Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Napoli v Manchester City

This Is How It Feels

Napoli 2-1 Manchester City (22:11:11)

What's it like, as an away fan, to visit one of the most famous grounds in world football. One that houses fans so passionate and vociferous that the noise from a goal causes a seismic shift in the city? Lifelong Manchester City fan, David Mayor, reveals all...

Due to the effects of the on-going global financial crisis I hadn’t expected to go to any of Manchester City’s away games in the group stages of the Champions League with the draw approaching. But having rushed from work to a City Centre pub to watch it, there was a certain inevitability that I’d at least look into possible routes of getting to them once the draw had thrown up Bayern, Villareal and, most excitedly for me, Napoli.

Around an hour after getting home that evening I’d seen suitable flights from Manchester to Rome for less than £50. At this point I considered the factors that would decide if I’d purchase these or not. These were the state of my bank balance, my potential danger/safety and the fact that we were playing away in arguably the most atmospheric stadium in Europe. Being the responsible adult that I am, and after deliberating for somewhere in the region of 30 seconds, the latter of those factors won this particular round-robin of clashes with a more than healthy goal-difference.

Fast-forward about three-months and you’d have found myself, Big Chris and Ant in the departures lounge of Manchester Airport at 5.50 on a Monday morning. As you all know, two of the possible explanations for drinking at that time include being in an airport or going to an away game. Fortunately they don’t cancel each other out so we managed a quick pint before boarding the flight which was your usual mix of lads drinking extortionately priced half-cans of Magners and well-dressed Italian businessmen. Personally I took-up a kind-of middle ground here by wearing an Adidas trackie-top whilst catching-up with world affairs by reading The Times. The two hour-flight passed while I pondered such issues as ‘will the incoming Conservative government address Spain’s catastrophic unemployment rate,‘ ‘can sex addiction be considered an illness’ and ‘aren’t Bury doing well.’

As, it seemed most of our fellow Blues on board had planned, I’d decided we’d stay in Rome on the Monday night. I was a little ashamed about this as I’d been to Rome before and felt I was guilty of “believing the hype” regarding Naples reputation for safety by thinking we’d enjoy a more relaxing day drinking exploring the capital’s cultural riches.

So with bags dropped at the hotel and pasta and wine consumed we walked to the nearby Coliseum. Now for all the history associated with the place, one barely mentioned, yet significant, moment was the major huff I had with a tour-guide there in 2004. While hanging around waiting for the tour to begin, she asked us the reason for us being in the Eternal City and I excitedly told her that were going to watch Lazio v Roma the following evening. She proceeded to scoff at the idea that people would travel to Rome with the primary intention of watching a football match.

Deeply embittered by this seven years on, and the fact I don’t get a great deal out of the most recognisable historical landmarks, I decided having a pint in view of the Coliseum was a better use of my time and money than paying €10 to go in there again. With Ant joining me we were soon rewarded for this decision when, on receiving a second beer, we were given the most elaborate-looking cheese and ham toasty. History 0 Mayor 1.

The rest of Monday consisted of a bit of a stroll followed by, at regular intervals, the all-too familiar exchange:

“Shall we go in there for one?”
“Let’s have a walk around, looks nothing special in there”

Ten minutes later

“No let’s see what’s up here”

Five minutes later

“Can we just effin go in there?”

Fortunately (I’d hate to give away which one was me in that exchange) it wasn’t long before we were enjoying many ‘one’s’ in various places and talk inevitably turned to tomorrow and what we were to expect in Naples. The general consensus was things wouldn’t be as bad as they were being made out but we just had to have our sensible heads on and adhere to the safety advice the club had provided. In addition, EFWs good leader, Danny Last, had provided a specially commissioned Napoli/City friendship logo (the shade of blue caused concern he’d actually given us a Real Oviedo/Everton friendship logo by mistake but he deserves the benefit of the doubt here) which would surely diffuse any volatile situation.

With some heavy heads we made our way to Roma Termini station for the 10.49 to Napoli Centrale the following morning and being honest, the regularly asked, hilarious question of ‘are you packing steel underpants,’ was now beginning to haunt us. The area around Termini isn’t the best to settle a few nerves and even the most joyous of activities that is buying cans before boarding a train to a football match felt a little subdued.

