Tales From Curva A

Napoli vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2012.

There is no doubt that Italy is my favourite European destination; I have been a huge fan of its charms since my first visit in June 1975. Despite numerous trips – 5 family holidays, 6 Inter-Rail trips, 3 Juventus trips and 3 Chelsea trips – I was more than happy that Chelsea were drawn against SSC Napoli in the quarters of this season’s Champions League competition.

I have some history with Napoli.

Way back in the summer of 1981, on holiday on the Riviera di Ponente, I treated myself to a superb magazine which reviewed the 1980-1981 football season. The publication – a thorough review of all games, goals and goalscorers – contained hundreds of action photographs and I can remember being enthralled at the sight of exotic players and stadia alike. At the time, I was well aware of the top teams in Italy; Serie A was dominated by the northern teams Juventus, Torino, Milan and Inter, plus the two Rome powerhouses Roma and Lazio. I was aware of Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Genoa. But one team intrigued me. The photographs of Napoli, playing in front of vast crowds in their mammoth stadium struck a chord. The team had no “scudetto” to their name, yet regularly drew crowds of 50,000 and above. The Dutch master Ruud Krol was their most famous player in that team. Their stadium resembled the Maracana. I daydreamed of how intense the match day experience would be in the heat of that infamous Italian town.

When the club signed Diego Armando Maradona in 1984, I knew only too well that the locals would idolise the little Argentinian maestro, who was still smarting from two largely unremarkable seasons with Barcelona. In Maradona’s third season – 1986-1987 – Napoli won their first ever championship. I can well remember the fleeting glimpses of a troubled city celebrating a league win like nobody else. The TV footage showed a cauldron of fanaticism I had hardly witnessed before. I was suitably impressed.

While travelling around Italy in 1987 and 1988 by train on month long Inter-Rail passes, I saw a game in Milan and two in Turin. However, in November 1988, I flew out to Turin for my first ever trip to Europe for a football match and a football match alone.

Juventus vs. Napoli.

One of the vivid memories of this trip took place thousands of feet above Turin. I had just woken from a short nap. The plane was turning and circling around on its approach into the airport at Caselle. A piece of Italian classical music was playing on the plane’s radio. Down below, the lights of the city’s grid-pattern streets were shining. It was a moment that has lasted to this day. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement.

My good friend Tullio and I joined the ranks of the bianconeri on the distinti terrace in the old Stadio Communale. Although I was – and am still – a follower of Juve, there is no doubt that I was lured to Turin on this particular occasion to witness Maradona in the flesh. Juventus boasted Michael Laudrup, Luigi D’Agostini, Rui Barros and Alexander Zavarov, but the little Argentinian was the main attraction. One of the vagaries of Italian football is that teams do not go through their pre-match routines on the pitch. They perform their pre-game rituals and drills in the changing rooms, away from the madding crowd. This heightened the sense of drama for me. With five minutes to go before kick-off, the caterpillar-like tunnel was extended out in front of the baying Juventini in the Curva Filadelfia.

The two teams appeared.

And there he was. Diego Maradona. I was in awe.

At the time, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team was changing the way that football was being played in Italy. The defensive stranglehold of catennaccio was slowly giving way to a more liberal form of football, but goals were still a premium in Italy. Games tended to end 0-0, 1-0 and 2-0.

Much to Tullio’s consternation and my shock, the result of the game on that day 24 years ago ended Juventus 3 Napoli 5. It was a stunning result. Napoli were 3-0 up at half-time and Tullio wanted to go home. Thankfully, I made him stay and Juve got it back to 2-3, before the game went away from them. Away to our right, in the Curva Maratona, thousands of Napoli fans held their light blue scarves aloft. Another one of those memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhE0voYR-uU

I visited Naples, albeit very briefly, either side of that game in Turin. In March 1988, I used it as a stopping-off point on the way down to Pompei . On a wet and cold afternoon, I virtually had all of Pompei to myself. It was one of those moments when I was able to let my imagination run riot, fantasising about life in a Roman town centuries ago. On my return into Naples, I remember having a very quick walk around the cramped Neopolitan streets, taking a grainy photograph of Mount Vesuvius and grabbing a slice of pizza. Then, in September 1990, there was even more of a fleeting glimpse of Naples as I changed trains on a journey from Reggio de Calabria north to Rome and beyond. On that occasion, I think I only ventured a few yards from the Naples train station.

