Straight from the dark heart of Italy
As Inter trained in the sweaty environs of the Workers’ Stadium on a balmy Tuesday afternoon in Beijing, a thousand or so of their supporters congregated in the stands and began to sing: “Mi-lan, Mi-lan vaf-fan-culo.” Then came the next chant. “Who doesn’t jump is a lossonelo…”
The pronunciation, which up until then had been immaculate, finally gave away their identity. These were not Italian ultrà but rather the Chinese kind, imitating what they’d seen during one of the Serie A games broadcast by CCTV every week during the season.
When a compatriot wearing a Milan shirt went to take his seat among them, they set upon him as if this were the Curva Nord at San Siro, stripping him of it before throwing him out. It’s the stuff that social and psychological studies are made of – the yin and yang of football - not least because the actual sets of Inter and Milan ultrà agreed not to travel to China for this year’s Italian Super Cup in a protest against the distance and cost.
Not that the clubs mind, though, even if it’s said that they would have preferred to play their first competitive match of the new season at home in front of their own fans. It’s a slight inconvenience with the jet lag, the heat and humidity hampering preparation but this, we’re told, is part of the modern game where the tapping of new markets, the sale of TV rights and merchandising is apparently just as important as opening the upcoming campaign with a morale-boosting if not greatly significant piece of silverware.
Since its creation in 1988, the Super Cup has made a relatively frequent habit of going on a walkabout. In 1993, Milan traipsed to Washington where Marco Simone put Torino to the sword, plunging a shot into the net at RFK with real venom to give his side a 1-0 win.
Then a decade later they returned to the United States, this time visiting New York to suffer the ignominy of losing 5-3 on penalties to Juventus, who retained the trophy they had won in Tripoli the year before.
Questions as to where the magical mystery tour would stop next were answered when the Lega Calcio reached a money-spinning agreement with the Chinese promotion company United Vansen International. The terms dictate that at least three Italian Super Cups will be staged in Beijing until 2014.
Inter, the reigning holders of the trophy, have already been here before. Two years ago, José Mourinho watched his side lose 2-1 to Lazio at the Bird’s Nest stadium. It was hardly inauspicious as they went on to win the treble.
So what can we expect? As mentioned above, this promises to be a derby in commerce as well as calico, with sponsors Adidas facing off against Nike, Emirates sparring with Pirelli and Dolce & Gabbana taking on Versace. Incidentally, Inter and Milan will receive €1.65 million each for their participation.
Curiously, the rivals have never met before in the Italian Super Cup, but share the competition record for wins with five apiece. It’s a shame, then, that the game is not being played at San Siro where the occasion would perhaps have been more spirited and meant a great deal more.
While there is a great enthusiasm in China for football, with upwards of 70,000 fans expected to pack into the Bird’s Nest on Saturday, it still faces a struggle to become the nation’s No.1 sport. The absence of a genuine homegrown star such as the recently retired Yao Ming in basketball or Li Na in tennis has perhaps stymied its growth.
Lest we forget, China has only ever been to one World Cup, and that was in 2002 when they lost all their matches and failed to score a single goal. Gao Hongbo’s side currently lie 73rd in the FIFA world rankings, sandwiched between Malawi and Zambia.
The Bird's Nest Stadium - bickering Chinese ultràs not pictured
Domestically things aren’t much better. A match-fixing scandal hit the game hard in 2009, although Guangzhou Evergrande’s decision to sign Darío Conca from Fluminense in July and make the diminutive Argentinian playmaker one of the highest paid players in the world with a contract reportedly worth £6.4 million a year suggests real ambition.
“In China professional football was born in 1994, a century later than in Europe and South America,” the former Tianjin Teda and Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi told La Repubblica. “You can’t invent a sport’s tradition overnight. For the Chinese, the real football is that of the Champions League and South America, not theirs. For this reason, the Super Cup will be a great opportunity for a cultural exchange and it’s not to be wasted.”
Inter coach Gian Piero Gasperini agrees. “The Super Cup has to become a beautiful advert for our football on the Asian market,” he said. Whether an entertaining game is possible with temperatures of 38 degrees and 95 per cent humidity is the subject of debate. Conditions have been likened by the Italian press corps to those experienced at the 1994 World Cup.
