Milanese ready for a taste of football heaven
6.5 || Seamus
"Football in heaven" declared the headline in today's Gazzetta dello Sport as Italy begins two weeks on the centre stage of European football and nowhere in the country feels more sky-high than Milan.
Turin-based Juventus take on defending European champions Real Madrid in their semi-final, first-leg match in Spain later on Tuesday but Wednesday's derby between AC Milan and Inter is the strongest proof of Italy's Champions League revival.
Milan has long claimed to be the capital not only of Italian football but the game in general. It is home to two of the continent's most famous clubs and one of the world's most spectacular stadiums and is the centre of the football business.
The city's hotels have been the venues for record-breaking transfer deals involving the planet's greatest players.
And without the pressure of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is also the president of Milan, combined with the threat of a breakaway led by an Italian company, the Champions League might never have replaced the old knock-out European Cup as the continent's premier competition.
Despite all that power and influence in the city, status in football is still determined by results and it is the presence of the two Milan clubs in the last four of this year's tournament that is giving the Milanese the most satisfaction.
"Above all I am proud for Milan and Inter," said Berlusconi who made his fortune in the city before moving into politics.
"But I also hope that later we can see an all-Italian final. This will be a more interesting derby than the others but it is still too soon to open a new era," he said in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper published on Tuesday.
The eyes of the soccer world will be focused on the towering San Siro stadium on Wednesday with millions of fans from across the globe given a chance to taste the 95-year-long rivalry between the two Milan clubs via television.
There will be no shortage of atmosphere or colour but, unlike in other cities, the Milan derby rarely turns violent.
"The Romans are more passionate -- they are two tribes. The Milanese are self-mocking," says Beppe Severgnini author of a book on the meaning of being an Inter fan.
Before the kickoff at derbies, hardcore fans behind the goals, known as ultras, unveil huge banners which take weeks to prepare and are emblazoned with slogans designed to embarrass their rivals.
Sociology professor Italo Piccolo says humour and one-upmanship characterise the Milan derby more than aggression.
"It is much more elegant to make fun of the other team rather than to use violence. Milan has never had that kind of 'enemy attitude' among its fans."
For a city that gives such importance to image, the success of the two Milan clubs this season is a major boost.
"This semi-final is very, very important for the region. To have two teams from the same city and three from northern Italy among the best four teams in Europe is a great achievement," Roberto Formigoni, president of the region of Lombardy which includes Milan, told Reuters.
But above all, Wednesday's game belongs to the city's fans and this time the rivalry between the 'cousins' divided between the blue and black of Inter and the red and black of Milan is more intense than ever.
"The atmosphere at the derby games is incredible and this time it will be more amazing than ever before. Whoever loses this one is going to do it in front of all of Europe," says Milan fan Anna Paola Moroni.
Like many fans she is part of a family whose loyalties are divided between the two clubs.
"Whenever we beat Inter, I make fun of my sister for a whole month and this time it's going to be a lot worse."
By Simon Evans and William Schomberg
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