It should have been an occasion to celebrate. For the first time since 1971, a round of Serie A fixtures was being played on December 26th – St Stephen’s Day, to most Italians, though the sporting press seemed eager to embrace the English lexicon of “Boxing Day football”.
More than a quarter of a million fans attended games up and down the country, and many were treated to entertaining fare.
The St Stephen's Day schedule was to find its denouement in a clash between Inter and Napoli, third against second, at San Siro.
However a match that began with Mauro Icardi hitting the crossbar from the kick-off, and ended with a 91st-minute Lautaro Martínez winner, would be remembered instead for the worst possible reasons.
At a press conference on Thursday morning, Milan's police commissioner, Marcello Cardona, said a combined group of Inter, Varese and Nice ultras (elements of those clubs' fanbases have developed ties over the years) carrying wooden bats and metal bars had attacked a minibus taking Napoli supporters to the game.
During the melee that followed, with many trying to flee the scene, Daniele Belardinelli was struck by an SUV.
The driver of the vehicle has not yet been identified and Cardona indicated it was possible they did not realise they had hit someone. Belardinelli, a 35-year-old Varese ultra known to police from a previous stadium ban, was tended to first by some Napoli supporters and then driven to the San Carlo hospital by a separate group of Inter fans.
Two individuals had been arrested by the time of Cardona’s press conference and a third was being sought. In the meantime, media outlets shared chaotic footage of fans fighting in a street lit by flares.
If those were the scenes outside San Siro, then there was a toxic atmosphere inside as well. A section of Inter ultras in the Curva Nord targeted Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly with alleged racist chants and monkey noises. Three times the stadium's public address called for them to stop, to no avail.
How greatly did that atmosphere contribute to the player's eventual red card? He had played well up to the 80th minute when he was penalised for pulling Matteo Politano back during an Inter counterattack. His opponent made a meal of the contact but this was a foul all the same.
Koulibaly was booked and responded with sarcastic applause. His dissent earned him a second yellow. Both cards were completely justified and yet how unjust it felt to see him walk off the pitch as the cretinous contingent who had abused him celebrated in the stands.
The match was poised at 0-0 when he went off. Napoli almost snatched a winner soon after, Piotr Zielinski seeing his shot cleared off the line by Kwadwo Asamoah. Instead, Martínez arrived to sweep home from the middle of the penalty area that Koulibaly had so stoutly defended.
At full-time, Carlo Ancelotti revealed Napoli had made three requests for the game to be suspended. "Matches can be suspended but we need to know when," he said. "Is it after the fifth chant, or how many more after that? … Next time we'll just stop the game ourselves. Even if that means having the result awarded against us."
His words evoked memories of Kevin-Prince Boateng leading a walk off by Milan players against Pro Patria in 2013, though that was only a friendly. It has been dispiriting to see how little has been done in five years to address racism in the stands of Serie A’s stadiums.
However, yesterday Milan were ordered to play their next two home games behind closed doors. In addition to the next two home matches against Benevento, in the Italian Cup, and Sassuolo in Serie A being staged behind closed doors, the section of the San Siro stadium occupied by Inter’s “ultra” fans has also been ordered to be kept closed for a third game in the league against Bologna. The mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, apologised to Koulibaly over the insults, describing them as “a disgrace” on his Facebook page.
Koulibaly was also handed a two-match ban by Serie A's disciplinary tribunal for his sending off. "I'm disappointed by the defeat and above all to have left my brothers," said Koulibaly on Twitter. "But I am proud of the colour of my skin. Proud to be French, Senegalese, Neapolitan: a man." – Guardian and other agencies