I’d always planned to end the writing for the book in an unusual destination. The original plan was that England’s visit to Kazakhstan in June would be the final chapter, but with costs rising ovr the thousand pound mark for a day trip I had to look long and hard at potential climaxes. I decided to take a different view and looked at the biggest stadiums in Europe and see what gaps I had. I pulled a list of the Top 25 and ticked them off all of the way down to number 12 which was the Stadio San Paolo in Naples with a capacity of just over 78,000. I knew that this was not strictly true as a number of “accidents” at the stadium over the past few years has reduced the capacity to around the 60,000 and thus dropping it out of the top 25 elite. However, a trip back to watch some Italian football was long overdue, not having set foot into a Serie A stadium since West Ham’s miserable failure in Palermo over two years ago.
Naples has an appalling reputation in the outside world, a city that has been dogged by corruption, violence and unsavoury characters who have blighted the area for decades. What makes the region so unusual is the tourist draws for areas north, south, east and west of the city. The Amalfi Coast, with such world famous resorts of Sorrento and the islands of Capri and Ischia attract the wealth during the long hot summers, and the historic roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneaum have attracted tourists from around the world for decades, yet visitors are still scared of venturing into the city centre of Naples for fear of robbery and violence.
I have a clear picture of places in Europe that I try to avoid at all costs, which dear reader you will know include Barcelona, Amsterdam and Paris and so a trip to Naples held no real fear for me. However, I was to be joined by Football Jo and so I was assured of some mutual paranoia from the moment our Easyjet plane would land on the tarmac.
I managed to sort out tickets through SeatWave as watching football in Italy is no longer the same as it used to be. Gone are the days of pitching up at an almost empty stadium a few minutes before kick off and buying a seat. Now, due to a number of high profile violent episodes, all games are classed as “all ticket”, no match tickets can be sold on the day of the game in most instances and spectators names have to be printed on the tickets and their identification verified on entry into the stadium. All very noble gestures but all of the violent episodes had taken place outside of the stadiums, and in some instances some way from the grounds. But it meant that I had to sort out the tickets in advance, and pay for the privilage of course. My €18 actually cost me over £40 once I factored in commissions for middlemen and then delivery (I can now see how Football Agents make their money!) but at least I had the tickets in my hand before I travelled, albeit in the name of Joenne Richards Joenne and Stuar Fulle.
Fortunately the match was moved from Sunday afternoon to 6pm on Saturday night which meant that we would have a full day of sightseeing in and around the region after the football. Our Easyjet flight first thing on the Saturday morning was on time and for once sitting in the front of the plane had some advantages as after more than 250 Easyjet flights I at last found a stewardess who was worthy of more than a passing look. The Tina Holby (she of Holby City fame) certainly brightened up the 2 1/2 hour flight, and even football Jo had to admit she was “cute”. We took off into the most stunning sunrise, full of orange and purples than mesmorised most passengers. Red sky in the morning and all that would come back to haunt us in less than 48 hours.
So we landed at Naples just before 11am and waited for a bus that was going to take us to the terminal building. That would be the same terminal building that was no more than 50 yards away? Surely not. Ah but this is Italy, home of the hearts of darkness and beaurocracy that puts the Brown government to shame. So indeed we all boarded the bus, drove around the airplane and got off on the other side. However, again being Italy they failed to realise that two planes had landed at the same time so they had one single man on their passport control. Of course this is not an issue for the Italians as they simply pushed their way to the front and a move that is the complete opposite to when they are in a situation of conflict. We queued for nearly thirty minutes until the sole border guard was joined not by one, or two but three colleagues who processed all of the passengers within a few minutes.
Fifteen minutes later we were disembarking the airport bus in the first sight that most visitors see of Naples – Piazza Garibaldi. This traffic filled rectangle is the heart of the transportation network with buses, taxis, cars and scooters competing for any space and trying to avoid the wandering pedestrians. The area is also home to the train station which means it is also the home to most of the undesirables that the city can throw at you as we could come to see over the next twenty four hours. We decided to head to the hotel to drop our bags off before we started on seeing the sights of the city. We were simply not prepared for Naples, and what it was going to throw at us. Rubbish was piled up on every street corner, overflowing onto pavements and even into cars. Dubious characters lurked in doorways, selling a variety of pirated (or stolen) goods such as PSP’s, Ipods and Iphones. We came across a real welcoming sight on one of the corners as a real beauty, resplendent in a short skirt and slippers (think of a cross between Nora Batty and Bella Emberg wearing some of Cheryl Cole’s outfits plus a pair of your Gran’s slippers), burning a suitcase full of rubbish on the street. Yes, you have read that correctly. She was simply standing over the small fire making sure that whatever was in the case was now burnt to a cinder.
I had given Jo a brief lesson in how to cross a road like an Italian but she couldn’t get it. Instead of walking confidently diagonally across the road, she acted like a real life “frogger” game, hopping backwards and forwards with yelps and squeals. We finally reached the hotel side of the road and walked passed one of the least interested looking working girls you will see for a long time. She leaned against a lamp post, smoking in a de-alluring (is there such a word?) way, complete with purple tights and matching boots. Would look very fetching on a twenty something who kept herself in shape but this one appeared to be the daughter of bonfire women. It was no surprise that on the two other occasions we returned this was in the next five hours she was still in the same uninterested position sans customers.
