Milan and Inter bring a taste of Italy to Foxborough
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Even prior to Sunday, the World Football Challenge had already been a success by anyone's estimation, but the final day provided a real highlight, as Americans were treated to one of the biggest derbies in European soccer. A crowd of 42,531 turned out to watch Italian giants Inter-Milan and AC Milan do battle at Gillette Stadium.
As has been the case in recent years, Inter proved a cut above its neighbors, winning 2-0 to pick up its first victory of the tournament and send Milan home winless. That both goals came off the boot of Argentinean striker Diego Milito, acquired this offseason from Genoa, must have pleased manager Jose Mourinho. It has been a summer of transition for both clubs, and much of this past week in the United States was about acclimating new faces. Inter will have a very different look up front this season, and while the onus of replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic will fall mainly on newly acquired Samuel Eto'o, the Nerazzurri will need Milito to bang in the goals as well. His performance Sunday already has teammates excited about the future.
"I think we are building a great team, and working very well so far," Maicon said. "Mr. Mourinho is already having the opportunity to put together the team that will play in the Italian League, and all the other important competitions. I'm very hopeful the players that have arrived like Milito and [Thiago] Motta can help us have a great season."
Another newcomer, veteran Brazil defender Lucio, was a surprising inclusion in the starting lineup against Milan, having just arrived from an extended break following the Confederations Cup. After almost a decade in Germany, Lucio, whom Mourinho is counting on to boost his side's Champions League credentials, couldn't hide his joy at moving to Serie A.
"I'm thrilled to be able to play for such a great club in Italy, which I consider to be the center of the world game," Lucio said. "I didn't have much of a vacation this summer, but I feel in good shape physically and I am ready to help the team."
Milan was not nearly as active in the transfer market, despite an infusion of cash from the sale of Kaka to Real Madrid and a return to the Champions League. But the loss of the Brazilian star, and the retirement of Paolo Maldini, as well as the departure of longtime manager Carlo Ancelotti, represents plenty of change for a club so accustomed to stability.
If Ronaldinho is indeed expected to fill the void left by his countryman, the signs this week were not all that encouraging. He started all three games, as new boss Leonardo looks to work him back into shape, but showed only glimpses of his talent. Alexandre Pato is probably the better bet to emerge as the main man offensively. The youngster was Milan's most dangerous player in the first half Sunday, and has big plans for the upcoming year.
"We put in a lot of good work here this week, and we come away satisfied," Pato said. "My expectation is to lift important trophies this season. I also want to do well for Milan because I am determined to go to the World Cup."
The outlook at the back is better, given Alessandro Nesta's return to health and, of course, the addition of Oguchi Onyewu. The U.S. international made his first start Sunday in front of a warm crowd. Onyewu's initial days with Milan have been a bit of a mixed bag. He could have done more to prevent Milito's opener, but settled down and turned in a reasonably competent performance.
Onyewu also arrived late after a busy summer guiding the United States in World Cup qualifying and that improbable run to the final at the Confederations Cup, but insists it has not impacted his adaptation process at all, thanks in large part to having a manager who's adept at communication.
"[Leonardo] knows 25 languages," Onyewu said. "He can speak anything that you speak at him. Obviously I don't know Italian, but I also have a couple of players I can speak French with, or whatever else comes into my head. Everybody has been great, and they are making my transition very easy. I only got here on Tuesday, but it feels like I've been here the entire preseason."
The 27-year-old's play at the international level certainly caught the attention of the soccer world, earning him ringing endorsements from friends and foes alike.
"He's a great center back," Maicon said. "He will definitely have success, primarily because of his size. The Italian game demands plenty of physical strength and he has that, so he will adapt very well and will enjoy a great season with Milan."
Onyewu's presence probably helped bring out a few more fans, but the feeling is a matchup between these two teams would have generated a nice crowd regardless. Such has been the reception when any of Europe's top clubs has made the trek across the pond in recent years, and the enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed among the players, who continue to marvel at how far the sport has come in this country in a short period of time.
"The game is improving in the States, and the interest is growing," Clarence Seedorf said. "I can definitely see a change even from the last time I was here."
"The response on this U.S. tour has been great," Onyewu said. "Obviously in Baltimore we had a sellout crowd. We had something like 50,000 in Atlanta. The fan support has been good, and I feel very welcome every time I step in the stadium and come out on the field."
The hospitality perhaps explains why both sides were all smiles, despite some uneven performances over the past week. This trip was much more about branding and building a fan base in the United States. And the atmosphere Sunday probably ensured we haven't seen the last of these two teams on American soil.
David Mosse is a soccer researcher for ESPN International, contributing to shows such as "Press Pass" and "Fuera de Juego." He also blogs for ESPNsoccernet.