It was the third match day of Serie A, and already one of the most important matches of the season.
One of the biggest matches of world football was to be played at 8:45- the Derby Della Madonnina, with F.C. Internazionale hosting A.C. Milan at Stadio San Siro.
And I was going to be there. I took a train from Rome to Milan, so I could witness the legendary Derby di Milano.
As I walked around the city of Milan, fresh from on and off rain in the afternoon, I could tell the city was ready for the spectacle that was about to take place that evening. In the Piazza del Duomo, I could see supporters of Milan wearing red and black kits from years past, scarves, jackets, and bags. I walk another couple feet, and there are just as many people wearing the blue and black of Inter. Some groups of people had both sets of colors. Others only had one. There was no violence, no chanting or yelling, but you could feel a sort of electricity in the air. The street was packed with people, all wearing some variation of the two colors. Some were not wearing kits, but were wearing shirts with the color, and everyone knew the reason why. It was derby day. The day before, you could see a couple colors. But the day before was more relaxed. You could feel the excitement in the air. And I wasn’t even close to the stadium.
I returned to my friend’s apartment, where I was staying for the weekend, and then went to the train station. The train was far less packed than we anticipated, and only got somewhat crowded halfway to the last station. When we reached the station for the stadium, 90% of the people on the train got off, and from then on out, it was crowded. Black and blue and red and black were all in one mob, and you could tell how tense everyone was from the moment the train stopped. The game was just 75 minutes away.
As we walked to the stadium, we became just part of one great moving mass towards the San Siro. You could not see the stadium from the road, but everyone, Rossoneri and Nerazzurri, were walking with the same determination- as if they all had a task at hand. Although the sun was going down, and wind was blowing, very few kits were left covered. Scarves were around necks or tied like belts. Names of all sorts walked in front of me, like watching a highlight reel of derbies past and present- Milito, Kaka, Palacio, Seedorf, Zanetti, El Shaarawy, Icardi, Pato, Jovetic, Balotelli, Kondogbia, Silva, Perisic, Ibrahimovic, Samuel. Some people wore scarves that were half Inter, half Milan, which read, ”Derby Della Madonna- Inter-Milan.” One man yelled from the other side of the road a phrase that I did not understand in Italian, and my friend whom I was with shook her said and said, “Those are the people you want to avoid here.” I still do not know what he said, but I remember that he was wearing black and red, so I have my guesses.
As we took one more bend in the road, the San Siro seemingly popped out of nowhere. It was even more incredible than any picture or description could explain. And that was at a distance. As we approached, we passed by more and more shops selling replica kits and scarves, with more and more of the historical colors of the derby. Past rows of shops, we came to a closer, larger view of the San Siro, and it was even more awe-inspiring than five minutes before.
As we approached, we started hearing a buzz from the stadium. As we got closer and closer, the buzz became louder and louder, and more and more recognizable: “Alle, alle alle alle, INTER, INTER.” Those in blue and black seemed to walk faster and seemed more relaxed to be among their own, while those in red and black seemed to tense up and walk with more caution.
After eating a stadium sandwich outside the arena (which is consisted of a very large sausage cut in half and flattened into a patty and cooked, and topped with various vegetables) to a tune of increasingly loud alternating sounds of “Alle, alle alle alle…” and whistling, it was time to enter the stadium. My friend and I pulled our tickets, which we had purchased from the Inter website, since it was Inter’s home game. Our tickets were for section 303: the second row in the first section right above the Curva Sud. My friend, wearing the colors of the Rossoneri, looked at me, startled, when I said that I had purchased the tickets from Inter’s official website, and said “Why did you not mention to me this detail? I’m wearing red and black! We are going to be surrounded by Inter supporters!” As we walked to our gate, about 80% of the people around were Interisti. And the stadium was just growing louder and louder.
