Blinking into the blazing Tuscan sunshine I had to stop for a moment and catch myself. Looking back, it was verging on scandalous that I didn’t appreciate the sumptuous charm sprawling out before my aching eyes, but at that point I wasn’t in any state to take stock. Not a soul stirred as the valley rolled away behind the red-slated rooftops behind me.
Consciousness reluctantly crawled back into my mind as my shrivelled pupils adjusted with the enthusiasm of a truant school child being dragged into the headmaster’s study. OK, first things first: work out where the stadium is. Hang on, where’s my ticket? Ah yes… Last night in Turin was almost as eventful as the early hours in Milan. I need help.
Just like that a brief flash of pink emerged into my field of view, shrouded by an arm in a tweed jacket. It belonged to a man that could have been anywhere between 40 and 70 years of age at first glance. Wisps of white hair and a leathery complexion disputed the beaming sparkle in his piercing blue eyes.
To be precise, the pink belonged to his copy of that morning’s Corriere dello Sport, Italy’s leading daily sports paper. This was promising; surely he could only have come to such an idyllic setting with that in his possession if he had the same destination as I did: Stadio Alessio Nardini, to watch Castelnuovo di Garfagnana against Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor (SPAL) in Italy’s then-fourth tier Serie C2B.
“Mi scusi, dovè il stadio?”
Taking pity on this helpless foreigner who at least appeared to share his interests, the kindly eyes glowed as a knowing grin began to spread across his face. It wasn’t quite pity behind them, but more a recognition of a kindred soul at a different stage to his own. He’d not even uttered a word and yet I could tell he had some epic tales to tell. How little I realised right then that I couldn’t have been more accurate.
It turned out that Paolo was waiting for his friend to pick him up and take him back to his terrace patio to feast on freshly picked tomatoes, mozzarella, olives, ham, bread and red wine before heading to the game together. This not being a reserved country he extended an invitation to me to join him; needless to say, I accepted quickly.
It’s funny how quickly one’s fortunes can change. One slip in midfield and Demba Ba can shatter your title hopes; half an hour earlier, and I had groggily opened my eyes to find myself alone in a train carriage with little idea where I was.
As we climbed upwards through the winding hillside roads with the promise of delicious nourishment, Paolo explained that he was attending the game in a professional capacity. Modena were a second-tier side at the time, and Paolo had been sent to this charming slice of Tuscany to run the rule over Luigi Grassi, a left-footed midfielder pulling strings for Castelnuovo.
Previously he had worked for Fiorentina for whom he had spotted a spotty Portuguese kid and a lethal Dutch striker who have gone on to score over 1,000 career goals. Unfortunately for La Viola, the €5 million price tag for Cristiano Ronaldo – a year before he moved to Manchester United for three times that amount – was deemed too much, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar also remained out of reach.
For context, this encounter took place during the 2006/07 season. Juventus were playing in Serie B following their enforced relegation punishment due to their involvement in the Calciopoli betting scandal. SPAL have managed to go bust twice, reform twice, and return to Serie A after merging with another club. The last time they were in the top flight Fabio Capello made his debut for them, and Denis Law punched a SPAL player out cold on the Paolo Mazza pitch while playing his ill-fated season at Torino.
As a workshy student based in Ferrara I spent the entirety of season following football up and down the country, including the nearest Serie A side, Bologna, to Turin the previous day. Darren took a similar line of priorities and rather than sample the stunningly preserved medieval architecture of our city we ventured out in support of whichever team we could. The fact that we would need to take two trains to get from Turin to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, leaving at 5am and changing in Milan, was more of a challenge than a deterrent.
Bologna were struggling against relegation but took the lead through Claudio Bellucci in the blazing sunshine. As a former Napoli player he relished stunning The Old Lady and playing the pantomime villain. Our tickets were right by the pitch and in the home fans’ section so we were forced to keep schtum. This was in city rivals Torino’s Stadio Olimpico while Juve’s Allianz Stadium was being built; it is a wide open bowl of a ground with no place to hide from the scorching overhead sun.
This was a Juventus side, don’t forget, that still boasted legendary figures such as Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, David Trezeguet and Claudio Marchisio. Del Piero equalised before half time, but with five minutes to go the scores were still level and the tension was furiously threatening to boil over; the heat, the antagonism of Bellucci, the scoreline… two Bologna red cards and goals from Del Piero and Trezeguet later, and all was finally well.
We later met up with my friend Helen who was studying in the city. She would go on to be commended as the best student in the degree ceremony when we both graduated from university. The plan was simple: drink until our train left in the early hours, then hope we got on the right one. What could go wrong?
