Terrible ticketing and terrific Totti: A Milan retrospective Part I

As the whistle blew to signal kick-off in Bergamo, I had mixed feelings. Yes, I was excited for the match, but this isn’t how it was meant to be.

I stood alongside three of my friends whilst the other five, from our travelling party of nine, were sat in a café underneath the stand at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, sheltered from the inclement weather yet not exposed to the sporting delight that was about to unfold on the pitch.

Though to even be in the position I was in was extremely fortunate, despite the fact we had planned well ahead.

The big game

Originally, we were never even going to watch the game we were at, a six-goal thriller between Atalanta BC and AS Roma, but rather Milan-based Internazionale versus Napoli at the San Siro. That was until it was rearranged to the day before, meaning we wouldn’t get to Italy in time to see the game.

Not to worry, though, because contingencies were in place.

One such contingency plan was to go and see Atalanta host Roma, and the tickets were available online… to fans with a Tessera del tifoso card – an identity document brought in to clamp down on hooliganism and fan trouble in Italian football.

Usually, that wouldn’t be a problem. I would have been happy to acquire a TDT card, even at an additional cost, but on the Atalanta website the cards can only be mailed to postal addresses in Italy, swiftly omitting us from eligibility.

No bother, I thought. We’ll just try on the day.

What a mistake that was.

The day of the game

Our chariot to Bergamo - a double-decker train.

Our chariot to Bergamo - a double-decker train.

The group had already started the day off on the wrong foot. Only four of us were actually ready to leave in time, two had a last-minute dash to get on the train, and the other three overslept by about two hours. From the outset it wasn’t looking brilliant.

Nevertheless two thirds of us got there early and walked the streets of beautiful Bergamo as we searched for the stadium. Before too long we found it and headed over to the ticket office.

One of the streets in Bergamo. A slice of traditional Italy.

One of the streets in Bergamo. A slice of traditional Italy.

A small queue greeted us, but we were soon at the window, ready to purchase six tickets for those who had turned up. If only it had been that easy.

In her best, broken English, the lady behind the window soon refused tickets due to not having one of these TDT cards. No matter how much we pleaded with the woman, who only softened the blow because she was easy on the eyes, she stood firm. The only way we could get tickets, she said, was if we found someone with one of these cards to buy them for us.

That would be a difficult enough task here in England. In Italy, with a language barrier? It was nigh-on impossible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, TDT card-holding fans could only purchase two additional tickets. That meant that if the others eventually showed up, we would need to find five people in order to get the nine tickets.

Crap.

Crap, indeed.

The hunt is on

The exterior of the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia.

The exterior of the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia.

With time until kick-off winding down at what seemed to be an increasing pace, we started to panic. Four of the lads stood to the side while one of the others  and I were in the middle of organised chaos, just as befuddled as the handful of others that had been turned away for the same reason.

Where did we go from here? Was it best to go on the prowl and hunt people down, or stand at the side of one of the ticketing windows in the hope that we strike it lucky and come across a generous soul?

We tried the latter to no avail, and soon figured out that our best chance was to go and actively find people with these cards.

It was uncomfortable and awkward. Not only was it asking a lot of a stranger to stand in a queue with you for several minutes just so that they could buy me and my friends a ticket to the game, but we had to do so with a combination of sign language and that accent people put on when speaking to someone with little or non-existent knowledge of the English language (come on, we all do it).

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts we met out guardian angel – a man who appeared to be in his thirties and, presentably, a little scruffy. But he had Atalanta gear on and could communicate with us and the Atalanta fans, so it was worth a shot.

Working on behalf of us, he paced the streets, frantically flagging down fellow Atalantans (I guess that’s what you’d call them). Just like us he was having little luck, until he made his way to this café across the road.

Two little ladies

Outside the café sat a large group of women, clearly enjoying their day out over cups of coffee and homemade sandwiches. The perception of Italian football fans that we were led to believe was one of a bunch of ruthless hooligans. People up for a good, old scrap to accompany their not-so-beautiful game.

The people we actually came across couldn’t be further from the image in our minds – especially these two, little ladies who took a quick look at our sodden hair and clothes before escorting us back over to the box office; out of pity, I would assume.

But we didn’t care. The two ladies meant that we would get four tickets – five from our overall target. But hey, at least it was a start.

Or so we thought.

The first two lads stood by their woman as she placed the order, then disaster struck – we all needed ID.

This was no problem for seven of us. For the first two, however, their closest form of identification was a 45 minute return train journey away at our hotel back in Milan. One and a half hours plus walking time wasn’t feasible.

We continued past them and nabbed two tickets of our own and the other two that were with us at the time were about to make it four tickets in total.

As it worked out in the end, no ID equalled no entry. For those two, it was game over.

Four tickets, three late risers and a partridge in a pear tree

Our last bastion of hope was, ironically, the three of us who were running two hours late. Something I had read online said that tickets were also available from the Credit Bergamasco bank branch next to the train station. We were too far away to go back and look for ourselves, so they went for us on the way to the stadium.

It came as no surprise with the way the morning had gone that the bank’s doors were closed on that Sunday.

The three late risers soon joined us outside the stadium, and looked around like lost puppies as they tried to catch the attention of Atalanta fans, but it was too close to kick-off and people were beginning to head inside. It just wasn’t happening.

