Rome if you want to

Day two of the Calcio Italia adventure, and after the two games yesterday we headed south on the ultra-swish new high-speed train line through Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. A previous seven hour train journey up and over the Apennines, running down the spine of Italy now cuts through the hills and has reduced the travel time from Bologna to Rome to just over 2 hours. We hardly had time to make full use of the free wi-fi, champagne and salty snacks (peanuts) before we were easing into Roma Termini.

11075317203_89770600d0_bInitially our plan had been to enjoy a leisurely long lunch in Travestere, a few drinks and perhaps even a bit of sight-seeing. But then Adam got a call. Or should I say, the call. He’d struck up a relationship a few games ago in the Stadio Olimpico with a chap running up and down the front of the Tribuna Tevere waving a huge flag, professing the support of the Marcello Passerini from the AS Roma United Kingdom group. Marcello, a Joe Pesci lookalike, had manage to arrange some live airtime with Sky Italia as part of their build up to the game versus Cagliari, and Adam, with his fine eye for a picture, was part of their plans for global Roma domination – well at least in Social Media circles in the UK.

So our new plan was to meet Marcello outside the ground at 4pm…..that would be nearly FIVE hours before kick off. I’d never been at a ground that early – well apart from once in Bilbao when I turned up 24 hours early. So our relaxing lunch turned into a quick snack at a stand-up trattatoria before we jumped in a taxi for the stadium. It appeared that the tram drivers also fancied a night watching the game on TV so they had gone on strike meaning that even at 4pm, traffic around the stadium was building up. Continue reading

Welcome to Fat Town

Let me take you back to 26 June 1990.  England are one minute away from a penalty shoot out in the 2nd Round of the FIFA World Cup against Belgium.  Gascoigne floats in a free-kick from the left hand side which appears to be drifting over everyone’s head.  Everyone?  No, because at the back post is 24-year-old Aston Villa midfielder David Platt, on the field as a replacement for Steve McMahon and making one of his first appearances for the national side followed the flight of the ball perfectly and volleyed the ball home.  It could be argued that that one moment set Platt onto be one of the first footballing millionaires.  Less than 12 months after that goal Platt was on his way to Serie A side Bari for a whopping £5.5 million.

Three years later…Graham Taylor’s reign as England manager is coming to an inglorious end. His last game in charge is against San Marino. Bookies are stopping taking odds on an England win, despite Taylor’s reign and the failure of the team to reach the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA. Whilst it is possible that England could still qualify for the finals, it would take miracles elsewhere. The ask on them is simple – win by seven clear goals.

San Marino kicked off and hoofed the ball hopefully into the right-hand quadrant. Stuart Pearce picked the ball up and under no pressure at all played the ball back to David Seaman. Unfortunately, Davide Gualtieri had guessed this is what the experienced full back would do and nipped in and planted the ball past the Arsenal keeper. Just over 8 seconds were on the clock – the fastest goal in international history and still the greatest moment in San Marino’s history.

Relevance? Because those memorable nights had been played out on our TV screens live from Bologna’s Stadio Renate Dall’Ara. Fat Town, as it is often referred to in Italian culture, is known for its hearty food was our second destination for the day of Serie A football. After the magic in Reggio Emilia we had headed back down to the most important city in North Italy. Bar Turin. And Milan, of course. Not forgetting Venice mind, and Genoa now I think about it. Well, one of the most important cities anyway.

11074746774_0ecec4611f_bThe almost completely open-air stadium would have been a beautiful venue back in June 1990, but in late November twenty-three years later, it promised to be bloody cold. Still, with Internazionale the visitors, we hoped the atmosphere created by the Tifosi Bulgarelli would keep us warm and entertained. Despite winning the Italian title on seven occasions, and being the most successful Italian team outside of Milan, Turin or Rome, recent times have been very tough on the Rossoblù.

Only one thing is more important to Italians than football, and that is food. So before the game we made sure we blended in with the locals by heading to an old-school Italian restaurant (aka one that didn’t serve Spaghetti Bolognese – a dish created for those bloody tourists) and ate our own body weight in local cold meats, cheeses, pasta (Squid ink tortellini filled with truffle carbonara as you have asked), washed down with a couple of beers. But no ordinary beer. Oh, no. Being one of the centres of style in the country, Bologna serve their bottles of beer in a clear plastic handbag, filled with ice. Continue reading

Sou sou Sassuolo

Fifteen years ago we were all Serie A crazy.  Thanks to the James Richardson fronted, Channel 4 programme “Gazetta” every Saturday morning millions used to tune in to hear the latest gossip from James as he sat coolly at a table in a Piazza somewhere in Italy, sipping a Cappuccino (but only before 11am of course).  24 hours later even more people watched the live game which was the best game of the season, every week.  This was a time before live football from around the globe saturated our TV screens and thus this was something new, exciting, and even fearful.  This was what it was like when Cheese & Onion became the second flavour of crisp to be launched after decades of Ready Salted.