It was time to return.

At 9am on the Monday, I headed over the Mendip Hills towards Bristol Airport. For the first time ever, I would be beginning a European trip from my most local airport. From there, I was flying to Rome, and then catching a train down to Naples on the day of the game. My friends Alan and Gary were already on their way to Rome from Heathrow. The Mendip Hills were mined for various minerals during the Roman occupation of these shores and the area is traversed with roads which owe their existence to the Romans. With Glastonbury Tor visible to the south, atop a hill in the tranquil Vale of Avalon, I drove along several long straight stretches of old Roman road.

What is it they say about all roads leading to Rome?

The flight from Bristol to Rome Fiumcino airport lasted around two-and-a-half hours and enabled me to relax and ponder the attractions that awaited me. I bumped into two Chelsea fans, Emma and Tony, who were as surprised as me to see other Chelsea fans on the flight. The EasyJet magazine taught me two things; kissing in public in the city of Naples used to result in the death penalty in the sixteenth century and the term “tifosi” comes from the typhoid-like fervour of the Italian football fans. I remember Northern Italian teams’ fans taunting the Napoli fans in the ‘eighties when an outbreak of cholera hit the city.

The simple chant of “Cholera! Cholera!” shamed the Neapolitans. No doubt they had a response, though.

I was last in the Italian capital for our game with Roma in late 2008. I quickly caught the city-bound train and soon found myself passing through the murky hinterland of the Rome suburbs. I was reminded of how much the locals seem to admire the early-eighties style graffiti which originated in New York. The weather was overcast. It was raining. The surprisingly bleak weather saddened me. I hoped that my brief spell in Italy would not be spent dashing in and out of the rain.

At 5pm, I knocked on the door of room 302 of the Yes Hotel on Via Magenta. This was the same hotel we used in 2008. Alan welcomed me to Italy with a bottle of Peroni. I was given the middle bed of three and I couldn’t resist a joke about myself waking in the middle of the night, imagining that I was Franz Klammer, the great downhill skier. Alan and Gary roared with laughter. The jokes continued all evening and we tried not to talk about the football. We caught a cab down to Piazza Barberini where we met up with Julie and Burger, the CL away trip virgins. We decamped into a quiet bar and caught our breath. Thankfully the rain had stopped. The evening was mild. The beers started to flow and the laughter, too. We spoke briefly about the on-going CPO debacle, but then Burger bought a round of amaretto. The football talk soon subsided. Julie spoke of how much she was enjoying her first ever visit to Italy. I managed to lock myself in the toilet.

We moved into Via Sestini and enjoyed a lovely meal. Another beer. We were roaring with laughter all of the way through it. Davie from Scotland, who I ironically first met in Rome in 2008, joined us and we ended the evening in an Irish pub off Via del Corso. More beers, a limoncelo, some strawberry vodkas. On Peter Osgood’s birthday, we toasted the great man. It is hard to believe that it is six years since that saddest of days.

I can well remember the visit to Rome I took with several Chelsea mates in late 1999 – the goalless draw with Lazio. On that occasion, none other than Ron Harris and Peter Osgood were amongst the 2,000 Chelsea fans in the Curva Sud that night. After the game, we were allowed on to Ron and Ossie’s coach back to the city centre. In the hotel lobby, we kept ourselves to ourselves, not wishing to pester either of them. That was a Rome memory to last an eternity, though.

It was 1.30am and time to get to bed. It had been a great night. We caught a cab back, past the imposing Vittorio Emanuele monument, and arranged to meet at the Termini station the next day.

“I’m off to get some beauty sleep” said Alan.”I’ll wake up in August.”

After a filling breakfast, we all met up on the platform of the main station a mere 500 yards away. Davie had spent until 5.30am in a nightclub, just as he had in 2008. On that occasion, he awoke outside on a roundabout.

Thankfully, he awoke in his own bed this time. The train to Naples left at 9.50am. Thankfully, clear skies greeted us. While Alan and Gary tried to get some shut-eye, Davie and I chatted about our love for Chelsea, but for football in general. Like me, Davie shares the opinion that we are here for the people and the camaraderie rather than the mind-numbing pursuit of silver wear and glory. We spoke of games past, of childhood heroes, of the Dundee United team of 1983, the Highbury game in 2004, of the 1982 World Cup. We spoke about the game in Naples.

Davie : “It could go one of two ways. Could be the best away trip ever. Could be an absolute nightmare.”

Chris : “It just feels right for us to be going in to this as the underdog. Chelsea as the underdog is our role in things.”

Although a self-confessed Chelsea nut, Davie has not visited The Bridge for two years. Like many of us, he is fed up of the current vibe at home games; full of silent dolts. Davie much prefers the rough and tumble of the away enclosure.

Outside, the Appenine Hills were flying past. I took plenty of photographs of many a hilltop village, perched upon light grey rock. Above, peaks were dusted in snow. The sky was blue.

Italy. Ti amo.

Gary, Alan, Davie and I hopped into a cab at Naples main train station to take us to our respective hotels. The first thing I noticed was that the cabbie’s Neapolitan accent was thicker and richer than that of the north of Italy. I guess, actually, that it was a dialect and not an accent. As I looked out at the densely packed streets, all of my memories of Naples came crashing back to me. The cabbie gave us a drive to remember; carving other drivers up, tooting his horn, talking on his phone and pointing his cab head first into ridiculously small spaces. As we neared our hotel on Via Melisurgo, he almost collided with a mother pushing a pram. He began shouting at her and I am convinced that the little bambino raised a finger.

Welcome to Naples.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable pre-match in Naples. We spent around three hours walking around the immediate area of our hotel, which was close to Castel Nuovo. Of course, Mount Vesuvius, across the bay, totally dominates any view of Naples. I took many photographs of its looming presence. One can only imagine the horror of the eruption which caused such devastation on Pompei and Herculaneum in AD79. We walked past the little bar which was full of Chelsea day-trippers on the official club trip. A few familiar faces. Most had taken heed of the club’s advice to eschew club colours. During the day, I only saw a handful of idiots who were brazenly wearing Chelsea shirts.

Our walking tour took us from the waterside, past the Castel Nuovo and up to the Royal Palace. The skies were still blue and the weather was lovely. As we walked up the slight incline of Via San Carlo, I became lost in my own little world. Let me explain.

My father was in the RAF during the closing years of the Second World War. His experiences were explained to me on many occasions and he was wise enough to capture a lot of his travels on film. Maybe I have inherited my love of travel photography from him. His first posting overseas, in 1944, was to Jerusalem, but he spent most of his active service in North Africa, in Tripoli and Algiers. He was a wireless operator in Wellington bombers, serving in coastal command. As the war ended, he spent time in Malta and then travelled up through Italy before returning home in 1946 or so. However, for six months, my dear father was billeted in the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. I would imagine that hotel rooms were very scarce and so the RAF commandeered the large theatre, stripped out the seats and filled the auditorium with bunk beds. What Dad’s role was during this time is not really known. I would imagine that he fulfilled an administrative role, perhaps helping to get the war-stricken natives back on the road to recovery. There are photographs in his album of trips, with his pals, to Taormina on Sicily and to Pompei.

At the top of the hill, the grand bulk of the San Carlo Opera House was visible to my left. Alan took a few photographs of me outside. During a quiet few moments, I walked into the booking hall of the theatre and peered inside at the cool marble steps leading up to the doors to the auditorium. For a few fleeting moments, I easily imagined Dad walking down those steps, in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, suntanned, heading out for a day’s sightseeing with a couple of his friends.

“Ah, this is the life, Half Pint” gleamed Hank.

“Yes, indeed it is. RAF West Kirby seems a long way away” replied Reg.

“Pompei here we come” bellowed Jock.

From RAF West Kirby on The Wirrall to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples took Dad four years during the Second World War. It had taken me a mere ten days.

