Six days, five games, a discovery of European fan culture and falling in love with the game all over again…
A green bus with a glowing white logo eases to a stop. It is 1.40am on a Monday morning.
A small crowd is standing on the pavement of an unremarkable Turin street. They hurriedly board their bed of sorts for the remainder of the night. A blast of heating and somewhere to sit are a sanctuary from near-freezing temperatures.
To the layman this sounds like a stupidly unsociable hour for a group of people to be taking a bus out of their own choice. But for fans from two of European football’s powerhouse clubs, Juventus and AC Milan, it is the beginning of their journey home. Broadcasters’ decision to televise the game at 8.45pm, with the final train back to Milan departing less than 10 minutes after full time, leaves the tifosi with little other option. For many of them it is a labour of love.
What felt like rather miserable and unfamiliar surroundings in which to while away the final night of a bucket list trip watching football matches in Dortmund, Munich and various other cities is made more bearable by a surprise encounter with a group of fellow English football tourists we’d met the evening before.
We had bumped into them in an entirely different city – this time on their way to watch AC’s city rivals Inter Milan at home to Hellas Verona. Overhearing their excitable conversation on Line 5 of Milan’s Metro, it was obvious that they too were about to visit the San Siro for the first time. We quickly got chatting, telling them about our unconventional journey which started in Germany, crossed over the Swiss Alps and down into Italy’s fashion capital.
It wasn’t a great surprise to see fellow British football tourists at home matches involving Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, the two Milan clubs or Juventus. In fact, with the exception of St. Gallen, which is home to the titular midtable Swiss Super League side, we’d had these kinds of conversations surprisingly often over the past week.
The bloke in front of me on our Tuesday morning flight from Manchester would also be at the first match of our trip, Dortmund versus Inter, later that same evening. Likewise, he was then heading to Munich the following night to see Bayern’s Champions League clash with Olympiacos. Where he’d chosen Borussia Monchengladbach as the final stop for his midweek European football jolly, my friend and I would use St. Gallen which was hosting FC Lugano’s Europa League ‘home game’ with Swedish side Malmo as a convenient midpoint between Munich and the weekend’s Serie A matches in Italy.
Visiting a Dortmund home game at the iconic Westfalenstadion, with an atmosphere rivalling the very best in Europe, is a euphoric and sensuous experience.
Along the walk from Dortmund’s main train station to the ground, everything seems geared towards matchday. The streets are a congregating point for fans to enjoy bottled beers and bratwurst sausages from pop-up stalls.
Our first glimpse of the towering steel structures which support the four corners of the 81,365-capacity stadium was barely a footnote by the time we’d immersed ourselves in the ‘Yellow Wall’ for 90 minutes.
The hosts and their visitors came into the game both knowing that the winner would be heavy favourites to join Barcelona in the Champions League knockout stages, with just one group fixture remaining.
The finer details of a 90-minute match, in such a vibrant and continuous tide of support for over two hours, became secondary. Substitutions, tactical tweaks and injuries were almost a distraction from the focal point of our attention – two guys on podiums, each facing with their backs to the pitch and equipped with a megaphone, choreographing the synchronised singing and clapping of 25,000 people stood in the Südtribüne: Dortmund’s famous Kop end.
Beers and cigarettes in the stands, outbursts of joy with a group of Dortmund locals stood next to us and a stirring fightback from 2-0 down captured the imagination. A broken seat in the midst of celebrating Dortmund’s third and winning goal was a fitting memento of German fan culture and football at its very best.
iPhones appropriately loaded with photos and videos to look back on, including footage of Inter’s Curva Sud ultras being given a police escort as they marched with flares and banners, Dortmund and its football team was everything we hoped it would be and more.
Factoring in our timings and Trainline’s cheaper ticket algorithms, we began our overnight pilgrimage to Munich. Three changes, a one-hour delay and roughly 12 hours after full-time in Dortmund, we arrived in the Bavarian capital.
