It had been two weeks since my trip to the San Siro for Manchester United’s game against Inter Milan – a night to remember – but unfortunately not entirely for the footballing spectacle.
The game itself lacked any real spark. Indeed high-profile players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano may have failed to set the world alight that particular night but an Inter fan made sure that there would at least be fireworks off the pitch.
Travelling to Rome along with my three friends, the sensation of being hit by the flare was still fresh in my mind. I may have escaped serious injury, but I feared a repeat. After all, the Roma fans have a notorious record in Italy and Europe. Christened the Roma ‘Ultras’, their bad behaviour in recent months had already prompted UEFA to warn the Roma officials to clean up their act or face having the prestigious UEFA Champions League final moved to a different venue.
As a neutral, I was intrigued to see how the behaviour of the travelling Arsenal fans compared to that of their Manchester United counterparts. The United away fans had shown a great commitment and passion by making the costly trip to Milan. However their behaviour on the night was questionable. The number of drunk fans was a surprise to me. And the behaviour of certain particular fans disgusted me, as I’m sure it would any football fan.
Arsenal showed great care for their travelling fans. Clearly worried about the safety of their loyal fans, they provided a booklet, contact numbers and regular text updates to ensure the safety of their supporters. Buses were provided for the travelling fans from the centre of the city. The police escort to the stadium, which brought the traffic of Rome to a halt, displayed the serious threat the Ultras provided was being taken seriously by all parties.
It proved essential. One coach of Arsenal fans encountered problems and was boarded by hardcore Roma fans resulting in the injury to two Arsenal fans. Bricks were also thrown at the bus. While we waited outside the stadium to enter, news of this incident spread, though at the time we were unsure if the story was just a fabricated rumour.
The Roma Ultras were already in the stadium when we entered. Once again the seating arrangements were such that you were free to sit anywhere you liked. Which seemed once again to create some confusion amongst fans.
As the stadium filled, the noise from the home fans became more and more thunderous. To our left was a eight or nine foot fence separating us from some angry Roma fans. As the game started to our left a deafening boom echoed round the stadium as flare were let off.
There were stewards next to both set of fans. However they were positioned as such that they were only looking at the Arsenal fans. It became quite apparent that the Roma fans were intent on using this to their advantage.
It wasn’t long before we had to endure a shower of full cups of coke, biscuits, fruit, coins, golf balls and even an umbrella. From our position in the stand we were quite safe. But fans toward the bottom of the stand were getting hit.
Unlike the United fans who chanted songs like ‘F**k of Mourinho’ and ‘The San Siro is never full, unless you play United’, aimed directly at the opposing fans and manager, the Arsenal fans just sang Arsenal songs and anti-Tottenham chants.
Yet every time the Arsenal faithful piped up with a chorus, the Roma fans would send in a barrage of missiles. The stewards who were staring straight at us seemed oblivious to what was going on. This continued throughout the match culminating at the final whistle with a final volley of missiles as the bitter Roma fans left the stadium.
The travelling fans had to remain in the stadium for almost an hour and a half after the final whistle to ensure there was no lingering Roma fans and prepare for our transportation back to the centre of the city. Arsenal stewards directed fans outside the stadium onto the waiting buses.
The situation that the Manchester United and Arsenal fans found themselves in strikes me as very ironic. For years English supporters had to carry the questionably deserved title of being football hooligans. Incidents like Heysel in 1985, didn’t help the reputation of English fans.
But the tides have turned. English football seems to have learnt from its past mistakes. With Hillsborogh in 1989, football stadiums in England have gone through a renaissance. The ban from Europe hit English clubs hard with UEFA taking a firm stance at the time.
Nowadays in England, security at stadiums is extremely tight. At Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, fans have complained that they have been removed from the stadium for standing up during the game too much and singing too loudly. The Italian fans seem to enjoy complete freedom once they enter the stadium.
The security checks outside the stadiums in Italy clearly aren’t rigorous enough if the missiles like golf balls and umbrellas are escaping the searches of the Italian police. It could be seen as a blessing in disguise that Roma fell at the second round hurdle.
Had they reached the final and lost, one can only imagine the lengths some of the Ultras would go to in an attempt to enact revenge. UEFA have to look into the issue of safety for away fans travelling to Italy.
On a more positive note, it was great to see the care that Arsenal showed to their fans. They supplied supporters with almost too much information, organised buses, and had stewards in and around the stadium to help fans. It’s this kind of initiative that UEFA should consider employing in the future.
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