It’s 11 a.m. and I’m realising our early is Milan’s right on time. It’s the day of the Derby della Madonnina, and my dad and I have made an effort to arrive at San Siro well before kick-off, but we’re nonetheless greeted with a hubbub of noise and colour. We wanted to see the crowd file in, but the crowd beat us to it. It’s not chaos; we can see where we’re headed, but the sense of anticipation we hoped to witness develop is already well established: the ultras are in their respective Curva and they’re making some noise.
We take a minute to stand and absorb it all. The intertwining of red and black and blue and black is refreshing; the animosity and hostility of other derbies doesn’t seem to be present here, instead a burgeoning party atmosphere exists, the feeling of a mega-event about to happen. Inter Milan fans and AC Milan fans walk together, smiling, eating, laughing, discussing. It’s different from yesterday.
We turned up, my dad and I, to partake in a tour of the stadium the day before derby day. We used the notable lack of hubbub at the time to try and get our bearings but, as we scurried around confusedly, we were accosted by ticket sellers of the let’s say unofficial variety. To start with my “no grazie” responses were timid, almost apologetic, but by the end I was pairing the words with an (admittedly poor) Italian accent and gesticulations—“stop” hand movements and a thumbs-up and headshake combination to intimate “thanks, but no thanks.” My confidence eroded when I noticed police standing by, doing nothing as the ticket sellers worked the stadium’s car park. I started to question who was behind the whole organisation. This uncertainty turned to fear, and that fear made me wary of even looking at the ticket sellers. This is what watching two seasons of Gomorrah in quick succession does to a foreigner.
Street art, outside San Siro, the day before derby day
The San Siro was quiet then, but today there’s a rather important match taking place. The ticket-sellers are nowhere to be seen now, though the police remain completely unsubtly present, obviously ubiquitous in a way that is at once intimidating and exciting.
We do the boring stuff. Tickets? Check. Identification? Check. What block are we in? Sorted. And we’re in. And it’s glorious. This, I have no hesitance in admitting, is the most awestruck I have been in a football stadium. It might be the most awestruck I’ve been in anything. Both Curva are clearly occupied by two separate sets of ultras. The Sud belongs to Milan, the Nord to Inter. We’re sat nearest to the Nord, but it barely matters: basically the entire place is Inter territory. (Both teams play their home games at the San Siro, but this is technically an away game for Milan.) The Milan shirts are red dots that stand out. There’s one behind us, and one to our left, and that’s essentially it within shouting distance. I turn my #weareacmilan bracelet – yes, I purchased it at the end of the aforementioned tour, and yes, I’m everything that’s #wrong with #modernfootball – inside out so the hashtag is hidden. It would take laser vision to spot the bracelet, even if it were to somehow appear from underneath my jacket sleeve, and even then the vibe is a friendly one, but at this stage I’m taking precisely zero chances.I follow Milan in that semi-ashamed way only non-hardcore fans can. I liked them when I was younger, and re-found my affinity for the club while reporting on them for a publication. I also have a hell of a save with them going on Football Manager 2010. All seem like solid reasons for my quite honestly partial fandom. I guess what defines my support is that, even when Milan play poorly, I want them to win. That puts them higher than other Italian teams I like on my own personal fan-ometer.
I don’t dislike Inter. I’m on board with the name: Internazionale. I appreciate their colours and history. So when their fans let out a rousing rendition of the club song I’m in goosebump territory. The sounds are incredible when the teams get read out over the speaker system, helped along by a particularly rambunctious Inter fan who has taken the seat behind me. The seats are now all taken and both sets of ultras have unfurled remarkable choreographies.
