Last Thursday evening crowds and cars streamed in one direction through Naples – towards the Stadio San Paolo.
Vfl Wolfsburg were in town and SCC Napoli had to hold its nerve.
A week earlier Wolfsburg had lost badly to Naples (4 -1) in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League. They had lost in their own Volkswagen Stadium – the worst home defeat they had ever suffered in Europe.
Suddenly they were no longer favourites to win the UEFA Europa League … but they did have one more chance to show Naples what they could do.
The rematch seven days later was on the 23 April at 9pm in the San Paolo – and we had tickets.
First we had to get there.
We wedged our car into the traffic at Fuorigrotta and were carried past outlying scarf sellers, past the parking entrepreneurs, past the first layers of police, and on through the web of motorinos to the edge of the San Paolo and the nearby underground parcheggio.
The theatre was instant – we had joined the stage for our first match.
Did we know what to expect? Not really.
We knew barista Luigi – we knew his dark moods and his joy, and that Wolfsburg’s first defeat had turned his coffee sublime.
We knew San Paolo by reputation and from the outside, but not from the inside with the beating heart of Naples at stake.
Jeans and leather jackets clumped in patches outside the stadium. We moved through the swirl of hopeful vendors to join them. There were old men; young men; men with their knee-high sons; girls with their boyfriends; and nobody buying anything much.
An hour before kick-off we went through two security barriers and up to our seats. Gradually the stadium filled around us.
Soft-drink sellers moved down the rows with their weights of bottled water slung around their shoulders. Each order was opened and poured into a paper cup before being passed back through the crowd. There was no alcohol and no glass, and no chances being taken with plastic bottles.
We were seated near the middle of the pitch in the lower level of the stands. If there were other foreigners they weren’t where we were. Those who had anything to do with Wolfsburg were in a small protected section of nervous green in the opposite stand.
Pre-match entertainment included the warm up.
Wolfsburg came out first. The crowd hissed and booed as the team executed a well-drilled warm up of swivelling hips, lunges, footwork, and stretches both horizontal and vertical.
Then came free-range Napoli. They sprinted about, huddled suddenly and kicked balls at each other as the crowd cheered.
We’d had a taste of what was about to come.
Wolfsburg had the best of the first half. The score at half time was nil-nil – San Paolo had found its voice but was anxious. Napoli looked asleep, and Wolfsburg were dangerous.
The second half it all changed. Napoli scored two goals. The home crowd was on its feet, the curva roared, children were hugged until they almost popped, and the repeated chorus of scoring names rolled around the stadium.
Then, in sudden pockets of shocked silence Wolfsburg scored twice. It was like the deafness that follows an explosion – all that marked the moments was the slight flutter of green on the far stands.
“They have asked the Wolfsburg supporters to stay in their seats and not to leave the arena until the police arrive to escort them away from the ground.”
The score at the end of the match was stuck at two all. Naples was through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League and the crowd was satisfied … just.
The walk back to the car was relaxed and cool, but still with possibilities.
The salesmen were still selling and the police riot vans waited close up against the walls of the stadium to escort Wolfsburg away.
It was nearly midnight. The promise of Luigi’s finest coffee was just around the corner.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018