Italian nineties

Marco skipped into my Milan hotel lobby sporting dark glasses, jeans and stubble. He gave me a hug. It had been five years since television director Marco had covered my visit to Crotone for Quelli che … il Calcio. We left the hotel and he opened his car door. An old Spurs scarf was on the back seat. Marco, who followed Torino and West Ham United, explained that its presence was only because his son’s team played in the same colours. It had drawn dissent from fellow fathers. “What the fuck is that?” they said. Football is serious business in Milan.

“My Generation” blared on the car stereo. Marco, a lover of retro music and old school football, explained that he was only listening to The Who. We talked about Brighton punk band Peter and the Test Tube Babies. Marco had laughed when he read the Italy chapter of Europe United and discovered that lead singer Peter had been in touch with me. Marco, a fan of the band, had featured their classic “Banned From The Pubs” on Rai 2 as the soundtrack to my previous visit. Our mutual musical interest was “a one in a million coincidence” according to Marco. We were probably the only Peter and the Test Tube Babies fans in Crotone at that time. Or ever.

We parked outside a café and Marco stepped over a puddle onto the kerb. “What do you call this?” he asked, struggling to recall a very English word. There had been devastating floods in nearby Emilia-Romagna a few days before, and my Crotone match was one of several on my European tour held in torrential conditions. Extreme weather aside, quite a lot had changed since my last visit to Italy. Quelli che … il Calcio had been relegated from its prime Sunday afternoon slot to Mondays and then oblivion. Crotone were now playing in Serie C. But Marco still had the same sharp wit.

We had fitted in a brief meet during my football weekend in northern Italy, one logistically more complicated than watching Crotone against Atalanta. I bought a cheap flight to Bergamo and waited weeks for the Serie A fixtures to be confirmed. Marco explained that the late decision, just six days before I travelled, was due to the involvement of Italian teams in all three European finals. The fixtures fell perfectly: Sampdoria in Genoa on Friday night, Internazionale at the San Siro on Saturday, and Monza on Sunday afternoon. It had the adrenaline of my European adventure. “Are you not interested in churches?” asked a Monza fan when he heard about my football travels. We quickly agreed that Calcio, food and sunshine covered most bases in life.

I explored beautiful Bergamo, home of Atalanta, and took a double decker train to Milan. This was a fun way to travel if not quite as idiosyncratic as the ferry train that I had taken from Messina in southern Italy. I ventured onto Genoa. I had just 22 hours in the large Mediterranean port, but crammed in Genovese delicacies such as fresh focaccia and cappon magro, a towering seafood salad, and an amble around the narrow caruggi of the old town.

The old town, reportedly the largest in Europe, had a grungy, salty, feel that reminded me of Catania from my previous trip. It could have been even saltier. I requested tap water in a restaurant and the waiter asked if I wanted “water from the sea”. He meant “sink”.  And, as in the Sicilian city, I was offered the services of a prostitute in the middle of the day. “The last two times I’ve been propositioned by a hooker have both been in Italy” I reported to Marco, much to his amusement.

The striking Luigi Ferraris, the oldest Italian stadium still used for football, is the home of Sampdoria and city rivals Genoa. It also hosted the Republic of Ireland’s Italia ’90 shootout victory over Romania. David O’Leary converted the deciding penalty as I watched from home. Marco explained that he was an “Eire” fan during the tournament and a strange photograph of “Jack’s Heroes” is still displayed in his lounge.

I took the scenic route to the stadium from the old town, past a small castle on a hill and down some steps painted in Genoa’s red and blue colours. I noticed plenty of Genoa flags displayed on the upper floors of the many apartment blocks that dotted the steep hills and valleys that characterise Italy’s sixth largest city. Genovese ascendancy was about to switch. Genoa had recently secured promotion from Serie B. Sampdoria had already been relegated from Serie A with only 18 points from their first 36 matches, showing less fight than Crotone five years before. I grew up watching Vialli, Mancini and Lombardo playing for Sampdoria. Now Spurs loanee Harry Winks turned out in the famous blue shirts.

Neat visitors Sassuolo should have been out of sight. But this was 40-year-old forward Fabio Quagliarella’s last home match. He was credited with a scrambled equaliser to make it 2-2 before a spine-tingling substitution. The game paused for several minutes as he bade a teary farewell to the noisy faithful behind the goal. I sat amongst veteran fans in the main stand who recalled the golden days and now clung to a takeover to rescue the club. “It will be cheaper to sit here next season” one said with the black humour of a long-suffering fan.

The next day, I arrived at the San Siro three hours before kick-off. The iconic stadium, soon to be decommissioned, was looking its finest in the late Spring sunshine, those iconic twisty towers just mesmeric. I bought a replica of Inter’s away shirt that featured a world map and included customised printing. I chose Nicolò Barella’s name. The fan next to me also wore a Barella shirt and patted me on the back after the midfielder lashed home the second Inter goal in a 3-2 win over Atalanta. It guaranteed Champions League participation next season and inspired a fabulous mobile phone light show.

I enjoyed sitting with genuine fans, something not possible in Crotone when I was accompanied by Marco in the VIP area. However, there was little to excite the Italian and his Sunday date who sat next to me at Monza, a small town north of Milan more famous for motor-racing than football. Monza, backed by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, were aiming to secure a top half finish in their debut Serie A season. But Monza striker Andrea Petagna, who played for Atalanta at Crotone five years ago, lumbered around ineffectively in a dire match that unexpectedly exploded with two late penalties. Monza’s spot kick was saved, but Colombo converted to secure visitors Lecce’s top flight status with the final kick.

My long Italian weekend ended with a flourish that was missing in 2018 when I was ignored on live Italian television. I visited SoloBirra, Monza’s premier craft beer bar, where a long-haired man lauded my t-shirt, featuring Swedish doom metal band Witchcraft. I chatted with Alessandro, a Sampdoria fan and drummer in Italian doom outfit Ufomammut, for hours and he paid for my beers on the way out. Grazie Alessandro!

Monza missed out on a top half finish the following weekend and Berlusconi passed away eight days later. The two events were not linked.

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