That night there was a huge open-air reggae concert in the centre. A few cans later, and we found ourselves en route to underground venue that would be best described as alternative. A few weeks later Helen happened to be in the same place when a police sting operation busted a well-known cocaine distributor who operated out of the club.
Somehow we had the presence of mind to stagger towards the train station by around 4am where we decamped to a pool hall still open. More remarkably we made it onto the train an hour later where we promptly passed out, having checked that Darren still had out train tickets and match tickets for the next day.
The loud screech of metal grinding on metal rudely dragged me back to reality. Milano Centrale. 10:21. We had five minutes to get off the train, find the platform we needed and get on before our final leg parted. Panic, unwelcome adrenaline, drunkenness and hangover are not a pleasant combination, but I had no choice. Shaking Darren I shouted that we had to get off, and he grunted his understanding.
To add urgency to proceedings I yelled at him again and got off the train. It seemed the logical thing to do, although a few moments later it proved otherwise. Fortunately the train we required was across the same platform, and assuming he had stumbled onto another carriage I began searching the new train to find him.
In hindsight, the fact I hadn’t thought to physically drag him with me seems foolish. Unsurprisingly he had been unable to wake himself and remained on the first train as it pulled out of the station back to Turin, along with both my entire return train tickets and tickets for the match.
Had I been sensible, however, I would most likely never have spoken to Paolo at our final destination nor accepted the invitation to a home-cooked lunch. Paolo’s friend pulled into his drive and shepherded us onto his patio with a glorious view of the sprawling countryside below. The wooden table was already prepared with a sumptuous array of nourishment. The after effects of the night before were rapidly melting away.
As we sat down and gulped down layers of cheese and olive oil, our host’s beautiful teenage daughter Francesca brought out the wine. After probably gazing just a moment longer than was socially acceptable at her entrancing appearance, the cheeky glint returned to Paolo’s eyes. He invited her to join us at the game later, for which he had already offered to me his complimentary +1 in the VIP section.
It was a generous description of where we sat. There were simply a few rows of ordinary plastic bowl seats reserved for a few dozen directors, coaches and guests that differed not a jot from all the others in the main stand. We did at least take our seats alongside the directors which allowed me to surreptitiously eavesdrop on some exclusive conversation.
The match itself was the last of the regular season, and there was nothing at stake for either side. SPAL couldn’t make automatic promotion but were already guaranteed a playoff spot too, while Castelnuovo were safe from relegation. Our man Grassi was starting on the left wing in front of us during the first half, while SPAL numbered former Swiss international Davide Sesa, who was a member of Artur Jorge’s squad at Euro ‘96 without making it off the bench.
SPAL strolled into a comfortable two-nil lead before Castelnuovo’s man mountain of a centre forward, Eduardo Micchi, bulleted home a header from a deep free kick in the second half. “Did you see who sent over the free kick?” Paolo asked. Our conversation had flowed as smoothly as the lunchtime wine, and had rarely set upon the match itself. In truth the game seemed a relatively distant priority.
As I scanned the celebrations to try and figure out who had laid the goal on a plate for Micchi it was impossible to miss the long, wavy Italian locks of Grassi being mobbed by his teammates. Paolo grinned. “I’ll be telling my boss about him.”
As it turned out, Grassi never actually signed for Modena, but after Castelnuovo collapsed he signed for none other than SPAL themselves.
Even at that, the high-point of the game for the few hundred home fans, there was hardly a terrifying roar. If anything, the mood around the 1,500-capacity stadium was more in sync with the warm, yellow summer afternoon enveloping it than the events on the pitch itself. A light ripple rose above a murmur, a reaction that could just as easily have bubbled over from an amusing joke. Little were they to know that a year later there would be no atmosphere at all as their club would fold completely out of existence.
The far side of the ground was deserted of any structure whatsoever, while the few travelling fans were housed in a temporary metal stand a good 20 metres from the pitch. By any reasonable standards this was not a stadium to visit for pulsating adrenalin. The contrast to the day before in the midst of a heated cauldron fueled by the country’s most loved and hated club was quite something.
The final score was a comfortable 3-1 win for SPAL as the sun dipped lazily below the skyline. There remained one last task: getting home. Impoverished as I was, buying another train ticket wasn’t an option without running the gauntlet of dodging ticket inspectors for over six hours. A quick word between Paolo and the visiting support and a lift by car for me had been arranged.
It certainly hadn’t been a conventional weekend away, but it had thrown up some startling and refreshing contrasts. The sheer scale of a crucial match in the Serie B title run-in obviously dwarfed any on-pitch tensions a fourth-tier dead rubber could offer. As we pulled in to Ferrara train station after hours of raucous rambling, and a chaotic weekend of calcio, I realised the contrast no longer mattered.