With the least amount of personal belongings on our person we headed off into the city where we avoided gaping holes in the pavement, scooter riders mounting the pavement and of course the beggers. We wandered for a good hour, trying to find something that could be classed as “interesting”, but failed on all counts apart from a decent restaurant for lunch. Jo then gave me an update on the sex lives of her friends, including the fascinating tale of one such young lady who has a phobia of midgets, and so as a hen night surprise they hired a whole troop of “performing” short men to entertain her.
After lunch we wandered around the “Royal” parts of the city with the Castel Nuovo, Palazzo Reale and Teatro San Carlo further proving the lack of pride the citizens had in their city and all were covered in grafetti and rubbish bags. What I cannot understand about Italian society is that they are so passionate about their country, yet feel no shame at throwing rubbish on the floor or scrawling on a centuries out building. We had still not seen any of the threatening atmosphere though, and during out long walk back to the hotel we were only approached once by a beggar.
After a short snooze break it was time for the football, and so we headed down into the bowels of the Stazione Garibaldi opposite the hotel for another slice of Italian organised mayhem. The Police were holding fans back at the top of the stairs to stop over crowding on the platforms. So all of the younger fans simply walked to the next entrance, down the stairs and crossed the railway lines. And did the Police do anything? No, of course not. They were too busy standing chating and smoking underneath the no smoking sign. The train arrived, and now I understood what had happened to our 1970’s Football Special trains – they had been slowly driven to Naples and now used as their prime underground rolling stock. The stadium is located in the historic area of Campi Flegeri, one of the more upmarket areas of the city and just twenty minutes away from the chaos of the central station.
I am not going to dwell too much on the events of the Sunday in Naples. The rain fell from first light and we headed through the drab suburbs for thirty minutes to Pompeii for a few hours of culture. It really is an amazing place, and the restoration work really enables you to picture life in the Roman era. The site is huge and takes hours to do it justice. Some of the highlights for me were the Amphitheatre where the Gladiators, who were treated like our Premier League footballers did battle. It was here that a riot broke out in the stands and the Governor of the city banned any events for ten years in the stadium. We also went to the brothel where fresco’s on the wall acted as a menu for what was on offer in each room, and the Roman equivilant of McDonalds complete with phallic stools for the women to sit on. We also had a look in the theatre where Jo asked (she claimed as a joke) whether the Romans watched plays written by Shakesphere.
With a few hours still to kill we continued on the Circumvesuvia line to Sorrento for lunch. I expected big things of the small town, perched on the cliffs of the Bay of Naples. It was certainly clean and tiny and much more upmarket than Naples but everywhere was closed. We had hoped to find a bar showing the Tyne-Wear Derby but were lucky to find anywhere open. We did finally find a small restaurant that served some excellent home cooked food and justified our out of the way trip. Filled up with pasta, meat and enough Tirimisu to feed the Mackems the journey back on the train was a very snoozy affair.
I had been getting regular updates on the worsening weather in London and had some concerns about our flight but it arrived into Naples on time and all seemed to be going well until on our final approach into Stansted I noticed that we simply flew straight over the airport and based on the position of the moon we appeared to be heading north. And sure enough a few minutes later our captain told us that poor runway conditions meant we were being diverted. Not to anywhere convenient like Luton, Cambridge (yes there is an airport there AND it could take a 747) or Gatwick oh no. Thirty minutes later we landed at a snowy East Midlands, some 120 miles from Stansted. At first it was unclear whether we would simply wait for a while and then fly back down but then it was announced that Stansted was closed for the night, and with more diverted planes landing all of the time a fleet of coaches was ordered to ferry us back.
Chaos reigned at the airport as people fought to get on coaches, worried that they would be stuck in the Midlands for the night. Sitting on the coach we saw people throw other people’s bags out of the luggage compartments to put theirs in – actions that would not have been a surprise in Naples but completely alien to British society. We left the airport at midnight and conditions got worse the further south we went. The M1 around Luton and the M25 in Hertfordshire were almost impassable and we crawled along at 20mph. I was getting regular updates of the conditions in SE9 from CMF and it wasn’t sounding too good. She was due to start a new job in the morning, and Lolly was due to go on a school trip so I was determined to get home by any means. I felt like Steve Martin from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, always thinking one step ahead.
We arrived at Stansted at 4am, not to a deserted airport but to people everywhere as it appeared that flights had been diverted to the four corners of the UK. With some careful driving I eventually limped into the drive at 6.15am, fifteen minutes after CMF had got up. I was saved from a day of hell by South Eastern trains decision that they wouldn’t bother to clear any of the train lines and I simply could not get into work.
So my final adventure for the book comes to a close. A marathon journey that has taken in a total of a twenty countries in two and a half years seeing some of the weirdest people in the world of football as well as some excellent football. I calculated that my thirty trips had involved over 200 pints of beer, 37 sausages, 9 travelling companions and countless incidents that have made it all worthwhile….