Mauro Icardi, Internazionale and the Return of Unwelcome Headlines

Friday, 22 February, 2019 - 07:45
London - Paolo Bandini

The first time the big screen cut to Mauro Icardi, it stayed with him for only a few seconds. He had arrived just before kick-off for Inter’s game against Sampdoria, taking a seat beside his wife, and agent, Wanda in the stands at San Siro. Neither seemed to notice when the cameras picked them out, provoking brief jeers from the home crowd.

But the camera lingered a little longer the second time around. Play had stopped, and the mood inside the stadium was restless, with the score still goalless after the interval. This time the whistles were ear-splitting. Wanda glanced up at the screen, and quickly cast her eyes back down.

Four days had passed since Icardi was stripped of the captaincy: a decision which the manager, Luciano Spalletti, explained thus: “There are certain things surrounding the lad which need to be fixed. These things have caused, and continue to cause, embarrassment to the team and the club of which he was captain.”

Chief among those ‘things’ was presumed to be Wanda, and her habit for creating unwelcome headlines. A regular on Mediaset’s football talk show Tiki Taka, she had criticised her husband’s team-mates for not passing him the ball enough. “More than giving Mauro a new contract,” she observed, “I’d prefer Inter to sign someone capable of giving him five good balls in every game.”

There was more to Inter’s decision than a single remark. It had been precipitated by a meeting of the club’s directors, led by Beppe Marotta. Appointed as CEO for sporting activity in December, this felt like an instance of the former Juventus man seeking to establish his leadership on a key issue. He had the backing of many Inter supporters. Icardi finished as Serie A’s joint-top scorer last season, but goals alone do not make a captain. Ultras have not forgotten the incendiary autobiography the player released in 2016, in which he threatened to “bring 100 criminals from Argentina” to kill those who had menaced him as the team struggled.

More recently, there had been reports of a squad divided: with cliques said to have formed inside the Inter changing room. Fresh fuel was thrown on that fire when Marcelo Brozovic hit ‘like’ on Inter’s tweet announcing that Samir Handanovic had replaced Icardi as captain.

The Argentinian opted out of Thursday’s Europa League trip to Rapid Vienna, having initially been named in the squad. He was subsequently omitted from the team to face Sampdoria. Spalletti said he was pleased Icardi chose to come and watch anyway, though he would have preferred it if his striker had come down to celebrate with team-mates at the end of an eventual 2-1 win.

It was certainly an encouraging victory. Lautaro Martínez, starting up front in Icardi’s absence, delivered another strong performance after scoring the only goal against Rapid. He interprets the role very differently to his compatriot, offering greater movement and contribution to build-up play if also a less consistent presence inside the box.

It was tempting to wonder whether Icardi might have done better with a majestic early ball from from Roberto Gagliardini. Martínez had the goal at his mercy, but shot too close to keeper Emil Audero. Yet he created opportunities for those around him. It was Martínez who volleyed first-time into the path of Radja Nainggolan, before the Belgian fired just wide. It was he again whocreated space for Ivan Perisic to race clear before being thwarted by an excellent save from Audero.

Perisic made amends by setting up Inter’s first goal, dribbling in from the left and crossing for Danilo D’Ambrosio to score. Samp equalised moments later, Manolo Gabbiadini finishing coolly after a scramble, but the Nerazzurri delivered an immediate response, Nainggolan waiting on the edge of the box to convert a half-cleared corner.

As Inter’s former captain watched from the stand, team-mates who had likewise failed to show leadership were finally standing up to be counted. This was supposed to be a big year for Perisic, coming off a starring role for Croatia at the World Cup, yet he has only scored as many league goals in six months for his club as he did in seven games for his country last summer. Nainggolan, likewise, has underperformed – as well as being beset by injuries.The latter player already appeared to have turned over a new leaf, shedding four kilos since the start of the year thanks to a new diet and training regime. He had spoken about taking responsibility and growing up in the wake of Inter’s previous league win, away to Parma.

Inter’s hope now is that Icardi may follow such examples. Wanda was back on Tiki Taka on Sunday night when Marotta phoned in with a conciliatory message. “The decision [to strip Icardi of the captaincy] was not a disciplinary measure,” he said. “Heads of families need to take difficult decisions sometimes when it comes to their children, to help them grow. Icardi is only 25 years old.”

Hostility toward the player has reached unacceptable levels in some quarters, and Wanda said that they missed Sunday’s celebrations only after being advised to leave early for security reasons. A rock had been thrown at her car the day before, striking the windscreen as she was driving her three sons to a football game.

Marotta was among the first to call offering support: a reminder that it is possible to hold professional disagreements without abandoning human decency. Icardi’s future remains cloudy, but the director insists a fresh contract offer is on the way. This latest win can only strengthen his negotiating position.

The Guardian Sport

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