On Easter’s eve in 1996, Cremonese and Inter squared off in Matchday 29 of the 1995/96 Serie A campaign. It was supposed to be just another football day. But it ended up being a day to forget for the calcio world as Inter’s black player Paul Ince was openly and repeatedly targeted with racist chants from the stands.
What happened on April 6 at the Giovanni Zini Stadium in Cremona was likely not the first case of racism on an Italian football ground. However, it was the first to spark major attention, if only for the way in which the victim decided to answer. Paul Ince scored a spectacular goal to promptly shut the troglodytes’ mouths, leading his side to an emphatic 4-2 win.
That doesn’t make the events from that day any less painful and regrettable, but the memory of them offers us the chance to also look at Paul Ince’s peculiar parable in the Italian top-flight. This hard-tackling, no-nonsense English midfielder looked like an anomaly in the mid-1990s Serie A, the most tactically advanced league in the world. And, for many months, he was.
Under coach Gigi Simoni’s guidance, Cremonese were enjoying their third Serie A season in a row. A traditionally relegation-battling side, the Grigiorossi had somehow managed to maintain their top-flight status since 1993, but the party was almost over. With five league games left, they appeared pretty much doomed this time around.
Inter, on the other hand, were still in their mid-1990s limbo, a club that was struggling to reconstruct their roster and identity after enduring many lackluster seasons following their 1989 record-winning title. This was President Massimo Moratti’s first season at the helm, and the first on the pitch for the future Nerazzurri legend Javier Zanetti. English tactician Roy Hodgson sat in the dugout.
Paul Ince was an unexpected signing, one of the many, from the early Moratti Jr. days. Many wondered what business this English gritty midfielder could have with the Serie A. A West Ham and Manchester United veteran, Ince was born and bred in the Premier League and indeed all his career would unfold in the EPL, save for the two years he would spend at Appiano Gentile.
Ince’s first months in Italy seemed to cast further doubts on Moratti’s market strategy. The Englishman’s performances were simply abysmal. Ince quizzically roamed around the pitch as he struggled to find his place during coach Ottavio Bianchi’s early tenure (Hodgson would take charge seven games into the season).
Then, something happened. Call it the Hodgson’s hand, call it whatever you want but, the fact is, Ince experienced an incredible and absolute transformation. Before the end of the season, he had become decisive on the pitch and had turned into a leader within the Nerazzurri’s locker room.
The game in Cremona was perhaps the most intense in his Serie A experience, for both good and bad reasons. With 30 minutes on the clock and the score still at 0-0, Ince went for a header in the box but crashed into the Grigiorossi goalkeeper Luigi Turci. The collision was brutal, so much that both players would eventually leave the pitch at half time.
Ince, however, promptly stood up. That’s how you did it in England back in the 1990s: if you did not require to be stretched out of the pitch, you just stood up. But some Cremonese supporters, seeing that their goalkeeper was still hurt, put the blame on the English midfielder. They started to target Ince with racial remarks and did not stop for the whole first half. Ince knew Italian well enough to understand what those chants from the stands were about and polemically applauded the Cremonese’s curva.
The referee Graziano Cesari didn’t find anything better to do than wave a yellow card at him, forcing him to miss the next match and adding insult to injury.
There was enough to make one fume and, if truth be told, Ince was not exactly known for being a calm and controlled player. Still, he decided to face the situation in the best possible way. He kept playing and doing what he was best at. The reward came soon.
In the dying moments of the first half, Ince triggered an offensive action for Inter along the midfield line. Striker Marco Branca was knocked down by the Grigiorossi defense on the edge of the box, but this time the referee made the right choice and gave advantage to Inter as the ball ended on Ince’s feet again.
The Englishman angrily whipped it past Turci with a phenomenal right foot strike, discharging all the rage and tension he had accumulated for the past 20 minutes. It was his first Serie A goal, the right culmination of a process that had seen him become a Nerazzurri hero after being on the verge of being shipped back to England only a few months earlier. There were no more chants to be heard after that.
The game ended 4-2 for Inter after a spectacular second period. Ince and Turci left the pitch at half time, showing that their collision had had consequences for both players. Cremonese equalized in a brilliant fashion as Andrea Tentoni headed home a Marco Giandebiaggi bicycle kick assist.
Javier Zanetti put Inter ahead again, dribbling past substitute goalie Stefano Razzetti at the end of a fantastic solo run across the pitch. It was a goal, if possible, even more beautiful than Ince’s exploit. Future Newcastle defender Alessandro Pistone made it three for the Beneamata but Tentoni halved the gap. The last goal came from Branca, who beat Razzetti again from a tight angle.
Inter won the game and that was perhaps to be expected, but the match at the Giovanni Zini went down in history as the one where the Italian football-dom had to start acknowledging the fact that they had a problem with racism. One would hope that 23 years later, some progress was made in eradicating racist chants and behavior from the Italian curvas.
But the recent events in Rome, with Lecce players Samuel Umtiti and Lameck Banda being the target once again of such derogatory remarks, have unfortunately shown that this is not the case.
The Paul Ince episode, at least, had a sort of a happy ending. A few days after the incident, the then Mayor of Cremona addressed an open letter to Ince offering an apology for some of his citizens’ behavior, which the English player gracefully accepted.
April 6, 1996 – Serie A 1995-96 Round 29
CREMONESE – INTER 2-4
SCORERS: 45′ Ince (I), 51′ Tentoni (C), 55′ Zanetti (I), 79′ Pistone (I), 82′ Tentoni (C), 90′ Branca (I)
|CREMONESE: Turci (46′ Razzetti); A. Orlando, Gualco, Verdelli, Dall’Igna; Perovic (58′ Cristiani), Maspero, Giandebiaggi; Petrachi, Tentoni, Florjancic (69′ Aloisi) (Bassani, Fantini) Coach: Simoni
INTER: Pagliuca; Pistone, Bergomi, M. Paganin, Roberto Carlos; Zanetti, Ince (50′ Cinetti), Fresi, D. Fontolan (72′ Dell’Anno); B. Carbone, Branca (Landucci, Manicone, Ganz) Coach: Hodgson
REFEREE: Mr. Cesari from Genoa
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Ince (I)