In recent seasons, strikers are becoming very underrated. This is understandable, because there are now goals coming from all positions apart from the goalkeeper. With the advent of 20 goal-a-season wingers, midfielders chipping in with double figures in goals and centre backs like Sergio Ramos bagging 6 league goals already this season, the over reliance on out-and-out centre forwards feels a bit old school.
With more and more managers, like Klopp and Sarri, opting for the smarter play of the False 9 over the more bullish penalty box heroes, a striker who isn’t adding more and evolving his game may find himself at the bottom of the food chain and his game time limited. However, in Italian football, because of the styles of play, the conventional number 9 is still very much in play. Being big and bullish, with an ability to hold up play, win headers and be in the right place at the right time, are all qualities you find in a typical striker in the Serie A. Strikers like Madzukic, Zapata, Caicedo, Ciofani, Cutrone, Piatek, Inglese and Quagliarella, to name a few, look like they are built for the Serie A and are all excelling one way or another.
Mauro Icardi, though not exempt from this A-list of Calcio strikers, has more about his game than most of these strikers and has seemingly continued to evolve his game over the last couple of seasons. Not lacking in pace, technically very adept from any position in the final third and with a positional sense like that of former Internazionale striker Samuel Eto’o, he’s added hold-up play to his game to take him to that all-round striker table.
Inter Milan offered him the platform and he has ripped the hand off, all while consistently dragging them almost by himself sometimes. However, his legacy at Inter is about to go from the man who brought back Champions league football, to that of just a passerby hated by the Curva Nord.
Mauro Emanuel Icardi, who has slyly become synonymous with Inter Milan, began his professional football career in the La Masia academy in Barcelona. Being forced to move out of Argentina by the economic crisis in 2001, Icardi and his family emigrated to Spain and settled in the Canary Islands. Before moving to La Masia, he was at the Union Deportivo Vecindario where he was scouted and signed by Barcelona at 15. However, sometimes dreams don’t come true, and all did not go as planned for Mauro. In his words:
“Barcelona’s game was very different to my characteristics, and we opted for a change to Italian football, which is the one that suits me best.”
His time in the La Masia academy wasn’t all bad. He had pace to burn, which always helps a striker. However, there is a level of intelligence and application required of graduates of La Masia which weren’t present in Icardi’s game, especially in an era where traditional number nines were being fazed out of modern football, especially in Spain. The nine and a half was the new order. His former agent, Abian Morano, said:
“The system of Barcelona changed as strikers went into the background, and leaving Barcelona changed Icardi’s life. But the step into Italian football was decisive and without that decision, Icardi wouldn’t be a professional footballer today.”
Mauro’s contract at Barcelona was supposed to run till 2013, but he was sent on loan to Sampdoria in January 2011 until the end of the season, playing 19 games for the Primavera U19 Sampdoria team, scoring 13 goals. The Italians utilised the option to buy clause in the loan and paid about €400,000 to secure the Argentine on a three year deal.
He played the next season for Sampdoria in the reserve league and made his first team debut in May 12, 2012, netting the winner as a sub in the 2-1 win against Juve Stabia. Icardi made his Serie A debut against Roma in September 2012 and scored his first Serie A goal in November against in the Derby della Lanterna against Genoa. In January of 2013, he was influential in a Sampdoria upset against Juventus, as the visitors won the game 1-2 in La Vecchia Signora’s second ever loss in the Allianz stadium. Morano was right – Icardi was starting to shake things up in the forest of out-and-out number nines.
That same January, he scored 4 goals when La Samp put six past Pescara and towards the end of the season, with Sampdoria struggling to stay up, he came up clutch again, helping Sampdoria to a 3-2 win over Juventus in the last game of the season. He had done the job he was brought into Sampdoria to do; he scored goals, and they stayed up.
A mutual parting was always on the cards and in April, it was announced that Icardi would be joining Internazionale Milano for the 2013/14 season. With 11 goals in 33 Serie A appearances, Inter were not signing an unknown, but weren’t exactly signing a player from the top shelf either. Walter Mazzari, the then-Inter Milan coach, also added another striker to the ranks that summer in Algerian Ishak Belfodil, who was coming off the back of a similar season at Parma. Both would be meeting Rodrigo Palacio at the club. But the career paths of the two strikers would be different from this point. Icardi would go on to brush aside the competition in less than a season, as Belfodil only made eight appearances in an Inter shirt before being chalked off on loan to Livorno and then permanently back to Parma.