We got our tickets checked and went through the turnstiles, then started our way towards our section. When we got to the path of the stadium to get there, we found it blocked by gates and guards. My friend spoke to the men in Italian for about a minute, and then walked away towards me, shaking her head, saying, “we have to go all the way around to the other side of the stadium for our section.” So we walked around, seeing more and more people, and hearing the volume go up and up and up, especially when we walked under the Curva Nord, who were already in midseason chanting form. When we finally reached the ramp to our section, we walked up one of the famous San Siro round ramps- part of the iconic San Siro experience. We then walked into the stands and found our seats- among 80% Inter supporters, 20% Milan supporters, and right above Milan’s Curva Sud.
Words cannot describe what the San Siro is like. The seats, even though they were in the stadium’s third tier, were amazing. There is not a bad seat in the place. We sat down in time to take a couple pictures, and then as we were looking around, a cannon went off, and the lineup announcements started. The announcer rattled through the Milan lineups very quickly, as was to be expected from an Inter home game. It was hard to hear a single name that was said over the whistles of the crowd. There was one name for Milan that drew more whistles than the rest- “con i numero quarantacinque, Mario Balotelli.” The whistles and boos were deafening. They were louder then than any other point, even louder than for Milan’s manager, Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Then, the video board turned black and blue with Inter’s crest, and then it got loud. One by one, the announcer introduced the Inter starting lineup- Handanovic, Jesus, Kondogbia (you could hear the Curva Sud whistle loudly for him, after choosing Inter over Milan in his summer move from Monaco), Jovetic (for whom the Inter crowd was louder for, due to his late game heroics the previous two matches), Guarin, Medel, Santon, Murillo, Perisic (whom you could hear the excitement for from the Inter supporters), and Felipe Melo. There was a one second pause before the final player in the starting lineup, and then: “E. CON I NUMERO NOVE. IL CAPITANO. MAAUUUROOOOO…”
“I.CARD.I.” The crowd yelled, with all the intensity that is to be expected for a player that (jointly) led the league in goals last season at 21 years old.
The announcer then went through the reserves for Inter, and ended with introducing Inter manager Roberto Mancini. After Mancini’s name was yelled, loudly, by the Inter support, Inter’s hymn started playing, to which the stadium and the section behind me were singing along to, and both Curvas presented their choreographies. We were unable to see Milan’s, but we could see Inter’s: a blue snake on a white background with blue all around it, with “FCIM” in gold. The squads were presented to the crowd, and it was time for kickoff. It almost felt as if people had forgotten there was a match to be played. The atmosphere was that incredible. The Milan side was whistled as they took their spots, and Inter was cheered as they took their places.
As soon as the first touch of the game came, the Curva Sud was alive and well. They immediately started chanting “Alle, alle, alle Milan alle…” drawing a response of whistles from the home Inter crowd. A faint smell of smoke tingled my nostrils as I looked to the left and saw flare smoke from a spot in the Curva Sud. More whistles broke out when the Curva Sud broke out in their “Chi non salta Nerazzurro è” chant. It was impossible to hear the chants of the Curva Nord from where we were sitting, but it was possible to see the many flags that were waving throughout the entire game.
In the first few minutes of the game, Milan strikers Luiz Adriano and Carlos Bacca had multiple chances to score, with Adriano beating all but Handanovic on one chance and shanking another skyward, and Bacca seemingly being open at every turn. It looked, at the beginning, like Milan would have an upper hand on the defense, and you could feel it in the stadium. The Curva Sud was getting more and more excited. The section behind me was tense. The crowd would jump up and oo and ah at goal chances. Then, the game slowed down. More passes were made, as well as lost. Attacks were developed and broken down.
The ref, Gianluca Rocchi, seemed to be letting them play out there. Both sides were fouling left and right, and some calls were made that seemed tame compared to others. Both sides combined for a total of 35 fouls over the course of the game, including five yellow cards. And each side would react to each foul just as you would expect them to: throwing hands up, waiting for a call, and possibly getting it. Or not. The players seemed to not be sure either.
