My Erasmus year in Bologna has been a great opportunity for me to flavour Italian football. Having gone to numerous Serie A games and a couple of Champions League games, I have been fortunate enough to see some of the Worlds greatest players strut their stuff on some of the biggest occasions.
A magical goal from Marco Di Vaio in Bologna’s demolition of then league leaders Lazio, David Beckham’s first goal for AC Milan and watching Jose Mourinho’s Inter beat Bologna in an electric atmosphere at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara stick out in my mind from the Serie A games I have travelled to.
Just being inside the San Siro and Stadio Olimpico sent shivers down my spine. The Champions League music and a stadium full of passionate Italian and English fans provided a deafening noise that I can still hear ringing in my ears. Watching heroes of the Premiership battle it out with true legends of the game like Francesco Totti and Javier Zanetti was inspirational.
Witnessing the climax of the Roma and Arsenal encounter, resulting in a penalty shoot out victory for the stylish Gunners was memorable. For the reaction of both sets of fans. The tension in the stadium that night matched the battles of the gladiators of ancient Rome centuries before. The adoration of Totti by the Roma fans, unforgettable.
But I would swap this all for the last two days. Usually pessimistic by nature, as I boarded my 6am Tuesday flight from Bologna to Bari, I was doubtful of Trapattoni’s men rescuing a narrow defeat, let alone ponder the possibility of a draw, or wildly consider committing daylight robbery with a win against the World Champions.
The reaction of the Italians in Bari to the travelling Irish contingent, 6,000 strong, contrasted sharply with my experiences in Milan and Rome. Never has it been so clear to me, the special affiliation the Irish enjoy with other nations worldwide. At the Champions League games, it was clear to see that the Italians weren’t overly friendly towards the English fans, and at times were threatening.
The natives of Bari welcomed the Irish as if they were a long lost cousin. The main piazza was the focal point of the celebrations. I say celebrations because before the match had even started, Italians and Irish were partying in the piazza – together. It is worth pointing out the Italian FA are extremely hesitant when it comes to staging matches in Bari.
The mafia are prominent in this region – a recipe for disaster when it comes to often loutish travelling football fans. Apart from one incident of theft, I heard no murmurings of any violence or injury to Irish fans. The party in the main square went on into the night, with many pints of Peroni and Guinness downed by jubilant football fans, to the sound of Irish rock and traditional music, mixed in with a bit of Italian music for good measure.
It set Wednesday up nicely. The main Piazza was wedged from 2pm. The Irish were in great voice and eager Italian youths joined in with the chants. The Irish fans responded with a rendition of ‘Lecce, Lecce, Vaffan culo’ to the delight of the Bari faithful. Even the usually fearsome ‘Polizia’ turned a blind eye to the occasional badly aimed football that landed smack bang on the bonnet of their washed ‘Polizia’ Fiat Puntos.
There were buses to the stadium, which made it easily accessible. Inside unlike most Italian stadiums which don’t fill up until close to kick off time, the Sam Nicola stadium was brimming with excitement two hours before any brass band would strike the first note of Amhrann Na Bfhiann. The Irish fans were in jovial mood and in great voice too.
The game itself was turned on its head by the early sending off of Sampdoria forward, Gianpoalo Pazzini and the 10th minute strike by Vincenzo Ianquinta. Ireland dominated after that with the Italians content to play their characteristically defensive football, looking to break when possible.
Despite the disappointment of giving away a needless goal, the Irish fans maintained belief. Desperately trying to inspire their team, we endured the rain, singing until are throats were sore and clothes drenched. It all seemed in vain until the 87th minute when Robbie Keane sent the Green Army into delirium with his tidy finish.
After the game, any worries over the reaction of the Italians were soon appeased. The buses bringing the Irish fans back into the centre of town were greeted with waves and shouts of ‘Forza Irlanda’ by onlooking Italians. It was characteristic of the two days spent there. Every Italian encountered on the streets of Bari greeted the Irish with a warm smile and friendly ‘Forza Italia’ or ‘Trapattoni’.
The experience of those two days will remain the highlight of my year in Italy. After the negative reaction of Inter and Roma fans in the games previous, my faith in the Italian football supporter has been restored. It also provided me with an overwhelming sense of pride in being Irish, with the resilience of the Irish team, the behaviour, passion and loyalty of our fans, and the manner of which the Italians held the travelling Irish in such a high regard.
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