“Try not to die”
Not the words you would usually hear at 5pm on a Friday as you depart work for the weekend, but then again, this was no usual weekend.
I was going to the San Siro, to stand with the Inter ultras against their hated city rivals Milan. The rivalry between these two famous clubs is intense whatever the occasion, but with both sides battling for the final Champions League qualification position, not to mention the return of a certain Mario Balotelli, it promised to be a fiery encounter. I was to discover that when it comes to Inter vs. Milan, fiery is not just a mere adjective – they like nothing better than setting things on fire. Lots of things.
My flight from Manchester was mostly made up of art students going to visit a famous gallery, the name of which escapes me. During a short delay a group next to me asked what I was going to see. “You’re going to Milan to see FOOTBALL?!” was the outraged response to my answer. A bit of culture is all well and good, but given the choice between spending a weekend with Picasso or 80,000 Milanese football fans baying for blood, there was only ever going to be one winner.
Upon arriving, my taxi driver had a sticker on display in his window which read ‘Blood. Honour. Curva.’, a piece of Inter memorabilia I’m fairly sure he didn’t purchase in the club shop. Upon learning I was here to watch the game he said “I will take you the quick way” and proceeded to tell me all about Mario Balotelli at Inter. “He would never drink, but instead he would have many beautiful women. I picked up many girls from outside his house at 5am on the day of a game”. Since returning to the city having swapped the blue of Inter for the red of Milan, it appears the Boys San will stop at nothing to get back at Mario.
The Inter president, my new taxi driving friend told me, had promised financial reward to anyone who took pictures of Mario drunk or doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. With the amount of stories which came out during Balotelli’s time at Manchester City, the president may need to expand his overdraft to pay for all the reported moments of Mario madness.
As I walked into my hotel, the driver leant out of his window chanting ‘Milan, Milan vaffunculo!” I’ll leave it to Google translate for you to work out what that means, but you hardly have to be a detective to make a pretty educated guess.
This was the night before the game, so I was expecting a fairly quiet evening before the carnage of the next day, and this was true until around 11pm. I’d been in a local pizzeria talking to some locals about the game and the clubs in general. I told them the reason I was attending such fixtures was the rebranding of Cardiff City, and they were stunned by the story. ‘In Milan, this is impossible. The city would burn’. To illustrate their point nicely, two Inter fans looking a little unsteady passed me on mopeds, chanting “Inter is the best in Italia’ while trailing a blue smoke grenade behind them.
The morning of the game brought heavy snow to Milan, with flakes falling at a rate which would cancel every train in Britain for a year. Without wishing to generalise a nation, the people of Italy don’t seem to care a great deal about health and safety, so I was never overly worried about a postponement. The furthest I’ve ever been to a postponed game was Birmingham, so Milan would have broken the record by some distance.
I made my way to the stadium fairly early to take in the atmosphere and look round one of the most famous stadiums in Europe. Something I find interesting about stadiums on the continent is the graffiti around the area of the ground. The Inter and Milan ultras had their displays as you would expect, but I also noticed markings for Napoli, Roma, Lazio and bizarrely, West Ham United. These messages may look untidy, but it makes the walk to the stadium far more entertaining than the hot dog vans and half and half scarf sellers to which we have become accustomed in the UK.
The San Siro is a remarkable stadium, appearing out of nowhere just yards away from people’s houses, almost as if a spaceship has landed in the middle of Milan.
The San Siro, a spaceship filled with lunatics.
It did not take long to find the first sign that the reception for Balotelli would go beyond the normal abuse a player could expect for signing for their rivals. The people selling scarves and counterfeit shirts were also offering inflatable bananas, which I saw a thankfully small amount of people buying as they headed towards the ground. Make no mistake about it, this was no novelty item like the bananas Manchester City fans bring to cup games, a point further demonstrated by the fan who wrote ‘Mario’ on his newly purchased banana. “Ooh Ooh Balotelli, Ooh Ooh Balotelli” he chanted, imitating the sound of a monkey.
Despite this ugly incident, the vast majority of the Inter supporters were fantastic as the supporters made their way into the ground. As they queued up to find their place on the Curva Nord they repeatedly chanted a song which loosely translates to “Those who do not jump are red and black”, which was followed by the kind of frenzied jumping you would expect from a frog which had taken a large amount of Class A drugs.
