BEVERLY HILLS, January 27, (THEWILL) – The Coppa Italia quarter-final fixture between Italian city rivals Inter Milan and AC Milan often has more at stake than just a football win. The most recent tie had everything football fans have come to expect from this fiery Italian derby: goals, fierce contest, passion and determination to take victory by sheer grit. And, as it often happens, some measure of controversy. Tuesday’s encounter had all that and some more.
The game that began slowly seemed to lack all the characteristics of the derby as both sides lacked the flair to go for the other. The drab encounter went on like that for most of the half hour with an almost sleep-inducing possession football that failed to spark. It was looking to be an unusually uninspiring Derby della Madonnina.
That was until the 31st minute. An Inter clearance was intercepted and the ageless veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic repeated his feat of beating defender Aleksandar Kolarov and keeper Samir Handanovic from earlier in the season to put Milan ahead from the only real chance he got. It was a typical goal-poacher’s opportunity and, in the form the Swede is in, he was not the type to fluff the chance.
But the drama was just about to begin, the spectacle that would make this match one to remember for a long time to come in the annals, not just of Italian derby history, but of football history in general, was yet to come.
It all started just before halftime, when Lukaku lost it with Milan skipper and defender Alessio Romagnoli for committing a cynical foul and took exception to it. Ibrahimovic, always ready to take leadership, stepped in and squared up to the furious Belgian as tempers flared and they both went head to head with heated words being exchanged. They had to be physically separated by teammates to prevent it escalating.
From the footage, audio and mouth movements, it seems Lukaku invited Ibrahimovic to meet him outside later. Ibrahimovic simply laughed and said: “Ok, call your mother.” That appeared to only infuriate the Belgian further. To add insult to injury, Ibrahimovic went further, repeating to Lukaku, “Go do your voodoo sh*t.”
Some read that as a racist phrase, but in post-match comments, Ibrahimovic and representatives from Milan have denied any racist insult was intended or involved.
Rather, it was a reference to a quote from Everton major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, who attributed some voodoo connection in their January 2018 contract negotiations with Lukaku before the Belgian refused their offer.
Three years ago, while explaining the breakdown of negotiations, Moshiri said: “We offered him a better deal than Chelsea and his agent came to Finch Farm to sign the contract.
“Robert [Elstone, Everton’s chief executive] was there, everything was in place, there were a few reporters outside, then in the meeting Rom called his mother.
“He said he was on a pilgrimage in Africa or somewhere and he had a voodoo and he got the message that he needs to go to Chelsea.”
This recollection of events has been completely denied by Lukaku, who actually left Everton but joined Manchester United and not Chelsea as the story went. The claim infuriated Lukaku enough that he threatened to bring defamation charges against Everton.
In Lukaku’s defense, his representative gave this explanation to the BBC at the time: “Romelu’s decision had nothing to do with voodoo. He distances himself from these beliefs and this statement and will now see what judicial steps can be taken in relation to them.
“Romelu is very Catholic and voodoo is not part of his life or his beliefs. He simply had no faith in Everton and no confidence in Mr Moshiri’s project. That is why he did not want to sign on any condition. He wanted to make the next step in his career and wanted the security to be able to leave.”
That was where Ibrahimovic dug up the “mother” and “voodoo” taunts from knowing how painfully deep it was going to hurt the Belgian. And it worked. Because, even going into the tunnel at the interval, Lukaku had to be held back from the retreating Swede while he kept shouting insults behind Ibrahimovic.
In the end, Inter and Lukaku had the last laugh. Ibrahimovic, yellow-carded for the head to head altercation with Lukaku, was sent off in the second half while the Belgian equalised from the spot before out of favour Inter player, Christian Eriksen sealed their spot in the semi-finals with a lovely free-kick.
As the Milan coach Stefano Pioli revealed, Ibrahimovic apologised for the red card that cost Milan dearly in their Coppa Italia exit but the damage was done. The tireless Swede, who had scored his 499th club career goal to give Milan the lead, was sent off for a second bookable offence as he felled Aleksandar Kolarov just before the hour-mark.
It was a major misstep as there was the possibility of the 39-year-old scoring his 500th goal if he had remained on the pitch for the duration of the game and so help his side scale past their arch rivals to the double-legged semi-finals to keep the hope of some silverware alive this season. But, it was not to be.
Yet, that was not the end of the drama.
There were ten minutes of stoppage time in the derby and this came about because the match official and centre referee Paolo Valeri picked up an injury and had to be replaced by the fourth official and that exchange took some good time off the clock for the tie.
In the hotly contested match, referee Valeri was doing his utmost to keep the fixture under control and performing as well as he possibly could. It was not an easy match to officiate. The effort to keep up obviously put some extra strain on the 42-year-old, and he had to leave the pitch, having pulled up with a previously injured hamstring.
After giving a good account of himself, the referee who controlled the on-the-pitch battle between two of football’s biggest personalities, who sent Ibrahimovic to an early shower with a red card and awarded a penalty to Inter during the contest, had to be substituted with the fourth official.
It was drama of the highest calibre, fit for the most suspenseful scriptwriting of the best of Hollywood but played out on the stage of Italy’s fiercest derbies. The goals, confrontations, zeal, passion and controversies were never far from the derby as expected but no one could have seen the referee substitutions coming. And that, together with everything else, made it a game like no other.
Milan remain top of Serie A, two points ahead of second-placed Inter, as they both continue to slug it out for who will take it in the end and once again claim the Scudetto prize.