With time winding down on my travels I’ve inched back westwards, arriving in Italy, possibly the most anticipated of my footballing destinations.
My first stop was Naples, a rugged, intense but memorable city. Diego Maradona remains the town’s honorary headmaster and Napoli’s magnificent San Paolo Stadium is decidedly old school. El Diego’s iconic image gazes down from walls around town whilst after dark the stadium leers over ahead of you on the long approach.
The scene and scale suck you in. Abrupt scarf salesmen and alcohol offerers stand guard with tens of thousands of supporters swirling in past the turnstiles behind them. Once through, dozens of youths scramble over the twelve-foot wire fencing from the inferiore (lower) section to the superiore (upper) tier where the most vocal tifosi have taken root.
Through the concourses that serve just water or Coca Cola and provide only portaloos as facilities and you’re up into the arena. First you gulp as you try to take it all in. The San Paolo is almost all overhanging superiore and, even with a running track, in their steeped enormity they feel to be peering over and orchestrating events, creating a you, me and sixty-thousand others intimacy.
Three quarters of an hour before kick off the place is close to full and each passing Europop smash blasted from the loudspeakers gradually work up the frenzy. My shivers aren’t from the rain, they’re from the realisation that this is most of the way to my idea of what football should be (Europop aside, of course).
Soon the visiting Milan fans make their surely choreographed grand entrance. They have not only their own section but an all-covering netting to save themselves from easily-imagined home projectiles.
From the start Napoli were everything Milan were unable to be. The visitors held the majority of possession but only plodded along with it, and when it was regained the Azzurri were bearing down on goal before eyes could be blinked. Four minutes in and an innocuous looking long ranger from Gökhan İnler swerved keeper Abbiati into knots and gave the hosts the lead. It wasn’t long before the latest hometown hero Lorenzo Insigne doubled the advantage, prompting flares to be thrown down onto the running track. Nothing amazing in itself, that the San Paulo had its own dedicated team of four fire fighters to extinguish them was far more impressive.
On half time another prodigy, Stephen El Shaarawy, scored for the visitors with a fine right-footed sweep. In hindsight that was the turning point, but at the time it felt no more than a bump on the road to a Napoli victory.
However, the fifteen minute midway break gave the Napoli players ample time to realise the strength of their position and come the second half the Rossoneri had acquired their opponent’s boldness. Though the score remained unchanged until close to the conclusion, Robinho’s late introduction lead to his sublime through ball to El Shaarawy who slid the ball home first time with the confidence to suggest the game comes pretty easy to him.
The home disappointment stemmed less from conceding an equaliser and more from its lack of surprise. Neither side found a later-still winner and the Neapolitans streamed out chewing over the remains of a much-needed win they couldn’t but should have secured.
By Monday evening I had made the train journey up to the Italian capital and with my Serie A appetite whetted the might of AS Roma on Monday night was all the more enticing.
Though ultimately successful, buying a ticket proved taxing. On matchday only the expensive tickets are sold (and not at the stadium) in hope of weeding out the hooligans, and a passport or ID is required as each individual is issued a named ticket that gets thoroughly checked on the way in.
The Stadio Olimpico, inside and out, was far more modern than I had expected, and my view way back in row seventy-four of the Curva Nord was distant but reasonable. One perception that did prove correct however was the stadium’s cavernous nature. The soaring chants from the packed Curva Sud were reduced by the distance to low moans by the time they reached our end, and the abysmal acoustics near removed the motivation for trying to sing. It’s a shame because you feel the atmosphere could have been incredible.
To their death-wish credit the visitors from Torino came to play, the fly in that particular ointment being that Zeman’s Roma can play better. And the hosts were playing better, but it was never quite bothering the scoreboard. All the same, the high lines and high pressing were proving entertaining.
The Roman annoyance was steadily growing up until the seventieth minute when they finally broke the deadlock, and for all their attempted slick build up play, it was a stumbling Torino challenge and a cute Osvaldo penalty that did the trick. A deflected second followed towards the end as the stubborn and sometimes inventive Torino side were eventually put to rest.
Italian football famously owes its origins to the English (ask any Notts County supporter), and the people here still hold a reverence to some sort of mythical English way, but from what I’ve seen Serie A may lag well behind in terms of facilities and commercial rights, as well as retaining its sinister ultras, but it took my experience in Italy to realise how sanitised and often humourless the fan experience in the all-conquering Premier League has meandered into becoming.
Iain is a football writer currently traveling around the world. Find him on Twitter here.