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September 30 2020 3.35am

The Italian job

July 1 2001

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace

The HOL team won a trip to Italy as prize for having the best independent football website by the Guardian newspaper.

The classic was when we were in the lift. It stopped on one of the floors and who looks through the doors as they open? The man himself. He saw it was us and got another lift!

The game itself was the biggest of the season as Juventus were top of Serie A, and Lazio six points behind them in second place, would close the gap to just three points if they won.

Outside the hotel crowds gathered, peering in through the glass doors amidst tight security, as the build-up to the game was immense. I tried acting like a footballer walking through the crowds at the entrance but I don't think it worked.

Early Saturday evening saw the team leave the hotel with a police escort through the crowds of people and we made the less glamorous trip via tram to the stadium.

The stadium itself looked like a giant UFO. It was specially constructed for the World Cup in 1990 and also shared by Torino.

Just like England, there were thousands of people milling outside eating burgers and waving flags but I found it difficult not to trip over the ticket touts and hundreds of beer bottles lying on the floor.

We saw for the first time Italy's much maligned carabinieri, the branch of police responsible for keeping public order, and what a hard bunch they were.

They are the equivalent of English riot police but with massive guns and looked unlikely to take any hassle from drunken hooligans.

After a long time in the queue, we entered the stadium coming out at the top tier and was amazed at the sight - it certainly wasn't Selhurst Park.

I have never seen a stadium like it. Not even my visits to the cream of English stadia, Old Trafford, Anfield and Wembley could compare to this.

The 'ultras' is the name given to the hardcore supporters who generate spectacular, co-ordinated display of banners, flags and fireworks at every game and each club has its own group.

Italian clubs see the importance of having good support at games and offer reduced-priced tickets for games.

FlaresHere the Juventus ultras were visible behind the both goals and were singing non-stop, banging drums and waving flags.

Down below, the Juve and Lazio teams were warming up, but as we were so high up, we could barely make out the numbers on the back of their shirts.

As the players ran out, the ultras displayed a communal show of coloured cards creating a colourful display of the Italian flag.

The match itself was a different class and it was end-to-end stuff. The passion of the Italian crowd was evident, and no matter what country you are in the referee always gets abuse - "Il arbitro bastardo!" was a common phrase.

The Juve ultras were lighting flares and setting them off onto the running track below where firemen would put them out.

During the game, the Juve ultras threw a flare into the Lazio end and the Lazio fans responded by chucking coins and lighters back. It was nothing the carabinieri could not handle anyway.

At half-time, the Italians drank beer in their seats and the players returned to an amazing firework display by the ultras behind each goal.

The second half saw continued noise from the ultras and chanting was co-ordinated by a man with a megaphone standing between the crowd and the pitch, directing the constant flow of songs, hand waving, humour and abuse.

Simeone scored the winning goal for Lazio, 55,000 out of the 60,000 crowd went silent and you could barely hear the travelling 5,000 Lazio.

The Juve ultras kept the noise going, and the team had their chances, but it was not enough.

The game ended as a 1-0 win to Lazio and the Juve fans trudged home, despondent, knowing they had a real battle on their hands for the Italian championship - lo scudetto. Lazio eventually won it.

For us it was a memorable footballing experience unmatched anywhere else. Of course, there's always Grimsby away on wet Wednesday night!


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