Calcio Travel Notes: Sampdoria

The historic coastal city of Genova is the beating economic heart of the Liguria region in north-west Italy. Perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, Genova established itself as a great trading powerhouse in medieval times. And it is to the Genovese to whom the English owe their beloved St George’s cross. In the 12th century, the English paid a stipend to the Doge of Genova to fly the patron’s cross upon their vessels, thereby enjoying the protection of the Genovese fleet within the Mediterranean.

The city has been in the news more recently, of course, for the tragic collapse of the Morandi bridge in August. The Ligurian hills rise abruptly from the sea; beyond the historic centre of Genova, much of the municipality is perched high up on the hillside. As a matter of necessity, the city has an intricate network of tunnels burrowing through the hills and bridges traversing the valleys. You simply can’t get very far in Genova without using one of these suspended motorways.

This is actually my second visit to Genova; however, on both occasions it’s been something of a flying visit, travelling by car and largely accomplished in the dark. This time I was here to watch the Serie A clash between Sampdoria and Sassuolo and, as part of a short family holiday to Milano and Como, I also had my wife and twins with me too. A key motivation for making the 4-hour round trip was that my son had developed a curious affinity for Samp after watching a pre-season friendly at Watford back in August.

For stadium aficionados, the Stadio Luigi Ferraris is a must-see. It’s located on the valley floor, alongside the Bisagno river, packed in amongst dense residential and business properties. Homes sit precariously on the hills that rise steeply either side of the ground. Located in the Marassi district, 3km from the historic centre and port, there has been a stadium on this site since 1911.

Stadio Luigi Ferraris – prior to the Italia ’90 rebuild

Simply known as the Marassi by locals, it was entirely reconstructed for the 1990 World Cup. The result is nothing short of phenomenal. Huge credit must be given to the architect Vittorio Gregotti, for creating a design that was as spectacular as it was sympathetic to the surrounds. Not only that, but it was highly practical too; both Genoa and Sampdoria continued to stage matches here throughout the late 1980s as the ground was rebuilt around them, one stand at a time.

The four towers, one in each corner of the ground, are undoubtedly the icons of the design. The white cantilevered stanchions which connect the towers give the stadium a unique geometric silhouette. As my 4 year-old daughter observed (the more creative of the two!), they take on the appearance of “mountains”, mimicking the surrounding topography. The terracotta exterior is in contrast to the surrounding pale stone buildings, and gives a nod to the work of 20th century maestro Archibald Leitch in leaving the vague the impression of an industrial building rather than a football ground. Inside, it’s a very British affair – staunchly rectangular without a running track in sight – the tiered stands positioned close to the pitch.

Stadio Luigi Ferraris – the modern incarnation (note: original exterior wall on nearside stand)

Obtaining tickets for the Monday evening game was less than problematic – print-at-home tickets were purchased from listicket.com (English translation available). Online tickets weren’t available for the Gradinata Sud – the domain of Samp’s most passionate followers – but prices started at just 10€ in the Gradinata Nord behind the opposite goal. With the family in mind, I opted for 20€ tickets; at the front of the middle tier just on the half way line (Distinti Est).

The journey from Milano had brought us along the A7, meandering for the last 30km through a sequence of sweeping bends that followed the contours of the landscape. We parked the car on Corso Monte Grappa, and began the spectacular descent down to the stadium. From the hillside we stole glimpses of the outline of the Marassi through gaps between the buildings, backlit by homes on the adjacent hillside. The distant rumble of traffic and sirens from somewhere in the darkness down below built the sense of anticipation. Eventually, we came to the Scalinata Montaldo; a vertigo-inducing flight of 280 steps taking you steeply down to the river, ultimately revealing a full view of the stadium from ground level. A fabulous way to approach the ground, but with the inevitable drawback of a return journey after the game.

View from Corso Monte Grappa

We crossed over the Bisagno (either a river or a river bed depending on the time of year you visit) and headed for Via del Piano behind the Gradinata Sud where home fans congregate before the match. The atmosphere was good natured with people eating, drinking and conversing in and around the various cafes and bars. This is an excellent place to find a souvenir; there isn’t a club shop at the ground, but here you can purchase scarves, t-shirts or badges from an array of street vendors, Ultra groups or a small independent store selling official merchandise. One particular storeholder demonstrated saintly patience as my son made him unfurl a plethora of different scarves, before eventually – and somewhat inevitably – deciding he wanted the very first one he had been shown. With his new scarf round his neck, and a ruffle of the hair from our new friend, we made our way into the ground.

Via del Piano

The anticipation of that first magical glimpse of the pitch steadily grew as we ascended to the second tier…and there it was in all of its vibrant glory; the green of the pitch under the floodlights, the noise, colour and movement of the Ultras on the Gradinata Sud. The kids pushed to the front of the gangway and simply stood, watched and absorbed; completely captivated by what they saw in front of them.

Gradinata Sud

The Samp fans were superb throughout, creating an unceasing wave of support for their team, despite a less than full stadium; singing tunes that were familiar from the August trip to Vicarage Road and displaying an abundance of banners and flags in the blue, white, red and black of their team. The two dozen hardy Sassuolo souls, located in the top corner of the Tribuna opposite, largely kept their powder dry. We sat beside an elderly gentleman (also with a fondness for hair-ruffling), who struggled to get to grips with the story of why we were there, despite several enthusiastic attempts on my part. He was still with me at “Watford”, but couldn’t quite fathom why we had travelled all this way for Sassuolo on a Monday night.

The game itself finished 0-0, though was far from dull – a Domenico Berardi strike coming back off the post being the closest we came to a goal. With both teams pushing for a top six spot, the result was a disaster for neither. It was a privilege to witness the evergreen Fabio Quagliarella lead the line for Samp – how they (and the Nazionale) must wish he was ten years younger. I’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for the hard-working Édgar Barreto – primarily because he had been so generous with his time signing items and chatting with young fans when in England back in the summer – but I’ve also come to appreciate his combative style in the centre of Samp’s midfield.

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Gradinata Sud

I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough; from the breath-taking scenery and outstanding architecture to the passionate fans and friendly locals. The family loved it too; since our return home my son has insisted on being Samp when playing football in the garden and my daughter wanders around the house shouting “Fabio Qual-a-rella”. I’ve made a promise to myself that we’ll return again soon – next time in the daylight with more opportunity to explore the waterfront and old town.

My final tip comes from my previous visit here; I stayed at a place called Busalla, just 25km north on the A7 towards Milano. Busalla itself is nothing to write home about; in fact the dominant sight of a refinery from the autostrada gives it a distinct similarity to Port Talbot. However, Albergo Birra is delightful little hotel with its own on-site brewery, bar and restaurant. The clincher is that it’s only a 50 metre stagger across the car park from bar to bed.

Thanks for reading – feedback (and shares) most welcome! If you’re making a weekend of it you might be interested in my articles on the Genoa museum, Virtus Entella, Torino, the San Siro and Inter’s former home, Arena Civica.

View from the foot of Scalinata Montaldo

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