Travelling to Arsenal’s European away fixtures has proved to be a very neat way of annexing two of my biggest passions. Travel and football. I’ve seen much of Europe this way over the last eleven or twelve years. In fact, were it not for my obsession with attending matches, I rather imagine I would have lived out my Jack Kerouac ‘Dharma Bums’ fantasy on a more committed basis.
European away fixtures are the best kind. The feeling that a small band of you are venturing into a foreign land to represent your club is an empowering one. Those first nods of recognition as you see fellow Gooners at the airport, then in and around the city’s landmark sites and then of course, in the bars and restaurants. The midweek timing requires most of us to take time off of work and with that, the atmosphere is more relaxed and jovial. It’s the best kind of adventure holiday.
I’m also one of those strange people that doesn’t mind travelling alone. In fact, I enjoy it just as much as I do travelling with a group, albeit in a different way. So when a mixture of work commitments, fiscal matters and a reluctance to travel to a ground with the reputation that Napoli has for danger whittled my band of companions down to just me, I wasn’t unduly troubled. I booked a couple of nights in nearby Sorrento as an aperitif, taking in Herculaneum and Pompeii and had a jolly nice time thank you.
I transferred over to Naples on match day. I’d been told a lot of things about Naples, some complimentary, some not, all sounded a note of caution. Some people told me it was the best city they’d ever been to, some said it was the worst. All maintained that it was chaotic and a bit dangerous, not least to travel to a Napoli game as an away fan. I was earning the duel distinction of being a lone tourist and a lone Arsenal fan. I can see why there was such a dichotomy of impressions about Naples.
Naples is a maddening, intoxicating city where the inhabitants seem to live perpetually on the precipice of chaos. There is a constant need to dodge broken glass on the heavily cobbled streets. There are lots of vehicles and lots of pedestrians but little discernible distinction between road and pavement. One is constantly on guard as cars and mopeds whizz past you, weaving between a slew of human and automotive traffic. All this is set against a never ending concerto of blaring car horns and an absolutely relentless sea of graffiti.
One’s nerves are constantly excited. Naples is noisy and chaotic, yet somehow simultaneously arresting and charming. The short stretch of Amalfi coastline adjoining Sorrento to Naples shows you Italy in a nutshell. Chaotic yet romantic, fast paced but generous, gritty and beautiful, hedonistic and dangerous (in the broadest sense of the word). I had been to watch football in Italy some eight times previous to this trip. I know what to expect. (Though Udinese was a charming exception).
One develops a sixth sense for what to do and what not to do. You’ll be kept inside the ground for around an hour after the match. You should always at least have the facility to conceal club colours. I even wear a beanie to conceal my mess than Mediterranean looks. Don’t go to busy bars where lots of Arsenal fans are likely to gather (usually the Irish bar in the city centre). If the locals fancy causing some aggravation, it’s the first place they’ll look.
I always try to book accommodation close to universities if I can. Student areas tend to be cheap, free of hostility, have good transport links and it’s easy enough to get a beer at 2 o’ clock on a Wednesday morning. I duly repeated this trick in Naples. Arsenal provide an advice booklet for travelling fans in Europe. In this one, they were insistent that Arsenal fans travel to the ground in specially laid on coaches from Naples Port Area Stazione Marittimi.
These were vague coordinates. Stazione Marittimi is roughly the length of Holloway Road all told and we weren’t given precise coordinates. I imagine this was intentional so that Napoli ultras could not illicitly intercept this information and create an ambush. Nevertheless, the pick up point was difficult to find and nobody was wandering around the area to offer any guidance. We were told buses would start leaving at around 6pm with the last service leaving at 7.30pm local time. This did not happen.
Arsenal fans began filtering onto the buses and it was soon apparent that this was no shuttle service. I estimate that around 250 of us (i.e. all of us present at the port) were loaded onto 4 buses by 7pm. We stayed stationary until around 7.40pm. Without traffic we were a 30 minute drive from Stadio San Paolo. The buses drove in the opposite direction to the stadium for around 3 miles before taking a circuitous loop around the city. For those of us following the route on our Google maps, it was quickly apparent that we were being kept away from the ground until after the game had started.
We arrived at the stadium at around 8.50pm and approximately 250 of us were let off the coaches to scamper towards the turnstiles with the game well under way. Police outside tried to conduct passport and security checks. Given the climate of frustration, a frisson of reluctance ensued and there was a surge for the turnstiles. Police initially tried to resist before relenting. I was personally shoved through police lines just before they broke and carried forward for about 20 yards towards the turnstiles before I arrived into my seat 12 minutes into the game.
After the match we were kept in the stadium for about 40 minutes, which was expected. We were then driven back to the port via the same excruciating route at a top speed of 20mph on clear roads, arriving back at the port at 00.45. Again, I imagine this was a deliberate ploy to limit the chances of a Napoli ‘honey trap.’ But there was no dialogue between police and supporters at any point. Nobody explained the situation, what was to happen or the thinking behind it at any point, which obviously increased the frustration further.
I didn’t knowingly get within 50 yards of a Napoli fan all evening, so in a sense, the police can say they did their job. However, deliberately making us late for the match seemed to invite its own problems. I think it’s somewhat fortunate that Arsenal fans are a serene bunch generally speaking. I suspect (and hope) that Arsenal did not agree to this approach when they arranged the buses with the local authorities and the club have already said that they are “disappointed.”
If Napoli’s fans really are so impossible to control that this treatment of visiting supporters is the only recourse for the local police (fans that obediently followed their club’s advice to the letter), then something needs to be done to resolve this issue. If this strategy was simply a result of incompetence and spite, then there are issues of competence around Napoli’s ability to hold events of this stature that need to be addressed.
In the end, I wasn’t mugged or stabbed or any of the other things I had been warned about on my trip to Naples. However, the travelling fans were treated abhorrently and, if only briefly, placed in physical danger by the very people charged with ensuring their safety. And that can’t be right. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA