Giro d’Italia: Five Matches In Seven Days.
I’m surprised my feet aren’t burning as I step into the volcano that is the Stadio Olimpico for the first time. The intro to Antonello Venditti’s ‘Roma, Roma’ begins as I reach the top of the stairs. The crimson flags and gold banners along with this passionately bellowed anthem seem to lift this stadium a hundred feet in the air, just as they have countless times in the past. Five matches in seven days. That’s the plan. Rome to Milan to Turin to Cremona back to Milan. You’ve planned this perfectly, every meticulous detail. An eighty-day Duolingo streak has you buoyed with misguided confidence, you’re practically a local. Roma’s curva sud have not come to play, it’s all business, they’ll leave any enjoyment to the players. The two-hundred or so travelling Ludogorets fans are assuring they’re not to be ignored either, adding a respectable amount of danger to the occasion, suitably shirtless and bally’ed up; seated half a mile from anyone else and yet still a little too close for comfort, they may have still been too close before I stepped on the plane.
The Olimpico is playing host to match number one; the Giallorossi’s final Europa League group game, and as we saw at the end of last season, Romans do not mess around when it comes to European football. UEFA may not have called this a knockout game but for all intents and purposes, it is. Both clubs sit on seven points, Roma lost 2–1 in Bulgaria so settling for a draw would see the away team go through on head-to-head. No one has remembered to tell Ludogorets forward Rick this, though. Towards the end of the first half he picks up the ball deep in his own territory and, suddenly remembering he’s Brazilian, carries the ball 50 yards and tucks it in the bottom left of the net. 1–0.
The Roma players are confused.
Two acts of extreme penalty box violence on Nicolò Zaniolo give them hope in the second half. Capitano Lorenzo Pellegrini steps up to both and puts one in each side of Sergio Padt’s net, a bit rude if you ask me. 2–1. Late in the game some defensive confusion means the ball lands at the feet of Nonato and after a similar epiphany to his teammate earlier in the game he strikes it into the roof of the net and charges off to celebrate, but unfortunately for him, if we set the tape to rewind, eat dinner, go to bed, head to school, come home and then press play, Roger Ibañez might have been struck in the face by Rick’s trailing hand on the halfway line. Luckily for them video assistant referee Pol van Boekel did in fact do this. The Roma players surround the on-field representative of VAR for clarity, or presumably to see if he can disallow Nicola Berti’s goal for Inter in the first leg of the 1991 UEFA Cup final too, while he’s granting miracles.
Five minutes later the game gets an actual winner, one worthy of the tie. Zaniolo’s quick feet set him free of two defenders and he tucks the ball between Padt’s legs into the goal, again, mean. This is when the volcano stops bubbling and finally erupts. 3–1. Game over. AS Roma advance. My journey away from the stadium will involve dodging a few hundred jubilant Romans on Vespa’s and an Egyptian taxi driver who gleefully takes red lights as a mere suggestion. Daje Roma. Please never change.
A far too early and far too far train to Milan follows. No one should have to come face-to-face with the aggressive fascistic architecture of Roma Termini while that sleepy. A.C Milan vs Spezia Calcio. This game was the wildcard. Due to Serie B teams only playing games when they really feel like it we had to scramble to buy tickets two days prior to the trip. This long and early train was supposed to be to Lake Como to try to make sense of the recent success Dennis Wise has going up near the foot of the Alps. (Seriously, Dennis Wise is CEO of F.C. Como, look it up, what a life). A late fixture change meant it would now clash with our obligations in Turin the following day, so Mr. Clooney will have to wait.
Despite the logistical issues, you can’t complain about visiting the San Siro. It is a pure a childish joy each time as it is the first. Football's chapel. All must line up and confess before it their sins; neon boots, dives, fades that involve shapes of any kind, and devote to it the same respect and admiration you would something sculpted, not just by the footballing Gods, but the proper ones, because I see no evidence it wasn’t. It’s weird looking, it’s made of concrete, it’s falling to pieces, its toilets are just holes in the ground, it takes 45 minutes to walk up the spirals, it’s covered in cracks, holes, gaps, loose shaky parts and yet I can assure you that it's absolutely perfect in every imaginable way. If you can’t be romantic about the San Siro then what’s the point? And if they knock it down we may as well all give up and watch cricket, it’s probably what their founders would’ve wanted anyway.
Midway through the first half the evening's captain Théo Hernandez takes a lovely chested touch that falls perfectly onto his left foot and into the back of the Spezia goal. The Milan supporters seem much more relaxed than the Romans. After all, this isn’t a knockout game, far from it. A.C. Milan are champions again and the crowd approach each game with a befitting swagger. The current eleven are all legends and they needn’t worry, Spezia should be another easy stop in the road for their second successive Scudetto, but football is never that simple.
Daniel Maldini has played at the San Siro before, and despite his young age he won’t be intimidated by it. He’s comfortable with it, like returning to where you grew up, a family home where you know all the intricacies. The nooks and crannies, the blind spots to hide from your parents, one of which he has strayed into to put the ball in the Milan net from the edge of the box. He can’t celebrate, no. He’s just been caught doing something very, very bad. Maldini’s aren’t supposed to score against Milan, his father has spent his whole life preventing that sort of thing.
The Rossoneri crowd is no longer relaxed. Thousands of mumbling voices suddenly align in a moment to spit out the words “We’re the champions again, aren’t we supposed to be over not beating Spezia?!” Thankfully for them Olivier Giroud seems to have heard this from the substitute bench and chooses to clock in for the evening. As anyone who’s ever worked a night shift will tell you, once you’ve finished your work usually you can go home. He decides to score an 89th minute winner, then decides to remove his shirt in celebration. Fatally, the referee must now brandish his second yellow card. Giroud, having already been booked for defending Théo in a posturing push battle a few moments earlier, has been sent off. Shift over. The Milan fans don’t seem to care though, in fact, I’m not sure they’ve even noticed. Why wouldn’t Giroud score a last minute winner and then simply walk off the pitch? His job here is done.
The red card means the Frenchman will have an extra week off to rest before the start of the World Cup and as my friend Simon put it best, “He deserves it. He’s gorgeous.”
I’ve never visited Turin before. I don’t know what to expect. I’ve been told both that this is the real Italy and that this isn’t Italy at all. After arriving at the Allianz I’m beginning to think the modern Juventus may struggle with something similar. A purgatory of sorts. Still locked in the hangover of Ronaldo and in complete disarray off the field it’s understandable that Juve had a slow start to the season. If Inter winning the scudetto and stopping their ten-in-a-row was a bloody nose then Milan winning it was an eight-count punch. I don’t know how to feel about a strobe light show Jeep advert, but I have a lot of time to think about it. It’s happened three times and the game hasn’t started yet. On our approach to the ground the surrounding streets were completely deserted, leading us to almost think we were in the wrong place. As we made our way out of the concourse we discovered that everyone had gotten here early to lay into their bitter rivals, Inter Milan. This club clearly still has a passionate base but the glitz in their matchday experience almost makes it seem like that famous Old Lady is wearing skinny jeans and doing a TikTok dance, and no one wants to see that.
As far as the football goes it was easy to forget this was the Derby d’Italia. The Nerazzurri were in town and this is supposed to be a classic. Instead the first half passes by without either team laying a glove on the other. Modern Allegri-ball vs an out of form Inter side is not gearing up to be box office. Much like an easily stoppable force against an object that can barely be bothered moving.
Thankfully, for entertainment's sake, Adrien Rabiot (probably fearing his mothers wrath) continues his blossom into a rather solid and reliable player for the Bianconeri and opens the scoring early in the second half. Just five minutes later Danilo somehow punches and volleys the ball into the net and it gets disallowed, a mighty shame as it was anatomically impressive. This goal gets a much more suitable reaction, despite it being short-lived thanks to VAR. The old girl’s young again, she’s sprung back to life, and she’s jumping around like a maniac.