The pre-match narrative had been dominated by the recent sacking of Bayern boss Niko Kovac and talk of who would be replacing him. Caretaker manager Hansi Flick’s starting line-up offered plenty of intrigue for the casual fan. Serge Gnabry featured in a front four which also included highly rated Kingsley Coman and Bayern veterans Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. Canadian prospect Alphonso Davies was handed a first Champions League start at left back.
Although the Allianz Arena rivals any English football stadium as an impressive feat of engineering – with particular thanks to more than 300,000 LED lights which illuminate its outer shell – the fan experience didn’t match that of Dortmund. Where Dortmund offered relatively easy access from the city centre, food and drink in the close vicinity of the ground and a natural space for fans to congregate outside the stadium, Bayern’s home was disappointingly far out of town, bisected by a motorway and railway line and surrounded by large swathes of tarmac and parking spaces.
There were more than 10,000 empty seats and had it not been for a vocal singing section behind one of the goals, you might have assumed you were watching a game at the Emirates. For the best part of an hour, the hosts looked short of ideas and gave the crowd little to feed off. The Greek outfit appeared organised and resolute, even if they rarely ventured beyond the halfway line.
With 20 minutes remaining, talisman Lewandowski prodded home from close range to spare Bayern blushes and confirm their place in the last 16. The Pole’s 20th goal in 14 games was added to late on by substitute Ivan Perisic. Anything other than a Bayern win always appeared extremely unlikely, but the subdued nature of this game could have been attributed to various factors; Bayern without a manager and in a malaise of their own, an unconventional kick-off time and another home game, Der Klassiker, on the horizon.
Contextualising our experiences in the German capital (after all, we’d been to another world class stadium and seen another array of world class players), we were eager to move off the beaten path and begin the next phase of our crammed and complex itinerary.
A cheap and cheerful Flixbus, the continent’s answer to National Express and students’ tight budgets, paved the way to St. Gallen and the intrigues of Thursday night Europa League action.
Why we were trekking to this small Alpine town to watch two teams, neither of whom were from the town and one of which we’d barely heard of, we weren’t entirely sure. Nevertheless, there was an excitement in the unknown and it was reassuring to recall that Malmo had been a feature of the Sky Sports days of Champions League coverage.
By comparison with the four other games which we’d been to or would be going to, this was by far the easiest to find tickets for. A quick bit of research later and it was easy to see why. For the ‘home side’ it was a six-hour round trip from the Swiss-Italian border town of Lugano for what was pretty much a dead-rubber fixture. With just one point to their name so far in the group stages, Lugano were all but out.
The onus was on Malmö – they sat in third and just a point behind both FC Copenhagen and Dynamo Kiev. Qualification was still very much in their own hands, though you wouldn’t have thought it by the time the referee brought this less than thrilling advert for the Europa League to an end.
Swedish football’s most successful side couldn’t manage an effort on target. Nor did they create a single clear-cut chance during the 0-0 draw. Had it been for better finishing, Lugano would have won by a couple of goals.
The real story of the night was in the stands. Although Kybunpark, a modern if uninspiring 17,300 capacity stadium, was around a tenth full on the night, over half of the 1,875 fans in attendance appeared to be in the sky blue and white of Malmo.
The hardy band of away fans who’d travelled 1,200 kilometres to be in this corner of Switzerland did not stop for 90 minutes. Smoke flares, a continuous drumbeat, songs, flags and banners all featured as they packed close together and whipped up a lively atmosphere which ought to have inspired a better showing from their side.
The few perks of attending this peculiar and poor game of football, in an even more peculiar stadium built with a shopping centre beneath it (which was probably fuller than the ground itself) were enhanced as we scenically ventured on from St. Gallen the following morning. A small train weaved between typically Swiss villages, surrounded by snow dusted treetops and around the banks of expansive lakes as though we were about to pull up in a ski resort. The mountains were left behind, and Lake Como merged into Monza and then Milan central station.
