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AC Milan v. Lazio: 16 February 2003

Of all the countries representing my collection, Italy provides more replica shirts than any other, and it’s also my favourite European country. The social landscapes of Italy and England share some similarities, the North–South divide for one. There’s also the distinct disparity in the meteorological climate.  

Italy’s glorious culinary experience needs no introduction, as the city is full of unfussy trattorias and pizza restaurants, with rustic homely atmospheres, but despite Milan’s luxury and fashion reputation, the city itself isn’t that glamorous. Apart from the Duomo, the magnificent white marble Gothic Cathedral which dominates the centre of the city, there isn’t much else apart from shopping and people-watching. This massive structure is one of the world’s largest cathedrals and took 600 years to complete. A walk across its rooftop only adds to its splendour.  

Milan doesn’t have the ancient historical allure of Rome or the outstanding scenery of Lake Garda, although the Great Lakes, Verona, Turin and Genoa are all a train ride day out away. My main reason for visiting was to take in a football match: the bitter rivalry of AC Milan versus Lazio. Miles apart both geographically and politically. Left versus Right, North versus South. 

It was my first European game and what a place to witness it: the iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, better known as the San Siro, situated  in the suburbs, a short metro ride out of the city. As I started my journey to the game, the subway train was filled with the Rosseneri faithful of all ages and gender, but every now and then an English conversation would interrupt the Italian hum, which made me feel less  isolated and settled my worries, knowing that should I need assistance or directions I would be able to ask. 

But I needn’t have worried about directions to the stadium, because after ascending into the cold early evening night air, from our subterranean train trip, there were buses outside the station to take the pilgrims to their home of worship. There was a severe lack of any health and safety practice once we were on board (we were so crammed together that I was inadvertently invasively tactile with three other passengers), and I reckoned that there would have been more elbow room in a sardine tin, but the journey turned out to be mercifully short. Probably because where we were dropped off there was still a 10-minute walk to reach the stadium, whose floodlit aura was now glowing through the fog.  

For thousands of people each week, the walk to their respective grounds will pass the usual suspects of a match-day experience: programme sellers; flag; hat and scarf salespeople; and the ubiquitous mobile burger and hot dog stands. On the short walk to the San Siro there were no programmes for sale, and the only flag I saw had been set on fire and thrown over the line of security fencing. But the burger vans? Oh my!  

Italy’s reputation for gastronomic excellence even transcends to their outside sport’s catering service. Fresh vegetables, succulent meat carved from the bone and not a tomato ketchup squeegee bottle in sight. Fresh oven-baked pizzas topped to your individual delectation, huge joints of parma ham hanging up, along with slices of salami, numerous pasta dishes, and more. Just when I was subconsciously eulogising the superior treatment of fans in continental Europe, I turned the corner and was confronted by a scene I thankfully have not encountered in the UK for quite some time.  

I suppose the burning flag should have been an omen, and the misty aura that seemed so romantic 500 yards away now became more sinister. The fog wasn’t caused by anything meteorological; it was the result of ignited flares abetted by a smattering of smouldering objects strewn around the road outside the stadium. Plus the riot police seemed to be spoiling for a fight. Time to keep my wits about me and get inside.  

I was already confused about which entrance I needed to be at to get into the ground, and the events outside had only exacerbated my uncertainty. My ticket didn’t seem to make sense, so after asking someone who looked vaguely official, I found myself climbing one of the iconic 4 ‘legs’ of the San Siro up into the breathtaking atmosphere of an Italian football grudge match. Despite the fact that it was over an hour before kick-off, the Curva Nord was already a sea of flags, waving through the haze of red smoke which was bellowing from numerous flares. Amongst all of this colour the Milanese Tifosi and Ultras sang their songs of pride and injustice. 

The stand where I was situated was sparsely populated as people, mostly football tourists like me, filed up the concrete steps to find their concrete seat, which consisted of a bottom-shaped red piece of plastic with no back rest to it. I and my fellow football travellers were level with the 18 yard line, a prime offside judicial spot. So far so good. The Lazio fans were to the left of us in the corner below and their numbers were growing slowly as kick off approached. I was looking forward to seeing some great players including Pirlo, Rivaldo, Shevchenko, Gattuso, and my personal favourite Alessandro Nesta. Even the ref was a star: Pierluigi Collina.  

The first half was a lesson in counter-attacking football from the away side as Lazio cruised into a 2-0 lead by half time through Stankovic and a penalty from Claudio Lopez. The second half was a complete role reversal as Milan came back to draw 2-2 with  Phillipo Inzaghi scoring one and setting up Rivaldo’s equaliser. It was was one of those amazing games where you couldn’t avert your eyes from the pitch. 

Unfortunately the Milan fightback had upset the Roman fans. Orchestrated by a ringleader with a loudhailer, the Lazio faithful proceeded to shower missiles towards the the police, who didn’t take much cajoling to fight back. We were far enough away not to be involved, but close enough to be concerned, as some of the home crowd were retaliating with anything to hand. This alerted the police to come into our stand to quell any escalation in the proceedings, which brought more missiles which were now affecting the players on the pitch. Although all it would have taken was just one Herculean throw from one of the Lazio contingent and it would have been tin hat time for us. 

It ended 2-2, and it was one of the best games of football I’ve ever witnessed. It’s since been officially acknowledged as a Serie A classic. It was certainly a night I’ll always remember.  

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