Once on the train a couple of other City fans came and sat in the carriage and it was re-assuring that they didn’t look the types to turn the journey into a two-hour banging on windows sing-song but just wanted a chat and a laugh discussing David White, the journey to FC Midtjylland and that kids who watch City now will grow up never having known any different. Bloody kids being young when we’re good!

Upon departing the train in Naples the dreaded ‘welcome party’ didn’t materialise, but a more welcome, welcome party did in the form of the local Carabinieri and my great mate Isra. The Carabinieri met us with smiles and simply wanted to know where we were staying and if we knew how to get there, which was another in the tick column for those of a more nervous disposition, while Isra raised the bar with a handshake and enthusiastic man-hug.

David and Isra with the specially commissioned Napoli/City friendship logo. (Note to self: sort out ink on printer) 

Isra, by the way, is someone who I’m surprised hasn’t made the pages of EFW before as he is, amazingly enough, a big fan of the game we call football who lives in and travels around Europe watching it. An Atletico Madrid fan who now lives in Italy, he was a more than welcome addition to our party mainly because he’s a grade A chap. Additionally he also speaks Italian and had been to Napoli before so his experience and language skills were appreciated.

Having chosen to stay across the road from the station we were surprised at how quiet the area was as it had been categorised by all and sundry as no-go. The hotel also had a bar, which was welcome, but after a quick one we got the taxi down to the Port area Stazione Marittima, as advised, from where we would later be shuttled to the stadium. We were in good spirits at this point. We were now “four-handed” the station area and hotel had been fine and we were about to go to the safe area of the port.

Once at the port we weighed up our options and took the unpredictable decision of going to the first bar we came to. It contained around 20 other Blues and included the bloke who ran the supporters club I went to games with from the mid-nineties to the early-noughties. There was something quite brilliant in sharing a beer and a laugh with someone on route to the Stadio San Paolo in a way that’s no different than when you did it before Upton Park, Filbert Street, Bescot Stadium etc I sensed his satisfaction that he wouldn’t have to add to the couple of hundred thousand times he’d said ‘no cans on the bus please lads’ on this particular away trip as well.

We then headed directly towards the area where we would be transported to the stadium which was a weird sort of tunnel that, again, thankfully had three (that’s three rather than free unfortunately) bars. I could tell this place was going to have quite a relaxed feel as you could hear that our fans were now happy to engage in a song or two. For a couple of hours ditties celebrating heroes of years gone by were intertwined with those about our current range of world-superstars which included the questionable allegation that David Silva gets pissed up on San Miguel.

With everyone in good spirits, we moved onto the heavily guarded buses around two hours before kick-off and were on our way. The singing continued although to my great disappointment no-one seemed to want to join in the praise of Tricky Tricky Ricky Ricky Holden, preferring instead to concentrate on our mercurial little Spanish playmakers (alleged) drinking habits.

I knew the journey to the stadium wasn’t exactly spitting distance but I didn’t expect it to take over an hour and myself and Isra believed they were deliberately delaying our arrival at the stadium. We weren’t complaining though and with just under an hour or so to kick-off we were obviously in the vicinity as you could see various Napoli fans having a pre-match drink of their own. In this way it was very similar to going to a British game as an away fan on the coach. Lots of locals looked at us and there was the occasional exchange of hand-gestures but nothing to write on EFW about.

We all got off the buses and made a short walk to the stadium along a cordoned off street. Up a small, fantastically graffitied, ramp type thing, tickets checked and there it was. Through one of the gang-ways I could make out the stand (opposite the camera on TV) and could see a packed crowd and the NAPOLI CLUB and BLUE TIGRE banners that I have seen on TV and in pictures a hundred times. If 2004 German Tour guide woman could’ve seen me at this point it may have given her some insight into why someone might travel from England to Italy go to a football match.

Blue Moon...

....Now I'm we're no longer alone. (bobble hats off to David for *that* bit of headgear - Ed.)

Once in view of the pitch I was completely awestruck. The players were out warming up but the crowd, as it has at matches for 25 years, fascinated me. Directly to our right was Curva A with Curva B far away in the distance to our left. We had about half an hour to kick-off at this point and there were different things catching my eye every couple of seconds although nothing could prepare for the teams entrance on the pitch.