This jumping was mandatory, with even the stewards joining in. It says a lot for how the average British football fan is treated that throughout my entire time at the Milan derby, I saw a grand total of three stewards, considerably less than were present than at the Hyde vs. Tamworth fixture I attended a few months previously. I found my seat around two hours before the game, with the ultras of both sides already in the otherwise empty ground. It did not take long for the hardcore to show they meant business, one Inter fan hanging a crudely made effigy of Balotelli from his scarf shortly after my arrival.
With around an hour and a half to the start of the game the first explosion came, a gigantic firework let off by the Milan fans shaking the entire stadium. Inter were in no mood to be outdone in the pyro stakes, and responded with a giant smokebomb of their own which lasted for several minutes and was followed by another prolonged session of wild jumping up and down.
Milan Derby – Probably better viewed on TV if you’ve got asthma
This pattern continued up until just before kick-off, with bone rattling explosions every couple of minutes and insults traded back and forth. One of the craziest things I have ever seen was the Inter fans who decided they were not quite close enough to their Milan rivals for their liking, and so stood on the very edge of the stand to dish out their insults. Never mind the fact that there was a 40 foot drop if they lost their footing, telling Milan to ‘vaffunculo’ was clearly the main priority. Imagine standing on an unsteady cliff while thousands of drunken maniacs jumped up and down a couple of feet away and you wouldn’t be far off.
With around five minutes to go before the game got underway the atmosphere was knocked up another notch, with the pre-match ‘tifos’ for which Italian football is so well known.
‘Casciauit’ is a jibe at the class of the Inter fans, while the banner below reads ‘Red like the fire, black like your fear’.
Following these displays came the announcement of the teams, starting with Milan. The first ten players were booed heavily, but this was nothing compared to when the name of Mario Balotelli was read out. Genuine hate rained down from the stands, faces contorted with rage as they repeated chanted “Balotelli, figlio di una cagna!” which does not translate directly to English but it is rather unkind about the mother of the Milan striker and what she does for a living. It was at this point where I began to feel that the racism being directed at Balotelli from a mindless minority was an extreme reaction to the hatred they felt. While the other black Milan players on the field were booed, it was no more so than every other player in red and black, and it is my opinion that the racist chanting and inflatable bananas were attempts to put Mario off his game rather than down to genuine racism. No matter how important the game, there is no excuse for such chanting, with Inter fully deserving the fine they received from Serie A. Due to the fact there were only two stewards in the entire stand, I will assume that there will be no five year banning order in the post for the culprits.
Once Balotelli had been subjected to sufficient taunting, the Inter fans switched from hatred to passion, as they sang their club anthem ‘Solo Inter’ (only Inter). This anthem was accompanied by a video displaying some of the greatest moments from the history of the club, a truly spine tingling experience. Liverpool fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at Wembley for the Carling Cup final had been impressive, but this was even better.
With so much going on in the stands, it would have been easy to forget that there was actually a game of football to be played. It kicked off underneath a background of flares and impressive banners in the crowd, including what is almost certainly the only flag you’ll see featuring Ned Flanders in a football shirt.
Despite Inter having the ‘home’ advantage for the game, it was the Milan fans who had the most to get excited about in the early stages, as they surged forwards and had a number of chances to open the scoring. A world away from the stereotype of Italian football being slow and defensive, both teams were going for the throat and take control of the race for the Champions League.
The opening goal took just twenty minutes, and could have come even sooner. Perhaps fortunately for the safety of everyone in the stadium it was not Balotelli who gave Milan the lead, but the impressive talent and less controversial El Shaarawy. A mistake in the Inter defence allowed him the chance, which he finished flawlessly in front of the Milan fans gathered in the Curva Sud. The goal was greeted by dozens of flares, one of which was hurled from the top of the stadium to the pitch, suggesting that the Italian national javelin champion was in attendance and an AC Milan fan.
The reaction from the Inter fans was telling, as they urged their team on with a renewed vigour and passion. The aggressive and almost maniacal nature of the support had made me believe that they may turn on their side if they dared to concede, but the opposite was true as they sang for their team louder and louder. Just as I observed in Germany, fans in Italy do not sit back and wait to be entertained like a customer at a cinema or the theater If the team is not performing as well as they should, they take their role as the ‘twelfth man’ seriously and look to do all they can to inspire them to get back into the game. At a time Italy was preparing to appoint a new Pope, it was perhaps fitting to see such levels of blind devotion.
