In Sorrento the four of us walk towards the bus hired to take us to Naples for the Europa League match between Napoli and Swansea.
Some of the more liquid Swansea supporters are already shouty. We’re met by a surprising number of well equipped police. They search us for potential weapons before we board. The bus moves off, with a police car ahead and a van containing the heavier of the police behind. Are we really so dangerous?
Incessant chants flow from the back of the bus. Few of them are innocent, or witty, though one of them, in praise of Italy, begins ‘Swansea is a shithole’ and has a certain grim pathos. Jim, our organiser, issues frequent warnings about unacceptable behaviour. He seems to combine management skills with those of a social worker and nursery school teacher, and is clearly a kind of secular saint.
As we cross the city on the autostrada, congestion and a traffic accident reduce us to a painful crawl. The pain becomes acute for those with full bladders at the back of the bus. Only after skilful negotiations with the bus driver is the locked toilet opened and disaster averted. Through the window glass our chanters trade insults with Napoli fans, becalmed in their cars alongside us. The Neapolitans use a series of finger gestures, unfamiliar in form but clear in meaning.
Finally we near the stadium. Now we see the value of our police escort. We’re chaperoned rapidly through red lights and road blocks to the very gates of the ground. Off the bus, through yet more checks – our water bottles are confiscated – and into the stadium. It’s a large ground, seating at least 60,000 people, and the floodlights make it bright as day. An athletics track and a defensive ditch deter pitch invasions. There’s an hour or more before kick-off but huge numbers of Napoli supporters are already in place, yelling and waving flags in the hardcore segment to our right (we’re protected from their missiles by a tall curtain). The fifty of so Sorrento Swans in the visitors enclosure, by contrast, make a sorry sight. For almost an hour we’re the only ones there. Most of the away fans arrive only after the game has started. They seem angry. Lurid stories circulate about deliberately engineered delays, long journeys and unpleasant travelling conditions.
Despite its impressive size, and the wealth of the Napoli club, the San Paulo betrays no sign of any recent investment or improvement. A graffito scrawled on the concrete floor reads, ‘ Welcome to hell’. Toilets are few in number and primitive in design; they include a number of ‘squatting holes’ that would not be out of place in Roman Pompeii. There’s little to drink and nothing but chocolate-coated matchsticks to eat. The stewarding systems are harder to work out than the football tactics.
The match begins tentatively, but comes alive when Napoli score, and the crowd roars. The chants of the home fans to our right are aggressive, deafening and in terrifying unison, like a series of sonic punches. When Swansea equalise it’s the turn of our own supporters to yell their defiance. They gesture towards their enemies, with all the bravery of a safe distance. To prove their toughness a few of them strip to the waist, for a minute or two, in the chill evening. Others spread their arms, in what looks a frankly religious pose.
Throughout the first half and for part of the second Swansea more than hold their own, playing their familiar crisp passing game, but then their inexperienced manager makes a serious error, replacing attacking with defensive players and effectively ceding ball possession to Napoli. A goal is almost bound to come, and when it does the bravado of the Swansea fans collapses. Noise from our right rises to a crescendo. Despite desperate attempts by the Swansea team in the last exciting minutes to retrieve matters the final score is 3-1. Everything’s over.
Instead of keeping the away supporters in the stadium, to allow the home fans to leave and disperse first, the stewards allow them to mass in the confined space at the rear, where riot police are held in reserve (though they spend most of their time smoking and peering at their mobiles). When a few minor confrontations flare between fans and stewards, we notice the Sorrento police commander, a slim and dapper man with earphone and small backsack, calmly defuse the anger. Later he gathers the ‘Sorrentos’ together, leads us to our bus, and off we go, led by a police car with flashing blue lights, back home. Now the back seats of the bus are as silent and chaste as they were noisy and profane in the afternoon. We thank the police chief for his professionalism and care for us. Earlier on we might have resembled suspected hooligans, or naughty children kept behind in school, but on the journey back we feel more like VIPs being escorted to an international summit conference.