“I hope to do my best for the team and the fans, I can’t wait to start the new season. Moving to Inter is a dream come true.”
Internazionale supporters would have thought this was just another generic statement coming from just another player, but Icardi would not be just another player for Inter Milan. In fact, in the coming years and seasons, a new chant would become popular; ‘No Icardi, No Party’.
Icardi arrived on the back of a €6,500,000 fee. Over the years, it’s fair to say that he proved his value for money. He would go on to make his debut in August and score his first goal against Juventus in September in a 1-1 draw after coming on as a sub.
Injury would hamper his first season as he went on to miss the whole first half of the season only returning in February to bag the winner against Fiorentina at the Artemio Franchi on Valentine’s day. Maybe that was the moment the love affair between Icardi and Interisti began.
He would go on to score vital goals in securing Inter’s qualification for the Europa League playoffs. This included a goal against his former employers Sampdoria, scoring also in Javier Zanetti’s last game for Inter Milan. He would go on to end the season on 9 goals from 23 appearances, with a goal every 145 minutes. At the end of the 2014 season, Inter would pay another €6,500,000 Euros to La Samp to terminate the existent co-ownership of Icardi.
Icardi’s clutch moments would continue into his second season at Inter. Feeling more at home now, he started scoring right from the first game of the season in a European two legged tie. He went on to not only score decisive goals but brush off yet another strike partner with as much decisiveness as he took his goals. After Walter Mazzari was sacked in January and Roberto Mancini was appointed, Dani Osvaldo and Icardi had an argument in the game against Juventus. This saw Dani Osvaldo leave the club a few days later. The Alpha male was really in town. Icardi did accept he was in the wrong, as he said:
“I got it wrong as I should have passed, but I saw a gap.”
The move showed how much his value to Inter had skyrocketed. He was becoming indispensable, a vital cog in Inter’s machinery. However, while all of this was happening on the pitch, off the pitch, Mauro was having an affair with his former teammate Maxi Lopez’s wife, Wanda Naira. Going into this episode in detail would be a cumbersome read. Maxi refused to shake Mauro’s hand and grabbed his own crotch when the pair met again when Inter faced Torino.
Barely five days after Osvaldo’s departure, Icardi was decisive again in Inter’s win against Genoa, which was a seeming indication to the whole world that he had nerves of steel. That season, if Inter lost but scored, you could almost be sure it was Mauro, and if Inter won, Icardi was always very decisive; not just ‘stat padding’, as modern football calls it now.
In a game against Sassuolo that same January, Inter’s performance was so bad that after the 3-1 loss, he tried to give the Inter Milan fans his shirt but they hurled it back, along with some insults. He responded in typical Icardi fashion by scoring a week later in a 3-0 win over Palermo but didn’t celebrate, citing contract issues.
Icardi would go on to be joint top scorer and win the capocannonaire with Luca Toni of Hellas Verona. With Inter failing to secure any form of European competition for the next season, Icardi attracted European suitors but went on to sign a 4-year contract at the end of the season. Little did he know that this season was just the beginning of his being in the spotlight for reasons both on and off the pitch.
The next season, Icardi was made Inter Milan captain by Roberto Mancini after Ranocchia’s poor 2014/15 season. This weighed very little on Icardi’s arm and heart. Goalscoring was in his DNA, and win, lose or draw, he was almost always on the scoresheet; to the extent that midway through the first half of the season when he had a goal drought, he blamed his teammates for a lack of creativity.
“In 10 matches, I have received four chances to score and I have taken three. I think that’s a good average.”
He was benched by Mancini for the next game against Roma, citing tactical decisions. This was the first time Icardi’s all round play was criticised for being too limited, but he was put back into the fray in the next game.
At the end of 2015, With Inter top of Serie A, Icardi was named in the top 100 footballers in the world by The Guardian at number 82. During the second half of the season, Icardi scored his 50th Inter goal in all competitions and also made his 100th Inter appearance. At the end of the season, it was reported that Inter had turned down a €30,000,000 bid from Manchester United for Mauro.
