Ince urges campaign against the racists

Lara Santaro finds the England midfield player settled in Milan but disturbed by the prejudice of some Italian supporters
Click to follow
The Independent Online
At first, there was nothing remarkable about the head-on collision between Paul Ince and the opposing goalkeeper in the match that took Internazionale to Cremona a month ago. The ball was up for grabs and both players went for it, clashing heads and collapsing in a heap. Ince got up straight away, but the keeper lay on the ground. That was when things turned nasty. Hundreds in the stands joined in a racist chant, the bigoted insult amplified by the acoustics of the pitch.

"They were shouting 'Nigger, nigger', at me," Ince recalled. "So I turned towards them and clapped, as if to say, 'Yeah, well done'. That's when the referee booked me."

Graziano Cesari had just careered across the field and, with a theatrical sweep of the arm, had pulled out a yellow card. "I wasn't happy about that," Ince said. "I really wasn't happy."

After a troubled beginning to his career in Italian football, the last few months have seen something of a transformation in Ince's fortunes. So much so that when Ince seeks out Internazionale's chairman, Massimo Moratti, in the next few weeks it will be to extend his stay in Serie A by an extra year, rather than cut it short.

But speaking at Inter's training ground at Appiano Gentile, before their last game of the season on Sunday, the issue of racism in Italian football remains a major concern.

"Something struck me during the Cremonese match and it's obviously something I have to think about. I must not let these things catch me unprepared.

"Could I decide to go back to England because of this? Yes, of course. Definitely. When I speak to Mr Moratti about the future of Inter, well, if this situation happens again, and I don't mean just me, it could be any black player..."

His voice tails off and the threat is not explicit, but Ince is clearly worried. "I think an issue must be made out of it so that we get to where people and the federation are going to do something about it.

"It used to happen in England. It was terrible there five or six years ago but they stopped it. The FA made a stand and said that anybody caught saying racist things or making racist chants was out, off the grounds. And we made it so big that even people who were sitting next to people who were chanting racist stuff just went over and called a policeman and they'd be out."

Ince is not alone in suffering at the hands of Italy's racist minority. In Piacenza recently Michel Ferrier, a young black midfielder recently signed by Verona, was welcomed to the club by the grotesque spectacle of a black dummy torched in the stands. While all the black players in Italy have reacted with remarkable poise to the abuse, few have made an issue of it. Ince could be different.

"Look," he says, "with all the black players coming into Italian football, you don't want them not to come because they're afraid of the racism, of getting chanted at every time they get the ball. We can't let this drop, because it does happen, and we must do something about it. All of us, not just Mr Moratti. He is a powerful man, a great man in many ways and can influence people along with others."

Moratti is a man with whom Ince seems to have forged a strong bond. In a matter of months, the player he wooed away from Manchester United has become the team's star.

Roy Hodgson, Inter's new English coach, has had a lot to do with the change. His voice booms and his arms flail as he rallies each player through the last minutes of training, a startling contrast to the muted promptings of Ottavio Bianchi - Hodgson's predecessor.

"If Hodgson hadn't arrived five or six months ago, I probably would have gone back to England. He's like me; he wants to win. We both come from London so we've got that kind of aggressiveness to want to do well and win. If he should go, next year or the year after that, it would change my position completely. Hopefully that won't happen."

Ince's performances also appear to have won round the Italian press, many of whom were highly critical of him on his arrival. When Ince missed a recent game, the headline in one of the Italian sports papers read, Inter sensa Anima, "Inter without their soul". Ince said: "I don't know about the soul bit, but I believe I've got a different talent that no one else in the team has. Everybody has different assets and qualities. I got this side of me at Manchester United, the determination and the aggressiveness to get things going. When I first got here, they weren't sure about it, they were like, 'What the hell is going on; who is this?' but now they respect me for the player that I am. I am not the soul, but I believe I can be a leader for the team, because a team needs a leader."

Asked if he still misses England, and particularly Manchester United, Ince pauses for a minute.

"I miss the United fans," he says finally. "They were great to me. I miss some players, but I try not to think about it even though people ask me all the time. I want to concentrate on what is happening here in Italy. I didn't want to leave Manchester United to start with, you know. I want to be absolutely clear on that.

"Usually you don't plan moves, they just happen. I believe that being the only English player now in Italy, it's important for me to do well. Not just for myself, but for every English player that might want to come over. People like Giggsy, like Fowler."

Reflecting on one of the less savoury nights of English football, Ince feels that a seven-day jail sentence was the least Matthew Simmons deserved after his spectacular lunge at the prosecutor in court.

"It just shows you how right Eric was. Right is not the word, I mean it's never right to go kicking somebody in the chest. But if you ask me, he should have got more than seven days. You just don't run over the benches and start kicking the prosecutor. If he's going to do that in court with all the judges watching, what's he going to be like at a football match, in a crowd where no one can stop him from doing what he wants to do. What happened in court just sums up why he came down that flight of stairs to shout abuse at Eric."