In the Plaza del Plebiscito, we bumped into Mark and Nick, Charlie and Pete. There had been news of a Chelsea fan getting stabbed down at the main station. We were lucky; this was the posh end of the city and I didn’t feel at risk. While Alan and Gary chatted to the lads, I wandered around the gently sloping piazza, spotting a new vista of Vesuvius, taking it all in. I was sure that Dad would have walked on these cobbles, witnessed these views. I wanted to position myself right in the centre of the square in order to get a symmetric view of the Royal Palace. I spotted a manhole cover and realised that it cut the piazza in half. I stood on it and took a photo looking east and a photo looking west.

Perfect.

I then happened to glance down at the manhole and spotted that there was a year embossed upon it.

1993.

I lost my father on April 17th 1993 – into my thoughts he came again.

It was 2.45pm and we were in need of sustenance. Alan, Gary and I dipped into a lovely little pizzeria on Via Chiala. We ordered some ice cold Peroni – bliss! – and then a pizza apiece. I opted for the Diavolo (devil) pizza and it was only five euros. The buffalo mozzarella was so creamy, the tomato sauce was so fresh, the pizza base was so perfect. The single chilli which gave the pizza its name was red hot. It was the best pizza ever. The locals were smiling. They knew who we were. As we left we said –

“Grazie mille e forza Chelsea.”

They smiled again.

We walked back down the hill, the evening chill now hitting hard. I picked up my match ticket and my passport from my hotel room, then joined Alan and Gary opposite in a small bar, full of Chelsea fans. We chatted to a few familiar faces – Pauline, Mick, Digger, Shaun, Pete, Eva, Neil – and had a couple more beers. We pondered our chances.

The mood was not great. There was a feeling that we could be in for a hiding.

We walked over to the assembly point at 6.45pm. The day trippers had departed earlier – maybe around 5pm. Good job we hung back a little. We sat on the bus for 45 minutes. Eventually we set off. The stadium is not far from the city centre, but the route we took lasted about an hour. Around ten coaches set off. There was a heavy police escort, not surprisingly. The coach hugged the road by the port and then climbed up onto the elevated expressway which circumnavigated the city. Although we were not to know it until after, we were taken east, then north, then west, then south. The stadium was due west. The locals would not get a chance to ambush us. The city looked on as our coach drove high on elevated bridges, and then delved deep into long tunnels. Apartment blocks were everywhere. The dark shadowy mass of hills appeared and then disappeared. Vesuvius, unseen in the distance, but looming still. Trizia of the CSG and I chatted about Naples and its team. I spoke to her of Maradona in 1988. I made the point that as I saw Maradona playing for his club team, doing his 9 to 5 job, then this made that particular experience all the more real. We had heard about the leaked team sheet and I wondered if it was a Mourinho-esque ploy to confuse the locals. Shades of Jose against Barca in 2005 in fact. As we drove on, I kept describing the city as a sprawling mess. I’m sure there is no place like it in Europe. Sure it is crime-ridden, it is strewn with the detritus of modern life, its walls are covered in graffiti, the houses are cramped, the washing dries on overhead lines, the traffic is noisy, the place is dirty.

But what energy the place exudes.

I crave different experiences in my support of Chelsea these days; Naples fits the bill tenfold.

Eventually, we were underneath the shadows of the stadium. Out in into the drizzle of a Neapolitan night. We marked our territory by having a mass toilet break against a nearby wall. We were given a brief search by the police and we were inside the stadium. Despite its size – it once held 80,000 – the place was very shabby. I half expected lumps of concrete to fall during the game when the ultras began jumping. I could already hear them bellowing their songs.

Underneath the entrance to the away section, Alan and Gary had stopped for a word with Tom. Alongside him was the almost mythical figure of Icky, resplendent in green bomber jacket, baseball cap, jeans and boots. He had travelled from the Phillipines for this one. I took a classic photo of Tom, Gary and Alan against a backdrop of Italian police, riot shields to the fore.