The 2016 season started off slowly for Inter but of course, Icardi was still scoring goals left, right and center for the Nerazzurri under the guidance of new manager Frank De Boer. By November, Icardi had 7 goals in 8 games for Inter including a goal and assist against Juve. Fast forward to 7th October, and Icardi was again putting pen to paper on a new €4,500,000 a year deal till 2021 with a release clause of €110,000,000, with various bonuses. On the back of the new deal Icardi said
“I’m really happy to have signed a new contract at the club that will keep me here until 2021. I have my agent and wife, Wanda to thank for this renewal and we are all pleased at home.”
Before this, he announced the release of an Autobiography titled Sempre Avanti (‘Always Ahead’) and after his contract talks, the book hit the market. It was in the book that he talked in detail about the heated exchange between himself and a head of the Curva Nord (Internazionale Ultras) after the 3-1 defeat at the Mapei:
“I took off my shirt and shorts and gave them to the Kid. It’s a shame that a head ultra flew over to him, took the shirt from his hands and threw it after me in disgust. In that instance, I would have punched him for that bastard gesture he just pulled”
Icardi, clearly channeling the fact that he grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in South America said he was willing to face the Ultras one on one and claimed in the book that he could get 100 criminals in Argentina who would wipe out the ultras on the spot. If in fact, there was a conversation like this with the Inter directors, then it was wise that it wasn’t relayed. The Curva Nord described Icardi’s narration of the events as lies made up to sell more copies and of course the backlash against the striker was inevitable and swift with statements such as:
“An individual like this cannot be allowed to wear the Inter Captain’s armband”
Icardi would go on to have yet another good season with 24 goals in 34 appearances, a new personal best. However, he was fined and forced to remove the chapter from his book.
Former AS Roma coach Luciano Spalletti joined Inter Milan in the summer of 2017, and qualifying for the UEFA Champions League was next on Inter’s agenda. He knew Icardi would be key to that so he backed his striker from minute one with quips like:
“He is the captain of Inter and he is not your average kind of attacker. He wants the responsibility; he is a special kind of person, a great guy and great professional.”
Icardi didn’t disappoint, with a brace in the the first two match days. He scored all 3 goals as Inter defeated cross-town rivals AC Milan 3-2. He was decisive for Inter throughout the season, managing to stay fit all through and he broke the 100 goal mark in the Serie A in a game away to his former side Sampdoria, where he scored 4 goals, taking his tally to 103. On the final day of the season, I-9 would once again be decisive in snatching away Champions league qualification from the hands of Lazio, winning 3-2. With 29 goals, he went on to win the capocannoniere again jointly with Lazio’s Ciro Immobile. Inter were back in the big time.
Icardi started this season in decidedly non-Icardi fashion, without a goal in the first 6 games of the season. He then went on to score against Spurs in the 2-1 win in the Champions league and again against PSV the next matchday. Icardi also got the crucial game winner against AC Milan after the International break. However, fast forward to February 13, 2019, amidst reported contract talks and negotiations, there was a shock news that Icardi was to have the armband taken off him, which was to be handed ro Samir Handanovic. He was subsequently dropped for Inter Milan’s game against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League.
Further digging brought about his wife Wanda’s involvement in the ongoing malaise, both as his agent and as his wife. Reports over the past weeks have been that she had been consistently slandering the club while dutifully bigging up Icardi’s value and salary worth. He is without a goal in open play since October and hasn’t scored in his last 16 shots on goal.
Fractious relationships with his teammates have forced Spalletti to side with the rest of the team, with the manager being quoted as saying:
“Taking the armband off Icardi was a difficult and painful decision, but we know his worth. However, we took it together with all of the club’s components involved. It was done exclusively for the good of Inter.”
Icardi was subsequently left out of Inter Milan’s 2-1 victory over Sampdoria on 17th February. Whether or not this is the end of the love affair between Internazionale and Mauro Icardi, however, remains to be seen. A precedence of Icardi’s off field issues doesn’t really help matters here and while Lautaro Martinez may be able to deputize for a few games, if Inter Milan want to cling on to the Champions league places, they need to sort out the Icardi issue.
Icardi was at the game against Sampdoria and was seen to be in joyous mood when Inter scored a winner. One thing is sure – Icardi loves Inter and the Interisti value Icardi, but with rumours already flying around of an impending transfer, the breakdown in communication between all parties as regards the contract renewal need resolving, as do Icardi’s increasingly antagonistic relationships with his teammates.