The hate-filled Derby of Italy
Recent weeks and months have seen a real deterioration in the previously cordial relationship between this season's leading protagonists in Serie A: Milan and Juventus. The two most successful clubs on the peninsula have descended into a petty back-and-forth squabble that leaves neither looking particularly dignified and both in danger of turning what should be a truly engaging title race into an Italian version of the Spanish clasico, the histrionics of which spoil what is undoubtedly one of the world football's most prestigious encounters.
What that has done is take attention away from a match which, at many times over the past six years, has made the Real Madrid and Barcelona games look positively friendly. The rivalry will be renewed this Sunday when, for the first time, Inter visit the brand new stadium in Turin for the 218th Derby d'Italia, a fixture which has decided title races, changed the history of the league and even caused a fist-fight in parliament.
Its name, like much of the language connected with Italian football, was coined in the late 1960s by famous journalist Gianni Brera in recognition of the two teams who had won the most trophies at that time. Yet this rivalry - which is littered with scandal, intrigue and bad behaviour - began even before it was ever known as the Derby of Italy, way back in the 1960-61 season when a tie in Turin was abandoned after a pitch invasion and was eventually awarded as a win to Inter.
After appealing to the FA, Juventus secured a replay; a disgusted Nerazzurri responded by playing their youth team and Juve went on to record the fixture's most one-sided result. Omar Sivori scored six that day in a 9-1 thrashing and, in doing so, secured not only the league title, but also the top-scorer crown and even that year's Ballon d'Or.
The 1970s and '80s were a quiet period for the derby as Inter continually failed to reach their previous greatness; until one particular incident-filled encounter in 1998 re-ignited the old hatred and bile. That April, in the midst of yet another head-to-head title race, Inter travelled to Turin and what followed was a match marred by poor officiating and questionable calls on both sides.
Brazilian star Ronaldo attempted to skip past Juve's Mark Iuliano and was body-checked by the Italian defender only to see referee Piero Ceccarini turn down the penalty appeals; almost immediately he awarded a spot-kick at the other end. While Gianluca Pagliuca would save Alessandro Del Piero's penalty, the Juve captain did score the winning goal and secure yet another Scudetto for the Bianconeri. Gigi Simoni, Inter's manager at the time, was sent off for screaming "you should be ashamed" at the official but that was nothing compared to what would happen later.
A session of Italian Parliament was actually abandoned when deputies from the far-right National Alliance and Democratic Left came to blows over accusations of match-fixing. The 20 seconds between the body-check and the award of a penalty to Juve became among the most replayed in history; countless television programmes slowing them down and discussing them.
Since that day, which became known as "The Grand Thievery" to Inter supporters, it has grown to become easily the most intense inter-city rivalry in the country. Two years after the Ronaldo incident, Paolo Montero was banned for punching Inter midfielder Luigi di Biaggio in the ear, and then the events of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal - and each side's view of the other's role in it - escalated the hate and vitriol to a now ridiculous level.
In the aftermath, which saw Juventus demoted to the second tier of Italian football, Inter picked up both Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic relatively cheaply; taking full advantage of the precarious position of the Old Lady, whose management were busy renegotiating sponsorship and television deals in light of their reduced status.
The year spent in Serie B meant the fixture was absent for the first time as neither side had ever previously been relegated. That break did nothing to cool the feelings of resentment though, with Giorgio Chiellini needing to be separated from former team-mate Ibrahimovic in the first match after Juve earned promotion. The most heated encounter of recent years probably came in 2009 as Inter went to Turin to take on a side seemingly mounting their first title challenge since returning to Serie A.
The game began with the home side in third place and chasing a Jose Mourinho team which would go on to complete that incredible treble of league, Coppa Italia and Champions League wins. The visitors' team bus was pelted with eggs and rotten fruit as it arrived but the abuse directed at then-Inter star Mario Balotelli inside the stadium would be far worse: a constant chorus of "if everybody jumps, Balotelli dies" rang loudly throughout the game, eventually resulting in Juventus being fined and forced to play a match behind closed doors.
Sadly the controversy was not restricted to the stands, with Inter's Portuguese coach being sent off for sarcastically (and theatrically) applauding a decision by the referee in the first half. Balotelli came on as a substitute after the break and was booed constantly even before he lived up to his pantomime villain image in pretending a Felipe Melo elbow had caught him in the face. That led to the Brazilian midfielder earning another red card an,d such was the level of animosity, that even the normally placid Gigi Buffon snapped in the ensuing scuffle and grabbed Thiago Motta by the throat.
The incidents would overshadow a great Claudio Marchisio goal which gave the home side a 2-1 win; to many, it merely felt like an afterthought.
Back then, believing as always in both his own capabilities and those of his team, Mourinho felt confident enough to belittle Juventus and their coach, Claudio Ranieri, with a zeru tituli [zero titles] barb. This season it is Inter themselves who have no realistic chance of silverware after going out of the Champions League to Marseille and currently sit in seventh place, some 17 points from the summit of Serie A. Ranieri may have switched sides but can expect the same jibe to be thrown his way again this weekend; not that this game needs any encouragement.