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.
But 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.
We were here to see US Sassuolo. Who? As I had been asked for the past two weeks when I had excitedly told everyone who would listen about this trip. The Serie A debutants were playing in the third tier for the first time just five years ago. Last season they upset the form book by winning Serie B, but their own Stadio Enzo Ricci with its 4,000 capacity wasn’t deemed big enough for Serie B, let along Serie A, so a deal was made with Reggiana AC to co-habit in their Mapei Stadium.
There isn’t really a lot I can tell you about Sassuolo. The town itself, located just south of Modena, is the home of the Italian Tile industry. There – I told you I couldn’t tell you much. Reggio Emilia was a little bit more racy, being the home of Lambrusco wine as well as being twinned with Fort Worth, Texas. Boom. I had you on…..well, on nothing really.
So far this season I Nerroverdi were keeping their head above water…just. Two wins and four draws saw them outside of the relegation zone and with wins away at Sampdoria and in Reggio Emilia over local rivals Bologna in the bank already, they fancied their chances against the team from Bergamo. Crowds were flocking to the Mapei, up by 218% on last season and Adam and I didn’t care who won. We were the winners because we were back in the days of Mancini, Lombardo and Crespo, all washed down with a double espresso.
The first excitement of the trip was seeing Modena’s ground from the train window. It was worth paying the small premium to go first class on the 40 minute journey from Bologna to see the hulking floodlights leaning in to see the action. I’m sure the view wasn’t anywhere as good in second class – well that’s what we told each other as we alighted, beaming with joy, at Reggio Emilia.
We were joined on our 2 kilometre hike to the Stadio Malpai by “John”. “John” (we had no idea if this was his name but he was a classic “John”), followed us off the train, under the subway and across the car park. Eventually he spoke to us, asking if we knew where the ground was. He was English, and apparently was here to “scout”, although wasn’t particularly forthcoming about who for or who he was scouting. He also seemed to think the ground was by the station, as opposed to a twenty-minute hike northwards.
As we reached the stadium, he sloped off, wishing us well although he did seem bereft of any mechanism to capture details of the game (aka a pen, pad, book or computer). We went through security, with the stewards asking us if we had any flares – apparently this was a very big No No in Reggio Emilia. As we walked into the stadium it was amazing to believe this was a top flight stadium. Basic is not a word you can use too often for stadiums in major leagues, but this summed it up perfectly. No facilities bar one tiny coffee bar, concrete steps with numbers painted on for seats and open to all the elements. At the far end around 1,500 Atalanta fans had made the journey eastwards from Bergamo, although the open air nature of the ground was diluting their efforts to create an atmosphere. But we didn’t care, we were watching football and it was bloody great.
Sassuolo 2 Atalanta 0 – The Mapei Stadium – Sunday 24th November 2013
In the grand scheme of things this was surprising result. In fact prior to the game when I checked the odds, Sassuolo were 7/2 to win the game, with the draw being the favourite. However, two second half goals by the home side gave them only their third win of the season, and more importantly three valuable points to ease them away from the bottom of the Serie A table.
The game wasn’t a classic – the fact that there was on average a free-kick every 110 seconds gives you an idea this was a stop/start game, and with just 10 shots on target it wont go down in the “classic” folder. The home fans in the “bullpit” at the bottom of our stand tried to create some atmosphere and a beat for their team but in the first period nothing seemed to gel. In fact the most impressive part of the first forty-five minutes was the sunset behind us.
However, in the second half, despite Antei receiving his marching orders for a second yellow, was dominated by Sassuolo. The danger man was the holding midfielder Luca Marrone who set up both goals in a three-minute period just after the hour mark scored by the two forwards Zaza and Berardi. Atalanta can have no grumbles at the end result, although the home keeper, Pegolo, was the busier of the two. Sassuolo have built a team that the locals are rightly proud of. Eleven Italian’s started the game, which in any major league these days is a miracle.
Many commentators wrote off Sassuolo’s hopes of survival before a ball was ever kicked this season, but the three points meant they sit in the Serie A table above the likes of Sampdoria and Bologna. They have earned their place at the top table, and they are certainly enjoying the feast.
For Adam and I full-time meant one thing. A hike back to the station, a couple of beers and a short hop back to Fat Town where il Rossublu and Inter would be providing our evening’s entertainment….To be continued.
More pictures from the afternoon can be found here.