It is 15.00pm on Sunday afternoon and tipping 34 degrees as I step out of the railway station, but more than the heat it’s the visual impact that overwhelms me. The immediate vicinity resembles an African bazaar: brightly coloured clothing, shoes, accessories and electrical devices line the cramped alleyways. The colour is only offset by the subdued urban camouflage of armoured trucks mounted on the station concourse. As I make my way past armed soldiers towards the locomotive drivers bar for a cold drink I am approached by an athletic looking man who offers me a ‘lucky bracelet’ I politely refuse.
As it happens I am already feeling lucky, I have just arrived at my new destination on the back of an eventful night watching Roma take on Internazionale in the Italian capital. Once again I am hoping to attend a Serie A game but as of yet I don’t have a ticket. As calculated risks go I am pretty confident I will get one. Making my way along the densely populated concourse, an elderly lady cuts across my path on a motor scooter. I can’t help but notice she is wearing a crash helmet decorated with the Cuban national flag and smoking a cigar!
The bar brings some welcome respite – two euros for a cold bottle of beer – and immediately dispels any confusion about where I am: Africa? South America? Cuba? No. The framed newspaper prints on the wall are an instant giveaway. One fading triptych shows Diego Maradona’s helicopter descent to the Promised Land alongside the first and second Scudetti. The terminology may sound almost biblical but if you have ever been to Naples you will understand. Obviously, there is no picture of him leaving – let’s face it, he never has.
In addition to the ubiquitous images of Maradona, the walls and building sites in the local area are adorned with antifa stickers and hammer and sickle emblems. Those who are quick to disparage the contribution of Naples to Italian life seem to overlook its role in the fight against fascism. As the first Italian city to rise up against German occupation, in what became known as ‘The Four days of Naples’, departing forces responded by burning the university library and the city archives, while time bombs planted throughout the city continued to explode for months after. In recognition of its residents heroic actions, the city was awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor.
During the occupation, the Nazis made use of SSC Napoli’s (second) stadium, Stadio Arturo Collana in Vomero, to carry out executions and as a dumping ground for some of the thousands killed in reprisal for the uprising. Of course, the use of sports stadia to carry out detentions and executions is not unique to the Nazis, but there is a cruel irony. Their original home, Stadio Giorgio Ascarelli, was destroyed as part of the heavy bombing campaign carried out on the city by Allied air forces – as the saying doesn’t go, you lose some and you lose some!
SSC Napoli’s third and current ground, San Paolo, is located in the suburb of Fruirugrotta. Although a considerable distance from the centre it is still part of the greater Neapolitan urban configuration linked by road tunnels, and locals helpfully inform me it’s only five minutes from the nearest Metro station. No problems there then … well actually there is a problem. Romanticising the class war over a beer is one thing, but a public transport strike is something else! I decide to brave the heat and walk it.
Three hours or six miles later (whatever way you write it, it still hurts!), I arrive at the stadium. For most football supporters, the first sighting of a new ground is a special moment (identikit arenas excepted) and in that respect Stadia San Paolo doesn’t disappoint. While it would be unfair to compare it to the Giuseppe Meazza or the more recent pragmatism of the J-stadium, the exposed exterior is pretty impressive. Design symmetry is an immediate factor, 56 identical concrete pillars cradle the upper tier, while a translucent canopy made of component panels added for the 1990 World Cup is supported by 28 lattice-work steel masts. The lateral stairways which traverse the pillars at regular intervals and patchy grey metalwork give it the look of an aircraft carrier at anchor.
The stadium is effectively a two-tier bowl design, the lower smaller tier dips below ground level and is far bigger than I had imagined. Attendance statistics are always subjective but several sources quote a record attendance in excess of 80,000, which seems feasible to me. Current capacity is 60,240 making it the third largest in Italy and bigger than every English ground with the exception of Old Trafford. It would be hard to argue that it isn’t in need of refurbishment; indications are that investment has been directed at the team rather than the physical infrastructure but no one seems to be complaining. Let’s face it there is no shortage of nice sanitised stadiums populated by underperforming teams. And sorry if I come across a bit sentimental, but as I watch the sun go down through the grids of the misaligned perimeter security fences, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic, I need to snap out of it quick and get a ticket!
Initial attempts produce a host of negative responses: “The game is sold out,” (it later transpires that the attendance is 34,000) “Try the ticket office,” (yeah it does sound simple – it’s not) “The internet and ticketing systems are down,” “No English,” and finally “No gringos,” from a surly representative of the unofficial ticket sellers. It is at this point that I reach my personal tipping point, the temptation to walk back along the stunning seafront, rest my damaged feet and watch the match on TV in a bar is gradually becoming more appealing. Especially when the only alternative is to handover my passport details to an unofficial seller and wait “a little while” for a €12 ticket to be delivered by moped courier somewhere over “there” (gestures towards packed bars) for €50. So why do I do it? The minute I agree, I am regretting it. This is the home of the Camorra, a prime focal point for the African migration crisis and associated need for legitimate documentation – even the Rough Guide entry reads like Hubert Selby Jnr wrote it! To exacerbate things, the two men who are in charge of my transaction – there are several more on the periphery – make an effort to be friendly, joking about my passport photo (“beautiful gringo!”) and asking about my interest in Napoli.
