Fikayo Tomori primed for England chance after patience in Milan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ‘team talks’

The Serie A champion has embraced life in Italy and hopes to help England towards World Cup glory after witnessing celebrations in Milan following the Azzurri’s Euro 2020 win

<p>Fikayo Tomori of England arrives at St George’s Park</p>

Fikayo Tomori of England arrives at St George’s Park

Fikayo Tomori watched England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy last summer in a hotel in Milan. He had spent most of the tournament back in London, cheering his international team-mates on for the quarter-final against Ukraine with friends at the Boxpark in Shoreditch. But he returned to the city that he now calls home a few days before the European Championship final.

“I remember when they scored, I just kind of had a face on and didn’t want to look too down, like we were going to lose,” he recalls. “Being there when they won, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Tomori walked out by the duomo, past Italians celebrating in the cathedral’s piazza. “I was right in the middle of it,” he says, “but I just got home as quickly as I could.”

Tomori has fully embraced Italian life and culture since joining Milan on loan from Chelsea last season and making enough of an impression to earn a £25m permanent move. His Italian is coming on well – “sometimes, in the changing rooms, I find myself thinking in Italian instead of English,” he admits – and he is known to have acquired a taste for sfogliatelle, a shell-shaped pastry with a sweet filling.

“I’m enjoying it and I’m really happy. I think that when I went abroad there was talk around English players doing this, but I’ve just tried to embrace it as much as I could,” he says. “One thing I found is that when I’m in Italy I’m not thinking ‘I wish I was in England’. I feel really comfortable there; I’m not in a rush to come home if I have a day off. I’m settled and relaxed about being in Italy.”

At the same time, he has not forgotten those scenes at Piazza del Duomo last summer.

Ask him if experiencing the joy of winning a major tournament first-hand has driven him on to witness the same with England and the answer is simple. “Yes,” he says. “I have gone to Italy and seen them celebrate after the final, so I have seen both sides and I have seen how it can really be such a celebration. Imagine how big it would be if we were to win the Euros or the World Cup. Yes, it is definitely a motivation. Every footballer likes to win, but to see how a country reacts to it is something that motivates you.”

Fikayo Tomori in action against Andorra last October

Born in Calgary and a one-time Canada under-20 international, Tomori was handed his senior England debut by Gareth Southgate in late 2019. At the time, he was playing regularly as one of several Chelsea academy products promoted to the first team by Frank Lampard due to the effects of a transfer embargo. Tomori lost his regular starting spot over the winter. A year passed, the embargo expired and suddenly he was struggling to make the matchday squad.

Now back at St George’s Park, having received his first recall since 2019 in the autumn, he is not only a regular starter at Milan but a scudetto winner too. “No one expected us to do it,” he says. “We knew we could, so when you do it, it feels even better.”

This time, he could take part in the street celebrations on an open-top bus parade. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before – so many people,” he says. “It was like a three, four, five-kilometre drive, but it took hours, stopping at all the lights. It was crazy.”

Tomori pays particular credit to the influence of 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose minutes were managed but whose influence was paramount in the success. “If he wasn’t in the squad then certain moments when we were losing at half-time or we were not playing well would have been different. He was always talking before the game, walking up and down and talking, talking, talking… ‘make sure you do this; when this guy gets it make sure you do this’. Even though he was not on the pitch he would be talking like he was starting the game and motivating all of them.”

AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori celebrates after winning Serie A

Tomori is not short of inspirational figures to look up to in Milan. “Obviously I speak to Paolo [Maldini] – he is there every day. He doesn’t really say much – he leaves that to the manager – but sometimes we do have a little chat and he asks me how things are going and speaks to us defenders as a collective,” he says.

After the final game of the season, Franco Baresi stopped by. That was “kind of cool”, he says, knowing that is something of an understatement. “Not just defenders, but you see different legends just flying about. Every time it happens you think ‘woah, this is mad’.”

The influence and advice of those figures – as well as manager Stefano Pioli – has helped Tomori adapt to a different way of playing. “The way the league is, the referees whistle a lot more so you can’t go in. If you do go in for a tackle, you have to win the ball. If you’re overly aggressive, you have to tackle properly – stay on your feet and make sure you’re in the right position. I’ve learned more and had to think about my position on the pitch.”

Tomori agrees with the belief that in Italy defending is an art form. “I think the way they are as defenders, I wouldn’t say it’s personal but it’s like ‘I need to make sure what I’m doing is on the money and no one’s getting past me no matter what’. They have that pride to be like ‘I am the big defender’ – not in an arrogant way, but just in football terms of wanting to be the best they can be,” he says. “In Italy you definitely pick up those little things and you see those little things that they do and the way they are.”

And yet, if proof was necessary that nothing is certain in international football, Italy will not be in Qatar this winter after losing a play-off to North Macedonia. Tomori was shown mercy in the dressing room after England’s defeat last summer, but the Italian players weren’t spared. “It was a strange one,” he says. “In Italy, Macedonia is a fruit salad kind of thing. That’s what it’s called. I remember [Sandro] Tonali and [Alessandro] Florenzi were there, so people brought the Macedonia to the training ground. The newspapers were like ‘whoa’, but the people were saying ‘well, we lost to a fruit salad’. So it was taken as a joke, but it was a weird one. They just didn’t expect to lose.”

But although his adopted nation will not be at the World Cup, there is a good chance Tomori will be. He has had to be patient. His form at Milan has been impressive from day one, some 18 months ago, but Southgate has turned to defenders such as Marc Guehi and Ben White before him. After his debut lasted just six minutes three years ago, his recall to the side in October led to half an hour against Andorra. The easy assumption would be that, because Tomori is out of sight, he is out of mind.

Tomori himself does not see it that way. “I don’t really try to think about that sort of stuff – if I don’t get called up, I’m not thinking ‘ah, what’s happening?’ I’ve seen [Jadon] Sancho, Tammy [Abraham], Jude [Bellingham], players who play abroad – Ashley Young, even – still getting called up, so I wasn’t panicking or thinking ‘what’s going to happen if I don’t get called up?’ I was just focusing on my own performance and helping Milan as much as possible.

AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori celebrates against Hellas Verona

“From there, if I do get called up, once I’m here it’s about making sure I take the steps to stay here. That’s been my mentality all the way through. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself, getting wound up about not being selected. It was just ‘stay calm, keep doing what I’m doing’ and from there hopefully I can get in the squad.”

The reality is that the spots to provide cover for Harry Maguire and John Stones are very much up for grabs and Tomori is one of three or four centre halves that Southgate is watching closely and who could force their way into his final cut. This Nations League camp is his opportunity to impress, earn a place on the plane to Qatar and perhaps end the year celebrating in the manner of his Italian team-mates last summer.

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