Adam White

Captain Forever?

Adam White
Captain Forever?

The audio version of this article can be heard as part of this week’s Onside Inzaghi Podcast.

After more than two months in the wilderness Mauro Icardi returned to San Siro as a player this weekend. Inter who currently sit third, remain favourites to return to the Champions League, given their 5 point cushion to 4th and the reinstating of Icardi, but as relationships both within the squad and between manager, player, agent and board still problematic. Inter’s season is far from over with Icardi’s longer term future still undecided.

The Argentine forward had made a scoring return from the penalty spot in midweek as part of a 4-0 triumph at Genoa but his position remains precarious after the 26 year old was stripped of the captaincy in February because, according to Inter coach Luciano Spalletti: “There are certain things surrounding him 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.”

Tension has been high for some time. Icardi fell out with the Inter Ultras in 2016 after reference to an altercation with fans after a 2015 defeat to Sassuolo in his autobiography when an ultra supposedly threw away his shirt after Icardi presented it to a young supporter and criticized Icardi’s conduct. “I will bring 100 criminals from Argentina who will kill them on the spot.” wrote Icardi. The Curva Nord Ultras subsequently called Icardi’s description of the incident ‘lies’ and stated that “The Inter captain cannot make these kind of remarks. An individual like this cannot wear the captain’s armband.” While a banner later appeared on the Curva for the game with Cagliari accusing Icardi of ‘making shit up to sell more copies’ and labelling him a ‘mercenary’.

Spalletti may also have partly been referencing Icardi’s wife Wanda, also his agent, and her punditry appearances on Mediaset show ‘Tiki Taka’ where she has criticised the service Icardi has received from teammates, indirectly stoking Icardi’s supposed rivalry with winger Ivan perisic, and openly discussing her husband’s contract negotiations. Given the fact that making demands in the press and generating interest in their player is fairly standard practice for a high profile agent in modern football, much of the criticism Wanda has received more widely in Italy has been tinged by chauvinism.

While racism and sexism remain issues to varying degrees across the footballing landscape, the racist abuse received by Juventus striker Moise Kean at Cagliari last week coupled with some of the comments directed at Wanda Icardi underline that Serie A is lagging far behind other leagues in educating it’s fans and combating continuing issues on both fronts.

Meanwhile Spalletti too has pulled few punches in the press, pointing out that, during Icardi’s ten game exile, Rajid Nainggolan, unlike the Argentine, had come to watch Inter games and celebrate with team-mates afterwards despite injury. The Italian coach then stated it was “humiliating to negotiate with a player to pull on the Inter shirt,” Inter doing so via a lawyer at one stage, “The way he behaved, he has to stay out.” said Spalletti, “What, do I need to email 20 lawyers and ask them if I can call someone up? Professionalism and self-respect are everything. Discipline is everything.”

A major factor in Icardi’s exile has been the issue of the capiancy, a role he was stripped of in February before a Europa League game with Rapid Vienna after a meeting between Spalletti and Inter CEO Guiseppe Marotta where it was decided that they way contract negotiations has been handled from the players side were unbecoming and a new leader was needed.

Nevertheless Icardi seems to be a fiercely proud Inter captain despite disagreements with Ultras. Wanda stated at a book launch in September 2017, as reported by Football Italia, “Their captain forever? That’s my dream, we hope so.” While during protracted contract negotiations, which have since stalled entirely, Wanda explained in December last year, “We’re very far apart. What’s been written in the last few days annoys me. No-one’s called me to ask for any explanations. Inter wanted to send Icardi to Juventus, but it was Mauro who said ‘no’ as he wanted to stay at Inter.” While Gazzetta dello Sport reported in February that Icardi was refusing to return to the team unless he was allowed to do so as captain. However, with Icardi back in the team, it was goalkeeper Samir Handanovic who again lead the team out for the game with Atalanta.

Although a little wasteful on Sunday, Icardi’s 110 goals in 180 Serie A games remains impressive and Inter are well placed for a third place finish that at one stage seemed close to nailed on as they challenged Napoli for second before dropping back to to fourth following a 2-1 loss at Cagliari at the start of March after a run of just 2 wins in 7 Serie A games. Nevertheless it’s Icardi’s situation that continues to take most of the attention while a fractious dressing room could yet prove difficult to manage for Spalletti during the run in. Gazzatta dello Sport reported this week that Atletico Madrid were no longer interested in activating Icardi’s 110m euro release clause (only applicable in June and July for clubs outside Italy) but the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid were still keen, particularly if Inter were to lower their demands given that Icardi still has two years left on his current deal.

Meanwhile it may prove wishful thinking for fans and media to “focus on Icardi’s present” as Marotta requested on Sky Italia this weekend, “It’s still early days and there are 24 points up for grabs and many dangers to face,” said Marotta. “He is an Inter player and has to play in the best way, so let’s just talk about the present. There’s time to consider the future.”

Spalletti’s future meanwhile also remains uncertain. Despite his team again being likely to make the Champions League, this season has become an underwhelming one for Inter who were seen as potential title challengers at the start of the campaign but fell away quickly before they were knocked out of the Champions League in the groups stages despite squandering (in classic Inter style) various chances to oust Tottenham having dramatically beaten Mauricio Pochetino’s men in the opening group game at San Siro; thanks to late Icardi winner. Gazzetta reported this week that Antoino Conte is being courted by Marotta for a return to Serie A in Spalletti’s stead. Although Conte’s 10m euro salary and a mammoth 25m euro pay off needed to sack Spalletti continue to be issues.

Away from the furore surrounding Icardi, the eventual 0-0 draw with a dangerous 5th placed Atlanta proved positive for the Nerrazzurri. It was “as if Inter had won” said Gazzetta given that Claudio Ranieri’s Roma, now 6th, were only side other than Juventus in the top half to claim three points. ”The head has beaten the heart. Reason and the common good tamed emotion.” wrote Vincenzo D’Angelo in Gazzetta on Monday morning in reference to Icardi’s return to San Siro and a better than expected reception from some sections of support. "It's been talked about too much” said Spalletti afterwards, “It was Inter's day, not Icardi's… He must run for the team like all complete strikers do.” Although if Papu Gomez, unmarked with an open goal at the back post, had been able to extend his foot a little further to make better contact with Josip Ililic’s whipped low cross late on, those headlines might have been different.

Just seven games remain but with Juve and Roma to come to San Siro as well as a trip to Naples - not to mention games with Empoli, Frosinone and Udinese, all of whom will likely be in need of points to aid relegation battles, Inter aren’t guaranteed of a Champions League spot just yet. As far as Icardi is concerned an uneasy ceasefire has been momentarily called but that ‘truce’, as Gazetta pointed out, may last only ‘until June’.

by Adam White