With ten minutes to go Juventus are still only one goal up, the ball breaks for Inter in midfield and Edin Džeko plays it in behind towards Marcelo Brozović for what seems to be an inevitable equaliser, that is until Gleison Bremer decides it isn’t going to be; a beautiful sliding interception rounds out a masterclass from the Brazilian centre-half. Juventus have the best defence in Serie A this season and while people may criticise Allergri’s football, it’s nothing if not pragmatic. Bremer’s squad are all just bricks in his wall. The same wall he uses to protect Wojciech Szczęsny’s dignity each week. It’s his world and he’s letting the Inter players live in it, for now anyway. The ball breaks back into midfield from the challenge and is picked up by Ángel Di María, he carries it to the edge of the box and plays it out to Filip Kostic who, after a poor first touch, squares it back to 21-year-old Nicolò Fagioli (which translates to Nicholas Beans, by the way, thanks Duolingo) who tucks away just his second goal for the Bianconeri. Juventus take the victory.
By this point I’d made my mind up on the Jeep advert. When it first happened I came to the same instinctual conclusion I had about the créche situated on the concourse or the JuveFanzone, that this club had lost something meaningful in the last decade or so; but by the end of the game I began to feel that maybe it hasn’t. In reality, I’d never been here before, was I just succumbing to some kind of nostalgic fantasy? Maybe the unhuman deification of players like Del Piero, Cannavaro, Zidane, Pirlo and many before them runs in detriment to the modern Italian game; maybe it’s always been this way?
There is still a passion in the Juve terraces and I believe it’s a passion that will outlive any shady owner, any scandal and any corporate push. After all, Juventus do nothing if not endure. I’m not going to buy the Jeep, I mostly just enjoyed the brief breaks they granted us in which they played some football. Nick Beans had a good game, adding some much needed energy to an often sluggish Juventus side. Alongside Fabio Miretti, he’s the academy boy that a lot of Juve’s hopes seem pinned on. Whatever that future may look like for the troubled Kings of Calcio.
The following morning I find myself in a completely different environment. Back to Lombardy and the sophisticated brooding of Cremona. No one else is here, it’s just me; me and 130 violin shops. This might sound like a gross exaggeration but it isn’t. Every corner, alleyway, side street or piazza is littered with violin workshops and music halls. A bit like Newcastle’s affinity to Greggs or London’s unrelenting invasion of Pret a Mangers. Cremona is the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari, a world famous luthier, and his legacy vibrates off the walls of the place. No one is going to try and sell me a Jeep here.
I struggle to escape the feeling that this privacy was somewhat wasted on me. A cultural mecca for one of the most sophisticated instruments you can play and I have it all to myself, yet I’m just here to see how Jack Hendry is getting on. My original plan hadn’t been to sit in the Milan away end, I wanted to sit among the Cremonese fans and experience the defending atmosphere but, due to some poor planning, here I am. Surrounded by neck tattoos, all black attire and lit flares.
Ultra can be quite a vague term, is it just someone who passionately follows these teams? Do they have to be a paid in full member of a section to qualify? It’s like a beautiful woman or a terrible idea, hard to tangibly explain but, you know it when you see it. I can see it. It has a long blonde ponytail and it is barking at me to jump like a berserk guerrilla general. The relaxed metropolitan Milan fans I’d encountered earlier in the week seem to have gone missing, and I think I may know whodunit.
Kick-off is delayed as the Cremonese fans welcome their players out of the tunnel by lighting dozens of flares and creating a thick cloud of fog. This artificial storm passes and both sides line up in the centre of this cauldron. My Italian still isn’t very good, I promise I’m trying, but the home fans bellow a chant about Cremona to the tune of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads, Take Me Home’. A sonically peculiar experience.
It would be easy for Cremonese to be a high-brow, tame, plastic club but they are far from it. They’re completely certifiable, like when you see your shy friend drunk for the first time or when a quiet child has sugar; I couldn’t logically match the town to the football club. Madness is in the air. Unfortunately the energy in the stands isn’t matched by the energy on the pitch, a cagey 0–0 is about to play out before them. Despite this they’re undeterred, after all, the football seems to be inconsequential. An inconvenience merely getting in the way of the battle between two opposing terraces.
