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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Milan divided by partisanship, united in voice

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, left, scored the second goal for Inter Milan in its 2-0 win.

By Rory Smith

Smoke wreathed and coiled around the Curva Sud, billowing in clouds thick and dark enough to obscure the top two tiers of the stadium stand almost entirely. Flags swooped and fluttered. Flares burned lurid red. Firecrackers, as loud as thunder, exploded. And all the time, the noise rose, echoed and gathered enough strength to rattle San Siro’s ancient concrete.

AC Milan trailed by two goals at that point Wednesday, and had been for some time. Its nightmare prospect was starting to materialize: not just losing a Champions League semifinal, its first trip there in 16 years, but doing so at the hands of Inter, its rival and housemate. Stefano Pioli’s team stood on the verge of a defeat it will never be allowed to forget.

It made little difference. At the front of the Curva, home to Milan’s most ardent fans, a group of men — clad wholly in black — urged their choir, tens of thousands strong, to increase the volume. The response was instant, earsplitting. “Hell is empty,” a banner unfurled by Milan’s fans had read before kickoff. “All of the devils are here.”

A close examination, of course, would doubtless conclude that this Champions League semifinal matchup was not quite as refined, glossy or accomplished as the previous day’s meeting between Real Madrid and Manchester City: an encounter between a team that already belongs to history and one constructed for the express purpose of making it.

The power dynamics — read: who has the most money — of European soccer dictate that was always going to be the case. For all their rich histories, Milan and Inter belong firmly in the second category of European powers these days. They are not paupers, not by any means. Neither one makes an especially convincing underdog. One is owned by an American investment fund. The other is backed by a Chinese private enterprise vehicle.

But they, and the league in which they play, have undeniably been diminished by the wealth that has flooded into England, especially in the past two decades. They do not have the benefit of the state-backed resources that have been poured into City. They have not ridden the turbulent waves of the game’s economics quite as well as Real or Bayern Munich.

Milan had so many ticket requests for this game that it could have sold out San Siro — which hosted more than 75,000 Wednesday — no fewer than 13 times. These are clubs of renown, of widespread and fervent and deep-rooted support, not just in Italy but across the world. They are not small, even if the distorted lens of modern soccer can, from the outside, make it feel that way.

Inter, for example, does not currently have a jersey sponsor. The firm that occupied that cherished real estate across players’ chests had been acquired during soccer’s brief and intensely regrettable cryptocurrency boom, the club lunging hungrily for the easy money on offer. The firm has, it will surprise absolutely nobody, subsequently failed to make some of its payments.

Milan, meanwhile, has roughly 11 million followers on TikTok. Real has almost three times as many. Their players are, of course, among the best in the world, prodigiously gifted, high-specification athletes, but they can be broadly sorted into two categories: those already deemed surplus to requirements by the new elite, and those who dream one day of making it there. Few, if any, would be regarded as global stars at the peak of their fame. These are teams that have, by the standards of the superclubs, been thrown together by compromise and cost control.

For all the intrigue naturally generated by this pairing — a derby played out over 180 minutes spread across six days, creating a city anxious and alert, divided by red and blue — it was understandable that it was seen, by many, as a formality of a semifinal with the teams competing for the right to be beaten in the final next month.

And, in many ways, that was true. The passes were not quite as crisp. The control was a little less sure. Some of the decisions were rash. One or two of the ideas were muddled. Everything was somehow more deliberate, a fraction slower. The players of Milan and Inter might require two touches where City’s Kevin De Bruyne or Real’s Luka Modric might need only one.

Likewise, when looked at in the finest possible detail, the soccer was neither as perfectly executed nor as cutting edge as it had been at the Bernabéu. At no point, for example, did either Milan or Inter invert a full back — no, not even a single one — in order to create an overload in one of the central half-spaces.

That was all true, but none of it seemed especially relevant, or to contain even the slightest real significance, because inside San Siro, it was extremely difficult to think at all. The stadium, the one both clubs are so desperate to leave behind, was so noisy, so animated, so vivid and so vibrant that it bordered on a form of sensory overload.

The game itself was no less compelling.

There is something stirring about soccer played to a pitch of perfection, when a team transforms itself into something approaching art. That is why those who can affect that transformation are so revered, and so richly rewarded. But it does not need to reach those heights to be absorbing, engaging, thrilling. All it has to be is a contest, an occasion, an event.

That, after all, has a far broader, far more visceral appeal. Some games exist to be watched, to be admired, to be appreciated. Others are there to be heard, to be sensed, to be felt. The slender technical deficiencies — of both teams — will not be remembered. In the white heat, they may not even have been noticed. The noise, though, washing down from the Curva Sud even as the thing Milan had dreaded most of all slowly came into being, will echo for some time.

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