From a game perspective, past the first few minutes, Bacca and Adriano had little luck or success. They failed to create havoc for the Inter defense, as Medel and Murillo were more than solid in the back once they gained their composure, Santon was playing very well on the side, and Jesus was solid as well. On the other end, Milan’s defense as a whole could just not hold it together, and Diego Lopez and Alessio Romagnoli ended up saving the day more than once. Milan’s defense looked to be improved on performances past, but Ignazio Abate looked off on his side, and while Mattia De Sciglio was playing very well on his, Giacomo Bonaventura had a hard time tracking back, even when De Sciglio was forward. That led to an open side, which Ivan Perisic took advantage of multiple times, and the defense was bailed out by Romagnoli, Montolivo, or Zapata. The Curva Sud knew this could not keep up, and seemed to be pleading for Milan to either defend or score a goal, and it seemed the Inter supporters knew what would happen as well. Over and over, Perisic was left open, and was saved one way or another. The Milan attacks stopped causing so much of a threat, as Bonaventura was invisible for the game, and Keisuke Honda had a match performance that he should like to forget, failing to make it past Inter’s back line and losing the ball consistently. Every misplaced pass drew a collective groan from either team’s crowd. On the plus side for the Curva Sud, Montolivo played better than expectations, as did Juraj Kucka. On the down side for the Rossoneri, and to the delight of the Curva Nord, not only was Perisic open, but Inter’s attacks got further and further forward, and every time that Icardi or Jovetic touched the ball, the Curva Sud cringed and the Interisti held their hands ready to celebrate. At the end of the half, it was 0-0, only after a barrage of shots from Inter, which made the Curva Sud wish for halftime with no damage done.
Halftime was the most tranquil part of the match. The Curva Sud was relieved Milan did not concede a goal. The Interisti were pleased at the performance at the end of the half. Everyone seemed them to be genuinely happy to be at the game, and multiple people took the time to take pictures at the San Siro.
15 minutes later, the squads came back out of the tunnel for the second half. Milan was met with many whistles, and Inter was met with cheering. The anticipation for the first goal of the match came right back and picked up where it left off. The Curva Sud seemed to have more chants in them than the Curva Nord did: it was almost like the Interisti were just sitting, supporting, but plotting, and waiting for the moment when they could explode. For every one of Diego Lopez’ three saves over the course of the game, and the two shots that were just misses, the Inter fans became more and more excited. Something was coming, and you could feel it in the air.
And then it came.
Milan applied pressure to Handanovic, but not enough, as he was able to get the ball out of the box to Davide Santon. He took it to about midfield and passed it forward to Fredy Guarin, who then brought it to the box (it’s also notable to point out that Perisic was, yet again, open on the wing), beating Montolivo and Kucka, and unleashed a curling rocket from his left foot, which beat the late tackle attempt of De Sciglio and the dive of Diego Lopez.
And the stadium was going absolutely nuts.
Guarin’s name was yelled seven times in celebration before the crowd started chanting again: “Alle, alle alle alle, INTER, INTER.” Then, the entire crowd started jumping, and you could feel the despair and the sinking feeling of the Curva Sud, not only because of the goal, but also of the chant:
“CHI NON SALTA ROSSONERO È.”
From then on, it was completely opposite from the match that it was before. Milan had to chase the lead. The Curva Sud needed to push them on, and try and drown out the already victorious and loud Inter whistles. Milan felt deflated, as did their fans. My Rossonero friend sat there, with her chin in her hands, staring forward in disbelief. “I can’t believe it. Come on. Not like this.”
Then came the bombshell.
The linesman held up the sign: 45 for 70.
Mario Balotelli was entering the game.
The whistles got louder and louder as Bacca jogged to the sidelines. Then, a strange noise started erupting. It started faintly, then got louder and louder. It was clearly not the Curva, nor the entire stadium, and not even sections of people, but just enough people to be heard among the whistling and the booing: “Oo-oo-oo-oo.”
Some Inter fans were making monkey noises at Balotelli.
The Curva Sud seemed to hear this, as they clapped and cheered louder and louder, as did the Rossoneri around us. They knew what they needed, and they knew what Balotelli was capable of doing. He just needed to get it done.
