Mauro Icardi repairing bonds at Inter Milan, but still in exile with Argentina
Six months ago, Mauro Icardi was a persona non grata to Inter Milan's hardcore fans. The ultras in San Siro's Curva Nord demanded that Inter strip their star striker of the captain's armband following the astonishing revelations made in his biography. They sparked outrage, and despite Icardi's decision to retract the offending passage from the book and have the first edition pulled from the shelves, he went unforgiven.
You might recall that the ultras unfurled a series of banners before Inter played Cagliari in October, making it clear they were finished with him. "100 goals, 100 trophies won't cancel out the turd you are." It left Icardi in little doubt that he had a mountain to climb if he were to win them back. Think Sisyphus rolling a stone up Everest.
The relationship seemed beyond repair. But as winter turns to spring, a thaw seems underway. The ultras' hard stance is softening. Last week, one of the leaders in the Curva Nord showed the first signs of being open to a reconciliation. He said, "If the idea of salvaging this relationship were to mature in Icardi, we'd be ready to listen. He knows where to find us."
It followed a chat Icardi had with La Gazzetta dello Sport in which he didn't discourage the notion of following in Javier Zanetti's footsteps and retiring at Inter.
"It's an honour to be compared with a piece of history like Javier," he said. "Because he's Argentine, of course, and because of the attachment he showed Inter, staying until the end of his career. He turned words into facts, getting Inter to the top in Europe. I have a contract until 2021. We'll see what happens then and have a talk when the time comes, as always happens. But I want to stay here."
Regardless of the rather opportunistic way his wife and agent, Wanda Nara, used Inter's takeover by Suning last summer to get him a bigger and better deal just a year after he signed a new contract, Icardi's love for Inter seems genuine. He never wastes an opportunity to express it and isn't cynically playing to the gallery.
As we've seen in his confrontation with the ultras, Icardi won't back down from a challenge, and the thought of making Inter great again has an appeal to him that other get-medals-quick schemes don't. Besides, it doesn't look like Icardi will have to wait long. Suning have the resources to make Inter compete. They've already spent €174 million on the team and won't be constrained by Financial Fair Play in the summer. Making Icardi one of the highest paid players in the world won't be a problem, either.
So Inter's ultras are stuck with him, which isn't so bad. Because for all their issues with Icardi as a person (some of which are frankly overplayed), they can have no issue with the player.
Icardi scored a hat trick in Sunday's 7-1 demolition of Atalanta. Their opponents weren't relegation fodder, as Atalanta are this season's revelation in Serie A. They had conceded just twice in seven games and kept a clean sheet in a win away to Napoli. Going into the weekend, they were ahead of Inter. This was a battle for Europe, yet Inter blew them away. For the first time since 1964, they scored five goals in the first half of a game. Their seven goals came from eight shots on target.
It was the perfect performance, and fittingly, Icardi's hat trick was a perfect hat trick. His heading ability in particular has pundits purring. Icardi is 10 cm (almost four inches) shorter than Edin Dzeko, but he has scored seven headers this season to the Bosnian's two.
His hat trick also happened to be the fastest by an Inter player since 1947. With 10 games to go, Icardi is only two goals short of his personal best for a single season in Serie A, a season that ended with him sharing the Capocannoniere crown with Luca Toni as the youngest top scorer the league has known since Paolo Rossi in 1978.
It'll take more than 22 goals to win it again. Andrea Belotti has already reached that figure, and excitingly for us, he and Icardi go up against each other on Saturday evening, when Torino host Inter. Joe Hart will have to be on his toes.
As the last game before the international break, it never ceases to amaze Italians that Icardi will once again, in all likelihood, be spending the next fortnight at home in Milan. He has played just seven minutes for Argentina, and even that was more than three years ago. The managers change but, baffling to all involved, his situation remains the same. Icardi is the striker Argentina won't welcome in from the cold. There is no official explanation for his exile, and when you consider the form Icardi has been in, it's unjustifiable.
Since making his one and only appearance for his country, Icardi has become the first Inter striker since Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Vieri to score 15 goals in three consecutive seasons. No one in Europe's top five leagues has scored more multiples this season. That's six braces and a hat trick.
Once criticised for "only" finishing off the play and doing little else for the team other than poach, Icardi is now setting up his teammates on a regular basis. He has eight assists this season. Belotti's emergence and the renaissance of Ciro Immobile mean Italy are less desperate for strikers than they were, but Icardi would probably have 25 caps for the Azzurri by now if he'd accepted Cesare Prandelli's invitation to declare for them four years ago. Icardi is a dual citizen. His great grandfather hailed from Carmagnola, near Turin, but his wish has always been to play for the country of his birth.
On a visit to Italy last month, Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza met Icardi and told reporters he is able to pick him. But he still seems reluctant and unwilling. Despite repeated denials, the perception that Icardi broke up Maxi Lopez's marriage (a marriage he claims was already over) -- and initially revelled in rubbing his face in it on social media -- still appears to count against him. The impression given is of a dressing room unprepared to let bygones be bygones and accept him, even if a goal scorer as prolific and clutch as Icardi could help them win something for the first time since 1993.
Icardi (20) has scored more goals than Gonzalo Higuain (19) and Sergio Agüero (12) this season, but Bauza isn't debating whether to start him instead of them. Instead, Icardi is competing for the backup spot with Lucas Pratto. A flop at Genoa five years ago, the Sao Paulo striker is now 28. Icardi is 24 and has already scored seven more goals in his career, doing so at a much higher level too.
Interestingly, Pratto broke his nose in a 3-0 defeat to Palmeiras last week, possibly opening the door for Icardi. If anything happened to Pratto, Bauza said he would give Icardi a call. But right now he seems more inclined to put River Plate fan favourite Lucas Alario and Rosario captain Marco Ruben on standby for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Chile at El Monumental and Bolivia in La Paz. Why not just be honest and up-front with the Inter striker?
"What more do I have to do?" Icardi wondered in Gazzetta. "All I can say is that I am ready and can't wait to wear that shirt. But I repeat: It's not up to me to decide."
If Inter's ultras are prepared to engage in rapprochement with Icardi, isn't it time Argentina did too?
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.