There was Rui Costa and there was Marco Materazzi. Beauty and muscle. The elegant Portuguese bearing the brunt of his opponent’s grizzled elbow.
Tranquility amid the chaos as a pair of soccer rivals paused to reflect on a hazy wall of red smoke and quivering flares.
“Everyone was focused on the flares, on the smoke,” photographer Stefano Rellandini, who captured the iconic image 18 years ago, told BBC Sport. “But near the center of the pitch, I saw a certain moment.
“Materazzi was nicknamed something like a butcher; he’s not really a soft player. Rui Costa was the opposite – softer, more artistic in his football. For a few seconds Materazzi put his elbow on Rui’s shoulder Coast.
“So when I saw that, I shot it. I only have one frame in that footage. It was time.”
The image has its own legacy, but it also captured the end of AC Milan and Inter Milan’s last game in the Champions League. a 2005 quarter-final that was abandoned after flares and other objects rained down on the San Siro turf from a section of Inter supporters, a Milan goalkeeper hitting and injuring Dida.
73 minutes into the second leg, the referee abandoned the match and the draw was then awarded to Milan, who were leading 3–0 on aggregate.
“The atmosphere that night was like every time you have an AC Milan and Inter derby at the San Siro,” said Rellandini, who worked for Reuters at the time.
“It’s still strong. They don’t fight a lot, but the fan choreography is huge and great, so it really shows, even if you’re not a player.
“When you put your feet on the pitch, you can feel it’s not just a football game. It’s something more.
“You are really close to the players. It was a great atmosphere, there was adrenaline.
“It just exploded when they disallowed Esteban Cambiasso’s goal. It completely changed the situation.
“The Inter Milan fans were panicking. They started throwing things, flares and didn’t stop for about 15 or 20 minutes. It was something like a war.”
The tension was simmering. Milan knocked Inter out of the competition two years earlier on away goals, despite both semi-finals ending in a draw at the San Siro. Milan then beat Juventus on penalties in the final at Old Trafford.
Milan also embarked on the 2004-05 campaign as Italian champions – a sixth Scudetto since Inter won the Serie A title in 1988-89.
Owner Silvio Berlusconi was building his second major Milan team and the entrepreneur-turned-politician had trusted Carlo Ancelotti, a member of the side that won successive European Cups in 1989 and 1990, to deliver another spell of success in as manager.
For the second leg of the quarter-finals, a formidable back four of Cafu, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini sat behind Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini and Kaka, with Hernan Crespo – formerly of Inter – and Andriy Shevchenko up front. Rui Costa was on the bench.
Inter, meanwhile, had spent lavishly trying to compete with Milan and Juventus. Chairman Massimo Moratti broke the transfer world record twice in three years, first to sign Ronaldo from Barcelona in 1997 and then to get Christian Vieri from Lazio in 1999.
Crespo and Seedorf had arrived at Inter on big business but failed to land any significant silverware, before uniting across the gap in Milan.
Fabio Cannavaro had also come and gone – a two-miss spell ending in a move to Juventus.
In 2005, Inter’s midfield was built around the Argentinian pair of Cambiasso and Juan Sebastian Veron, while ahead of them precocious Brazilian striker Adriano was enjoying his most prolific season in a black and blue shirt.
The team was improving. The results were not.
Inter carried the unwanted label of “August champions” among rival fans, who scoffed at the expectations that had built up in the summer transfer market and had invariably evaporated by the time the silverware was in play in May.
Among Inter fans there was an underlying feeling that they were running an unfair race – between them, Milan and Juventus had won 11 of the previous 13 titles.
However, in 2006, the two would be involved in the Calciopoli scandal. Juventus were relegated to Serie B for their part and stripped of two titles. Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina were moored on points.
In 2005, rumors were already swirling in the stands. Criminal investigations had started in Naples and Turin into allegations of bribery and corruption in football.
As the game turned against Inter, their supporters’ frustrations – over the scoreline and their inability to close the gap on the Milan and Juventus sides who always seemed to be one step ahead – spread stands and on the field.
