This Sunday evening, the eyes of the footballing world will be fixed firmly on the San Siro as two giants of the game in AC Milan and Inter Milan come together for one of the most anticipated derbies on the Serie A calendar.
All of the major Italian sports dailies will concentrate their full attention on the clash, covering everything from the personal storylines to the tactical battles. The coaches and players will be scrutinised, the fans will be fervent and the neutrals will be enraptured.
The Derby della Madonnina is more than a mere fixture; it is a tradition and a major sporting attraction. It is also a rivalry of unique complexity, one that has meant many different things over the years since the foundation of the two clubs that comprise it.
Milan Foot-Ball and Cricket Club was founded in December 1899 thanks in large part to the efforts of several Englishmen. The Nottingham-born Herbert Kilpin, who would go on to gain renown as the club’s founding father, was instrumental in bringing the beautiful game to Lombardy’s capital, and he would also become the team’s first coach and a key player in their early successes.
Kilpin was aided by Alfred Edwards, a businessman from Shropshire who became the club’s first president, as well as several other players including Samuel Richard Davies and David Allison, who was appointed team captain.
However, not long after the club was established, growing internal tensions that reflected Italian politics at the time would rip it in two.
The rise of nationalism in Italy impacted the organisation of the country’s football system. In 1908, the Italian Football Federation created two titles; the Federal Championship would permit foreign players, while the Italian Championship would not.
As much as it saddened Kilpin, this division over the role of players from outside of Italy existed within his own club. And, one year later, a breakaway of dissatisfied members led to the formation of a separate team that, ironically, better reflected his ethos: Football Club Internazionale.
Inter were infused by the principle of internationalism and, as such, their squad included a number of Swiss players. And, with less restrictions over who could and couldn’t represent them, it was perhaps unsurprising that they enjoyed greater success in the ensuing decades than Milan, who wouldn’t win another Scudetto until 1951.
Yet with their breakaway inspired by people such as the artist Giorgio Muggiani and supported by the intellectual and the wealthy, Inter were also considered to be a club of the elite. As a consequence, the earliest Milan derbies were pervaded by political difference, though this would gradually erode over time.
Milan would eventually accept foreign players and succeed with them. Indeed, their first Scudetto after the split came thanks to the famous attacking trident of Swedish scoring supremo Gunnar Nordahl and his compatriots Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm—a triumvirate so effective they acquired their own special acronym, "Gre-No-Li."
Any class dynamic between the two Milanese giants was also shattered along the way, something emphasised by the current state of the two teams’ dressing rooms. Inter may originally have been the club of the elite, but their players’ pre-match surroundings don’t compare to Milan’s plush leather seats and personal television sets—the ostentatious by-products of decades under the ownership of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
A prestigious rivalry
Milan's derby is one without the political and religious differences ingrained in other derbies around the world. Instead, it has been a rivalry defined primarily by simpler sporting merits, built on a mutual unrelenting desire for trophies and prestige.
This one-upmanship between Milan and Inter has often been based on hiring the best coaches, signing the finest players and winning the most silverware. Never was this more overt than in the 1960s.
In footballing terms, this decade belonged to the city of Milan, with its two clubs dominating not just domestically, but on the continent, picking up titles aplenty and asserting their place atop the calcio hierarchy.
Milan, thanks to the stern guidance of Nereo Rocco, won two Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, two European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. Meanwhile Inter, led by Helenio Herrera, a man whose life and career echoed the club’s original virtues—he was born in Argentina to Spanish parents, was raised in Morocco and spent his playing days in France—picked up three Scudetti, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.
During this period, the derby became ultra-competitive, not only because of the presence of two masterful tacticians in Rocco and Herrera, but because of the immense individual talent on show. They couldn't be separated in their 20 league meetings across the 1960s—Milan won six times, as did Inter, while there were eight draws.
This evenness was distilled down further to a debate about their playmakers. Milan had Gianni Rivera; Inter had Sandro Mazzola. These being the days of Catenaccio, when the notion of having more than one advanced creator in the team was anathema, Italy national team coach Ferruccio Valcareggi had a difficult time deciding between the pair. Eventually he chose not to decide at all, introducing the staffetta, or relay, whereby each would play one half of a game.
The absence of any real ideological difference, combined with the successes of both clubs, meant that fandom became essentially trivial. John Foot touches on this in his book, Calcio: A History of Italian Football, where he asserts that, “Support [for the Milan teams] was more often a question of the family into which you were born—and when you were born.”
Following on from the 1960s, the two teams, rather than simultaneously challenging for honours, took it in turns to have their own meltdowns and resurgences.
Milan were relegated twice during the 1980s, once for their part in the Totonero scandal, once simply for not being good enough to survive in Serie A. However, their fortunes would change drastically when Berlusconi bought the club in February 1986.
With significant investment bringing in international stars such as Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, the Rossoneri took over Italian football from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s. And their success was only magnified by the dearth of silverware acquired by their city rivals.
Inter were seemingly helpless throughout the 1990s.
Club president Massimo Moratti poured millions into the playing squad, but he couldn’t secure a Scudetto. He broke the world transfer record to sign Ronaldo, but the Brazilian got injured. He hired Marcello Lippi, the mastermind behind Juventus’ revival, but the coach was sacked after one season in charge. And the Nerazzurri’s bad luck was compounded by the fact that certain players, namely Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, only excelled after leaving them for Milan.
Inter would win their first championship for 17 years in 2006 and, perhaps cognisant of the scarcity of the previous two decades, defended it stoutly until 2010. However, amid their streak of domestic dominance, Milan would occasionally remind the world of the rivalry’s unending back-and-forth.
Despite their neighbours celebrating a second successive title in 2007, Milanisti were joyous. This was because their team won the Champions League that same year, defeating Liverpool 2-1 in the final. After that win, they paraded around the city with a banner that read: "Stick the Scudetto up your bum."
Hope in the stands
In the last five years, Juventus have won five consecutive Scudetti. The Bianconeri’s dominance has coincided with a period of bitter bleakness for both Milan clubs.
In 2015-16, for the first time since their inception, the major continental club competitions lacked a Milanese presence. After years of mid-table finishes, Milan and Inter would compete not for trophies, but for the sheer retention of pride. In a cruel twist of fate, the 2016 Champions League final was held at the San Siro, now considered a former-epicentre of great football.
However, the one-upmanship hasn’t come to a halt. Rather, it has mutated into something different.
Historically, fans of Milan and Inter have generally gotten along, sharing the city and rarely allowing hostilities to continue away from the stadium. This coexistence has been solidified through formal agreement; in 1983, ultras on both sides signed a peace pact.
The solidarity between the two sets of supporters was perhaps best evidenced prior to a derby on Sunday, 22 December, 2013. In the morning it was announced that police would forbid Milanisti from bringing their banners into the Curva Sud. Interisti reacted by not bringing theirs to the Curva Nord.
However, while the relationship between the fans is a strangely positive one for a rivalry, the match continues to evince an intensity equalled by few other games.
Without title challenges and star players, the fans have taken over the derby in recent years. In a time when the quality on the pitch has a tendency to underwhelm, those in the stands have continued to bring frenzied levels of passion with their energy, colour and noise.
Without politics, superstars or genuine title hopes, this Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina may mean nothing more than local bragging rights, but, thanks to the beautiful choreography and electric atmosphere provided by the fans, it will retain its own special sense of importance.