This derby has more to it than most. This is the first “Chinese derby”, labelled as such due to the fact that, days prior to the match, Milan were taken over by a group of investors led by Yonghong Li. Inter, meanwhile, have been owned by Chinese corporation Suning Holdings Group since last year. There is some pressure on Milan head coach Vincenzo Montella to impress his new bosses, while his opposite number Stefano Pioli is under pressure for simpler reasons: his team have had a shockingly poor run of results in recent weeks. In addition to all of this, just two points separate the sides in the league table—Milan are sixth, occupying the last European spot, with Inter lying one position behind them.The first half is, by derby standards, frenzied. The traditional spells of attritional human chess are shorter than usual and bookended by frenetic periods of counter-attacking and counter-counter-attacking. There might even have been one instance of the less seen counter-counter-counter-attack; I can’t fully remember. What I do remember vividly is my urge to watch replays of live moments. Milan nearly scored in the opening minutes and, once the excitement had died down, I instinctively expected to see a slow-motion close-up of the attack. I’m not watching on television. This takes some getting used to. In fact the whole experience of not watching a Milan Derby on BT Sport is, to me, surreal.
On occasion, vendors pass by our block waving Cornettos and other such foodstuffs in the air. There isn’t a slight whiff of interest. Mauro Icardi is dancing threateningly between Milan’s centre-backs and I’m worrying about Cristian Zapata’s lack of agility and Alessio Romagnoli’s lack of pace. Juraj Kucka, who is energetic but unrefined, is getting the ball and being pushed backwards. Milan look threatening in the final third, but Inter are defending aggressively. I don’t want a cornetto. Well I do, generally, but not right now, specifically. The vendors soon become background fodder to the spectacle; I’m oblivious to their movements.
What I can’t un-process are the noises emanating from behind me. The rambunctious Interista has ascended tonally from the guttural chants of pre-match to a sort of fast-paced, high-pitched ongoing squeal. He isn’t talking, singing or shouting, and I don’t know if he’s happy or on the verge of a breakdown. I’m not in a hurry to check.
Inter score first, but it’s against the run of play. I stand up to get a full view of the din: San Siro is literally jumping. The fans in blue and black are ecstatic and there’s a lot of them. Another eruption arrives soon after, when Inter score a second. They’re 2-0 up and it’s not half-time yet. There is an elation in the air of a team in the clear, those in blue and black might actually be able to enjoy this derby, to remove themselves from it and stand clear of it, to spectate without the intensity of emotion that befalls those in the midst of a tighter affair. The rambunctious Interista behind me bumps my head in the aftermath to the second goal. I hesitantly turn to get a glimpse of him; I want to look at his face and witness his happiness. I should be so lucky. I get a face full of ass. He has his back to me and he’s slapping his chair in joy, his rear end rocking back and forth. My inner Milanista feels liberated. Whatever I do from here on out isn’t going to go beyond his chair-slapping, ass-rocking, spectator-in-front’s-head-knocking delirium. Maybe, I venture internally, I can start to show my true colours here. Game on, rambunctious Interista.
Rarely before have I lost such a great quantity of hope in such a short timeframe. Half-time comes quickly after Inter’s second goal and it feels as if the entire course of this match, and therefore potentially this season, has altered drastically in a matter of seconds. Milan played quite well in the first half, but they’re two goals down. They haven’t scored yet and I now doubt if they can at all. Carlos Bacca doesn’t play well against deep defences, I feel, and Inter are going to defend deep in the second half. I share this opinion with my dad. My dad says Bacca spends far too much time on the floor. I can agree with that, the Colombian has gone down too easily and too often in this derby.
I spend much of the second half’s first half watching on with a fatalistic acceptance. Inter don’t need to take the game to Milan now, and their counter-attacks into space are looking increasingly dangerous. Arguably their best chance comes when Icardi plays through Ivan Perisic, who shoots straight at Gianluigi Donnarumma.
There’s a growing desperation among Interisti to see the game finished. This feeling started out as nonchalant desire, but the stadium comes to be imbued with a deep anxiety as the minutes tick on and Inter become more and more defensive. I consider if something sensational might happen, but it’s not a serious consideration. The idea of Milan winning 3-2 is truly appealing, but frankly ridiculous.
And then, as the match is entering its final stages, Romagnoli sticks out a foot and diverts the ball home. Just when all options had seemingly been exhausted, the Milan centre-back has pulled his team back into it. There’s a slight delay as the sound from the Milan Curva filters throughout the San Siro. Around me there is an eerie quiet, a sudden rush of angst. It felt, and I might be misremembering this, as if no-one was moving anymore. Certainly no-one was singing. Rambunctious Interista was ominously silent, almost as if he knew exactly what was coming.
