June 8th 1990; Nessun Dorma, Des Lynam and Benjamin Massing physically assaulting Claudio Caniggia at the San Siro. That was the heady concoction captivating a 6-year old boy in the West Midlands, tuning into his very first World Cup.
At that young age my exposure to football was typically confined to a once-weekly dose of Match of the Day, Shoot magazine and the back pages of the tabloids. This was a good decade before the internet would begin to take hold of nearly every aspect of our lives. In that context the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza was simply unlike anything I had ever seen before – an extra-terrestrial behemoth that consequently took on a near-mythical status in my mind.
It was another 15 years before I paid my first visit to the San Siro; I was on a camping holiday with my then-girlfriend. The damp weather in the Black Forest had forced us to head further south in pursuit of the sunshine. We ended up in the Italian Lakes and took a day trip to Milano. I still remember that first glimpse of the stadium; the contrast of the deep red girders against the azure blue sky, the spiralling cylinders standing to attention, the surprising photogenic beauty of concrete and steel. The sparse surrounds of the San Siro gave the impression that other buildings, roads and trees had receded and retreated, dutifully bowing to her imposing beauty.
Whilst it was a case of love at first sight with the San Siro; the more I got to know, the stronger those feelings grew. Stadio San Siro was originally constructed by AC Milan president Piero Pirelli in 1925. Initially denounced as a white elephant, Milan grew into and, ultimately, out of their new home. In 1935 it was purchased by the Comune di Milano and expanded to cater for growing demand. Under municipal ownership, Inter later became joint tenants at the end of WWII. The stadium has been expanded twice since then; a second tier was built in 1954 and latterly the third tier was added ahead of Italia ’90. On each of those occasions the core of the stadium was untouched, with the new accommodation being built upwards and outwards from the existing arena. Barring some refurbishment work, the lower tier of the stadium is effectively the same terrace where the tifosi stood nearly a century ago. In a world of purpose-built symmetry, the missing section of the third tier on the Ippodromo side only adds to charm of the old place.
That first visit occurred during the height of summer so I had to settle for a stadium tour and mooch around the club shop (it was so hot that day, a packet of Haribo completely melted in the glove box of my girlfriend’s Peugeot 306). Since that first taste I’ve returned a number of times to see both red and blue, but it remained a long-held ambition to experience first-hand the intense atmosphere of the Milano derby.
I had been plotting for a couple months; the half-term family trip to Italy had already been booked, speculatively, to coincide with the derby. On the day that tickets went on general sale I headed into the office early and sat patiently on inter.it waiting for 8:00 to arrive. A frenzy of clicks and 75€ later I was on my way.
Game day finally arrived, the light was just beginning to fade as I parked up about a mile west of the stadium. I joined the crowds heading towards the stadium and it wasn’t long before I got first sight of San Siro through the trees of Parco Aldo Aniasi. Marching onwards, the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, those sparse surrounds of the stadium were transformed. Even several hours ahead of kick off, throngs of tifosi spilled out from the San Siro Metro station and headed towards bright lights and chrome of the food vans selling panini and beers. The scene resembled London Waterloo at rush hour; some groups in no obvious hurry were content to congregate, whilst others darted for the various entrances keen to take their seats. Making any kind of progress through the crowds was a slow and precarious business.
The massed ranks of the Carabinieri lurked ominously in the background, although the mood around the ground was buoyant and good natured. That calm was soon to be shattered by the not-too-distant boom of a pyrotechnic explosion, marking the arrival of the Milan ultras. The sea of Inter fans parted as people hurriedly moved out of the path of the marching, chanting ultras. At once the atmosphere was dialled up. Simultaneously, the volume from inside the stadium rose, as if the Inter ultras already assembled in their Curva were telepathically aware of what was unfolding outside.
I began the long climb up the spiral ramp towards the third tier – and was rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the ultras entering the stadium down below. Emerging high up in the rafters of the stadium, this was the first time I had seen anything resembling a steward at an Italian football ground. On that basis I felt compelled to make some effort to find my allocated seat. I found it, but it was located directly behind a temporary camera gantry. The combination of that, and the mildly opaque Perspex screen separating me from the Milan ultras in the tier below, meant that I would have seen precious little of the game. I climbed further, taking up a position in the gangway that would give me a better vantage point for the game.
Inter had invited Julio Cesar as the guest of honour for this match; their treble-winning goalkeeper entered the pitch, stoking the atmosphere ahead of kick off. Naturally, the assembled Milanisti responded with howls and whistles. At this stage there were few clues about the choreo arranged by the Inter ultras; a simple banner was displayed on the Curva Nord reading “…to see his eyes alone, in tears they vanish…”.
Finally the suspense was ended as a huge snake (representing Inter) was unfurled, with imposing orange eyes and forked tongue, covering the lower two tiers. This was juxtaposed with several small, fleeing devils (accompanied by the message “…the symbol of Milan”). It was incredible to see three sides of this magnificent arena coordinated in a shimmering sea of blue, backlit by a line of flares at the top of the stand. The mind boggles as to the complexity and cost of this kind of choreography.
In truth, the match itself wasn’t the most pulsating derby. There was no lack of spirit or industry, but the quality was lacking at critical moments. Both teams had the ball in the net in the first half, both subsequently disallowed. The full-bodied dual played out on the pitch between Biglia and Nainggolan was mirrored in the stands as the Ultra groups raised the volume in response to one another. As we approached the final stages of the game, I was more or less resigned to 0-0, before Vecino swung an inviting cross into the path of the ever-reliable Mauro Icardi to grab an injury-time winner. There were serious questions asked of Donnarumma in the aftermath, but Inter’s persistence could not be disputed – and they were on balance the better team.
This game represented something of a pilgrimage for me and the experience did not disappoint. The San Siro at full capacity is truly something to behold – and is an institution I hope can endure the rapid pace of change in Serie A and the world of football more widely. However, it did give rise to one problem; far from quenching my thirst for derby action, the experience has had me scouring the fixture lists to explore the equivalents in Genova and Roma.
Thanks for reading – if you’re visiting Milan do check out the Arena Civica – former home of Inter, a Napoleonic arena located just a few kilometres from San Siro.
Annex: Other Travel Tips
- San Siro tour – 16€ for a self-guided tour of the stadium (changing rooms, tunnel, pitch side) and entry to San Siro Museum, which holds a great collection of shirts, boots and pictures associated with the stadium. May not be available on match days.
- “Football Team” Store – located in Piazza Duomo, directly behind Milano’s other This shop stocks shirts for pretty much every Serie A team. It’s expensive though.
- Milan and Inter official stores – located in the arcades east of the Duomo, they were queuing out of the door on match day, presumably quieter at other times. A wide range of gifts/souvenirs, but expect to pay a premium.
- Ultra merchandise – if you have a ticket for the 2nd tier of the Curva Sud (Milan) or Curva Nord (Inter), you can purchase scarves, stickers, t-shirts directly from the ultra groups at the rear of the concourse for reasonable prices. And your money will be going towards future choreo displays (amongst other things…)
- Newstands – the kiosks in the Metro stations around Milano are quite a good place to pick up football-related items, such as stickers, albums, cards, books and calendars.