If as a rule ports are tolerant places, then Rotterdam clearly makes an exception where Italians and their footballers are concerned, as Internazionale FC learnt to their cost last night.
The Serie A leaders were in town for the second leg of their UEFA Cup semi-final with Feyenoord. The local favourites had surprised them the previous week, winning 1-0 in Milan. Yet Héctor Cúper's men travelled north with hope in their hearts. They should have known better. In the 34 years since neighbours Milan AC beat Hamburger SV at the Feijenoord stadium to lift the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, the old ground had morphed into a graveyard for Italian dreams. AS Roma, Juventus FC, S.S. Lazio and the national team... all laid to rest during a sequence of six defeats and two draws in eight games.
Inter walk alone
The Azzurri's most recent reverse had come in the final of EURO 2000™, while both Milan clubs lost European finals here in the 1970s: Inter against AFC Ajax in the European Champion Clubs' Cup and Milan against 1. FC Magdeburg in the Cup Winners' Cup. In an arena where 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is the last thing you hear before kick-off, Italians really have been given the cold shoulder.
'Hands up for Pierre'
So when Pierre van Hooijdonk headed Feyenoord into a lead which Jon Dahl Tomasson doubled soon after, it merely confirmed the trend. Van Hooijdonk rose above and between Marco Materazzi and Javier Zanetti to dispatch a header into the bottom right corner of Francesco Toldo's goal from Robin van Persie's left-wing cross. It was classic centre-forward play from the man the Rotterdam fans have immortalised in song - or at least in the newly released disco track 'Put Your Hands Up for Pierre'. And as such, in the making as well as in the execution, it expressed all the excitement of the evening.
Tomasson's killer blow
What it was not, however, was the beginning of the end for Inter. According to coach Cúper, that came with Tomasson's strike on the half-hour. "It was the second goal that hurt us," he said. "That turned the game, because at 1-0 we could still come back and get a result." Whatever, it gave the Feyenoord fans even more reason to put their hands together for their big number nine. Van Hooijdonk turned provider with a clever flick on the halfway line that sent Bonaventure Kalou through on goal, and when his shot was parried by Toldo, Tomasson knocked in the rebound.
Inter rue missed chances
"Do it again Pi-air" beseeched a banner in the home end. Well though he tried, it was Inter who added to the scoring in the second half. Clarence Seedorf and Ronaldo had both tested the frame of Edwin Zoetebier's goal by the time Cristiano Zanetti registered with a half-volley on 83 minutes. Yet it was only when Mohamed Kallon tucked away a penalty in added time that Inter began to regret the ones that had got away. "It was a missed opportunity," lamented Cúper. "We had 14 chances over the two legs but took only two of them."
'First leg cost us'
But what of the Feijenoord stadium curse? "This was a great result for us here," said Cúper. "Our problem was the first leg." Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk agreed, saying: "We earned our place in the final in the first leg, by going to Milan and attacking." Still, there was consolation in defeat for the Italians: with the final being played in Rotterdam, it at least saved them a return trip.
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