We lapped up the games, quickly learning who the teams, the players and of course the stadiums were.  We marvelled at the pyrotechnics of their fans and wondered what had gone wrong with our own game.  Everyone wanted to have a bit of that, and us adventurous Brits slowly wised up to the fact that visiting Italy was easy, cheap and the Best Weekend Ever.

Italy was the destination for my first ever European Football Weekend.  Two days in Milan, with a trip to the San Siro to watch Maldini, Baresi and Van Basten struggle to beat Lecce.  I was hooked and there wasn’t a month that went passed where I didn’t hop over to Italia for a bit of Sunday afternoon Calcio.  A morning arrival into Milan Linate, train down to Bologna, up to Como or even if I was hungry, Parma.  Football, food and a few Peroni’s before I headed back in time for storytime for the little Fullers.

11080410554_99ae6cd72e_bBut nothing lasts forever and as Jimbo disappeared from our screens and Sky Sports took over the world, Serie A slipped down the popularity stakes behind La Liga, Bundesliga and even Scottish football in TV coverage terms. Our weekend footballing treats took us further afield and Italy became a distant memory.

I have no reason why I was now sitting on a cross-country train running through the Northern Italian countryside.  I can’t even Danny Last – he was 700 miles away sitting on his sofa.  I could blame my travelling partner, Adam Lloyd, but that would be unfair.  It was my fault.  I saw the opportunity for a two-day, three game Serie A extravaganza.  Our destination for the first leg of the Italian Tripod was the city of Reggio Emilia, forty miles north-east of Bologna.

The Mapei Stadium – Città del Tricolore, to give it its full name, is described by our good friends at Wikipedia, as “multi-purpose”, which is the functional phrase for “completely lacking in character, atmosphere or facilities for spectators”. I hoped to be proved wrong but my experience of similar stadiums in Italy in Piacenza, Bergamo (Atalanta), Modena and Ancona hadn’t been good.  In fact I always wonder how these small clubs can justify charging ticket prices for ordinary games.  Ten years ago I paid over 100 Euro for a seat at Brescia v Bari because it was raining and the seat was one of the few under cover.  Even the Premier league clubs today rarely offer tickets over £90.   Unfortunately, with few stadiums privately owned in Italy, clubs need to get as much revenue as possible in on the gate because commercial opportunities are so limited. Continue reading

Livin’ la Vida Loca

On the TBIR private jet on the way over to Rome,  Danny and I tried to draw up the best derbies in Europe. Between us we have covered quite a few. The Copenhagen derby (three times at both venues), the Stockholm derby, the Spakenburg derby in Holland and even the El Grande Island Classico (Canvey Island v Concord Rangers), but outside of Istanbul, is the Rome derby the most “atmospheric”? We said “yes” because otherwise we were heading off to the Stadio Olimpico for no real reason.

In the past the game has had drama, controversy, clowns and championships. It was first contested back in 1929 and since then AS Roma have led the way with 63 wins to Lazio’s 46. In 1979 a Lazio fan was killed by a flare fired from the Roma section at the far end of the stadium and in 2004 the game had to be abandoned after the leaders of the Roma Ultras groups walked unopposed onto the pitch and approached Francesco Totti to tell him to walk off after a rumour spread that the riot police had killed a fan. Violence then escalated onto the streets outside the stadium.

Few players make the move across the city which them either being a blue or a claret. The rivalry comes from the moral right to be the one true team to represent the city, as well as how the clubs were originally formed. To us mere English fans Roma means Top Totti, Cafu, Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Panucci. Lazio is Pepe Signori, Ravanelli, Alessandro Nesta, Gazza and Paolo Di Canio.

