Sometimes things just seem to be destined to happen and everything falls into place with little-to-no effort. Napoli vs Barcelona was one such time.
My girlfriend and I had spoken many times about how great it would be to see Barcelona. To watch the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and, in particular, the little magician, Lionel Messi.
And so when the Round of 16 draw for the Champions League was announced and Napoli was drawn to play against Barcelona for the first time ever, we waited with bated breath for when the game would be played. As destiny would have it, the first leg was scheduled to be played in Napoli on Shrove Tuesday, a national holiday in Italy. The stars had aligned.
So our attention turned to getting tickets, which was surprisingly simple. We used a local agency that were offering a ticket and travel package at a very generous price. A few weeks passed and then we went together to pick up the tickets and as promised everything was in good order. Seats in Curva B Superiore, Maria’s details on the ticket were all correct. Mine however, that’s a different story.
My surname wasn’t on the ticket, my first and middle name were inverted and my place of birth was now the United States of America. But at least my date of birth was accurate. Now, this had the potential to be a massive problem. In Italy, all match day tickets have full names, D.O.B, and place of birth. This information needs to be identical to an official form of identification to ensure the person who bought the ticket is the same person going to the game. We were told that it shouldn’t be a problem and that unfortunately nothing could be done about it due to the ticket being a paper one. “It shouldn’t be a problem,” we were told. Not words to fill one with confidence, but what could be done at this juncture?
The big day arrives and we got to Fuorigrotta about four hours before kick-off, and there was already a buzz around the stadium. Maria and I got a parigina (Neapolitan street pizza), some water, and headed towards our gate. I asked to go ahead of Maria so that if there were any problems she could help me.
First checkpoint, cleared. The second checkpoint, ID and ticket checked but amazingly without issues.
Third checkpoint: body search, and then a brief question. ‘Where are you from?’ the steward asked in English. ‘England’ was my reply and he let me through. Fourth checkpoint, my ID and ticket were checked again, and once again no problems.
The fifth checkpoint, I place my ticket into the bar code reader and the turnstiles automatically swung forward, letting me into the stadium. I’m sure the stewards saw the mistakes on the ticket, but they used logic and some common sense to see the errors for what they were, honest mistakes.
We managed to get inside San Paolo about 3 hours before kick-off and the stadium was already filling up. The stadium had been renovated over the summer and the seats were new and relatively clean. In a surprisingly move, fans were looking for their numbered seat. In the past whenever we had gone to see a game, it was very much a case of sit where you want but on this occasion, people were being very attentive. Even to the point of officials having to calm down heated conversations over the issue.
With about one hour to go the Superiore level of the ground was full, the Barcelona fans had been let into their stand and the city was ready for the grande partita.
From the moment the players came onto the pitch, everyone was on their feet directing whistles and boos towards the Barca players, and Messi was met with no less than three Maradona chants. He was in D10S’ spiritual home, after all. The ultras were officially on strike due to ticket prices, there were no flags or choreography but they were there in-voice.
The players then went back into the dressing rooms and reappeared moments later to the Champions League anthem being played at full blast over the sound system. As the song reached its climax of ‘the champions’ the whole stadium shouted those two words to such an effect that it’s impossible for me to quantify the feeling into words: anticipation, passion, fear, support, pride, desire were all expressed in that one moment. I would need the help of the ancient muses and Apollo himself to truly express those three syllables.
The game started and continued with noise, craze, and emotion drenching the stadium. Whenever the Blaugrana had the ball the boos and whistles were deafening, and when Mertens scored for Napoli the crowd erupted into uncontrollable screams and fits of joy.
It was after this moment, that I thought that my left ear might be bleeding such was the loudness of the Tifosi. Both ears were hot to the touch as they tried desperately to cope with the onslaught of decibels. The game continued and Barcelona scored an equaliser after half time via Griezmann. However, the boos, cheers and chants were non-stop until the final whistle. With a final score being 1-1 both sets of fans left the ground with hope for the return fixture.
Maria and I found the coach back and we tried to sleep on the journey with limited success. We arrived in our town of Molfetta at about four in the morning and then had a 30-minute walk back to the flat. As we re-lived the match in conversation the walk seemed to last mere moments as our excited voices echoed down empty streets. As I lay down to sleep at about 4.45 am my ears were ringing with such force that I had a few moments of doubt to whether there were people outside our flat chanting and singing.
Commentators, footballers, and managers alike often say those big Champions League nights are different and special, as opposed to big league fixtures. They say there is magic in the air, which isn’t there for other occasions. On that night in San Paolo, I can only agree with them. It really was extraordinary. I can only be thankful that Maria and I were there to experience it.
A year on and so much has obviously changed. On that night there were rumours of a possible lock-down due to a virus that most knew little about, and that people may be at risk if they attended the game. A woman behind us even cleaned her seat with disinfectant to be on the safe side, and we were more aware than usual.
However, to think now that this match was the last game that we went to fills me with a variety of emotions.
There’s a deep sense of gratitude as well as feeling incredibly fortunate to have been there, to have been able to experience this joy before the dark months of Easter and beyond. But at the same time, there’s a feeling of sadness.
Looking back at the past year it almost seems like one large block of empty time, as if before the virus and the present moment are the only times where we exist or existed. A feeling of missed opportunities and events creates a sense of melancholy.
Events help shape our lives and a night such as Napoli vs Barcelona is an example of this. But I, for one, am positive, and with some luck and maybe a bit more time we will all be able to create great memories again.
Words by: James Nye.