As Serie A kicks off and Argentina rebuilds, it’s time for Mauro Icardi to establish himself as the #9 king of Europe and the Selección. But can he behave?
Growing up, Mauro Icardi idolized his fellow Argentine striker Maxi Lopez. Their paths crossed early when a young Icardi would wait for Barcelona’s practices to finish so he could ask Lopez for an autograph. It was only in 2012 at Sampdoria that the two became friends. “I barely went out during those days,” recalls Icardi in his autobiography Sempre Avanti. “Until Maxi invited me to his house.”
Then Icardi did the unthinkable. He started a relationship with Lopez’s ex-wife, the Argentine showgirl Wanda Nara, and suddenly the friends became enemies. Their relationship devolved into one of the messiest public feuds in Italian football, uglier even than the Wayne Bridge – John Terry row. In 2014, when Lopez’s Sampdoria played Icardi’s Inter Milan, Lopez famously refused to shake Icardi’s hand. The media dubbed the match “the Wanda Nara Derby.”
It got worse when Lopez’s kids started to show up alongside Nara in Icardi’s family pictures on Twitter. Lopez, who up until that moment had remained mostly silent, couldn’t stay quiet any longer, asking Icardi to keep his children out of this mess.
“Icardi is a traitor,” said Diego Maradona last year in an interview to Italian TV channel Canale 5. “He will pay for what he did.” Judging by the Albiceleste’s recent call-ups, Maradona’s prediction was right. Despite Icardi’s insane Serie A goal scoring statistics, he did not make the 2018 World Cup squad, a team that could have used a striker nearing his prime.
With Serie A kicking off this week, Icardi, now 25, will start the season as a favorite to win the golden boot, but it’s his actions off the field that have come to define his career. Beyond the Lopez saga, he’s cursed out Inter fans and drawn ire for his insatiable ego. Despite the drama, Inter fans have learned to embrace him because he can’t stop scoring goals. Is it time for Argentine fans to do so too?
Icardi’s footballing talent is undeniable. During last March’s game against his former team Sampdoria, Icardi became the youngest footballer to score more than 100 Serie A goals since 1963 (he would reach 110 by the end of the season). He finished the campaign with 29 goals in 34 games, winning the Capocannoniere for the second time in his career.
“No striker in the world matches Icardi’s talent in the penalty box,” said Inter Milan and Argentine attacking legend Hernan Crespo to Gazzetta dello Sport last May. Icardi’s killer instinct is proven by his career numbers: out of 110 goals, 106 were scored from within the eighteen yard box, his natural habitat.
Icardi’s hat trick in March 2017 against Atalanta showcases everything the Argentine does best. He scored his first goal by beating everybody to the ball as it fumbled around the box with a tight, left-footed finish. The second goal, scored with his right foot off of a chipped penalty, showed all his cold-bloodedness. His final goal was a header beautiful in its execution. After reading the trajectory of the cross from the right side, he sprinted to beat three Atalanta defenders. Before they realized Icardi was ahead of them, it was already too late.
Last season, Icardi carried the second largest scoring burden in all of Europe, netting a full 43 percent of the Nerazzurri’s goals. He was only beaten by Nils Petersen (Freiburg) and finished ahead of the goal scoring machines Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Off the field, though, his egocentric, controversial personality has attracted frequent controversy. An episode after a February 2015 game between Sassuolo and Inter Milan is emblematic. Following a disappointing loss against a much worse side, Icardi threw his jersey to some fans who immediately returned it to the sender. “You piece of shit,” Icardi was filmed saying to one of them.
Initially, it looked like this episode would be a watershed moment between Icardi and Inter Milan, but instead, the then-21 year-old striker became the captain of the Nerazzurri six months later. The following year his autobiography came out, a spicy read that included some strong statements about Inter Milan fans that the club did not enjoy. Fined and forced to remove those pages from the book, Icardi was again the center of turmoil for his antics off the field.
Despite it all, Inter has learned to embrace Icardi, but his behavior may be preventing him from joining a bigger European club. Even though his wife and agent Nara claimed to Radio Metro last May that “Icardi has had multiple offers from three top clubs,” she clarified the striker’s intention to stay in Milan and he has remained there so far.
The biggest reason that Icardi remains at Inter Milan, however, has nothing do with his antics; it’s that he needs the Nerazzurri as much as they need him. It is a known fact that Icardi does not contribute to the build-up of Inter Milan. Analysis by Ultimo Uomo revealed last season that Icardi was the Serie A offensive player who averaged the fewest number of passes per game (13.5). Though many major clubs want their striker involved in build-up play, Inter Milan’s style suits Icardi perfectly. Last season, they crossed the ball the second most in all of Europe (behind only Real Madrid), and they scored more goals from crosses than any other team on the continent.
It’s clear that Icardi’s game is only at home in a system that lets him poach and nothing more, and the chemistry between Inter and Icardi is potent. Icardi’s goals are the primary reason why Inter Milan is back in the Champions League this season, a competition the team has missed for the past six years.
Not even the goals have managed to ingratiate Icardi to the Argentina national team thus far, though. After falling short in Russia, however, new head coach Lionel Scaloni will now look to rebuild the team through young, motivated players: If Icardi keeps up with his inhuman goal scoring statistics, it will be impossible for Scaloni to deny him the Selección’s #9 jersey. For the good of a nation that breathes football, it may be time for Argentina to close an eye to Icardi’s bad boy antics.
If Icardi wants to get back into Argentina’s good graces, he should look no further for a role model than Inter Milan and Argentina legend Javier Zanetti. A paragon of virtue on and off the field, Zanetti was the heart and soul of Inter Milan, the undisputed leader of the 2010 memorable triplete, and featured 143 times for his country. Although many Inter fans have tolerated Icardi’s reckless actions because of his prodigious goal-scoring, he is far from a loved figure the way that Zanetti was. Perhaps, one day Icardi could be mentioned in the same way, but it will take more than goals to get there.