The stadium now holds 60,000, but there were many empty seats in the small lower tier. The Napoli fans were making a din, though – waving their flags, bellowing songs, whistling when we had the temerity to show support of our team. Our section filled up slowly. Initially, I guessed at around 1,000 had braved the ferocity of the locals. In the end, I guess it was nearer 1,500. Despite a few youngsters and a few women, the bulk of our support was male and was aged 40 to 55. Solid old school. Faces from our hooligan past. Faces from the good old bad old days. Faces from away trips up and down the length of England. One family of Chelsea die-hards. Don’t step on us.

We began to spot hundreds of cigarette lighters flickering at both ends of the stadium; Curva A, which we shared to the south end of the stadium, and Curva B, to the north. The choreography and the anthem, the flares and the cheers of the Napoli ultras.

This is it.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50688829162658

I wanted to avoid an early goal – but I feared the worst.

Away in the north curve, I spotted a massive banner – striscione – which I struggled to decipher.

“Come Pioggia Scende Al Cuore Copisce Come Un Leone Ruggisce.”

Pioggia means rain. It was raining. Surely the fans who had written the banner don’t leave it until the very last minute to decide on a pertinent phrase for each game. However, knowing the organisational skill of the capos among the ultras, then nothing would surprise me.

Mata’s neat finish sent us all into a jumping, bounding, leaping frenzy. What a quite magnificent moment.

How we sang.

“We are the Chelsea and we are the best…”

Maybe Davie was right – this would be the best away game ever.

Befuddled AVB, at odds with the senior players, somehow managing to outthink the attacking prowess of the Napoli team?

Think again.

Two goals in the last ten minutes of the first-half caused us much pain. Lavezzi’s curler just eluded Petr Cech and Cavani appeared like a ghost at the far post to squeeze the ball in. The sight of Cavani running towards the moat which encircles the running track, tugging at his shirt, his face contorted with ecstasy will live with me, unfortunately, for years.

After each goal, a thunderous roar. Flares behind each goal.

If only Ramires had not thundered over at 1-1. If only Brana’s wonder run had resulted in a shot. If only Luiz’ header had gone in.

If only.

At the break, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if we should go for it and attack or aim for damage limitation. Before the game, I would have been very contented with a 2-1 reverse. But here, in the shadows of the San Paolo, I was worried that more goals would cascade into our goal.

Chances were spurned at both ends in the second-half, but lamentable defending gifted Lavezzi an easy second.

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

And still chances came. Thank heavens that Ashley Cole cleared from the goal line. At the other end, Drogba spurned a late chance. My God, 3-2 would give us a huge chance in the return leg. The substitutes Lampard and Essien offered little.

The whistle blew and the Napoli fans knew exactly what to do next. They hoisted their blue and white scarves and the club song echoed around the cavernous stadium. Parts of the anthem sounded too close to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for comfort, so we all soon descended into the area below. We stood and chatted. A few moments of gallows humour, but glum faces. I chatted to five from Bristol; Tim’s wife had been swiped on her back with a belt buckle just a few yards from the stadium. Such attacks were thankfully rare. We had met up with Rob at half-time and he rode with us on the hour long coach ride back to the centre. We were dropped off at the port just before 1am, some two and a half hours or so after the game had ended.

The Chelsea fans fled from the coaches into the Neapolitan night. The bar opposite our hotel was closed and so we decided to get some sleep.

On the train trip back to Rome, we shared our compartment with a Neapolitan girl, returning to her university in Rome. She was a Napoli fan – you get the impression that all Neapolitans support Napoli –but had been at Stamford Bridge in April for the Chelsea vs. Tottenham game. She said that her boyfriend was a Chelsea follower. I am so pleased that she didn’t say that she favoured Tottenham.

That, my friends, would have been too much.

She helped me translate the striscione. It went something like –

“As rain falls … strikes at the heart … like a roaring lion.”

As the train headed north, an itinerant salesman was peddling Napoli souvenirs and he tried to get us to buy his wares. Not only was I upset about the previous evening’s game, I remembered 1988 too. On my European travels, I often get souvenirs of the clubs that I visit. In this case, I was happy to make an exception.

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

At the moment, it feels that we are a sprawling mess of a football club.

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

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