Within seconds, Balotelli had changed the game, with a cross that just barely failed to find a connecting foot. In the next minutes, it seemed like Inter had not been prepared for what Balotelli was capable of. Like they had forgotten after his super-forgettable season at Liverpool. As he stood over a free kick, the whistles got louder and louder. I heard an “oo-oo-oo-oo”- ing behind me. I looked around, and looked a young man who looked no older than 22, wearing a 2015 Inter jersey, in the eyes, as he looked towards the field, cupping his hands, and yelling “oo-oo-oo-oo.”
I turned around again to watch the match, feeling sick to my stomach. That was a sensation and experience I had not intended to feel in my time at the derby. I had forgotten about the racism that permeates Italian soccer. And no amount of reading or videos or speeches or examples can prepare you for looking into a human being’s eyes and he stares at another human being and makes monkey noises at him.
Balotelli then made himself the story of the game, doing something special every time he touched the ball. His crosses were begging to find a connection. His corners were better than any Milan had attempted before he came on. His free kicks were threatening every time.
Balotelli took a rocket of a shot, which hit the far post in the 78th minute. The Curva Sud was ready to blow up, but did not get the chance. Inter, and their fans, blew a sigh of relief. Another shot was saved in the 82nd minute by the fingertips of Handanovic.
With every passing minute, the Inter fans became louder and more anticipating of the three points, and even more importantly, the derby win. This game, although just the third match day, held so much for them. If they won, they would have won three of three, good for first in the league table. They would be clicking on all cylinders, from manager to tactics to defense to new signings to goal scoring. They would also have beaten their archrivals and claimed the city as their own for the time being.
Milan tried and tried, and visibly got more and more desperate, like putting Alessio Cerci in as a late, supposedly game changing sub. The Curva Sud kept chanting and trying to cheer them on, but you could hear the desperation and pleading in their voices. The Inter fans got louder and louder: they were confident.
Five minutes of added time. “Milan has more time. They can do this,” said my friend.
Four minutes. They need to pick up the pace.
Three minutes. Cerci just took a shot from the side of the box.
Two minutes. They’re giving it their all, but not creative enough.
One minute. The Nerazzurri are on their feet, waiting.
San Siro is loud with the anticipation of the Blue and Black victory.
San Siro erupts.
Inter have won three of three. They hold nine points and are at the top of the table. Their archrivals, Milan, only have one win, a challenge against Empoli, for three points and 12th place. Their other rivals, Juventus, had just a draw with Chievo to show for this season so far, good for a single point and 16th place. And the Inter fans are feeling it. My friend got up and said we should get going. I see Milan walk off the field and Inter come together to celebrate their win. The Curva Sud is looking down, depressed, but still proud of their Rossoneri. The Nerazzurri are preparing to continue chanting. As I walk down the ramp of San Siro with a crowd of people in blue and black and red and black, I see a child, who was sitting behind me in the stands. This child was around 12 years old, I believe, and was dressed in a Milan kit and a Milan scarf. This child was yelling louder than anyone else the whole match: “DAI Milan! Dai Balo! Dai! Forza Rossoneri!” He walked with his scarf in one hand and his father’s hand in the other, looking at the ground. He was not crying, but you could tell. It meant something to him. It was, in all honesty, touching.
As I continued to walk down the ramp, I hear that one chant again and again, from the celebratory Inter fans: “ALLE, ALLE ALLE ALLE, INTER, INTER.” Getting off the ramp, we merged into a flood of people, and had to walk against a mob to get back to the way of the train station. As I walked away from the legendary San Siro, the sounds of the game still rang in my ears. The whistling. The yelling of names. The “OOO” after a near goal. The appeal to a ref to make a call. The chanting in Italian (one in particular which is not appropriate for children). The applause and verbal appreciation for the players. The roar of the crowd when Guarin scored the goal. The monkey noises (not all of football is beautiful. Most of it is. But not all). The slow “ohhhh” of anticipation before the game ended. The final whistle and the celebratory roar. The sound of an Inter fan, in Italian as I walked away: “Inter is now the first placed team in Italy!”
This is it. This is the Derby Della Madonnina in Stadio San Siro. And what a derby it was.