“Let’s say that, from a planning point of view, a week like this is not ideal,” complained Milan’s fitness guru Daniele Tognaccini. “It’s a difficult situation because [in this heat] it’s easier to commit mistakes.”
Still, the first competitive run out of the new season brings with it plenty of intrigue. Inter start the long march of the 2011-12 campaign with their third new manager in the space of a year following Leonardo’s decision to leave the bench and go back behind a desk as director of sport at Paris Saint-Germain.
With €35 million spent on defenders Andrea Ranocchia, Yuto Nagatomo and striker Giampaolo Pazzini in January, President Massimo Moratti has been discreet though not entirely prudent this summer.
Inter have rejuvenated their squad with the signing of promising youngster Luc Castaignos from Feyenoord and added strength in depth with the purchase of Jonathan, a right-back from Cruzeiro, who is capable of covering Douglas Maicon. A bureaucratic c**k-up on Bologna’s behalf also led to Italy international goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano arriving quite unexpectedly at Appiano Gentile, although a torn cruciate ligament in his knee means he faces a lengthy spell in the treatment room.
Gasperini and new-signing Álvarez get up close and personal
Each of the reinforcements apart from Ricardo Álvarez, the left-sided attacking midfield player brought in from Vélez Sársfield after inspiring them to the Clausura championship in Argentina, are seen as either squad players or ones for the future. Those involved in the Copa America have voluntarily cut their holidays short - against the advice of Gasperini - after injuries to Viviano, Luca Castellazzi and Nagatomo, who suffered a dislocated shoulder in a friendly against Celtic.
So the only major change to the starting XI from last year is Gasperini’s 3-4-3 formation. Speculation continues to mount about the future of Wesley Sneijder amid reports of a contract offer from Manchester United. The Holland international travelled with Inter to Beijing and even got into a playful argument with Samuel Eto’o on the plane after the latter was allocated a seat in first class while the rest of the squad sat in business class.
“Sneijder is here with us, he has trained with us and he will play with us on Saturday,” Gasperini said.
The 27-year-old has been given a new deeper role in the team, which has yielded mixed results thus far in pre-season with suggestions that he is both positioned too far away from goal to make a decisive impact and offers little in the defensive phase when Inter are without the ball in a key area of the field. It’s early days, and a footballer of Sneijder’s intelligence with an Ajax schooling behind him should be able to adapt and make it work.
As for Milan, the Italian champions have once again been patient in their build-up for the coming season. Antonio Cassano aside, their squad is settled with coach Max Allegri and chief executive Adriano Galliani taking the view that if the team ain’t broke then why try to fix it.
The midfield trio of Rino Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Clarence Seedorf are another year older, but fresh legs will be on the way once the search for the so-called Mister X, Milan’s No 1 transfer target, concludes.
A left-sided central midfielder is on the agenda with Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivo very much the favourite for the position. Yet Milan are in no rush and much like last year they will play the waiting game, although sensational purchases like those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho are excluded.
Philippe Mexès has joined on a free transfer from Roma as the long-term successor to the veteran centre-back Alessandro Nesta. However, he will miss the start of the campaign after snapping the anterior ligament in his left knee last April in a match against Juventus.
Taye Taiwo, the physical Nigeria international left-back with a cannonball shot, represents a slight upgrade on Luca Antonini, even if his aptitude as a defender is questionable, while Stephen El Shaarawy, one of the brightest creative talents in Serie B last year at Padova, will be worked in gradually and with care following his €8.8m move from Genoa.
“We are at the beginning of the season,” Allegri explained. “It will be the third game that we play and the condition of our team can’t be the optimum. But the game is of great importance both because it’s for a trophy and above all because it’s a derby, so we’ll need to try and be ready, above all in the mind.”
Of course the last time these two sides met in April, Milan eased to a comfortable 3-0 victory at San Siro and ended Inter’s title challenge. A great wall appeared to separate them with Alexandre Pato, the Peking Duck, getting himself a brace. Gasperini should heed that warning. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on his bedside table back at the hotel.
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