Scudetti for Napoli in 1987 and 1990. Those are still the only two league titles won by the club. Many males born and raised in the area will likely be named Diego in honour of the former Argentine superstar. Murals depicting Maradona are spread throughout the city.
The locals loved Maradona so much that he thought he could convince them to support Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals against Italy, who hosted the tournament that year. He knew exactly how to win over the fans, too. ”For 364 days out of the year, you are considered to be foreigners in your own country,” said Maradona. “Today you must do what they want by supporting the national team. Instead, I am a Neapolitan for 365 days out of the year.”
While the fans appreciated the kind words, they responded with a banner saying, “Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our country.” Argentina topped Italy 4-3 in a penalty shootout at the Stadio San Paolo, and Maradona converted the winning spot kick. Despite the heartbreak, the Neapolitan supporters applauded their hero off the pitch.
Oriundi – foreign-born Italian internationals – tend to provoke plenty of controversy among the Azzurri supporters. The players are usually asked if they truly feel Italian or have the passion to win with Italy. Despite these questions, those same men have played key roles for the national team for nearly a century.
The 1934 World Cup-winning squad boasted five South American-born players. Midfielder Luis Monti, from Buenos Aires, was a key player for Juventus and Italy in the 1930s. Attilio Demaría racked up nearly 300 appearances for Inter after leaving Argentina at 22 years of age. Fellow Argentines Enrique Guaita and Raimundo Orsi represented Roma and Juve, respectively, while São Paulo native Anfilogino Guarisi was at Lazio during his time with the Azzurri.
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Mauro Camoranesi also won a World Cup with Italy and is regarded as one of Juventus’ best modern wingers. Argentina may be his country of birth, but he is a true Italian according to many fans. Even today, the likes of Jorginho are considered top players in Serie A and with the national team.
Gonzalo Higuaín is the most expensive transfer in Serie A history at €90 million. Hernán Crespo is second on that list at €56 million and was the record signing at the time in 2000. Crespo was the Capocannoniere in the 2000/01 season, but injuries derailed his tenure at Lazio. The departures of Pavel Nedvěd and Juan Sebastián Verón – a fellow Argentine – did not help matters, either.
Argentine centre-back Néstor Sensini also anchored Parma, Crespo’s first Italian club. However, Udinese first noticed him in 1989 while he was at Newell’s Old Boys. The Friuli still have a reputation for unearthing unknown South American talents before selling them on for massive transfer fees. They discovered Alexis Sánchez as a teenager and he eventually joined Barcelona in 2011. Mauricio Isla, Cristián Zapata and Juan Cuadrado, who are all key figures for their respective countries, began their Serie A careers in Udine.
Palermo are also responsible for some of Serie A’s biggest success stories from South America. Paulo Dybala was playing in the second tier in Argentina when the Sicilians signed him, while Edínson Cavani was at Danubio in Uruguay after a tremendous Under-20 South American Championship and Under-20 World Cup in 2007. Javier Pastore was another big-money sale at €40 million to Paris Saint-Germain in 2011.
Cavani eventually joined Pastore two years later for around €63 million from Napoli. He and Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi formed a deadly three-headed monster with Marek Hamšik from 2011 to 2013. The Partenopei enjoyed a return to the Champions League and were in contention for the Scudetto during their brief stint.
While he is thriving in Paris, Cavani has flirted with a return to Serie A, with various bookmakers, including MyBettingSites, placing odds on him returning to the San Paolo. However, he only has one condition. “I would only return to Italy for Napoli,” said Cavani. “I made promises to myself and to my family that if one day I came back to Italy, it would only be for Napoli. When I left, I said that if things changed a little, I’d love to return to Napoli, but I want to do it when I am still at a good level. I don’t want to come back to Napoli when football is about to leave me. I want to be the one who leaves football, so if I do return, it will be in good shape.”
Cavani is not the only former player who still has deep-rooted feelings for his former club. Javier Zanetti donned an Inter shirt for nearly 20 years. Now he is a director and is still involved in the community.
Read | How fate contrived to unfairly banish Mauro Camoranesi to the shadows
Kaká might also become a director with AC Milan now that he has retired. The 2007 Ballon d’Or winner is still highly regarded within the club. The Brazilian’s individual accolades, coupled with his contributions in winning a Scudetto and Champions League, make him a Milanista for life. This hiring would also replicate Zanetti’s in that a fan favourite would be a member of the front office. Considering the Rossoneri’s dire ownership situation, they could use some good news.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo is being tempted by a return to Inter. He is currently an ambassador at Real Madrid, but even he is contemplating his next move. The ex-Brazil striker who, like Kaká, is his club’s last recipient of the Ballon d’Or, still fondly recalls his first day with the team. “When I arrived to sign at the club’s headquarters, there was nobody around in the streets. Moments later, I stepped out onto the balcony as an Inter player and I could barely believe my eyes – there was a sea of black and blue flags and people who had come just to see me. Each game was a party. The spirit of Inter was born again then.”
Gabriel Batistuta wept on stage as he was inducted into the Fiorentina Hall of Fame. Having scored 168 goals in 269 games, the striker is revered by supporters. “From the moment I arrived at Fiorentina I wanted a place in the history of the club – and now I can say I have succeeded,” said an emotional Batigol on stage.
There is an endless array of South American talent to grace Serie A. However, it’s apparent that they all loved Italy. Even though it is wild and intense, they are a perfect match.
There are currently 84 South American players in Serie A, spanning eight countries. Three Argentines – Icardi, Dybala and Higuaín – will compete for the golden boot in Serie A. They will also be highly influential if Juve or Inter win trophies this season. Mauro Icardi and Dybala have especially bright futures. Both have been linked to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the past, but they are still in Italy. Either player could eventually move to Spain, but it will happen later rather than sooner.
“My intentions are clear,” said Icardi. “I want to win something with Inter. If offers were to arrive in the future then those clubs would all have to go and speak with Inter, with Piero [Ausilio] and the president, and then we’d see. I’m happy here in Milan.”
“Juventus want me to be a part of this project for a long time and I was very happy with this,” said Dybala. “I extended my contract, the club asked me to take their number 10 jersey, I thought about it for two days and said, ‘why not?’ I want to grow here. If the president wants me to, I’ll stay here forever.”
In an age where players move clubs for tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions, there is still one constant. Even with some of the biggest clubs in the world calling, it’s difficult to leave their home away from home