Sheffield United: Internazionale and Italy defender explains why the three time European Champions are proud to be visiting the Steel City and Bramall Lane
Plenty has been written about what a wonderful experience tomorrow's meeting with Internazionale will be for Chris Wilder and his players.
After all, as Sheffield United's manager admitted when the fixture was announced, it "isn't every day of the week" one of the "biggest teams out there" graces the turf at Bramall Lane.
But given the city's significance, because it is the cradle of the game, the match promises to be a memorable occasion for Luciano Spalletti's squad too as Andrea Ranocchia, the Nerazzurri's vice-captain, explained."Clearly, Sheffield has played an important role in the history of football," he told The Star. "So, as a footballer myself, it is great to be visiting such a historic setting."United supporters might be surprised to discover that Inter, the three time European champions and holders of 18 Serie A titles, have been doing their research before travelling to South Yorkshire. But, as their name suggests, the visitors have always possessed a broad reaching outlook. Indeed, they established over a century ago because, unlike arch-rivals AC Milan, the club's founder members wanted to accept foreign as well as Italian players. Ranocchia, capped 21 times by his country, boasts a particular fondness for English football having completed a brief spell on loan with Hull City during the 2016/17 campaign. Aged 30, he has spent the past few days learning about United, their surroundings and also their stadium which, Ranocchia was fascinated to learn, staged the world's first football tournament, its first floodlit contest and first meeting between England and Scotland outside of London or Glasgow."England is the home of football and it's great to go back after my spell at Hull City," Ranocchia continued. "I have fond memories of football crowds in the north of England and I can't wait to play at Bramall Lane."The thing that struck me the most from my time in England was the fervent support of the crowd. Clearly, English football is very fast paced and physical. It was a great challenge having been used to a more tactical style of play in Italy."
Ranocchia had just turned professional with U.S. Arezzo when, in 2007, Inter provided the opposition for Sheffield FC's 150th anniversary game. Despite fielding a youthful Primavera squad, Marco Materazzi and a teenage Mario Balotelli both featured as the visitors beat their non-league opponents 5-2 in front of a 19,000 crowd. Although Ranocchia has no knowledge of events that night - "Personally, I wasn't at the club. In fact, I don't think any of the current playing staff were involved" - Roberto Gotta, an influential Italian journalist, does. Indeed, as former Sheffield FC manager Dave McCarthy revealed earlier this week, he was instrumental in helping arrange the game."Inter were very warm from the start to the idea of playing in Sheffield, and at that time Milan was really the epicenter of Italian football," Gotta said. "Milan had just won the Champions League and Inter had won their 15th Scudetto. It was the year after the Calciopoli scandal, which had revealed a sorry state of corruption within Italian football."Inter had had a marginal involvement in the scandal - more or less, most Serie A directors had been wiretapped conversing with referees, with very different levels of involvement - and had kept their aura of a gentlemen’s club, in part because of their owner, Massimo Moratti, an oilman who had always come off as different from other owners, in that he truly loved his club and his players and would try to make them feel at ease in every circumstance."While it would not have been much different had (AC) Milan been Sheffield FC’s opponent, it was fitting that it was Inter, who had always valued tradition and whose very full name (Internazionale) was meant to represent an international outlook.""The squad that travelled to Sheffield included, famously, Marco Materazzi, who was recovering from a bad hamstring injury he’d suffered with Italy during the summer, and Mario Balotelli," Gotta continued. "It was a ‘Primavera’ squad, Primavera (Spring) being the imaginative term used in Italy for the top tier of youth teams. Balotelli ( at the time) had yet to make his Serie A debut, which would come on December 16, little more than a month later, but was already talked about as a potential superstar. A member of Inter’s staff, in fact, told me 'it’s touch and go with him. In five years he might either be a world star or playing semi-pro football round the corner from his home.' "Inter were very proud of being part of the celebrations. Moratti and managing director Ernesto Paolillo arrived on the night of the match on a private flight while Pietro Ausilio, who is now Inter’s sporting director, was the highest ranking director making the trip with the squad."
Radja Nainggolan, Stefan de Vrij and Mauro Icardi, the joint winner of last season's Capocannoniere crown, are among those set to face United while Antonio Candreva could also feature. Wilder is expected to include new record signing John Egan in his starting eleven, alongside several players who, like Ranocchia, have worked their way up from the bottom."Starting out in the lower leagues is useful in terms of a player’s development," he said. "I’ve put a lot of work in over the years to work my way up the ladder and I know how much effort it’s taken to get this far which is why I savour every minute of playing at this level.""As with any pre-season game, we’ll be using the fixture to increase our fitness levels," Ranocchia added. "We have been training very hard, so naturally we won’t be 100 per cent match fit. The match is an opportunity to play some competitive football, experiment with new tactics and prepare for a busy season on three fronts."After Serie A and Coppa Italia, the third, much to Inter's delight, is the Champions League after they pipped Lazio to fourth place in Serie A last season."Inter are one big family," Ranocchia said. "The club’s motto sums us up: 'We are brothers of the world.' Our 300 million fans around the world are further proof of that. The club is a truly international environment and has been ever since it was founded 110 years ago. Personally I’m very excited to be back in the Champions League, which is where a club of Inter’s size truly belongs."