Lara Santoro talked to him in Milan
Paul Ince has always exuded a level of confidence on the pitch that bordered on arrogance. He appeared to believe he could master anything that the game could throw at him, deal with it, turn it to advantage and continue to be the driving force in his side. But since signing for Internazionale that power appears to have deserted him, left behind like so much lost property when he flew from Manchester to Milan in the summer.
The truth is he has had to jettison some of his old baggage in adjusting to the different demands of the Italian league. Just a few weeks into his three-year contract, Ince admits that things could be better. "It's not easy for me right now. I have to change my game, and it's hard," he said in an interview during training at La Pinetina, Inter's luxurious training ground at Appiano Gentile outside Milan.
Moving to Italy has proved a culture shock, forcing him to change not only the way he plays, but also the way he deals with his over-excitable fans, the way he handles the politics of his club and the intense scrutiny of the Italian press.
Not that he is getting much sympathy. Fans are not impressed, and they are not afraid to say so. A group of 50 or so watching the training session wondered openly whether Massimo Moratti, Inter's new president, had been shortchanged. After all, Moratti put much of his credibility, not to mention pounds 7m, on the line to woo Manchester United's "governor" into Serie A.
"Lots of things are different," he explained, barely able to contain his restlessness minutes before training. "In Britain the game is tougher, faster and a lot more physical. You can get away with things, you know, you can tackle hard and play aggressively. And that's my game, it's the way I play: aggressive. Here it's a lot more technical, you have to go easy, and you can't get away with things. You get whistled at, and you have to back off.
"Trouble is, you're here, you really want to help the team, and so you say right, I'm going to run here and be there and get that, and it's frustrating when you realise you can't. I knew the game in Italy was different, but I hadn't realised how much."
Ince's problems have been exacerbated by the fact that he was just one of a number of signings as Inter continue their perennial pursuit of success to match that enjoyed by their neighbours, Milan. Moratti changed the club around completely after it barely scraped into European competition by finishing sixth in Serie A. Ince carries the extra burden of being the most expensive of the newcomers, who include the Brazilian wing-back, Roberto Carlos. For Moratti, whose father Angelo owned Inter when he was a young fan himself, the new players are a pounds 25m investment in a personal dream. But the players have not yet gelled into a team, and it shows.
"The problem Inter's got is time," Ince said. "The players are very young and the team is young. When I was first at Manchester, it was the same. In 1989 we finished fifth from bottom and we had to learn and play with each other, to grow. It took Manchester United three, four years to be a great team. We need time. But we don't have it."
The Italian press has been merciless in writing off the new Inter as a mess. They see no game plan to speak of, no spunk and no cohesion as it stumbles from match to match. Carlos alone has demonstrated his flair and ability, scoring four goals in the last five games, but the bright spots in attack have often come at the cost of defensive security.
Much of the blame is being laid at the door of the coach Ottavio Bianchi, who is notorious for his brusque, stand-offish manner with players. He has persisted with a cautious 5-3-2 formation, even though much of the team would be happier with the more familiar 4-4-2 favoured by most other Serie A clubs. Ince has found himself not at the heart of a cohesive unit, flanked by two wingers, as he was at United, but in the middle of a mess.
Sources at Inter suggest Bianchi's days may be numbered - though Moratti publicly backed him yesterday - creating a sour, gossip-ridden atmosphere that has not helped the new team settle into a shape.
Ince has had problems off the pitch, too, settling into a new country and a new life. Some were to be expected, such as missing old friends, the struggle to learn Italian (he and his wife Claire are about to start special tuition) and finding a nursery for his three-year-old son, Thomas. At least, he has not had a problem with racism, despite some ominous graffiti that was sprayed at San Siro, where Inter play, when he was first signed at the beginning of the summer.
But joining a big Italian club, as his friend Paul Gascoigne may well have told him from his own experience at Lazio, has meant relentless media scrutiny. Even looking for a house turned into a mini-scandal this summer, with the Italian press claiming that Ince was turning his nose up at properties that were anything less than palatial. In the end, his family settled for a sumptuous villa overlooking Lake Como. "I just needed a place where we could feel at home," Ince said, "a place where Claire would be OK and I could play football with my son."
Ince feels the pressure, every tug of it. "In Manchester I had to play, to perform all the time and there was pressure there too, but here the fans rely on me to make the team win. The thing is, I'm not a scorer. I don't score goals. I just go out there and play and do my best to get the team playing with grit and determination."
Ince has come to realise how visceral the Italian attitude to football is. He now knows just how sensitive a fan's psyche is in a country where a club's series of league matches swells in significance to the level of a biblical journey toward salvation - the championship - or damnation.
Attitudes to players can swing wildly from adulation, when things are going well, to condemnation, when they are not. Ince is experiencing both sides of the coin at once. Despite the harsh judgements, he is still being mobbed wherever he goes, prompting one of his first new friends, Moratti's English-speaking spokeswoman Susanna Wermelingher, to swear she will never share a car with him to the training ground again.
"In England the fans will say hello to you," he said. "They'll come up and ask you how you're doing, and that's it. Here they want to touch you, they really try to. It's like the game to them is life and death, every Sunday is life and death. In England, if you lose, you lose and you move on to the next day. Here, there is no next day. There is only next Sunday."Reuse content