Matchday four gave us Inter once again – this time from a completely different perspective in Serie A action at their home ground. On the Saturday morning, Milan basked itself in a comfortingly warm winter sunshine, tourists thronged around the almost eternal Duomo cathedral and after the relative distortion of not having a football match to go to on the Friday, we eagerly returned to the now customary habits of pre-match routines.
Of all the places in which you could eat or drink whilst visiting five different cities, Milan’s pre-match drinking spot deserves a notable mention. 442 Sports Pub is a typically English football bar. The customary half a dozen flat screens which are positioned on the walls for the sole purpose of football and football only, are surrounded by scarves from a vast array of teams, leagues and continents. It’s harder to find a piece of wall which isn’t covered by some kind of scarf.
A small crowd of Milanese Chelsea fans all wearing some kind of blue were gathered around one of the screens, intensely focused on Chelsea’s early kick-off at home to Crystal Palace. The global and unifying nature of football, which had already been emphasised by the fact that my mate was sharing a hostel bunkbed with a devout Manchester United fan from Bangalore, was reinforced once more.
Emerging from the San Siro Metro station a few hours later, it was difficult to contemplate the idea that this imposing fortress would be getting entirely knocked down and replaced in just a few months’ time. A load of jumping up and down, singing and wildly celebrating a late Nicolò Barella wonder strike to give Inter all three points and it was easier to understand why – but it still didn’t seem right.
The San Siro has a palpable sense of footballing folklore in the air. There’s nothing as such to see, touch or smell but there’s certainly something intangible there which just makes the place special. It’s severely lacking when it comes to basic amenities like toilets, a concourse where you can buy beer or corporate hospitality seats (of which there are hardly any) but if they can replicate that something in the new version, it is going to be a hell of a place.
The Curva Sud, the birthplace of what’s come to be recognised as the ultras movement, certainly delivered a memorable atmosphere. The ultras showcased their fanatical and impassioned support which at one point spilled over into violence when a group of them aggressively fought amongst themselves. However, the defining memory must be when the concrete beneath our feet began gently swaying as fans in the uppermost section celebrated Inter’s late goal to go 2-1 in front.
The storyline for the final match of our journey was nicely set. Inter’s 2-1 win over Hellas Verona sent them top of the league, albeit just 24 hours later Italian football’s serial winners Juventus had the chance to respond and return to the summit. AC Milan, under relatively new manager Stefano Pioli, had other ideas.
Juventus’ Allianz Stadium was impressive if not spectacular, though the atmosphere felt flat. A string of impressive Wojciech Szczesny saves prevented the Rossoneri from going in front on more than one occasion during the first 45 minutes whilst Juve looked lacklustre.
The second half started in much the same vein as the first until manager Maurizio Sarri intervened. To the huge surprise of almost everyone in the ground, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who he hauled off after just 55 minutes. It proved to be the game’s defining moment and regardless of whether his replacement Paulo Dybala had any impact on the game, Sarri’s decision to substitute Ronaldo for the second time in as many games would be furiously scrutinised in Monday’s dailies.
Ronaldo marched straight down the tunnel, ignoring his manager. Juventus marched forward and it was fan favourite Dybala who looked most threatening.
Paulino involved himself in a neat interchange of one-touch passes before receiving a cushioned layoff from compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Controlling with one touch and twisting away from the defender with the other to shift the ball onto his right foot was all it took in a crowded penalty area. His right-footed effort was low and angled beyond Gianluigi Donnarumma. It was the kind of goal which you rush to YouTube to get a second glimpse of and a moment of magic to compensate for the extortionate ticket prices.
An efficient night’s work for the defending champions who’d hardly played their best football. Not that anyone was really complaining – Juve had returned to top spot and gone one point clear of rivals Inter on the eve of the international break.
Club football would be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks whilst our own journey had also reached an end.
Football’s irrepressible torch continues to burn brighter than ever. It’s all about the fans and the memories you cherish along the way.
We’d only just got started and the appetite was certainly whetted for more. Where next? France and Spain, Eastern Europe, South America…? Who knows.
Caspar de Wesselow is on Twitter
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