A Tale Of A City Divided- The Milan Derby

KABIR ALI | 21st September 2019

Maldini and Ronaldo define the pinnacle of not just the Milan derby, but the supremacy of Calcio in the 90s (Le Quotidien Du Foot)

Perched atop the Duomo di Milano is what many consider to be the symbol, the beating heart of the city of Milan – the statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s perhaps fitting that in the same fashion as the immaculate conception, Football Club Internazionale, or as we know it, Inter, was founded in March 1908, at the foot of the statue of the Madonnina. Now one of the fiercest and decorated clashes in world football, it is no coincidence that matches between Inter and A.C. Milan have since borrowed the moniker of the ‘Derby della Madonnina’.


The early years: A rift in ideologies

“This wonderful night bestows us with the colours of our crest: black and azure against a gilded backdrop of stars. It shall be called International, because we are brothers of the world.”

Thus read a sensational statement published by the founding fathers of Internazionale on the morning of March 9, 1908. Going against the wave of pre-war nationalism that had engulfed the country at the time, the scathing statement was directed straight at their former employers – the Milan Foot-Ball and Cricket Club, which of course, later came to be known as A.C. Milan.

Though itself founded by English ex-pats Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin, there was a strict policy at the club against signing foreign players. Things eventually came to a head when a group of Swiss players were denied the chance to represent the club. Breaking away, and taking some Italians with them, they formed Inter.

Of course, as A.C. Milan donned the now iconic Red and Black stripes, which according to Kiplin, represented the ‘devil and invoked fear in our opponents’, Inter promptly took up Blue and Black, another signal of their fervent desire to be the antithesis of everything A.C. Milan stood for. The year of Inter’s founding – 1908 – turned out to be the year of the last championship for Milan, who didn’t lay their hands on it for another 40-odd years.

During their cross town rivals lean years, Inter wasted no time in getting their hands on silverware, winning their first league title as early as 1910. Over the next 50 years, they would go on to win six more scudetti, cementing their place amongst Italy’s elite.

A new Identity and sustained success

Both clubs, fast establishing themselves as giants in Milan and beyond, came to terms with identity crises that gave way to a lot of changes, some more forced than others. At the peak of the fascist regime in the late 1920s, Inter was forced to ditch their globalist proclivities, starting with the name itself. First renamed Unione Sportiva Milanese, and then Società Sportiva Ambrosiana, fans were dismayed at the identity of their beloved team being stripped away. This continued till the fall of the regime in 1943, when the club’s original name and kit was restored.

Across town, Milan’s hierarchy was forced into drastic action in the light of the club’s barren run, finally opening the doors to foreign talent following the second World War. This allowed the entry of Swedish imports – Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm – now known as the legendary Gre-No-Li. Together, they were the flag bearers of the Rossoneri’s renaissance, as they led the club through its first ever golden era.

Seven Scudetti, two European Cups, two Cup Winners’ Cups, as well as four Coppa Italia trophies over the span of two decades immortalised the Scandanavian trio in Milan’s, and indeed football’s hall of fame. Nordahl remains the club’s all-time greatest goalscorer, with 221.

Inter weren’t going to lay down and let their neighbours bask in glory, however. They had not only seen Milan, but also Juventus, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria overtake their tally of league titles by the mid-1950s.

Helenio Herrera, the Argentine believed by many to be the world’s first superstar manager, was the man tasked with taking Inter back to the summit, following his arrival from Barcelona at the start of the 1960-61 season. And while it took time for the success to come, boy was it worth the wait.


Helenio Herrera was a true visionary of the game (Alchetron)


Herrera’s revolutionary Catenaccio, a variation of the 5-3-2 formation, saw him take the continent by storm. A whirlwind of success followed, as il Mago’s legendary side won 3 scudetti, and 2 European and Intercontinental Cups apiece between 1962 and 1966, earning them the honour of being dubbed La Grande Inter.

With both sides at the peak of their powers around this time, they served up a classic in January 1964, but not because of the standard of football on display. Herrera’s side were at their feisty best that day, and didn’t take going into the break 2-0 down lying down. What started as a football match soon turned into a war of attrition, with Milan’s players bearing the brunt. Inter eventually ended the bloodbath with 9 men in what is now one of the most infamous Milan derbies.

Ebbs and Flows

Success in football, as they say, comes in cycles. Following the Grande Inter era, the Nerazzurri added 3 league and 2 cup titles to its honours in the 70s and 80s, and came close in Europe a few times.  However, the lack of sustained success once again saw them overtook by Milan and Juventus. This culminated with their struggles in the 90s, when they were almost relegated in 1994. They did win the UEFA Cup that same season, though.

For Milan, the lean period came in the 80s, in the light of the Totonero match-fixing scandal, for which they were relegated for the first time in their history in the 1980-81 season. Another relegation back to the Serie B a couple of seasons later prompted Silvio Berlusconi to take charge of the club in 1986, thus saving it from bankruptcy. With the arrival of relative unknown in Arrigo Sacchi, Milan began its journey back to the top.

Berlusconi sanctioned the signings of Dutch attacking triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, perhaps in a bid to get them to emulate Gre-No-Li. In his 5 years at the San Siro, Sacchi firmly re-established Milan among Europe’s elite, winning back-to-back European Cups and assembling one of football history’s finest sides along the way.


The signings of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard were cornerstones to Milan’s glory days


This laid the foundation for his successor, Fabio Capello, to come in and romp to a hat-trick of scudetti as well as three consecutive finals appearances in the rebranded Champions League; the second of which they won by hammering the mighty Barcelona 4-0, showing the true extent of their unforeseen power.

A level playing field

Inter’s resurgence at the start of the 21st Century meant a rekindling of the rivalry. The Derby di Milano was a spectacle again, and none more so than the 2005 Champions League quarter-final. Down 3-0 on aggregate with less than 20 minutes to go, Inter’s fans were staring down the barrel of a humiliating European exit. Things soon boiled over in the stands, as flares were let off, one of which struck the Rossoneri ‘keeper Dida, leading to the match being called off.


A contest that looked to be one for the ages made the history books for all the wrong reasons


Their next meeting was another instant classic, where Adriano settled a 5-goal thriller in the 92nd minute to snap a 10-match winless streak in derbies for Inter. The Nerazzurri were awarded the Serie A title at the end of the season, their first since 1989, as Milan and Juventus were hit with the Calciopoli scandal.

That was the first of four successive Scudetti for the blue half of Milan, the last of which came as part of an unprecedented treble, the only time an Italian side has managed the feat. The Serie A title stayed at the San Siro the following season, this time going to Max Allegri’s A.C. Milan side.

Struggles and transitions

Milan’s last league title signalled the collective decline for both the Serie A giants, as Juventus re-emerged as a force for the first time following the Calciopoli scandal. Jose Mourinho’s departure for Real Madrid started a domino effect for the manager’s seat at Inter, with Antonio Conte their 13th manager since the start of the 2010/11 season.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s personal struggles trickled down to Milanello. Paris Saint-Germain, armed by their petro-dollars, seized on the chance and snapped up their talismen, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva for the 2012/13 season. That signalled the beginning of financial problems that eventually forced Berlusconi into the sale of the club in 2017.

Inter too, have had a change in ownership, with the Suning group of China acquiring control in June 2016. Under the new stewardship, they have regained stability, returning to the Champions League for the second season running this campaign.

Consequently, the quality of football on display has dipped. That said, the San Siro remains a cauldron of history, passion and desire. And when its two tenants clashing on Sunday yet again, fireworks are almost always guaranteed.