Having had quite a fascination with Ultras over a number of years I consider myself pretty clued up on all things tifo but no-one could have failed to be impressed by this. The two curva’s produced immense displays but seemingly the whole stadium had something going on. It was everywhere, huge surfer flags, flares, card displays, message banners, sparklers (see http://www.ultras-tifo.net/photo-news/616-napoli-manchester-city-22112011.html) and while I’d seen whole stadiums immersed in colour and flags before, the chaotic nature of this really was on another level.

You shouldn’t be surprised to read it was also the loudest stadium I‘d ever experienced and again it seemed every single Parteponi was getting involved. It was a tough task for the 800 or so of us to make ourselves heard and every time there seemed to be a break in the noise and the first strains of ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘It should’ve been ten’ were belted out, it was soon drowned out by, what sounded like, the whole of the city of Naples whistling.

Now I can’t do justice to, or begin to include, everything that was noteworthy that happened in the stadium. It was an absolute cauldron of noise, colour, smoke etc and for two hours I was in football watching heaven. It was everything I’d ever wanted to get from the experience of going to a match and I was watching the club that I love. Of course we got beat and I felt that anxious urge of wanting us to get that equaliser as I would at any match but while we sat, kept in the stadium after the match, I still felt a strange sense of elation.

Curva A in the distance, just beyond the Bob the Builder stewards in the foreground. 

Napoli fans in the Curva A with their version of the EFW Napoli/City friendship offering. Pretty, pretty good. 

As we watched it slowly empty (and the local fans nick the Champions League banners that cover the perimeters of the stands) I could hear conversations of the “Mancini got it wrong with the full-backs” and “De-jong’s lost it” nature going on behind me. I’ve never been one for this kind of post-match analysis but I found it especially unappealing at this time. Everyone’s different, and I had on this very trip been described as being a ‘bit too much of a glass half-full Blue’ but having just watched Manchester City play at Napoli, sitting five points clear at the top of the league after winning the FA Cup a few months earlier I didn’t think I, or they, had too much to be complaining about.

The bus journey back to the port was understandably more subdued. Well that’s except for the hundreds of local cars that passed us beeping horns and waving their flags and scarfs out of the window. But for us on board, there did seem a bit of relief that things had passed without any major problems and most were looking forward to getting back to their hotel for a night-cap or two.

This was where our only major issue arose. Once dropped off at the port we were left to our own devices to find our way to the hotel. I’m still unsure as to why the Police hadn’t arranged for taxi’s to be on hand as they’d seemed to have everything else tied up in this regard. Anyway, walking in search of a cab around midnight, with no idea where we were going wasn’t ideal and the situation was intimidating as cars would drive past with drivers and passengers glaring at us. Thankfully after 10 minutes we managed to flag one down and were relieved to be on our way to the hotel.

As we entered the hotel bar I was just thinking how well the trip had passed when another City fan came in who looked petrified. Shaking, he ordered a drink and told us how the group he’d been with had just been attacked and one of them stabbed. He said the Police had been on the scene immediately and the victim seemed ok and had gone to hospital. Obviously that situation could have been worse but it was an extremely sobering moment listening to him describe what had happened.

We stayed up for a couple of hours and chatted to our barman who was, naturally, a Napoli fan and a sound bloke. He expressed concern about what had just happened, told us stories of games he’d been to over the years and asked if it was true that everyone in Manchester supports City which, being nothing if not honest, we all nodded vigorously at.

It was an early start in the morning to get the return train/flight, all of which again went smoothly. Personally, I’d had an amazing time. It was certainly different than those who went to Bayern or Villareal would have had but I knew this when booking. The other trips I’ve had abroad to watch a game are as much about the laugh you have with your mates/meeting opposition fans etc as the game you’re going to. This one was always going to be different. It was always going to be about the moment I could see the Stadio San Paolo and the few hours that followed and that, my fellow European Football enthusiasts, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

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Anonymous said...

Great article David, thanks for posting.

Been to the San Siro for the Milan Derby twice now and have to say the passion and rawness of watching a huge game in Italy takes some beating.

As someone who can remember Italia 90 the San Paolo I would imagine would take some beating though.

Swedish Liverpool Fan said...

Great article indeed!