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The rutting stags of Milano

Romelu Lukaku of Internazionale clashes with Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan during the Coppa Italia match between their sides at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza - Credit: Inter via Getty Images

For years ROB HUGHES wrote one of Europe’s best-read and most influential sports columns – the now-defunct International Herald Tribute’s Global Soccer. Today it is born again in the pages of The New European.

This week we look at an unedifying clash between two of football’s most forceful players.

Researchers at the University of Salzburg last week published a study suggesting that playing football in empty stadiums during the pandemic has led to a less confrontational, less foul, more emotionally constrained form of the game.

In Austrian football, that may be the case. Across Europe, we call it anodyne football, devoid of the essence of interaction between the players and the crowd. 

However on the night that the study emerged, two of the world’s most recognisable professional footballers went head to head – literally like rutting stags – during an Italian cup game in Milan’s San Siro stadium.

A week later, a federal prosecutor is still assessing whether what AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimović said to Internazionale Milan’s Romelu Lukaku constituted racial abuse. I happen to think not, but the prolonged, ugly spat between the pair deserved more than the yellow card each received from the referee.

With every word carried on the microphones, and the game transmitted across the world, this was a shocking example of behaviour that any parent might have wanted to shield his or her child from hearing.

What in a sense exacerbates the flare up is that Ibrahimović and Lukaku are multi-millionaire examples of the power of sport, football especially, to lift individuals of any race, creed or colour — in their case from immigrant backgrounds.

It is enough to simply say “Ibra” or “Zlatan” to trigger the story of  Ibrahimović, the son of a Muslim Bosnian father and a Catholic Croatian mother, being born and raised in a rough district of Malmo, southern Sweden, which took in refugees fleeing the Yugoslav wars.

Only slightly less renowned, Romelu Lukaku Bolingoli was born to Congolese parents who settled in Antwerp, Belgium. Lukaku’s head start in life was that his father Roger represented Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Both grew into impressive physical specimens, Ibrahimović 1.95m (6ft 4) and Lukaku 1.9m, and if it came to a fight both over 90-kilos (15 stones). Ibrahimović sharpened his competitive nature through taekwondo and even today, after 10 career moves in seven countries now in his 40th year, he still possesses remarkable acrobatic balance that enables him to score overhead bicycle kicks from seemingly impossible angles.

Lukaku, age 27, is more raw power and physical presence, the product surely of countless gymnasium workouts. When you hear them talk of their childhood, the example both took was from Ronaldo de Lima, the explosive Brazilian striker of three World Cups up to 2002.

And that is not all they have in common. Three seasons ago they were team mates at Manchester United, and it was there that Ibrahimović first abrasively taunted his strike partner by stating publicly that he would give Lukaku £50 (56.8 euros) for every time the Belgian managed to control a ball with one touch and pass it to him.

Between friends, perhaps, that remark could be laughed off. Less so in the heat of an Italian derby, when Ibrahimović intruded on Lukaku reacting angrily to a crude foul on him by Milan’s captain Alessio Romagnoli.

The Swede stepped in, literally pushing his face into Lukaku’s. Speaking in English, Ibrahimović said: “Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey. Call your mother.”

Lukaku replied: “F*** you and f*** your wife, you little bitch.”

And so it went on, the goading and smirking from Ibrahimović, the anger from Lukaku who had to be restrained from pursuing the Swede down the tunnel at half time.

The voodoo reference, repeated several times by Ibrahimović, relates back three years to when Farhad Moshiri, the Iranian-born owner of Everton, told his club’s shareholders that Lukaku left his club for Man Utd “because he had a call from his mother who was on a pilgrimage in Africa and had seen a voodoo or something who said he had to go”.

The Lukakus, devout Roman Catholic, threatened legal action against the Everton owner. 

But the echo of that remark is what the Italian authorities are now examining. My view is that Ibrahimović, big, bad, mocking – an almost 40-year-old adolescent that he appeared to be in that moment – was simply trying to get under the skin of an opponent he feared might prove the match winner for Inter.

Ibrahimović showed his true colours when he put out on Instagram after the game. “In ZLATAN’S world there is no place for RACISM. We are all the same race – we are all equal! We are all PLAYERS, some better than others.”

That final sting in the so-called social message is the true Zlatan Ibrahimović. He has spent his entire life creating his own image of superiority, and he would never have been the player that he is, the personality that he is, without this self-creation.

Stripped of the sound and fury, there is no question in my mind that Zlatan is one of the most remarkable athletes of his time. In body, in mind, in movement he towers above most players and away from the battle ground he sincerely involves himself with the United Nations World Food Programme and other causes.

“I have supporters all over the world,” he has said. “I want this support to go to the 805 million people who suffer from hunger. They are the real champions.”

What happened at the San Siro last week was unworthy of what either Ibrahimović or Lukaku have made of their life. It will help nobody or nothing to turn it into a racially motivated inquisition.

For the violence, alone, it should have resulted in red cards to each of them. The arbiter on the field failed to punish them appropriately, and the image will remain a stain on the game, replayed time and time again around the globe.

The damage is done. Far from being a sport somehow sterilised during the Covid pandemic, football is out there — the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s human life on the screen. 

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk