San Siro cuts a suitably distinctive figure for this most style-conscious of cities, Milan. The original 1920s stadium (officially named Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, which nobody calls it in practice) sits inside a shell built around it, to add a third tier of seats and a partial roof for the World Cup in 1990. The visual drama comes from this addition, with the massive red girders jutting out at each corner and the towering spiral walkways. It glows in the murk of a cloudy September evening like a monument built by a dead alien civilization.
I'm in the crowd of pilgrims for tonight's episode of the twice-yearly Derby della Madonnina, the clash between the two teams that share San Siro: Internazionale Milan, who wear black and blue, and who everyone calls Inter; and AC Milan, who wear black and red, and who are confusingly called simply Milan except by Inter fans, who opt for the equally simple "merda" (shit).
If you listen to the pessimists, that dead civilization might be Milanese soccer itself. It's true that Inter and AC Milan are both going through rebuilding periods. After dominating the Serie A league for decades, they spent last season mired in the middle of the pack. For the second straight season, the Champions League of the top European clubs has no Milanese entry, a streak that had gone back to 2001.
Under a new coach of their own, ex-Inter assistant Siniša Mihajlović, AC Milan went on their own spending spree after fielding a notorious cut-rate squad last season, dropping tens of millions of Euros to acquire hotshot South American strikers Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano and a couple of young Italians, Andrea Bertolacci and Alessio Romagnoli. They also welcomed back "Super Mario" Balotelli, the quintessential "talented but troubled" striker, who has scored goals as often as he made headlines for his attitude during stays at Inter, Manchester City, and Milan, but whose career faltered during a disappointing year at Liverpool.
But even these acquisitions perhaps lacked the glamorous A-list sizzle once expected of Italy's greatest rivals. The preseason spotlight remained fixed on Juventus, Turin's top club, and the resurgent Rome rivals Roma and Lazio.
Well, don't believe the gripe. What I saw at San Siro remains one of the great spectacles of the continent, and one of the most exciting displays of this weird thing humans do called sports.
Inter, as the official "home team" of this episode of the twice-yearly roommates' clash, drew the bigger crowd tonight. And each team's most rabid fans, the flag-waving, flare-lighting ultras, do their thing at opposite ends of the stadium. But the friendly nature of this rivalry meant that fans of both teams intermingle in the same sections of the crowd - and even sometimes in the same families.
The atmosphere at a Milan derby is more carnival than carnal, more bros arm-in-arm than brothers taking up arms. To my Midwestern mind, it felt like a Cubs-Cardinals or Blues-Blackhawks game. The requisite squad of riot police seemed as relaxed as everybody else, leaning on their shields and checking their phones.
And when Inter's Fredy Guarin drove home a sweet curving strike from 20 yards out, pandemonium.
(By the way, Inter has now started the season with three straight wins, sitting atop the standings with 9 points. Mighty Juventus sits at 16th, with a single point. Small sample size, sure - but so are the last few seasons, relative to Italian soccer's long history. If Inter is in terminal decline, nobody told the players.)
I'm not a knowledgeable enough observer to comment intelligently on the relative fortunes of the Milan teams these days. Or to offer any insights into how the quality of play compares with legendary Milan teams of yore. But I can tell you that this was one marvelously entertaining evening, from the packed but jolly Metro train to the flashes of brilliance on the field. Tonight, the Milan Derby was a can't-miss spectacle. And a beautiful game.
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