Fikayo Tomori is not normally one for a post-match snack, but on the way back from Milan’s win at Napoli this month he made an exception. “One of the players came up to me and said: ‘You should try this, it’s from Naples,’” he recalls of having a tray with two sfogliatelle – traditional crispy pastries with a sweet filling – thrust under his nose.
“After games I can’t normally eat because my body’s all over the place, but I tried it. Then it was like: ‘Ahhhh, that’s kinda nice!’”
He chuckles at the memory of a moment that has gone viral, Tomori’s suspicious first bite, furrowed brow and then furiously enthusiastic nodding further securing his place in the affections of supporters he had already won over with performances on the pitch. In 14 months, the Englishman has gone from a speculative mid-season loan signing to one of the first names on the teamsheet for a side top of Serie A.
Seamless integration on the pitch has been mirrored in his approach to life off it. Fans were surprised, after that win over Napoli, to see Tomori deliver an interview in near fluent Italian.
“I always saw myself one day living in another country,” says Tomori, “whether that was for football or just in life. I always wanted to learn a new language. At home, my parents were from Nigeria, so they spoke Yoruba to me, and obviously at school you learn languages, but I came to Italy determined to learn Italian. Even if I was only going to be here on loan six months, I wanted to at least be able to know the present tense.”
It may have been that mindset that ensured his stay would last longer, Milan making his transfer permanent for close to €28.5m. Tomori arrived last January with his career at a crossroads, a 23-year-old graduate of the Chelsea academy who had started 15 Premier League games for the Blues during the 2019-20 season but none in the first half of the following campaign.
Milan needed cover at centre-back, with Simon Kjær struggling through a series of injuries and their captain, Alessio Romagnoli, out of form. As the manager, Stefano Pioli, told the Observer in January, he had been impressed by aspects of the player’s game on video but found Tomori’s attitude and approach to be “a positive surprise in every way”.
The admiration is mutual, Tomori appreciating the way Pioli will come to him even after a good match and talk through specific situations where he could have adjusted his positioning. Such intense focus on details represents a key point of difference for the player between Serie A and the Premier League.
“In England, it’s more like basketball,” says Tomori. “Everything’s end-to-end, there’s more intensity, a lot more happens reactively. In Italy it’s more like American football. It’s like you have ‘plays’. When the ball’s here, I need to be here. When the ball goes, I know I have to be two meters over in that direction, or be looking for this particular player …
“In England it’s very much off the cuff and things happen so fast. You can be attacking one minute and the next the ball’s flipped over your head and you’ve got to run back 30 yards, then you’re back on the attack. Here it’s more like: ‘OK, the ball’s there, where’s my teammate? Where’s the opposition?’ If the ball goes over the top I need to be in a position where I can leave the striker and get there, but if the ball goes into feet I’m in a position to go press.”
It is not just Pioli helping him to work out these finer points. Tomori’s decision to join Milan was sealed by a call from Paolo Maldini, “the best defender ever”, now the Milan technical director. Although not involved with day-to-day coaching, he is happy to share advice.
“The other day he was talking to us about the speed of the ball moving through the back and how to work on our body position,” says Tomori. “As defenders, you want to make sure you’re impressing him.”
Tomori believes he has improved at Milan, especially in his concentration and tactical awareness. Yet after being called up by England for the first time in two years last September he was omitted for World Cup qualifiers in November and again for this month’s friendlies. Instead, he traveled to Dubai this week to meet supporters and help run a kids’ training session at the local AC Milan Academy, as part of the club’s delegation to Expo 2020.
To miss out is a disappointment for a player who aspires to be part of England’s squad for Qatar 2022, but Tomori does not believe playing in Italy has put him at a disadvantage. “There’s just so many talented players in my position already – [Harry] Maguire, [John] stones, [Conor] coady, [Tyrone] Mings, [Ben] White at Arsenal – and there’s a limited amount of positions.
“I just have to make sure I’m playing at a high level. And then when I do get called on, to make sure I’m ready. I have to focus on what I’m doing here at Milan first and foremost.”
In the meantime, he can take satisfaction from having helped, in a roundabout way, Tammy Abraham to get his international career back on track. His former Chelsea teammate sought his advice when the option of a Serie A move arose last summer.
“When he said Roma was on the table, I said: ‘Bro this is a good league’,” recalls Tomori. “I felt like it would develop his game a lot. He has scored a lot of goals this season for Roma, they’re fighting for a Champions League spot. Definitely it’s helped him and definitely I gave him rave enjoyed reviews about Serie A because I myself so much the first six months.”
He is still relishing it. Tomori has noticed himself adjusting the way he lives in countless little ways – from the must-have macchiato after every meal, where previously he never drank coffee, to a new preference for relaxing outside with friends and fresh air on the terrace after training instead of heading home.
“I was speaking to my sister yesterday, and that’s family, she’s known to me her whole life. And she said: ‘You just seem a lot calmer, a lot smilier.’ I think that’s probably the way Italy is. Everything is a bit more chilled. In England, everything is so rushed and hustle and bustle. In Italy, everyone’s walking a bit slower. Everything’s just a bit calm.”
Not everything is perfect. Our conversation takes place shortly before Milan’s 1-0 win at Cagliari, where monkey chants were aimed at Tomori and his teammate Mike Maignan during the post-game celebrations.
Previously, Tomori said he had not experienced any racist abuse in Italy, although he was aware of cases at Serie A games. He later shares his experience of the events in Sardinia via a recorded voice note.
“Obviously that was not a good moment,” Tomori says. “But all the players helped me to get away from the situation. Everyone knew what was going on. I spoke to the referee and since then everyone’s been very supportive and tried to give me as much support as possible, which was great. The steps to try and stop this is what we need to do next. It was a sad moment for me and Mike as well but the club were very supportive and they gave a reaction to it very quickly.”
Tomori has spoken before about racist abuse on social media and remains frustrated by companies’ failure to do more to close it down. “You could make a foul, concede a penalty, anything, and by the time you get back in the changing room, you’ve got a thousand messages from nobody. People who make a fake account, people who know they can say this without having any consequences, feel like they’re untouchable, whatever it may be. Social media companies should be able to do more to curtail what’s happening.”
Tomori will continue to speak out against racism – the incident in Cagliari occurred on the weekend the league launched an anti-racism campaign with a video that he was part of – but also focus on his own career ambitions.
On the day he arrived at Milan, and walked through the club’s museum, Tomori spoke of wanting to live up to the club’s history by winning trophies. In the long run, he hopes that will include European success, something he believes is achievable despite the club’s Champions League group-stage exit this season and the failure of any Italian sides to reach the quarter-finals.
“I think there’s cycles in football,” he says. “Before it was Real Madrid, Barcelona, then it was Bayern Munich, then it was the English teams. I don’t think it’s a specific correlation between Italian football and not doing well in the Champions League.
“For a lot of players in our team this season was their first experience of Champions League football. And we didn’t have an easy group [alongside Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto].”
The immediate objective is to claim this season’s Serie A title. It would be Tomori’s first senior trophy. With eight games remaining, Milan have a three-point lead over second-place Napoli.
Tomori is tickled to know that Pioli’s mum still reminds him every season that he is yet to win a trophy in senior management. “I wouldn’t say my parents give me a hard time like that,” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s obviously something they want me to do, they want me to have a successful career.
“We’re in a good position but we’re taking it game by game. Hopefully at the end we have something to celebrate, and the manager’s mum can let him rest.”