Thursday, 19 May 2011

AC Milan

Two Series in one day.. and a Scudetto

Novara v Frosinone 2-1 (14:05:11)
AC Milan v Cagliari 4-1 (14:05:11)

Jim Stewart is the Editor in Chief of EuroFootballCities: a handy guide to anyone wishing to travel abroad for the beautiful game....

I'll be honest, in the past I've never really been big on Italian football. Yep, there was a time way back in Gazzamania when it did stir some interest. Back in the days when James Richardson was sat in a Rome cafe reading Gazetta dello Sport that did seem the place to go. However, I'd always found the tactical play a bit negative, frankly boring, and the lure of Spanish skill or German.. beer… had always proved a bigger attraction. Still, the time had come to break my Serie A duck and give it a go. The San Siro stamp was a glaring omission on my European football passport so it was time to hop on a big orange plane from Luton and check it out.

So the weekend was chosen - and it turned out that it was the day AC Milan were playing at home after sealing the Scudetto for the first time in seven years. Jackpot!

The big game was at 8.45pm on the Saturday night. That left with me a slight quandry - what to do with the rest of the day. Check out the Duomo in the middle of town? Window shopping? Sitting in a cafe watching the fashion gurus stroll by? So after carefully considering all the options, there was clearly no other choice then to jump on a train, and head 45 minutes to take in a Serie B game at nearby Novara. Two games, one day, four hours between full time at the first and kick off at the next. It's all set up, what could possibly go wrong?

All the forecasts for the weekend said rain, clouds and more rain so it was no huge surprise to me when I strolled into the centre of Novara and it was glorious sunshine. A quick look around the centre of this provincial town and it was time to hop on a bus for the ride to the Stadio Comunale Silvio Piola, home of the mighty Novara.

A quick game of frogger ensued to get to those old skool floodlights

Not quite six-deep at the pre-match bar

First up, get a ticket. And after 15 minutes of obligatory wandering around I tracked down the ticket office, in a kiosk on the other side of the car park where i joined the queue with handful of Novara diehards.
A quick check of the ticket prices showed 4 options: the curve for 5 euros, then prices at 19, 21, and 30 euros for elsewhere.

Working on the theory that 5 euros sounded very cheap.. too cheap.. I was curious as to just how bad those seats would be. So, this being my first foray into the world of Italian football I decided to play safe, hop up one level and plumped for the 19 euros version in the Distinti sector.

There was time for a swift 4euro can of Becks in the car park before it was time to venture in.
Inside, and up the stairs, I looked to the right where the home fans were gathered in the cheap seats and yep, it looked pretty basic to me. An open end on a baking hot day, and the rows of seats were basically long slabs of concrete with seat numbers painted on. Ha! Well dodged, Jim. So I smugly headed down the stand to my seat - to find I was in the open, on a long slab of concrete with seat numbers painted on. So 14 euros more - to sit on the side.

Straight ahead was the 'posh' stand, ie it had a roof. Also proper seats (as did the people behind me, grrr). To the left was the away end, where come kick off there were a grand total of two fans. Thankfully, they were joined by the main Frosinone ultras to take the visiting following up to about 20 - but fair play, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in energy.

The Blue Crew, Novara Ultras

Not quite so full in the away end

It was a gloriously sunny day. Hot, very hot. Put it this way, if the Italians are cowering in the shade behind the stand at half time, and they're sticking their heads under the taps in the glorious public conveniences, and the most popular drink in the bar is water, you know it's baking.

Now my knowledge of Italian football below Serie A isn't the best, but I can tell you that Novara are the young upstarts who have had a mighty fine season so far. They're third in the league, and a win today would confirm a place in the play-offs and the chance. What I hadn't sussed is that their opponents were rock bottom and were staring relegation in the face. Despite that, Frosinone started like a bullet out of a gun and deservedly went ahead. But no fear, the hosts levelled before the break and normal order was restored with what turned out to be the winning goal early in the second half.

Stand up if you love the main stand

I have to say it was all rather good. The quality was impressive, there were sackloads of chances and even despite the heat the game was played at a rare old pace. There were a modest 5,400 fans there - Novara are a small club - but the boys in blue kept the noise going for the duration. The lino on our side faced the full wrath of the home fans in the first half when he failed to give half a dozen close offside calls their way. One spectator's gloriously impressive ongoing conversation with him included 17 shouts of 'Bastardo' (whatever that translates to in English) and, wonderfully, a 'Mamma Mia'.

The match was tapering off so I decided to dodge the crowds, hop out with 15 minutes to go and see if I could grab the slightly earlier train back to Milan. That relied on there a) being a bus waiting, and b) there being a bus waiting that was going to drive to the station in the near future. Yes, I found the said bus but the driver was not about to set off. He suggested I walk and gave me the great advice that the railway station was 'about 15 minutes' by foot. So I set off.

Thirty minutes and two miles later I was still some away so it was time to admit defeat, and wait for the next train back to Milan and on to the San Siro. No panic, still plenty of time…And yes, there was plenty of time. Back from Novara to Milano Centrale by 6.45pm, a quick pit stop at my nearby hotel for the ticket and I was back out, with over an hour an an half to make the 30 minute pilgrimage to the San Siro.

