Words: Livio Caferoglu
Inter’s 2009-10 campaign will go down as the greatest in the club’s history, but it wasn’t without controversy. Indeed, there was a point in the season when Jose Mourinho threatened to derail it with his crusade against referees. Throughout his career, the Tottenham Hotspur boss has regularly adopted a siege mentality as a way to fire up his troops in battle. Nowhere more so was that evident than on the blue side of San Siro, where he dared to pick a fight with the FIGC.
The Nerazzurri were top of Serie A going into their February 25 fixture against Sampdoria, but Roma and Milan were both closing the gap. Mourinho was already in a foul mood at his pre-match press conference. “I don’t stick my head in the sand, I know there is only one team [in Italy] that has a penalty area 25 metres long,” he said, sarcastically referring to when Juve were awarded a spot-kick against Genoa the week before, despite Alessandro Del Piero being felled outside the box.
Inter dominated Samp, who themselves ended the game with 10 men, but their shooting boots evaded them and they were forced to settle for a goalless draw. However, their cause wasn’t helped by referee Paolo Tagliavento sending off two of Mourinho’s players before half-time. Walter Samuel was shown a second yellow card for barely brushing Nicola Pozzi near the penalty area, before Ivan Cordoba suffered the same fate just minutes later for catching Pozzi late in a 50-50. Tagliavento, it seemed, couldn’t wait to whip out his book again.
Mourinho couldn’t hide his emotions any longer and he proceeded to cross his wrists towards TV cameras, in a gesture that resembled a pair of handcuffs. Moments later, fans joined in protesting the apparent injustice, throwing objects at officials and letting off firecrackers. His actions earned him a three-match touchline ban and a €40,000 fine. “You can take me away, arrest me, but my team is strong and will win anyway, even if we are reduced to nine men,” he bit back through a spokesperson.
The ex-Chelsea coach laid low for the next few days, until he snapped after the Beneamata beat his former club 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League Last-16 tie. “I have recently heard a new Italian term,” he fumed. “I am told that we ‘have to tone it down’. Well let’s ‘tone it down’.
“It was by ‘toning it down’ that you Italians have created a story that I, as a professional in the world of football, as a person who earns his living in football, was terribly ashamed of. Your Calciopoli was shameful. At the time I was working in Portugal, and it shamed me to feed my family with money earned in football.”
The storm saw the AIA (Italian Referees’ Association) threaten to go on strike, outraged by Mourino’s suggestion that its members were plotting against his team. It also sparked a long-running feud between Inter and Tagliavento, who was adamant he’d done nothing wrong during Samp’s trip to San Siro. “That was my breakthrough. I showed I could officiate at the highest level. And on the pitch I was calm, I knew I’d made the right decisions, including the two red cards to Inter players.”
Ultimately, the controversy only served to spur on the Beneamata in their conquest of Serie A, the Coppa Italia and Champions League. “The more we focused on the Champions League, the more difficulties we had in the League,” the Portuguese wrote in a photobook of his career. “We had some defeats, and we were up against a very strong Roma, but I always had the feeling that the referees had a campaign of errors against us.
“At one point I started coaching the team to play 10 against 11, to be ready in case we had a man sent off. However, I forgot to do 9 v 11, as against Sampdoria when they sent two of our players off.” Mourinho was true to his word – Inter did win anyway, and he became a hero to the fans.
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