Stam and Shevchenko had given Milan a two-goal advantage in the first leg.
But as their ‘home’ game at the San Siro approached, Inter fans were still buoyant and hoping for a comeback.
Milan great Alessandro Costacurta, who came on in the first leg, called the ‘Derby della Madonnina’ encounters the ‘worst’ days of his career.
He couldn’t sleep. “It was the tumult of emotions,” he said. “It was the tension.” His team-mate Maldini described an “electricity” across the city.
Shevchenko also said he had trouble sleeping and remembered seeing more club colors flashing around the city as the games got closer.
“There was great tension, great anticipation but above all passion, and always with civil attitudes,” the former Ukrainian striker recently told Gazzetta dello Sport.
It was Shevchenko, Milan’s number seven, who opened the scoring on the half-hour mark of a fiery second leg by beating Francesco Toldo with a left-footed shot from outside the box. The striker’s avoidance of punishment after appearing to head Materazzi early on only added to Inter’s fury, with fans also believing they should have been awarded a penalty.
But the real flashpoint came with just under 20 minutes remaining.
Inter midfielder Cambiasso’s bald head met Veron’s corner kick to seemingly make it 3-1 on aggregate, only to have the goal disallowed because striker Julio Cruz was found guilty of committing a foul. fault on Dida. There seemed to be little contact.
The flares launched by the ultras in the Curva Nord began to pour onto the San Siro turf like flaming arrows.
One hit Dida in the shoulder, narrowly missing his head, as he tried to clear the pyrotechnics and bottles from his penalty area.
The players gathered in the center of the field as Maldini, Cambiasso and Inter captain Javier Zanetti protested to referee Markus Merk, before Zanetti and Veron helped firefighters who were extinguishing the flames trying to remove debris from the goal mouth.
Eventually, with items still falling from the stands, both teams were ordered off the pitch, attempting to take cover as they escaped through a tunnel in the same corner of the pitch as the ultras.
“After the first flares were lit, the pitch was completely foggy, so you couldn’t see. Even if you wanted to take a picture of an injured person, you couldn’t,” says Rellandini, although he managed to catch his masterpiece in the middle of the chaos.
“They stopped the game for almost half an hour which was strange at the time. You start to think something bad happened because they really threw everything away – they were going crazy .”
When the players returned, Dida – treated for first-degree burns to his shoulder – was replaced by Christian Abbiati, but after 30 seconds, with the barrage continuing, Merk was forced to abandon the game.
“The referee made the right decision,” Maldini said. “I was surprised he tried to restart the game but it was fine because so many fans had paid to watch.”
Ancelotti, like Inter manager Roberto Mancini, condemned the incident, calling it a “shameful episode”.
“What happened will not only discredit Inter but the whole city,” Ancelotti said. “The reaction from Inter fans was completely unexpected. I was really surprised because I’ve never seen anything like this in all the Milan derbies I’ve been to.”
Milan’s police chief, Paolo Scarpi, blamed “two to three hundred hooligans…the usual hotheads of the Inter section”, while Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister at the time and owner of Milan, suggested that “drastic measures” were needed to stem the rise. violence in stadiums.
UEFA, the governing body of European football, fined Inter £132,000 and ordered them to play four European games behind closed doors.
“This is the biggest fine in UEFA history. There will be people who think it’s lenient and others who find it harsh,” a spokesman said. UEFA at the BBC.
Milan then beat PSV Eindhoven on away goals in the semi-final – Dida set a Champions League record of seven consecutive draws in their 2-0 first leg win, before PSV won the comeback 3-1.
Milan would have won a seventh European title but for a marvel in istanbul in which Liverpool scored three times in six minutes in the final before winning on penalties.
Milan would get their revenge two years later, knocking out Liverpool in the final in Athens, although domestically their points deduction and relegation of Juventus opened the door to a period of Inter dominance in Serie A.
Inter won the title in 2006 and then won four in a row, culminating in a hat-trick under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10.
Neither Milan side has reached the final since, but that will change this year after a semi-final derby also brought Rellandini’s iconic image back to life.