In hindsight, I can see now that their interest was genuine and that they probably sensed my nervousness. It also explains why they got me a beer and made a point of showing me the sign in a shop window (that it transpires was the ticket office): “No bigglietti, internet down!” Three beers later, I leave my new friends and make my way, ticket in hand, to Curva B. There are the usual layered security checks but in fairness it does seem a bit more relaxed than previous entry procedures I have encountered in Italy and an hour before kick-off, I am in the stadium.
I take some more photos, study the team line-ups I hastily tore out of this morning’s gazetta, grab another beer and take the opportunity to sprawl out on the concourse – my feet are killing me. I haven’t been sat long when a group of adolescents approach and begin gesturing towards me. At first it is difficult to ascertain what they want and although I don’t feel directly threatened I also don’t want to attract attention to myself – one thing attending football matches abroad has taught me is that neutrality is not a widely recognised or easily explainable concept. They begin pointing to the upper curva, which sits about 10 feet above us, and gesturing – my initial thought is that they are alerting me to the presence of some ultras or violent relatives who are going to sort me out (yeah I know it sounds ridiculous now). Then one of them casts his scarf upwards and a hairy arm in the top-tier catches it. Ah I get it now! They want me to give them a leg up so they can reach the end of the scarf and get pulled up – and there’s me not wanting to draw attention to myself! But what can you do? So, I give them all a lift up but politely decline their kind offer for me to join them.
There is still 30 minutes to go before kick-off and the atmosphere is incredible as I make my way to my seat, relocating several times to take photos and get a better view. It is the first home game of the season and expectations are high. There is a growing feeling Juventus may not be equipped to sustain their recent dominance of Serie A this season and Napoli are widely recognised by many as the pre-eminent team in the chasing pack. An indication of this is given on the team sheet which features several Napoli players who are now established household names: Reina, Hamsik, Insigne, Mertens, Allan etc. And I am particularly looking forward to seeing the much vaunted front three of Caledon, Insigne and Martens who are all starting. Tonight’s match should offer a good early indicator of form. Visiting team Atalanta finished fifth last season and their willingness to adopt a less conventional formation and invest in young players not only makes them a testing opponent but also helps give credence to the growing belief that Serie A could be heading for a much-needed renaissance.
Meanwhile, I am still searching for a decent view and it is becoming a bit like an afternoon at discount Sofa World as I keep relocating. The seats towards the back are pretty full and the ones towards the front descend below pitch level. To make matters worse, the view of the nearest goal is totally obscured by digital advertising boards from the central rows. Just as I do locate a seat to my satisfaction, Cristante heads Atlanta in front, not entirely against the run of play, and the remainder of the half is pretty uneventful. Atalanta seem comfortable with their lead and Napoli lack the sharpness than only comes with practice. However, the second half sees the home team begin to assert more control and on 56 minutes Zielinski volleys home from distance following a corner to make the scores level. From where I am sat, the goal looks fantastic and is met with scenes of delirium around me. As a neutral, I always find this the most difficult bit. But in fairness I can’t help feeling pleased – part of me really wants to see a shift in power so I stand on my seat and wave my arms in the air shouting inane made up clichés like “Beautissimo!” “Bella magnifico big mama!” and “Forza espresso Zielinski!” – and it seems to go down a treat. Hamsik’s substitution on 58 minutes – he looked out of sorts – proves to be a key turning point as his replacement Allan asserts his control during the last third of the game. Although not directly involved, his arrival is shortly followed by a Napoli’s second as Dries Martens easily converts after being put clear through on goal. On 87 minutes, substitute Rog, on for the impressive Zielinski, capitalises on the Partenopei’s increasing dominance by hitting a left foot shot into the bottom corner to make the final score 3 – 1.
Wow, what an experience – sure, it’s a three hour walk back to town but sometimes it’s just about turning things around. It is still warm, the scenery (road tunnels excepted) is stunning and I have a free day tomorrow. I grab a beer and happily set off on my way.
As a postscript, while researching this article it became apparent that my difficulties getting admission to the stadium were not unique. One neutral who attended a Europa league fixture was only able to purchase a ticket for the visitors end because he was a non-Italian, despite his protestations. Advance tickets for home games are difficult/impossible to obtain in advance without a membership card, and although these cards are advertised as being available from the SSC Napoli internet site, I struggled to find the relevant page – hence my decision to travel without one.
But don’t let any of that put you off! The whole experience was incredible and well worth it. And in fairness, some of the problems I encountered were of my own making (taxi anyone?) and a lot of the obstacles stem from bureaucratic processes as opposed to a conscious intention to discriminate. All I would say is be realistic about any fixture you chose to attend, some games are always going to be hard to get tickets for. Try and get to the ground on the day before and find the ticket office – anecdotal stories suggest that there is no reason you shouldn’t get a ticket if you have suitable ID such as a passport.