Milan had numerous chances to add to their lead, but could not turn the domination into further goals. Balotelli missed a couple of chances you would perhaps have expected him to convert, the howls of derision and sustained abuse every time he got the ball perhaps getting to him.
As well as the teams doing battle on the pitch, there was also an interesting conflict going on in the stands. While insulting banners can often be seen at derbies in Britain, the exchange of abuse in Italy was done in a very different way, with the fans bringing in blank banners and spray paint, creating messages throughout the game. Much like friends exchanging text messages during a match, abuse would be exchanged almost instantly in real-time.
Milan continued to create the better chances, but half time arrived and the score remained just 1 – 0 to the Rossoneri. Half time at most matches is an excuse to grab a pie and talk about how rubbish your left back is, but not here, not at the Milan derby. I attempted to count how many flares and smokebombs were set off by the Inter fans during the interval, but lost count at around 30, as dozens more were sparked into life and illuminating the night sky of Milan. The noise during this period was incredible, as a wall of fire was created as the players ran back out for the second half. With the Milan players attacking the goal in front of the Boys San Ultras, I cannot imagine what having to walk towards such an intimidating sight felt like. As the fire died down and the final smokebomb gave out it’s last gust, this was the result.
The San Siro is completely obscured by the half time antics of the Inter fans
For at least the first five minutes of the second half, the only man visible on the pitch was the Milan goalkeeper, the other 21 players lost somewhere in a sea of smoke, with the bright yellow ball occasionally flying out of the fan induced fog. The half time vision of hell created by the Inter fans perhaps inspired their representatives on the pitch (or scared them into thinking they might get set on fire), because they began to create chances and consistently work the ball into the Milan penalty area for the first time in the game.
Despite the increased pressure from Inter, it appeared as if the early goal from Milan may have been enough to take the spoils. There was no let up in the vicious chanting being aimed in the direction of Balotelli, but it did not put him off his game too badly. A series of audacious backheels showed the arrogant but superbly talented nature of Italy’s European Championships hero, as he tried desperately to score the goal that would surely put his new team out of sight. With the game moving towards the final stages, it appeared as it would be the red side of Milan celebrating long into the night, but Schelotto of Inter had different ideas.
A superb cross into the box was met with a thumping header which left the goalkeeper no chance, and the San Siro descended into madness. The crowd surged forwards, with fans tumbling to the ground over seats and barriers as a tsunami of blue and black joy devastated everything in its path. A few seconds earlier I had been in Row 7 of Block 351, now I was in Row 1 of Block 349. Fans jumped up and down on the edge of the stand, too happy to care about the mild inconvenience of possibly plunging to their deaths, and once again the San Siro was ablaze as the home side celebrated the vital goal they had been waiting for.
Inter score, and Milan burns
Aftermath of Inter’s late goal
The pictures above do not really do full justice to the mayhem which followed the goal, but I was too busy trying not to die to capture the immediate aftermath. The fans who had fallen as they celebrated were picked up, and friends who had suddenly become 40 yards apart following the post goal rave were reunited. It was the most incredible and most dangerous goal celebration I had ever seen, and I wondered what would happen if they scored a winner. Did my medical insurance cover being set on fire and thrown at Mario Balotelli? Despite a couple of chances for either side in the final moments, no winner was found and the Milan derby ended in a draw for the first time in sixteen meetings.
It had been 90 minutes (plus several hours beforehand) to completely dispel the myths about Italian football. Anyone who tells you it’s boring has clearly never been part of the stampede which follows a goal, witnessed the incredibly unique banners and tifo displays or felt their entire body shake as yet another explosion goes off somewhere in the near vicinity. There were times it felt more like going to a warzone than a football stadium, but apart from the deplorable racism to Balotelli from a small minority of fans it had been one of my best football experiences. I have been to several Cardiff vs. Swansea matches in the past years, but this was on a whole other level of hatred. The South Wales derby felt like two sets of football fans who hated each other, while the Milan derby felt like two armies preparing to go to war.
The next day as I sat on the coach back to the airport for my flight home, I became aware of a burning smell while putting something into my bag. I investigated further and found a burn mark on the back of the jeans I had worn to the match the night before. Perhaps that is the best compliment of all I can pay to the Milan derby, it was so intense I hadn’t noticed I was on fire! My football journey around Europe goes on, but the memories of Derby della Madonnina will last far beyond the day I am too old to go around the world getting set on fire by bouncing hordes of crazed football fans.
For Milan, the eternal war between red and blue wages on.