Generosity, beauty and silverware: An emotional experience in Milan, by James Nye

When my girlfriend, Maria, and I saw a poster advertising a trip to watch Milan versus Juventus at the theatre of football I had no reservations instantly contacting the Molfetta Milan Club (MMC) and stating our intent. Fast forward to the Friday before the match and I’m still at the school where I work, full of excitement, anticipation and a small amount of dread.

I finish work at 10 o’clock and the bus is due to depart at quarter past, leaving me with a small amount of time to get to the coach pick-up point, hence the dread. The original time was 11 o’clock which would have left me ample time to arrive on time but in true Italian style this ‘small’ detail had changed a week before the date of departure. So the owner of the MMC, Cosimo, offered to give me and Maria a lift from the school to our flat and then onwards to the pick-up point. With Italians generosity and kindness is never far behind a disorganisation plan.

By 10:30 we are well on the way to Milan which is a 22-hour round trip from Molfetta, a town in Puglia which I currently call home. The other members of the club are in good spirits, although there isn’t an alcoholic drink in sight. This surprises me somewhat. I can speak a small amount of Italian but I may as well not be able speak any; everyone on the bus is using the local dialect, leaving Maria and I baffled. We pop in and out of the group’s conversations in the brief periods when we understand what is being said until one of the members of the MMC, Francesco, says I used to teach his wife English and at that point we are fully accepted into the group.

By the time we have the first break on this behemoth of a bus ride it’s 2am on Saturday morning. We are outside the city of Ancona. I step off the bus, light a cigarette and stroll in the light rain before we set off again. There is another break at 5am. I wake up and have no idea where I am. Silence and ambiguity surround the bus as I drift back to sleep. The bus slows, I feel my body slide in my seat and I peer out of the window at another service station, although this time there’s daylight. We are on the outskirts of Milan. It’s 7.30am, the sun is shining and I feel like I have travelled to a different country. There is grass in the fields, not stones and olives trees like in the south. Even the people seem different in attitude and in appearance. Maria and I enjoy croissants and coffee. We savour a wonderful moment of peace and calm before the busy day ahead.

Nine o’clock in the morning. Here we are: the San Siro, for many the symbol of Italian football and one of the great stadiums in the world with its spiralling towers – which appear to have risen out of the ground – and walls topped with huge girders of steel. The car park is all but empty and the area is bathed in glorious sun light. The whole scene reminds me of an ancient Greek temple complex. Suddenly we have to deal with practical matters and prepare our bags for the day. We travel light and take some sandwiches, water and Halloween sweets with us before going into the city centre. We leave this magnificent structure and head underground to the Metro station half expecting to be greeted by the roots of the stadium’s towers. It is at this point that Francesco passes me his phone and I have a small conversation with his wife, both of us using pigeon English. This intensifies a fantastic surreal sensation I have been feeling since arriving in the city.

Our first port of call is Casa Milan. We enter this shrine to the history of AC Milan at about 10am. The museum is small but of the highest quality. There are plenty of rare and impressive sporting artefacts, including the oldest known Italian national shirt. We enter a darken trophy room and watch a video montage which, coupled with stirring music and timed lighting reliving all of the incredible trophies won throughout the decorated history of Milan, is an emotional experience. We watch a short hologram display and then go into a section full of Ballon d’Ors. I am slightly envious of all of this silverware. Being a Tottenham fan at heart I couldn’t help but think what it would be like if we had had similar levels of success. Before I know it I am outside the Casa acting as a translator trying to help Cosimo sell an extra ticket he had. Maria is aiding me in speaking to these prospective buyers, but it was to no avail in the end, a typical Italian hand movement and expletive being used as we head back to the metro station.

By mid-day we are in the city centre. I had reservations in regards to the beauty of the famous Duomo but, as I climb the stairs out of the metro stop and look upon its splendour, those doubts are put to rest. The Cathedral has a pearl-like exterior and is adorned with various statues built into the walls. There is a glittering golden statue of the Madonna perched on the top of cathedral high above the surrounding buildings and appears to be guarding the city. We head inside a mall of restaurants which is to the side of a main galleria. The MMC are becoming excited and start acting like ‘boys from the south’ while me and Maria peel away layers of tin foil and eat our pre-made sandwiches. Once inside the Galleria we make a bee-line to a painting of a bull and I’m informed I need to turn on his testicles three times with my heel for good luck, a feat I feel compelled to do.

We walk down a small street, passing the most exclusive boutiques and expensive brands in the world. The cars casually parked outside wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond film. We spot one of the owners as he climbs into his Ferrari and the lads are asking him for a show but the owner doesn’t oblige as he is an Inter fan and such rivalries are never on hold. We saunter back to the Cathedral and on the way I see a homeless man in tears, who I give some money to. After seeing such wealth and taking about not eating pork as I like pigs it felt like a necessary action. This city, like all cities, seemed soulless at times.

We return to the San Siro at about three o’clock in the afternoon and wait for the gates to open at four. Maria and I spend this time looking at the stalls selling Milan and Juventus merchandise as fans from both sides are readying themselves for the match. I pick up a newspaper, which features information about tonight’s teams and articles on both clubs. It’s similar to a UK matchday programme, but free.

The gates open and we pass through security with relative ease. Our seats are on the third tier in the red section, so we go into one of the winding towers which, within seconds, turns into a human hamster run. We stagger up higher and higher looking down at thousands of people below us. We enter into the ground proper and the view is spectacular. We are so high up but it only amplifies the size of the place; the stands are sheer and it seems as if the walls are made from seats and spectators. From our seats we can see a small strip of sky above the stand opposite that lets us see Milan. I feel that sense of surrealism I experienced early in the day, it all seems too good to be true.

More and more fans trickle into the empty seats, with fan clubs from different regions and countries unravelling banners with pride although everyone has their eyes fixed on the fans of the Curva Sud, curious to discover what kind of tifo they have prepared. As the sun sets and evening falls over the city, Juventus first run out onto the hallowed turf to warm-up and are met with fervid whistles. Other noises and jeers continue until Gianluigi Donnarumma of Milan runs onto the pitch alone and the crowd give him a special welcome. He is closely followed by his team-mates. With 10 minutes before kick-off there seems to be only four seats in the whole stadium unoccupied. Then the Curva Sud spring into action.

A colossal tifo is spread over the stand showing a giant pumpkin and a graveyard. Written on the collection of gravestones is the year of each of Juventus’ Champions League final defeats, with Manchester 2003, where Milan beat Juventus in the final on penalties, taking centre stage. Underneath is a message reading: ‘La coppa, il sogno e il grande incubo’ (The cup, a dream and a massive nightmare). As the teams lined up for kick-off the pumpkin lit up with white flashing flare light.

At 6pm, the game starts. At 7:50pm, the game concludes. The final score is Milan 0-2 Juventus. The members of the MMC are understandably not that happy as we head back towards our bus. It becomes clear that some other people on our bus are Juventus supporters and board in a buoyant, jovial mood. I prepare for the worst.

Surprisingly this lifts the spirits of the Milan fans, whose attitude seems to be that at least someone enjoyed the match. This is coupled with some light-hearted mocking and name-calling. Everyone’s mood is elevated and it’s refreshing, this is how all such trivial conflicts should be resolved. It’s 8.30pm as we leave the San Siro for another 11-hour bus ride and the stadium is now coated in white light. This reminds me again of a Greek temple and for the fans of Milan it truly is that: a place of worship were you are part of something much bigger than yourself, where you sing songs as a collective and experience the same emotions at the same time. In this way, as you become connected to tens of thousands all around you, you become one.

Words and photographs by James Nye