This left us with a dilemma. There were nine of us, yet only four tickets. We could either all miss out, let €60 (yes, it was only €15 each for the tickets, bargain!) go to waste and all wallow in disappointment together, or let four of us go in and at least get something in return for a mad, mad morning.

It was awkward, it was difficult, but we finally came to a decision that four of us were going to go inside the ground and watch the football. We had travelled this far and so it felt like something we had to, and should, do. This was the point of the trip, in all fairness.

As it worked out, three of us that had both turned up on time and hadn’t left our forms of identification at the hotel or at home went in. The other lad who had done the same thing ended up selling his ticket to one of the others, and with that we parted ways.

This was, remarkably, going to happen.

The big game

Standing next to the Atalanta 'ULTRAS' mural. You may notice the umbrellas we purchased before the game, which prevented us going from zero to drowned rats in five minutes.

Standing next to the Atalanta 'ULTRAS' mural. You may notice the umbrellas we purchased before the game, which prevented us going from zero to drowned rats in five minutes.

After more ID checks at the gate we eventually entered the stadium. Walking past a mural of Atalanta ultras, we stopped to take pictures then headed past the refreshment stand – one which didn’t serve alcohol, surprise, surprise – and headed up into the bleachers and on to the standing area.

Our view of the game. Not a bad one, either!

Our view of the game. Not a bad one, either!

Although we had allocated places, the stand we were in was only half-full and so we stood wherever we wanted to. Looking around I couldn’t help thinking just how pathetic it was that the whole group wasn’t there. With plenty of room for everyone, it made no sense. Then again, if the Italians won’t change their ticketing system in the wake of declining attendance figures and falling revenues, then they aren’t likely to shift their stance because nine Brits want to watch a game of football.

Despite that, I still managed to feel a rush excitement for the 90 minutes ahead. The ultras, all on their feet to the left of us in the Curva Nord section of the ground, were in full voice, displaying their colours – as black and blue as freshly beaten flesh.

Before the game started, we were actually worried that we were going to be subject to a 0-0 bore draw, but those fears were quickly allayed thanks to two quick goals from the visitors before the arrival of the half hour mark through left back Lucas Digne and midfielder Radja Nainggolan.

Although I did want the home side to win, I was actually hoping that Roma would score first so that we would see get to see their fans celebrating. But the opposite happened. With the first goal came an almost deafening silence, broken only by the pumping fists of Roma journalists in the press box to our right. It was a distinct lack of professionalism that, predictably, angered the home fans.

There appeared to be no away section and no away support like you’d find in most other countries. Perhaps, we figured, it’s just too dangerous to be a travelling fan there.

Still, the game wasn’t over, even though it looked like a dead rubber. There were another set of fans we wanted to see cheer, and by God, did they!

Curva nord - home of the Atalanta ultras who can be seen celebrating in this image.

Curva nord - home of the Atalanta ultras who can be seen celebrating in this image.

Atalanta pulled one back, then they scored two. The teams went in even at half time, but the hosts continued their charge after the break and were rewarded with the lead thanks to a neat finish in off the post by two-goal hero Marco Borriello – who we later found out failed a drugs test earlier on in his career from using a special ointment given to him by his girlfriend to protect him against sexually transmitted diseases.

There could have been several more goals in the game, but there was only to be one.

A legend

The man himself taking centre stage.

The man himself taking centre stage.

23 years ago in a time before I was even born, a 16-year-old teenager named Francesco Totti made his debut for AS Roma in a 2-0 victory.

Since then he’s gone on to become the second-highest scorer in Serie A history and won every domestic title in Italy, as well as the World Cup in 2006. To add to his impressive resume, Totti has the rare distinction of staying at one club for over two decades – a club that he’s set to leave at the end of the season.

That’s why watching this match was extra-special. Not only was it a chance to experience a different atmosphere, but also the chance to see one of the finest and most-respected players of our generation do his thing on the pitch.

Now, at the age of 39, he isn’t the greatest athlete, but after he was substituted on late into the second half he showcased his technical ability and capped off an impressive cameo appearance with the equaliser, which he plunged into the bottom right of the Atalanta goal.

Form is temporary. Class is permanent. 3-3 was the final score.

Aftermath

We left the game and met up with the other guys who, about 15 minutes after the game started, had decided to head back into Bergamo city centre to get something to eat.

I’d like to thank them – not only for letting those of us who had tickets put them to good use, but also for the admirable manner in which they handled it all.

Yes, the disappointment on those five faces was visible, no matter how much they tried to hide it. But they didn’t try to attribute blame (it was no-one other than the Italian FA’s fault for having such a poorly thought-out and executed system in place), they didn’t bemoan how events unfolded and I really do respect that.

That’s what friends are for.

Lessons to be learned

The four of us pitchside after the game.

The four of us pitchside after the game.

While I would encourage going to a football game in Italy, extensive research is key to getting a ticket.

Atalanta seem to be an anomaly. Teams such as Inter, AC Milan and Juventus all offer postage of their TDT cards to international addresses. But less successful teams may not, and that is where problems could start to emerge.

As frustrating as it was on that day, our mistakes have taught me some pretty valuable lessons and that, essentially, is the essence of travel.

Things are unlikely to always go according to plan. Whether it’s running a few minutes late to an attraction and having to rush around it, or making a hash of something entirely, there’s always knowledge to be gained from things like this which can then be applied in the future.

So while Atalanta against Roma wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been, it was most certainly a worthwhile experience and one that I will never forget.