Naples is a mixture of good and bad, new and old, with the Neapolitans passion for football evident everywhere, none more so than in the Stadio San Paolo, home of Napoli. It’s a place where visitors are always given a fervent and frankly dangerous welcome, especially if you’re English and your team is in town.
As you land at the airport and take a taxi through the noisy streets, it’s soon evident that Naples is a dirty city, with areas of immense poverty. It’s a city clouded in mystery in many ways. Only a short car journey down the coast is the beautiful resorts hugging the Amalfi coast and the area of Sorrento. It seems a different world from the capital of the Campania region.
Trouble in ‘paradise’
I was there for a quite boring (on the pitch) 0-0 draw between Napoli and Liverpool in the Europa League. We’d been warned to be careful when out and about around the city, and news filtered through of a few Liverpool supporters getting attacked the night before the game, with a dad and his son being the most serious with stab wounds.
Now I never wear colours to any game, never mind Napoli away. I prefer just to mingle in and enjoy any city I’m visiting. I treat it like a mini-holiday, have a few beers and relax. This couldn’t happen in Naples as you were always watching your back. Lads I knew were buying Napoli hats, pretty much like any European away game I go to, but it also provided a relief that they weren’t an easy target with the home colours on.
We got told to meet at the port to mount the coaches that would escort us to the ground. The coaches were full but instead of a quick 20-minute journey directly to the stadium, our Italian friends decided to take us on the longest route possible. It meant the journey took nearly 2 hours, not far off the flight time it took from the UK that morning. It was just another European away in that the hosts weren’t exactly hospitable.
Rumours flew round the coach that there was trouble at the drop off point at the ground and the water cannons were in action. We eventually got to the ground to be greeted by no sign off any trouble, so we quickly entered the ground.
Concrete jungle dreams are made of
The outside of the ground is a concrete jungle, pretty much like many stadiums in Spain and Italy. Inside, the ground is turned into a passionate bowl of 60,000 screaming fans, with an array of colour and flags, coupled with fireworks and explosions. It’s the opposite of say the Camp Nou, in that the Camp Nou is like going to a theatre and all the safeness that goes with that. The San Paolo is a sea of madness and chaos, mirroring the city it stands in.
The visitor’s section is high in the stands behind huge netting. The netting is up for a reason, in that it’s not uncommon for the home supporters to launch missiles at their visitors.
Even though the running track takes a little away, the noise and colour reached a fever pitch that is difficult to match anywhere in Europe. Down the south of Italy that have a feel of South America rather than the more cosmopolitan north cities of Milan, for example. It’s a north/south divide and they use this to demand that their players give every last drop to the battle. This ‘South American’ passion replicates itself inside the arena.
The Napoli Ultra’s wind their followers up into an almost blind frenzy, with their rhythmic chanting and mega phone led Capo’s (leaders). It’s a dated stadium now and I’m sure in the future, when the club cuts through Italian politics (and funds), a new ground will be built and the San Paolo will be lost forever.
The journey back to the city and eventually our hotel was complete madness. We got stopped on our coaches outside the ground whilst the riot police cleared the area of the Napoli Ultra’s trying to get at us. You could hear the Ultra’s chanting and the fire crackers going off like it was Bonfire Night back in England. It was cleared and off we went for the journey back to the port area.
We were then left to our own devices to walk along the front back to our hotel. The walk wasn’t without incident, with mopeds coming out from the darkness to intimidate us further. An unmarked police car pulled up urgently and jumped out on to two lads on a moped, presumably trying to attack us. Once back at the safety of the hotel a deserved beer or two was downed.
I’d been warned about Naples before going across both by football supporters I knew and also by Italian work colleagues at the time. It ticked every box that they had spoken about. It was indeed dangerous for a visiting supporter. Luckily, we came out in one piece. Others, sadly, haven’t been so lucky and I’m sure won’t be so lucky in the future.