Stadium Guide: Stadio San Nicola

Date built: 1987-1990

Attendance: 58,000

Derbies: Derby di Puglia (Bari vs Lecce); Derby d’Apulia (Bari vs Foggia); Derby delle Murge (Bari vs Taranto).

Nearest metro: Bari Centrale (then bus/taxi)

Best restaurant/bar: Pasticciere Martinucci in Piazza Mercantile

It’s January 2010 and I am driving along the ‘super’ strada (road) from our small town south east of Bari towards the city. I join the tangenziale (ring road) and am anxiously looking for exit 11. A few minutes later I catch my first glimpse of the Stadio San Nicola ahead on the left hand side, in the distance. It is truly impressive; all lit up and clearly does resemble a ‘spaceship’ as christened by Renzo Piano, the world-leading architect and lead designer of the stadium. Certainly there is a ‘close encounter’ feel to it, as it dominates the surroundings on the edge of the city.

Bari is in Serie A under the stewardship of Giampero Ventura and are doing pretty well. There is even talk of Europa league qualification. This is the team of Paulo Barretto, Leonardo Bonucci and Jean Gillet.

This is my first game at the stadium, a night match against Palermo, featuring Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore amongst others. I have been invited by a couple of students that I had been working with following two, 20-week contracts teaching English at the big furniture company Natuzzi Spa in Santeramo.

They had quickly learnt that I loved football and this was by way of a thank you towards the end of the course. “Don’t worry about your ticket, we will sort that out,” they affirmed to me. “Just meet us outside gate 13 at 7pm.” I eventually found somewhere to park and located Angelo and Salvatore, who greeted me like a long-lost cousin together with a number of their other friends. “It’s ok we are in the Curva Nord, you will be fine with us,” they say.

I joined the line leading to the electronic gates. The atmosphere was boisterous and brimming with anticipation and the first thing I noticed was the dimensions of the banners and poles being allowed in. This being an absolute non-starter in the UK, I was genuinely surprised but after much bumping and jostling, accompanied by the occasionally robust intervention from the Carabiniere, my ticket worked at the entrance. I was in.

“Now we have a beer,” says Angelo, with me not realising I am part of a plan. There is a walk up some long shallow steps to the concourse level and this is where the second design impact awaits. The wide concourse with coffee and beer islands is separated from lower tier seating by plexiglass screens affording you a panoramic view of the whole stadium including the pitch. Its impressive and I think that is the moment I fell in love. Now Angelo’s plan comes into action as we approach an island bar, ‘Inglese’ he says in a loud voice ‘ha bisogno birra’ (he needs a beer), and there was a certain parting of the ways allowing me a temporary preferential service and for him and Salvatore, plus assorted others of course.

Inside the Stadio San Nicola

We watched the game from the upper tier in the Curva Nord. Not near the centre as those seats are exclusively reserved for Ultra groups such as The Bulldogs, Bari Nord and others. It was a barnstormer with Bari winning 4-2 after being pegged back at 2-0 and Pastore scoring one of the best goals I have ever seen in almost total silence (no polite applause here). When I heard “Barrrreto” for the first time that was it, I was addicted.

For someone of my age it was like turning the clock back 40 years. The unsanitised atmosphere; the slight sense of danger (imaginary rather than real) arising out of sense of collective anarchy. There was no going back.

My wife and I had moved to Puglia in 2008 to set up a new life. We spent all our money on renovating a modest property which is still not finished and fortunately we discovered that there was a demand for English teaching in small towns where there is limited access to expensive language schools. This kept us afloat and we have made many friends and contacts through it. But I always missed the football and this was perfect.

I had been to matches in Italy before. In 1984 I saw Fiorentina, plus Socrates, take on Anderlecht in a European game. I had a pretty good idea of what it entailed, or so I thought. But there was just something about the San Nicola that stirred some indefinable inner feeling. Was it the stadium itself? Was it the particular charms of the Barese, and the fact that it is relatively local? I still can’t tell you.

Eleven years later and but for the pandemic this season would have seen me mark my 150th attendance at the San Nicola, so it is a stadium I think I know tolerably well, including all its edges. Since that night of the Palermo match the years have not been particularly kind to the club, with a decline that wasn’t well managed.

San Nicola at night

Bari were relegated 18 months later almost went bankrupt in 2014 and finally did so in 2018, where for three painful months the club ceased to exist with the stadium padlocked with the power and water disconnected. This iconic stadium brought to its knees through chronic mismanagement.

The San Nicola was commissioned and built, not without controversy, for the 1990 World Cup. They, together with the Stadio San Paolo, hosted Group B, where Cameroon would brighten up the tournament, and the stadium was also chosen for Italy and England’s “hangover” third place playoff.

A European Cup final followed a year later, with Red Star winning the trophy against French side Marseille on penalties, and Bari moved from their traditional home of the Stadio della Vittoria to the new stadium as the ‘90s kicked off. David Platt arrived and went, as did Robert Jarni and Klass Ingasson. There was the memorable debut of Antonio Cassano, including that goal against Inter. But the stadium has always suffered from a chronic lack of investment. The issue, as is almost always the case, is that it is owned by the Commune and not the club and is potentially very expensive to maintain.

I have read many criticisms of the San Nicola and many are justified: It’s out-dated, the seats are too far from the pitch, it’s a ‘white elephant’, it’s far too large for a club like Bari. And, for the most part, these criticisms are true.

However, there are two essential reasons why I will always treasure it. The first being at the end of ‘the season of miracles’ in 2014, when the team came storming up the league to just make the Serie B playoffs. Home to Latina, a crowd of 52,000 gathered in support of the team. It took us an hour to drive the last two kilometres.

Latina took an early lead but when Bari scored twice in quick succession, you were left in no doubt as to the acoustics of the place. Then in September that same year Italy played Holland in a friendly. Again, there was 50,000 people in attendance. The PA system broke down, so the entire crowd sang the national anthem a cappella. A truly spine-tingling moment.

Bari’s Curva Nord

The second reason derives from things I have learnt from making my home in the south. This area is not as wealthy as the North and often harbours feelings of being passed over and forgotten, that southern European feeling. To me this is encapsulated by the example of the Petruzzelli theatre in the City.

This glorious concert hall burnt down in 1991 being the victim of an arson attack. In the same year the famous Venice theatre also burnt down in similar circumstances. Whilst the artistic world including notable Hollywood A-listers rallied to the Venetian restoration cause, Bari remained forgotten and only due to remarkable support from local groups was eventually restored and reopened, 18 years later. This reinforced the feeling that we really are on our own.

The toilets so memorably described by Tim Parks in “A season with Verona” are still there, and the rain pours through cracks in the concrete when it is persistent. But we have stuck with it and why not, this fading icon set in wasteland on the edge of town with negligible public transport links. One final anecdote encapsulates my feelings towards the Renzo Piano masterpiece.

Two years ago when Bari was in Serie D, one of the away games we travelled to was Nocerina. The match was actually played in Angri due to certain issues with the home stadium. Angri was a tiny little stadium with one small stand and three walls. We stayed overnight and the following day drove home. Approaching Bari from the northwest on the autostrada you exit at Bari Nord tolls and take the link road to the tangenziale.

When you join it the San Nicola seems to suddenly appear straight in front of you on a plateau dominating the skyline as you drive towards in before eventually the road sweeps southeast. It’s magnificent, and it just implies ‘this is Bari, this is the south, this is us.”

Words by: Jeremy Bowling. @Fcbaribrit