Ste McGovern writes about one of the most memorable and photogenic scenes in sporting history.

Internazionale were vying for a place in the Champions League semi-finals with AC Milan. The winner would face either PSV Eindhoven or Lyon in the last four, as soft a draw as you could expect at that stage of the competition. Milan were winning 3-0 on aggregate, however and it was looking very bleak for their city rivals.

Listen to episode 4 of the Nostaglia Ultras podcast: The Milan Derby.

Then in the 71st minute Esteban Cambiasso gets the Nerazzurri a life line. Or so it seems. The referee has disallowed it for an infringement by Pedro Cruz on Dida. “There was no infringement,” wrote Barry Glendenning in the Guardian’s minute-by-minute report of the game. “That’s three times now the referee has riffed all over Inter’s pain. His performance has been shocking tonight.”

Within minutes the goal in which Dida stood was being pelted with water bottles and flares. While trying to clear some of the debris, the Brazilian is struck on the shoulder by one of the flares and is lucky to avoid major burning. Smoke billows from the goalmouth as the match is temporarily stopped

The referee Markus Merk took the players off the pitch and returned 25 minutes later to restart the game. However, with the police evidently not willing to get involved, the trouble makers remained in the stands ready to start again and that’s exactly what they did, launching more flares onto the pitch. The German official had no option but to abandon the Derby della Madonnina.

Milan captain Paolo Maldini said the referee was vindicated in his decision. “I’m surprised that he tried to restart the game but it was good because so many supporters had paid to watch.”

ac milan inter 2003
Marco Materazzi and Rui Costa look on as flares fill the field of play. Credit: Barry Masterson.

The Rossoneri were awarded the game, as their fans had been deemed blameless for what had occurred. Police chief Paolo Scarpi afterwards pointed the finger at “the usual hotheads” amongst the Inter support, claiming “two or three hundred hooligans” were involved.

While the result was beyond doubt whether or not the game was abandoned, and the goal would likely have been just a consolation anyway, there was clearly frustration boiling over from the Inter fans. Frustration from being the perennial runners-up to their city rivals, the team that had also stopped them at the semi-final stage just two years previously, and frustration from being denied the chance to even compete fairly because of poor refereeing. Yet to many that is not an excuse for what they did.

“What happened will not just discredit Inter but all of the city,” said the Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Indeed, it left a black stain on the club, although nothing like the stain left on those involved in the Calciopoli match fixing scandal a year later, which did not include Inter. There is an assumption, at least in Britain and Ireland, that hooliganism and violence are a common feature in Italian football grounds. Although it is nowhere near the levels seen in football grounds in England between the 1960’s and 1980’s, there are incidents from time to time, but maybe not as often as one would think.

The Milan Derby flares up... (Via Getty Images)

report on football violence found that such incidents happen at around 10% of matches in Italy, but very similar figures are found in Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. While these numbers do suggest these countries are the worst for hooliganism, it also shows that there isn’t the gulf in violence between fans of Serie A and other major leagues that one might assume.

It’s possible that the occasion, a Milan derby in the biggest club competition in the world screened live on television for millions to see, opened people’s eyes to a certain element of hostility among supporters in Italy. Coupled with the infamous Ultras scene in the country, where notorious fan groups have been known to cause violence, this perhaps has reinforced certain preconceptions of Italian fan culture over the years.

Thankfully on this particular occasion in 2005, no one was hurt and we can enjoy some of the amazing photography that came out of it.

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