The only Inter fan not totally deflated by the Milan goal is a cute young boy with ‘Luca’ printed on the back of his Nerazzurri shirt. He’s ensconced by the old lady behind him, who keeps making paper aeroplanes out of the Gazzetta dello Sports that came free with the seats. He’s happy, blissful even, and that’s because he is utterly unaware of the painfully slow meltdown that is about to take place on the pitch.
Milan launch wave after wave of attack, but Inter are defending with more centre-backs than they started with: Jeison Murillo has been introduced to shore things up. But there’s an inevitability about what is unfolding in front of us. My dad and I are less able to refrain ourselves from openly willing the ball into the Inter net every moment it’s in or around their penalty area. Luca keeps smiling. Rambunctious Interista remains silent, to the point where I’m not entirely sure he’s still in the stadium. The vendors continue their unsuccessful hawking of Cornettos with a dedication to their craft so intimate that they can’t seem to comprehend that nobody could possibly need or want a fucking Cornetto in the 95th fucking minute of this fucking game.
Yeah, it’s the 95th minute. We’re into added time on added time because Inter kept timewasting, and Manuel Locatelli, who I actually thought really improved things in Milan’s midfield when he came off the substitutes’ bench, went through Inter left-back Yuto Nagatomo, causing a slight delay in proceedings as Inter medics checked the Japanese’s legs were absolutely still intact. Referee Orsato is steadfast in allowing play to carry on. He’s not bending for the home side, no matter how much they protest the extra time. He just keeps pointing to his watch. Good on him, I think, biasedly.Milan win a corner, which ends up in Inter’s box. The ball makes its way to the left of the box, towards Zapata, the last player Milanisti wanted the ball to fall to. Zapata, the most ungainly player on the pitch, stretches out a left leg and connects, sort of, with the ball. The ball bounces off his leg towards the goal. It hits off the crossbar, agonisingly, and bounces down and out. I can see the ball did not hit the net. But play has stopped; Zapata and his team-mates have their arms in the air. Did it cross the line? The Milan players begin to leap around and a surge of noise bursts from the Curva Sud. I join in, giggling like an underage lottery winner. I feel a pang of guilt as I jump up and down, but the pang dissipates when I recall getting a face full of rambunctious Interista’s ass at 2-0.
Milan have equalised, I’m 95% sure. I long for BT Sport and replays and confirmation and certainty. All around there is a mixture of disbelief and confusion. The scoreboard remains at 2-1 to Inter, but the Curva Sud and the Milan players are in party mode. What is clear is that Orsato has blown his whistle—the match is over. Icardi is on his haunches near the centre circle. Surveying the scene again, I’m 99.9% sure that Milan have equalised with the last kick of the game. The game has finished 2-2. Milan remain above Inter in the standings.
Once I’ve stopped giggling and jumping and hugging my dad, I take a look around the stadium. The frisson has died down rapidly. There are scores of empty seats around us what feels like half a minute after the final whistle. There’s no-one directly behind me – rambunctious Interista may have managed to miss the devastating finale – but a few rows back are a group of four Interisti, hunched disconsolately in their seats. One has his head in his hands. Two rows below, a couple, both in Inter tops, sit in total silence, staring out onto the pitch which by now is their abyss. The old man in front of us left his Inter seat cushion behind, though this was out of mere forgetfulness as opposed to any disloyalty.
He returns to collect it, and when he does he asks us, with a childlike glint in his eyes, for confirmation of the result. Evidently, he remains unaware of what has just happened. Or perhaps he does know, but wants us to tell him that Zapata’s ‘shot’ did in fact not cross the line, and that in fact Inter did win. My dad holds up two fingers on each hand to confirm the draw. The old man picks up his cushion, tutting while shaking his head, and walks away. I fear he’s seen this sort of thing before.Outside the stadium there is a surprising lack of aggravation. Nobody is fighting, nobody is arguing, nobody is shouting. Milan and Inter fans continue to walk amongst each other, some side by side together. One particular quartet – two men, two women; two Milanisti, two Interisti – stands out. As they get closer I notice the taller of the two men, the one wearing an Inter shirt, is weeping. Zapata definitely scored.