As both teams ran back on the pitch to resume play there was a feeling of frustration from the Inter players. They thought they just scored through Estaban Cambiasso’s header from a typically well-crossed Sinisa Mihajlovic corner but the referee decided that AC Milan’s Brazilian goalkeeper Dida was fouled during the set-piece. If VAR was available during the 2004-05 Champions League season and judged that the goal should have stood, the drama which unfolded shortly after the 73rd minute could have been avoided.

Inter’s die-hard ultras, so incensed with the decision, threw water bottles on the pitch as Dida tried to resume play with the free-kick. Situated in the curva nord of the Giueseppe Meazza the fans then started throwing flares in the penalty area, with one striking Dida on the shoulder. Pandemonium ensued, play stopped and French referee Alain Sars ordered players back to their changing rooms. When the teams did return to the pitch, reserve goalie Christian Abbiati replaced Dida.

AC Milan eventually won the quarter-final tie 3-0 on aggregate but as both teams prepare for another Derby di Milano it reminds us of two things: this fiercely competitive derby no longer boasts the quality of football it once did yet the passion from both sets of supporters still makes the games uniquely gripping.

 

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To understand this fierce rivalry it’s important to explore the origins of AC Milan and, in particular, the story of Nottingham-born Herbet Kiplin. A butcher’s son who emigrated to Milan in the 1890s to work in the textile industry, Kiplin soon became homesick and decided to create the Milan Cricket and Football club.

The Englishman also designed the famous kit worn by greats such as Paolo Maldini, Marco Van Basten and Franco Baresi – red for fire and black to create fear in opponents or Rossoneri – and to recognise their English roots AC Milan decided to keep the English name rather than the Italian AC Milano.

AC Milan won a number of titles early in the next century but in 1908 an ongoing disagreement regarding the signing of foreign players led to a split and Football Club Internazionale Milano was born. The Internazionale part of the team’s name, meaning international in English, recognised the openness to welcome overseas signings. Inter’s birth soon became a problem for AC Milan.

The Rosseneri’s change in recruitment policy meant they didn’t win another scudetto until 1951 whilst Inter secured five during that time. During this period an Inter and Italian legend emerged. Giuseppe Meazza would play 408 times in the blue, black and gold of Inter scoring 287 goals. He would also help the Italian national team to win two World Cups in 1934 and 1938 as well as having a brief playing period with AC Milan.

After his death in 1979 Inter fans successfully changed the name of the San Siro to the Giuseppe Meazza stadium. Many AC Milan fans still call it the San Siro whilst the nerazzurri recognise the ground by their club legend – a nice way to find identity between two sets of supporters calling the stadium home.

Today the Giuseppe Meazza shows all the signs of a stadium that is nearly a century old. In many ways it’s become a metaphor for the significance of the derby game: two clubs with rich histories who used to boast having the best players in the world but now are far from excellence. Yet, despite the slow decline in quality, the passion from the fans remains exuberant.

When Roma play Lazio in the Derby delle Capitale it’s said supporters from either side would rather win this game than the scudetto. Games in the past between the teams have seen riots and even deaths, namely after a Lazio fan was hit by a flare thrown by Roma supporters in Italian football’s first fatality due to violence in 1979.

Whilst the Derby della Madonnina – another name given to the Milan derby in recognition to the Virgin Mary statue atop Milan Cathedral – is fiercely competitive there is little trouble between the fans, but it’s not always been this way.

In the 1970s, when the ultra groups were forming, derby days in Milan saw blood and violence. It didn’t help that both sets of supporters were positioned next to each other in the stadium (a reason why today Inter fans are associated with the curva nord area of the home stadium and AC Milan in curva sud). Due to the intensity of derby games and the impact on the city both sets of fans signed an agreement of non-aggression, which is still observed today.

Supporters from both sides are usually family members, friends or work colleagues and will be found mixing in the Piazza del Duomo. This is the friendly derby and is seen as a safe haven for ultras who now use the game to provide taunts, choreographed banners and produce sarcastic chants.

 

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The orchestrated atmosphere of games for both teams has become legendary for anyone who experiences the Tifosi. After facing AC Milan in the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson said, “I felt in shock, really in shock, because the atmosphere was unbelievable”. Luis Figo once stopped to applaud the Inter fans after they sang “Luis Figo rest in Milano” during what many thought would be his last game for the club before moving to another side in the Middle East. Figo ended up staying with Inter for another three seasons.

Talk of world-class players like Luis Figo and Champions League nights against Manchester United are a long way from where both teams will be when they kick-off on Sunday evening. Despite being second in the league, Inter failed to progress in the Champions League group stage and are now battling out in the second-tier of European football. AC Milan have faded in their significance since winning their last league title in 2011.

The chaos witnessed during the Champions League evening, where a flare struck Dida, was the last time both sides met near the peak of their footballing powers. Players such as Cafu, Maldini, Javier Zanetti, Marco Materrazzi, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and the joint top scorer in the derby’s history – Andrii Shevchenko – were world-class football players. Dida himself managed to keep 9 clean sheets in 13 games during the Champions League campaign of 2005.

In comparison, the focus of attention for the upcoming fixture is 38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic who AC Milan are relying on 10 years after he left the club. Inter have focussed their recruitment efforts on ageing and underperforming Premier League players like Ashley Young, Victor Moses and Romelu Lukaku. To compare the current players from both sides with the Grande Inter, Fabio Capello’s AC Milan or Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning team is just unfair – both teams have seen better days.

The reason to watch the Derby della Madonnina this weekend is not to enjoy world-class footballers, moments of brilliance or wonderful phases of play. It’s to appreciate unrelenting support from both groups of fans in the most passionate of ways.

Let’s just hope the occasional flying flare doesn’t hit any of the players.