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Fikayo Tomori exclusive: 'I grew up playing in the San Siro on my PlayStation... I still have to pinch myself'

Fikayo Tomori exclusive: 'I grew up playing in the San Siro on my PlayStation... I still have to pinch myself'

Fikayo Tomori opens up on his move to AC Milan from Chelsea, having no regrets and an incredible welcome from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It is a Monday afternoon in Milan and the excitement is already palpable on the cobbled streets of this charming city. We are just days away from one of the most eagerly-anticipated semi-final games in recent Champions League history when one of Europe's most in-demand defenders sits down with us, half an hour before the start of training.

From the iconic Milanello Sports Centre, Fikayo Tomori is looking back at a significant moment in his career.

"When I found out they were interested, I thought to myself; If I look back on my career in the future and say, ‘I could have gone to AC Milan but I chose not to because I was too scared, or I didn't want to take the risk’, I probably would have regretted it," he tells SPORTbible. "I needed to take that leap."

The 25-year-old centre-back can understand why some labelled the move a gamble. Leaving an established Premier League club like Chelsea to go to a different country, with a different culture and a different style of play, was brave, especially for someone who didn't have a great deal of experience at the very highest level.

Loan spells at Brighton, Hull and Derby certainly helped Tomori acclimatise to the demands of first-team football while developing his overall game. But with all due respect to the previously mentioned clubs, this was a different kettle of fish. Tomori, however, was ready to experience something new, away from a club he joined at the age of seven.

In his own words, it was a move he "couldn't turn down.”

Image credit: Instagram/fikayotomori
Image credit: Instagram/fikayotomori

Fast forward three years and Tomori has thrown everything at this opportunity. Away from the pitch, he hired a tutor to teach him Italian over Zoom so he could understand team meetings and partake in native post-interviews. "I'd learn three hours a week about the grammar, how to conjugate verbs and understand the different tenses," he says.

On the pitch, he enjoyed the best moment of his career last season, helping the Rossoneri lift their first Scudetto title in 11 years after featuring heavily throughout. A year later, the reliable England international is currently one of Serie A's best defenders when it comes to successful passes, tackles won and blocks.

But can he go one step further and lift the Champions League? "Right now, for us to say we can't go all the way would be silly," Tomori says. "We're in the semi final. We're two games away from making the final and three games away from possibly winning it. We deserve to be here."

As you can probably sense by now, the Canada-born defender fears nothing. In fact, it almost feels he thrives off silencing the doubters.

"A lot of people wouldn't have put us here at the beginning of the season," he says. "But it’s very much like last season, when many, many people wouldn't have put us down to win the Scudetto. Even towards the end, people still didn't think we were going to win it. People can say what they want. They can say AC Milan aren't strong enough. I disagree.

"We know that if you play with the right intensity, attitude and quality, we can be a problem for any team, including Inter.”

Tomori celebrates with teammate Olivier Giroud after their Champions League quarter-final win over Napoli. Image credit: Alamy
Tomori celebrates with teammate Olivier Giroud after their Champions League quarter-final win over Napoli. Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

Fikayo Tomori has a big grin on his face. "I remember playing PlayStation growing up and I'd always choose the San Siro as my stadium, and then suddenly, I was here,” he says. “When I first signed, I remember going to the museum and seeing the trophies, the Ballon d'Ors and all the amazing players that had played here. That really made me realise where I was."

It was towards the end of the 2020 summer transfer window when AC Milan first expressed an interest. After making 22 appearances for Chelsea during the 2019/20 campaign, he was in-and-out of Frank Lampard's side when the Italian club first got in touch but through no fault of his own, he was unable to leave West London.

Then, a few months later, in late November, technical director Paolo Maldini made contact again. Tomori remembers it well. "He [Maldini] said, 'We're ready to do this if you're ready.’ At that point, I was more than ready to come to Milan. I'd been keeping an eye on how they were doing after they first made contact. I was already mentally preparing to be here."

The defender sealed a six-month loan move to Italy on January 22, 2021 which included an option to buy clause of £26.6 million. Four days later, he was thrown into the deep end for their Coppa Italia tie against Wednesday’s night Champions League semi-final opponents Inter Milan. Was he nervous? On the contrary.

"It had been a while since I'd played so when I actually got the chance in the Derby, I was so motivated. I was raring to go. I had so much energy and hunger to prove myself,” he says.

“Also, everyone made me feel so welcome. I just felt so comfortable here; like I was able to really express myself and play my game on the pitch. The language made it a little more difficult but even with that, people went out their way to speak English to help me settle. All those factors helped.”