So I headed to the metro and it was time to follow my popular rule if you're not entirely sure of the best way to go - follow the man with the football flag. So I did, on down to Line 2. The metro's there, tick. Jump on, five minutes round to Cardona Station and time to hop off and change to the direct line to the San Siro. All good. I joined the growing masses, surged down to the platform, the train was waiting.. and so, were the fans. On the platform. And the train's in complete darkness. There then follows announcements over the tannoy. The train will be leaving soon. A few more minutes. The train should be leaving shortly. Then, a few minutes later - there's a problem on the line, the train's going nowhere.

As I later discovered, an ultra on an earlier train had pulled the emergency cable - and the whole line was shut for an hour. So it was time for a mass exodus up to the street, and suss to do next. Everybody stood around for a bit. Then some wandered one way, some another, the rest filled the few taxis, others tried to flag down anybody in a car for a lift. while the rest just stood there. Which confirmed my suspicions - noone had a clue where to go and it was fairly pointless following any idiot with a flag. But, after a few minutes, and with now under an hour to kick off, it became clear there was no option but to walk. So I went with this majority, and off we walked. And walk. And run. and walk. And dodge the cars and the buses and the trams at endless road junctions, trying and failing to get on the trams that were rammed like sardines. Just keep on walking, a bizarre movement of the people.

The long road to the San Siro

When I got back home I google mapped the route to suss out how far it was. It felt like about three and a bit miles, which is funny really because the map said it was about three and a bit miles.

Finally, after the umpteenth corner, I finally heard the noise of the San Siro, just as they read out the team sheet. About five minutes later I could see it loom into view. Of course, that gives you slightly false hope because it's so huge, it still takes some time to get to it.

At last. And worth every minute. One of the wonders of the world.

Eventually I made it to entrance 14, smiled at the ticket checker on the gate and handed over my ticket.
Then he wanted ID. He looked at my ticket, then my passport, then my ticket, then my passport.. and told me something along the lines that it didn't match. And that meant in Italy, as I learned quickly, I wasn't getting in.
Now I thought the whole change of ticket owner thing had been sorted when I bought the ticket (you have to do that in Italy) but clearly not. So it was on to plan B, and I did what any good foreigner abroad does in this situations.. and shrugged, and smiled, and begged. And begged. And, amazingly, he shrugged, and let me in.
Of course, I wasn't going to be on the bottom tier. Oh no. Top tier. So I ran for about what seemed like another three and a bit mile miles up the spiralling concourses to the top, and into the arena.

I'm sure there's many reading this who have been to the San Siro and can vouch for the atmosphere and the scene. Throw in the fact the game was just kicking off, AC Milan had won the league and the party was under way and you can only imagine the noise, the frenzy. It's not a good time to try to find your seat, but I did. Well, a seat, it was only later that I realised I was sat in entirely the wrong sector but no-one seemed to care that much.

If you look very closely, yep, there he is: Silvio Berlusconi

AC Milan Campione d'Italia 2011

I was in the blue end, which I immediately learned is the AC home end. And while the main ultras are in the bottom and middle tiers, I can officially confirm that they're bonkers on the top tier too. I can also confirm that the view of the stadium is spectacular, but for viewing a game on the pitch several hundred miles below it is spectacularly bad. When the smoke from the endless firecrackers eventually cleared I spent the game looking over the 12 foot high grubby perspex glass that rings the third tier - and on top of that the netting that stretches to the roof.

You can see the action, but you couldn't really suss out who had the ball and it was only the announcements that gave me a clue as to who scored. Well, I'm blaming the view and not my dodgy knowledge of Italian players. However, it didn't really matter. For me going to the San Siro is all about the atmosphere. It's a Colosseum in a country that first did them 2000 years ago. Three sides have three massive tiers, the fourth a 'mere' two, and the noise, particularly in the home end, is incredible.

The score was pretty irrelevant but for the record, Milan won 4-1 with two from Robinho, one for Gattuso and a fourth from Seedorf. And Cagliari weren't even that bad.

Life up in the Gods

Of course, the final whistle was only the halfway point in the evening. We were then treated to a full rendition of all Milan's favourite club songs (think a CD of Chas and Dave belting out at Spurs and you're on the the right lines) before, finally, the players were brought back out one by one for the league trophy presentation. Eventually, the squad was all there and the cup was lifted. Cue Queen, half a dozen renditions of We Are The Champions, and the party was under way.

At somewhere towards half eleven it was time to go, and after a quick beer outside (dry Italian grounds don't get a big tick from me) the ultras were still in full voice inside. Thankfully, this time, the bus and metro got me back to town.

So that was that. 12 hours, two matches, two trains, two buses, three metros.. one longish walk and one epic 'legging it'. Legend! And yes, Italian football may just have won me over...

When Ambrosini went up, to lift the Coppa Campioni d'Italia, I was there, I was there...

If can creep in a small plug, there'll be a section on Milan on my website - in the close season, and the site will be getting a makeover too.

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