Both teams have been through the mill in terms of off the field antics. Back in 1980 SS Lazio were relegated, along with AC Milan after being implicated in a betting scandal. Match-fixing also cost the club dear in 2006 when they were implicated in the Calciopoli scandal that saw Juventus relegated and Lazio excluded from European competition. Long time club owner Sergio Cragnotti arrived at the club in 1992 and initially funded some massive transfers (£18m for Veron, £19 for Vieri & £35m for Crespo). But when his Cirio food empire collapsed, so did the club’s fortune. Continue reading

Affamato come un lupo

Match fixing, doping, prostitutes and Silvio Berlusconi – just your average week in calcio. Italian football is dogged by controversy. But this weekend wasn’t just about Serie A and one of the biggest rivalries in Europe. It wasn’t even about B, C or even D. Oh no. We were going right to the heart of Italian football. In his excellent book, The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones comments that the Italian words for history and story are the same – storia. And that is what we aimed to find here in Rome – a story, starting in the Eccellenza Lazio, the regional league of the province and ending up in the modern-day Coliseum watching Derby Delle Capitale – The Eternal Derby.

By we I mean Danny Last (of course Danny Last – EFW may be no more but that doesn’t mean to say the fun of the away day in Europe has stopped too) and the legend that is Adam Lloyd. His rise from the control room at the Madejski Stadium to his villa overlooking the hills of Rome is pure Boys-Own stuff, but here he was welcoming the English adventurers into his new home with a plate of tortellini and a Peroni if you please. Champione.

Our plan of action for Big Match Eve (BME) was a wander around Grottaferrata (the city of books and Swinging capital of Rome allegedly), a glass of Frascati in Frascati and an afternoon of sightseeing around the capital with a splash of some retail therapy in the AS Roma store thrown in for some measure (Tottie soap for Mrs Last, Roma hand cream for CMF). Amazingly just two weeks previous Rome had shivered as temperatures plummeted and snow had fallen. This is a real rarity in the city and caused many a style-conscious Italian to stay at home for fear of people thinking it was dandruff settling on his shoulders. Yet here we were in shirt sleeves enjoying the sunshine whilst wandering the sights of one of the best cities on Earth.

After taking in the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and various other ancients wonders we headed back to the countryside for the biggest meal in the history of TBIR, involving just a mere five courses, two bottles of red and a Grappa to end it all off.  Our host, the love child of Gareth Chilcott and Willie Thorne, wished us well at the end of the evening with a genial “Fuck Off” and we went on our merry way back to Chez Lloyd (not to be confused with Cher Lloyd), peering in the windows of all the villas on the way to see if it was the home of the Roman Swingers Association. Alas it wasn’t.

Matchday arrived and Adam brought in our presents.  BME had given way to BMD (Big Match Day) and that was only marginally behind Christmas in terms of gift giving in the region of Lazio.  Our presents were Roma Magic Boxes.  Not only did we have some of the best seats in the house for the game, but we also now had our own Roma umbrella, Roma rucksack, strange Roma headband and a Roma scarf.    Before the big game we had a Plan. Our Plan (herewith called “The Plan”) was to head out to the countryside and take in a regional game as L’antipasto before the AS Roma v SS Lazio Il primo. And could there be a better place in the world to have the starter than a place where some of the big Italian nobs hang out sipping white wine – Frascati, just a 15 minute stroll down the road. Continue reading

My name is Stuart and I am an addict

I didn’t realise I had a problem until I was confronted with it.  The problem was storage.  I had run out of room for my football socks.  Come on admit it, we all have a few pairs don’t we?  Some people collect shirts, others collect programmes (I have a few of those myself) whereas some individuals I wont mention (Dagenham + Dan is a clue) have to keep their match tickets in pristine condition.  Those things do nothing for me.  To me, I express my love of the game with football socks.

CMF says this is a “Syndrome”.  It is obsessive compulsive.  Just because I like socks and never throw a pair away does not make me a bad person.  I never complain about her collection of Marc Dorcel DVD’s so why should she make me feel bad about my collection?  After all I get enjoyment from wearing my socks (and yes I also don’t mind sharing her “hobby” as well”). Sometimes we even swap items in our collections, but that is another story completely.

It all started out of necessity.  I went to a Wasps rugby game, that is how long ago it was – they didn’t have the London bit in their name, despite the fact they played in London, as opposed to now where they are called London Wasps despite playing in Buckinghamshire. It was raining, my shoes had a hole in and my feet got very wet.  I needed to get some new socks and so I went and bought a pair of rugby socks from the club shop.

That was back in 1998 and I still have that pair of black and gold socks today.  After that I was hooked.  It was the comfort, the almost rebellious sign against the system.  I wore purple Fiorentina socks on business meetings.  When people said things like “nice socks” I would launch into the tale of who they belonged to and where I got them.  I wore a pair of olive and chocolate Kappa Werder Bremen socks to a relative’s wedding, going to great lengths to find a new pair of brown shoes that matched the socks. Continue reading

Il bello gioco ha giocato in una punta dei rifiuti…part 1

 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….