Tomori was overawed by the Milan museum on his arrival. Image credit: Instagram/fikayotomori
Tomori was overawed by the Milan museum on his arrival. Image credit: Instagram/fikayotomori

Somebody who would go above and beyond to make him welcome was one of the Milan's most experienced and influential players — Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The enigmatic 41-year-old, who returned to Serie A in 2019, made a huge impression when he arrived in the city.

"I wasn't really sure what to expect with Zlatan when I first came out, just because you see all this stuff on the internet and on social media about what he says and what he's like," Tomori says. "He's very sure of himself, I'd say. He knows what his qualities are."

From the get-go, Tomori was surprised at how much the Swede demands of not only himself but everyone else in the squad. In fact, to put his importance into perspective, Tomori says things would have been "very different" had he not been in that title-winning team last year. "He's always talking to people," the defender says. "He's always helping someone."

In his own words, Ibrahimovic is one of those people that tends to say stuff in jest, but remains serious at the same time. The former Manchester United and Barcelona striker is thoughtful yet outspoken. Take one of their first conversations, for example, when Tomori was introduced to Zlatan; the enigma.

“I remember when I first came to Milan, he was asking me where I lived," he says. "I told him where, and it was actually a building close to his. So he was telling me, 'Oh you know the black building?' I said, 'Yeah, I know that building. I've seen it.' And he said, 'Yeah, I live right at the top so God can look over the city.'

"I remember thinking, so this is the Zlatan I've seen on social media!”

Zlatan welcomed Tomori to the city of Milan in true Zlatan fashion. Image credit: Alamy
Zlatan welcomed Tomori to the city of Milan in true Zlatan fashion. Image credit: Alamy

Tomori, who lives on his own in the second-most populated city in Italy, has settled into Italian life with ease. He says it is different to London, a place where everyone seems to be in a mad rush. "Here it is more chilled," he laughs. "Everyone just lives life in a more relaxed way."

He's also managed to get to grips with the language thanks to hard work and well, a smattering of sheer dumb luck. "It was weird," he says. "After I signed permanently, things people were saying before, that I wouldn't understand, all of a sudden started to make sense. I was picking it up far easier, which was a really strange moment.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, I actually understand what everyone's saying now!'"

The defender has also looked extremely comfortable in his relatively-new surroundings on the pitch. After replacing an injured Simon Kjaer in the previously mentioned debut against Inter Milan, he impressed Stefano Pioli with his composure and intensity.

Tomori soon became a first-team regular in the famous red and black, making 22 appearances during that impressive loan spell before the deal was made permanent, thus ending his 16-year association with Chelsea.

Almost two years later and his boyhood club are struggling under Frank Lampard; a manager who limited Tomoti to a handful of appearances before the move to Italy. After speaking about the positive steps made here in Milan, the tone in his voice lowers.

"I've got friends there. Every now and then, we speak about how it's going and how the team is performing.

"The thing is, Chelsea had [Roman] Abramovich as an owner for so long. He was there for 20 years and during that time, a whole generation of supporters and players enjoyed so much success. That was all they knew. Now, they are going through big changes.

"There has been a change of ownership so of course it's going to be different. There is going to be some things to work out. I'm sure that the way this season has gone isn't how they wanted it to go. But with the players they have, I'm sure that they can turn it around. It may not be this season, but I'm sure Chelsea will be back to where everyone knows them to be soon."

Away from his former club and Tomori is desperate to win more titles with a team that is growing, both on and off the pitch. In China, for example, the AC Milan brand has surpassed Barcelona, ranking second only to Real Madrid, the winner of last season's Champions League.

The defender knows what it means to play for a club of such magnitude. He even admits to looking down at the badge every so often and smiling. "I still often pinch myself when I'm playing," he admits.

Tomori goes back to the feeling of walking into the 75,000-capacity San Siro for the first time, even when it was empty. "I was looking around thinking, 'Wow, this is crazy.' And two or three hours before kick-off, the streets are full of supporters. You come out to warm up and the stadium is already half full.

"When we won the Scudetto last season, seeing the sheer amount of people on the streets, the passion. It gives you a grasp of how big the club actually is, and how much it means to people. Winning with this club is something totally different and the expectation to win, and the standard that is set and the way it is run… It’s an institution."

Next up, a Champions League semi-final first leg against the old rival. Can they do it? Fikayo Tomori nods his head. "For us, the goal now is to go all the way, for sure."

Featured Image Credit: Instagram/fikayotomori - Alamy

Topics: AC Milan, Champions League, Chelsea, Fikayo Tomori, Inter Milan, Serie A, Transfers, Spotlight