Off-Field Drama Makes Mauro Icardi a Gamble, but Talent Means It Is Worth Taking

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2017

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 12:  Mauro Emanuel Icardi of FC Internazionale Milano celebrates his second goal during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale and Atalanta BC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on March 12, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Speak to anyone with a passing interest in Italian football and they’ll have a strong opinion on Mauro Icardi. Most of them will be negative, and that is undoubtedly understandable as the striker has fallen out with team-mates past and present, even dividing the feelings Inter Milan supporters have of him.

“He’s dangerously talented, as Juventus have experienced,” Gugs—a fan of the Bianconeri—told Bleacher Report. “But he’s more famous for his private life, his affair and his book. He’s completely classless and sets a bad example. Those are not the actions of a captain.”

AC Milan supporter Gino echoed those thoughts, saying that Icardi “is unquestionably talented and could be a great player, but he lacks conviction, and his off-field antics are spoken about more than his performances on the pitch.”

But then you get comments like this. “He’s incredible,” Liverpool fan Michael said when asked for his opinion of Icardi. “I’d love to see him play at Anfield, he’s exactly the type of player we’re crying out for.”

Explaining how the 24-year-old became so polarising is quite simple, all you have to do is look back over the course of his career and discuss his journey from Rosario youngster to captain of the Milanese giants.

His parents left Argentina when Icardi was just six years old; his family moved to the Canary Islands in order to escape the financial crisis engulfing their homeland. Three years later he enrolled in the youth team of Spanish side Union Deportiva Vecindario, going on to score a frankly ridiculous 384 goals over six seasons with the club.

That prompted Barcelona to sign him in ahead of the 2008/09 campaign, with Icardi slowly making his way through the ranks at La Masia. However, with Pep Guardiola fully committed to changing the culture throughout the club, it quickly became clear that there would be no place for an out-and-out goalscorer.

If the coach couldn’t find space for Zlatan Ibrahimovic as he carefully made tiki-taka the central philosophy at Camp Nou, what chance did an unproven teenager have of breaking into the side?

"I have no regrets about leaving Barcelona. If a youngster wants to grow then certain decisions have to be made," Icardi told El Blog de Mario Garcia de la Santa (h/t Goal). "At the time I spoke about it with my father, and we decided to move to Italy."

So in January 2011 he moved to Sampdoria for €400,000, netting 13 goals in 19 games for their Primavera (under-19) side and making his first-team debut. The Genoa-based club were promoted to Serie A the following summer, and it was shortly after that when Maxi Lopez became his team-mate.

The arrival of another Argentinian, even one nine years older than him, helped ease Icardi’s homesickness. Lopez—who had also failed to find real space at Barcelona—welcoming him into his family home and introducing him to his then-wife, Wanda Nara.

His new friend helped him adapt to life in Italy and taught him how to improve as a player, with Icardi adding a much-improved work rate to his incredible eye for goal. His first full season with Sampdoria saw him net 10 times in Serie A, including two in a famous win at Juventus Stadium and four more in a 6-0 rout of Pescara.

That form was central to Inter snapping him up, paying €11.7 million to sign him in the summer of 2013, and he would enhance his reputation by netting his first goal for the Nerazzurri against Juventus.

Just a few weeks later, however, a story began to emerge that the 20-year-old had been having an affair with Maxi Lopez’s wife, which Icardi then confirmed on Twitter. It seemed like the ultimate betrayal, only for Wanda Nara to tell a very different story to gossip magazine Chi.

She insisted (h/t La Gazzetta dello Sport, link in Italian) that she had walked out on Lopez only after he cheated on her first. "I persevered out of love for our children," she said per Paolo Bandini and Guardian Sport. "I forgave him so many times that I don't even know how I did it. ... When I started my relationship with Mauro, I had already divorced Maxi Lopez."

A bitter row erupted, Icardi tweeting pictures of himself with Lopez and Nara’s children after his former friend asked him to stop. Inter’s next match with Sampdoria was dubbed “The Wanda Derby” and the two strikers refused to shake hands. Icardi scored twice while Lopez missed a penalty.

Their argument continued, dragged up at every opportunity in interviews with both men and with Nara herself after she and Icardi got married. However, no matter how loud the controversy grew, no matter how much criticism they received, Icardi did what he’s always done: he scored goals.

His second season in Milan saw him net 22 in the league alone to share top scorer honours with Luca Toni, his current tally sitting at 67 in just 117 appearances for Inter. The summer of 2015 then saw two staggering appointments, the Nerazzurri naming him club captain while Icardi appointed his wife as his agent.

A year later, Wanda Nara caused a major stir during an interview with calciomercato.com. "Mauro would really be sorry to leave Inter,” she said (h/t ESPN FC). "But we understand that the financial situation at the club means they evidently can't keep hold of Icardi.”

Eventually he would sign a new deal, with his agent/wife happily leaking details of it to the Infobae website. “If a club want to buy him, they’ll have to pay the clause of €110 million,” Nara revealed (h/t The Independent). “We adjusted the contract and extended it for five years, which is the maximum possible.”

A controversial autobiography from the player would be the next thing to cause problems. In it, Icardi referred back to an angry confrontation in 2015 with Inter fans. Having written that he could “bring 100 criminals from Argentina who'll kill them where they stand,” (h/t Football Italia), he and the club were fined.

His opinion, as the above banner from Inter’s supporters suggests, was not well-received, yet there is no doubt that he remains an incredible player. Asked his views, Nima Tavallaey of SempreInter.com told Bleacher Report that none of these problems truly make a difference:

Mauro Icardi is one of the most lethal strikers to emerge in world football over the last decade. At only 24 years of age he's scored 78 goals in 150 Serie A matches, becoming the youngest winner of the Serie A Golden boot since Paolo Rossi won it at the same age in 1978.

These are the facts that should matter when Icardi's being discussed and not whom he's decided to marry and raise a family with.

Now a more well-rounded player than in previous years, this is the dilemma any club interested in the player would need to balance. He has already racked up eight assists this season, two more than his previous career high while the table below of the top 10 goalscorers in Europe highlights the level of his impact.

Adam Digby via WhoScored

Compiled using data from WhoScored.com, it shows that while only seven players in the top five leagues have scored more than Icardi, Luis Suarez is the only one to deliver more assists while only four of those players have created more chances per game.

Furthermore, only Alexandre Lacazette, Andrea Belotti and Gonzalo Higuain have taken less shots than Icardi to reach that tally, showing that there is little doubt Icardi deserves to be considered among the continent’s truly elite forwards.

According to La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Anthony Jepson of the Manchester Evening News), he has become a target for Manchester City, while Sky Sports (h/t CalcioMercato) insisted that Arsenal view him as a potential replacement for Alexis Sanchez.

There is likely to be more interest too as Inter look set to miss out on a Champions League berth once again, but where would he best fit?

Given his ability to hold the ball up well and his vastly improved passing, any team could use such a potent goal threat, although it is still his ability to finish chances that truly defines his style.

Instinctive in the box, he thrives on converting chances and rarely needs more than a split second to pick his spot. That makes a Pep Guardiola side perhaps still not the ideal place, but at Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool, teams where chances are created in abundance, there is little doubt he could be a massively effective addition.

Yet the question hanging over Icardi will always remain the same. Can you ignore the drama?

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