After full time the away fans are kept behind for 45 minutes, presumably for our own safety. When the gate finally opens I pass the armed police and head towards the centre of town. A few moments and only two or three streets later I’m once again met with deadly silence. No chants, no shirts, no flares, no evidence that a football match had ever even taken place here before. Cremonese’s atmosphere exists in a truly unique echo chamber, serving only to blow off the steam of their faithful citizens. A release, like a fight club or those rage rooms that people smash things in to make themselves feel better; a charming venom I got to experience first-hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of. If not for my camera I’d have assumed I dreamt the whole thing, or I’d gone mad like the rest of Cremona.
I’ve just opened the door to a prison-like Milan hostel room, in fact, I think prison is more value a night to the taxpayer than the €8 I paid for this place is to me. I’m greeted by two Italian paramedics who speak to me in a warm but unfortunately indecipherable way. “Mi dispiace… mio italiano non è… buonoo” seems to save me and delight them. We spent the next few hours struggling to communicate but laughing, mostly at me. I manage to get across why I’m here, Inter Milan are playing Bologna. They manage to get across that they’re here for the same reason, to work at the game. As soon as Inter’s name is mentioned the older of the two immediately pinches his nose and utters “merda” (shit). He’s a Juventus fan. Trying to relate I let him know I’ve recently spent time in Torino, he tells me he’s actually from Calabria right down in Southern Italy, the toe in the boot; the younger one shakes his head.
I’d been to the San Siro before but never to the Giuseppe Meazza. The beautiful old stadium in a brand new blue dress. The colder, angrier twin. When Inter play here it is a whole different experience to their roommates; in what could be a whole different city. There is an edge to the atmosphere outside the ground; increased police presence and a quieter crowd. During their last home fixture Inter ultras had tried to force unaffiliated fans to participate in a mass walkout; originally intending to pay tribute to former leader Vittorio Boiocchi who had been shot dead outside his home just before the game. The walkout descended into chaos with many fans reporting physical violence being used to remove them from their seats. It is rather solemn and subdued prior to kick off. Thankfully, football is about to enact its eternal superpower to turn down the noise of the messier parts of life and remind everyone why they’re even here in the first place.
I crawl up the stairs and into my seat; I’ve reached day seven and I am tired, but luckily so are Bologna, a truly bizarre spectacle begins to unfold before my eyes. Firstly, I notice Inter are wearing their away kit at home, a heinous footballing crime that is becoming far too common in Serie A. Then I see the most peculiar goal of the week. Bologna attacker Riccardo Orsolini hits a ball on the volley into the direction of left back Charalampos Lykogiannis who pirouettes and scores from the edge of the Inter box using his lower back. Lykogiannis isn’t phased by the lucky nature of his goal though and runs off to celebrate with the purpose of a 30-goal-a-season striker who knew exactly what he was doing. A bunda volley; straight off the training ground.
Inter have been on a poor run of form leading up to this fixture, but this is still Inter. In the celebrations for their opener, former Inter Milan and current Bologna striker Marko Arnautović waved at the Curva Nord, the home of the Inter Ultras, probably not a good idea considering recent events. It’s safe to say this is the igniting event in what’s to follow.
26 minutes: an Edin Džeko volley sends the ball crashing into the Bologna net. A truly special finish from a truly vintage striker. 1–1. 36 minutes: Federico Dimarco sends a free kick underneath both the Bologna wall and goalkeeper, Łukasz Skorupski. 2–1. 42 minutes: Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s in-swinging corner is headed in at the near post by Lautaro Martinez. 3–1. 48 minutes: Federico Dimarco cuts inside from the right wing and curls the ball around Skorupski into the far post. 4–1. 59 minutes: Bologna defender Joaquín Sosa blocks a Džeko shot with his hand and gifts Inter a penalty. Çalhanoğlu steps up, denying Dimarco his hattrick (the second footballing crime committed tonight) and converts. 5–1. 76 minutes: Džeko baits Skorupski towards him in the box and then squares it to an oncoming Robin Gosens who turns it into a mostly empty net. 6–1. Full time. Bear thoroughly poked.
Five matches in seven days. Arrivederci Italia, eri bellisima.