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The Frayed Palace

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

A man sprints up the stadium steps and throws both middle fingers in the air, a deluge of Italian swear words gushing from a face crumpled by rage. Great, throaty strings of them. He's wearing a sleeveless AC Milan top with ribbons tied around each bicep, like a cage fighter living out an 80s action fantasy.


Way up towards the top of the stand sits a bold pocket of Napoli fans. They don't care about the abuse coming their way, and their assailant doesn't really care enough to bother going further towards them either. He can swear just fine from down here, and that's all he needs to do. He's at least in his 30s - if not older - all control of his emotions evaporated as he shouts at this distant group of happy people. Football can make grown men act in ways that are distinctly unlike grown men.

 

The San Siro is on every stadium bucket list. It's one of the greats, one of the icons. A palace, but now a slightly frayed palace. It's also likely in its last few years, so you need to get there while you can. And honestly, you really do need to get there.

Getting AC Milan tickets

Milan is a huge city, Italy's second largest, and is not one of those places where the game day buzz sweeps the entire town. It is too graceful for that, too dignified, too oversized Prada sunglasses. But as the metro closes in on the San Siro, the trains get busier, the replica shirts more common, the carriages louder.



I walk from the metro station and there it is, glowing in the dark across a sweep of concrete. The famous spirals reaching upwards, cradling the upper tier. Those great steel roof supports, jutting unapologetically outwards at each corner. There are very few grounds in the world more instantly recognisable than the San Siro.


Crowds are gathering around, anticipating an important win. This might not be one of the great Milan sides, but they are the champions of Italy and the very idea that a team from Naples, the armpit of Italy as far as the Milanese are concerned, might come to Milan and win is simply too distasteful to consider.


To enter the ground, you do need to show ID. I had my passport but looking around plenty of people were using a driving licence. Once inside I make my way up to the top tier of the Curva Sud, winding endlessly up one of the great spirals. Shuffling footsteps and the excited chatter of many languages reverberate around the concrete until finally the top is in sight.


This ground is huge, and the top tier is a long way up. I look around for my block, confused as it seems not to exist. I ask a steward and he smiles. 'Up, up up and left,' he tells me in broken English. Somehow there is another tier within the tier, and my seat is even higher. Eventually I find it. Never has the phrase 'up in the gods' been more appropriate, and yet there are still about twenty rows behind me.


As kick off approaches, the stadium lights dim and spotlights race around the pitch. Way below me, the ultras lead as each name is bellowed back. Flags wave across their middle tier and the noise grows.

Milan's ultras were once known as the 'Fossa dei Leoni', a group which ruled the Curva Sud for over three decades. All empires fall eventually, though, and a 2005 match against Juventus left the Fossa falling apart. Two of their banners were stolen - in the world of ultras, this is the ultimate humiliation, and yet it was not the fatal blow. Hoping to get their banners back, members of the Fossa then colluded with Italian law enforcement, breeching the one golden rule of the ultra subculture. The damage was too great, their reputation could never be recovered. Just weeks after the Juve match, the Fossa disbanded.


Today the 'Curva Sud Milano' operate on the middle tier, all flags and noise and passion. With both teams on the pitch, a minute's silence is held for the victims of flooding in the Italian town of Marche, and some Napoli fans in the top of the Curva Nord sing into the quiet night. They are quickly drowned out by whistles.


The game kicks off and is a surreal experience. You don't quite realise how much noise you hear from the pitch during a game until you experience a match where none can be heard at all. From all the way up here I feel weirdly disconnected from the game, like it's being played inside a thick glass case upon which I'm looking down from the outside. The noise of the stands is powerful and constant, but the pitch itself is distant and silent.



The fans below run through their repertoire of songs and, as Milan win back to back corners, the noise grows to new levels. Nothing comes of them and, unusually among ultras, the flags are soon rolled up and laid down, only to be brought out again just before half time. They applaud the players off with it tightly balanced at 0-0 and the second half begins anxiously.


A fire cracker goes off in the Napoli section, the boom whipping across the ground. After just ten minutes, Napoli's rising star Kvicha Kvaratskhelia is tackled clumsily. The ref gives a corner, only for VAR to intervene. He checks the monitor and, perhaps reluctantly, awards Napoli a penalty right in front of the Curva Sud. Despite the fans' whistles, Matteo Politano is not to be put off and the visitors from the south - so often derided in the wealthy north as impoverished, unwashed and diseased - take the lead. Silence around me; a distant roar way up in that remote corner of the Curva Nord. Bizarrely, there are a few rogue cheers from Napoli fans openly supporting their team in the home section.


Milan squander chance after chance and frustration grows and grows, until finally, the great release. The ball flies across the area and Olivier Giroud sweeps it in. The roar shakes the tired old stadium and crashes out across the city. The flags wave. Men who were incensed at the presence of the Napoli fans nearby focus all their energy on revenge.

But the revenge is short-lived. Giovanni Simeone heads Napoli back into the lead and there they remain. Below me the ultras put the flags up again, desperate to push the team onwards. Some turn and wave their arms at the fans behind them, leading them in song, pleading for more noise, more energy to pass on to the team. But it is in vain. The great unwashed have swept into the sophisticated heartland of Italian society, and taken the victory.


Walking back towards the city, car horns blare and a police helicopter circles overhead. It has been a painful night for the home fans, but watching matches in one of football's greatest venues makes it that much easier to take.

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