When it comes to football rivalries, the showdown between Milan and Inter is one of the most fascinating of all. Despite calling the Fashion Capital of the World their home, the city of Milano is hardly large enough to host the combined glamor of the two European giants.
Yet, the two clubs somehow managed to forge a relatively amicable rapport, allowing them to coexist in a civilized manner inside the walls of their shared metropolis. While this ought to be the norm in all sports, those familiar with European football would tell you that brokering a long-standing peace between crosstown rivals is no easy feat at all, especially when considering the examples of Rome, Istanbul and Belgrade, just to name a few.
Nevertheless, the contest between the Milanese duo is sometimes referred to as the “Cousins’ Derby”, considering how most families in the city have representatives within the two fanbases. So instead of hooliganism, street skirmishes and ugly rows, the Derby della Madonnina offers a breath of fresh air, as it is synonymous with scintillating choreographies in the stands and some good-old banter between the rival, yet somewhat friendly, fanbases.
This special status has paved the way for a plethora of inter-city transfers, with a host of Milan players joining Inter over the decades, and vice versa.
Those who dared to cross the boundaries between the Blue and Red halves of the city can often expect to be targeted by some mockery and banter from their former supporters, but controversy, hatred and insults are not the order of the day in Milano.
Yet, Hakan Calhanoglu walks to the beat of his own drum.
From the day he first stepped foot at Inter’s headquarters in Viale della Liberazione, the midfielder cemented himself as an exception to the rule, perhaps even the chief among exceptions.
The former Milan man made the crossing and left burning bridges in his wake… or at least this is how the Diavolo faithful perceived it.
Mild Success at Milan
After joining Milan in 2017, Calhanoglu struggled to prove his worth in his early days in Calcio. The club’s state of disarray at the time certainly didn’t help his case. Many Rossoneri fans at the time were willing to throw the towel on the former Bayer Leverkusen, deeming him as just another flop who failed to justify his price tag during Li Yonghong’s ill-fated takeover at Milanello.
But while others headed towards the door, Hakan persisted.
The midfielder was determined to make a point, and slowly but surely, he cemented himself as a regular starter and eventually became a cornerstone in Stefano Pioli’s revolution at the club.
With the Number 10 slapped on the back of his jersey, Calhanoglu fittingly played as an attacking midfielder while occasionally featuring as a winger.
But during the 2020/21 season, it became clear that Milan directors Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara were struggling in their attempts to renew the player’s contract, or perhaps they simply believed that his requests were too hefty for what he was offering on the pitch.
After all, the Mannheim native was certainly a key player in Pioli’s tactical jigsaw, but never truly produced the type of displays hinting that an elite player was hiding underneath. And at the age of 27, it was past time for him to make this mammoth leap… or at least this is what we thought.
The Scudetto Curse
When Calha made the jump from Milan to Inter in 2021, some accused him of being a turncloak who switched allegiance for a few extra bucks. On the other hand, he had often cited sporting reasons behind his decision.
Whatever was the case, his first interview as an Inter player caused a stir due to one line in particular.
“We want to win the Scudetto this year too,” he told the club’s official website.
From a professional standpoint, there’s hardly anything wrong with this statement.
But as Milan fans would swiftly point out, Calhanoglu wasn’t part of the Inter squad that won the title under Antonio Conte’s guidance. In fact, he was still playing for Milan who fell short in the title race. So was he denying his past at Milanello?
While these words infuriated a large section of the Rossoneri crowds at first, they eventually turned into a topic of ridicule when Pioli’s men pipped Simone Inzaghi’s men for the title on the back of a thrilling title race that went to the wire.
Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t prevent himself from stimulating an anti-Calhanoglu choir while celebrating his last career triumph with the Milan supporters.
So while the title switched hands, little had changed for Hakan. He found himself in the losing half of the city on both occasions, which must have been a mentally devastating blow.
The Rise of the Regista
But while the Scudetto still eluded him, even Milan supporters must admit that the midfielder’s switch to Inter has helped him elevate his career to the next level.
When the Turkey international first signed for the Nerazzurri, many wondered if he’d be able to fit within Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation. The response came quickly with the player settling in smoothly as a left-central midfielder, joining Marcelo Brozovic and Nicolò Barella in a star-studded department.
But what none of us saw coming was a shocking transition to the deep-lying midfield role.
With Brozovic dealing with recurring injury problems, Inzaghi deployed Hakan in front of the defense, and the result was so delighting that Inter supporters hardly rued the departure of the long-serving Croatian last summer, and why would they when they might have the best Regista in the world pulling the strings in the middle of the park week in week out?
These days, Calhanoglu is an utter joy to watch. Whether he’s helping his teammates transition from defense to attack with clever short passes, or cutting the team’s work short with one jaw-dropping long ball that slices the opposition defenses apart, the Turkey international is producing outrageous displays.
But while credit must go to Inzaghi for this tactical masterstroke, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this transformation, as Italian football has witnessed similar repackages in the past, including Hakan’s predecessor at Inter.
As we all know, Brozovic started his career as an attacking midfielder, before plying his trade in front of the defense under the orders of Luciano Spalletti who saw in the Croatian what Inzaghi sees in Calhanoglu today.
Interestingly, both players made this transition after the age of 25, but that too shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the delicacy of the Regista role.
After all, this isn’t a playing role that a player can immediately learn in the youth sector, but rather a craft that one can only acquire after amassing a certain level of experience. In the end, the deep-lying playmaker is the coach’s ultimate representative within the squared pitch.
Shades of Pirlo
But while Brozovic was certainly a brilliant player in his heyday (at least before his career faded due to injuries and lucrative Middle Eastern offers), a large section of fans and pundits would argue that Calhanglu has already exceeded him with his most recent elegant displays, including his masterclass against Juventus.
In fact, some would argue that the Nerazzurri player is the best Regista to grace Serie A since Andrea Pirlo’s departure to New York in 2015.
While running a comparison between the Turkish star and the Italian legend remains premature, one can’t deny the existence of some striking parallels when contemplating their respective career paths.
For instance, Pirlo endured an underwhelming early-career spell at Inter, failing to prove his worth in the Trequartista role. Thanks to the late Carlo Mazzone who helped him discover his true niche in a deeper position during a loan stint at Brescia, the midfielder went on to cement himself as a cornerstone in Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan.
Curiously, Calhanoglu had a contrasting, yet similar passage.
Although he found mild success at Milan, the Turk only made his claim as an elite footballer after switching clubs as well as playing roles.
When looking back at the players who featured on both sides of the Derby della Madonnina, the list includes elusive names and major regrets.
From the perspective of the Inter faithful, allowing a young Pirlo to slip through their grasp might be the most stinging remorse.
But in 2021, exactly 20 years following the Italian’s famous switch from Appiano Gentile to Milanello, the Nerazzurri may have finally exacted revenge by stealing an absolute Rossoneri gem on a free transfer, even if neither side was fully aware of the move’s magnitude at the time.
How far can Calhanoglu go at Inter remains to be seen, but the way he’s been playing this season, the sky is the limit for the scintillating midfielder, and breaking his personal Scudetto curse should be the first order of business.
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