Reggina Remembered – an extract

“Bastardi, merda,” the crowd are shouting as I climb the stairs of the stadium. An hour before kick off, the stands are already full, except, that is, for the small section reserved for ‘guests’. The Verona boys are just arriving. Less than a hundred I’d say, a poor showing, but then the journey is sixteen hours by train. The crowd greet them with monkey grunts, then a thunderous chant that’s new to me: “Uccidere, uccidere!!” Kill. Kill.
It’s a quaint little stadium, housing perhaps twenty-five or thirty thousand. From the stairs, you can look out to the idyllic sea. “Kill, Kill!” Since Reggina play in claret, there’s a disturbingly dark red look to the sea of bodies. “Kill, kill!” The Brigate Gialloblù make their inevitable gestures in response. I can just make out Fondo and a couple of the others. They hang up their old banners. Then Pastorello appears with Foschi, Agnolin and the bodyguards. Immediately, the crowd responds with a shriek. “Fuori!” they begin. Out! “Fuori, fuori!” Then, “Ladro!” Thief. Even the people in the VIP section are screaming and making gestures. Corrado Ferlaino vice-president of Napoli has come along with his wife to support Reggina. They too are shouting: “Fuori. Fuori. Ladro!” Betraying no emotion, Pastorello takes his seat. My respect for him rises enormously. The bodyguards are stationed one each end of his row of seats.
This time I’m not with the club representatives. And I can’t join the brigate, because then I might never make it to the plane afterwards. So together with a boy called Stefano, who looks after the Hellas website, I’ve been given a place among the Reggina fans. Our seats aren’t together. Stefano is frightened. The closer it gets to kick off, the clearer it becomes that things are going to get hot if people realise we’re not one of them. “You’re a scout from England,” Stefano says. “We don’t speak a word of Italian.” But I know it won’t wash. I know that it will be impossible for the person next to me not to sense that I want Verona to win. These are feelings you can’t hide. Eventually, we fight our way to the press section and persuade someone to let us climb the railing. At exactly six o’clock Braschi blows his whistle. In a couple of hours, or a little longer if we go to extra time, if we go to penalties, this game, this season, will be over. I will finally be free to think of something else.
Actually, it’s not nail-biting at all. Sitting in the front row of the press section, head pushed between two railings, I watch Verona perform admirably. Apart from the inexplicable selection, again, of Mazzola, Perotti seems to have got it right. He’s packed five in midfield, with four at the back and just one up front. It’s Gilardino, now recovered from his accident in the canal. The result is that Verona are mak¬ing all the running. Over¬whelmed by nerves, Reggina keep giving away the ball. What a mystery this Verona team is, I’m thinking. How strange that these talented boys, who now seem to have nerves of steel, should have to be here at a miserable play-off, and this in a year when the quality of football in Serie A has been at its worst for a decade.
“The first place you’re relegated is inside your head,” the experienced Ferron had said to one of the journalists before the game, “then only after that on the field. And in their heads these boys have never gone down.” After about forty really rather pleasant minutes, I’m beginning to believe Ferron was right. This team are not going to go down. Until, in one of those terrible lapses that have characterised the season, Reggina are given a little space and striker Zanchetta is allowed to shoot. From outside the box he finds exactly the dream diagonal that will beat the wise Ferron and bounce in off the post. One in a million, I’m shaking my head. One in a million! The crowd have hardly stopped baying when Reggina score again. This time there’s an unforgivable defensive mix up, a lucky rebound. The stadium explodes. Two nil. Reggina in A. All round Pastorello people are giving the man the so-called ‘ombrello’. Ferlaino’s wife included. Stick that up your arse! She stands up and clenches her fist. “God plays in claret,” someone’s shrieking.
At half time I try to console myself with the thought that at least this way there will be no crowd trouble at the end. People will be nice to us and tell us not to be too upset. In their compound, the brigate are trying to chant, but it sounds feeble. Puliero comes to speak to me. Even in the radio box, he’s having to keep his voice down. He was hit on the head by a plastic water bottle. “Pessimistic,” he shakes his head. “It’s tough now.”
The second half is one of emotional paralysis. We’ve come all this way, through time, through space, for nothing. Prepare for defeat. Prepare to be quiet and respect people’s unhappiness on the plane home. Yet… there is the away-goals rule. Never have I felt more grateful for the away-goals rule. If we were to score now, I remember, unlikely as that may seem, at two-all on aggregate the away goal will count double. We can still do it.
After the game I heard from so many people what they were doing during these impossible minutes. Matteo is at his friend Piero’s house, watching on pay TV, smoking endless cigarettes. Driving back from a brief holiday with wife and kid, Pietro keeps turning the radio on and off, on and off. It’s bad luck to listen to a whole game on the radio. The Più-mati are gathered round Beppe’s television. The gloom is deep. Cris-do-I-bother-anyone can’t bear it: on holiday, he’s left the hotel TV lounge and has gone to the beach to stare at the sea. My son Michele, meanwhile, is at his grandmother’s in Pescara lying on his bed, not afraid to hear every last sad detail on the radio. He doesn’t believe in bad luck. But he has lost hope. Absent fans in London, in New York even, are sending me SMS messages. “You must tell us at once if we score.” The president of Chievo – I have it on good authority – is rubbing his hands with glee, thinking of all the extra ticket sales he will get when the middle class fans at last abandon Hellas to join the boys from the dike.
“Serie B, Serie B!” The crowd are merciless. Perotti has taken off Mazzola, brought on Cossato. Now out goes the turkey-necked Teodorani, for Melis. It’s all attack, defence forgotten. As the tension rises, Braschi is being as fair as he can. He’s not whistling everything, but enough to keep things under control. And the extraordinary thing about football, I tell myself in a little surge of optimism, is that while it may be surround¬ed by the trappings of mortal combat, and while all kinds of money and politics are inevitably involved, still, on the field there are rules, and talent counts, and likewise the lucky bounce, the unexpected rebound. Go for it, Hellas. I’m shouting the words in my head. I mustn’t say anything aloud. Go for it till the final whistle.
But the best chances are falling to Reggina now. Three times they miss the clearest of opportunities on the break. Still, the heat is overwhelming and slowly they fall back. They sense they’ve done enough. Pack the box. Waste time. As in Naples, the ball-boys disappear. It takes forever to restart after every interruption. As soon as a Verona player retrieves the ball, a ball-boy miraculously reappears and throws another ball onto the pitch. Now that has to be removed. And every time Verona move up the wings, plastic bottles rain down on the players from the stands. A linesman is struck and falls. He needs medication. More time is lost. There are places where it’s difficult to dribble the ball for all the bottles on the pitch. Cossato gallops and elbows about, but he’s too slow. He misses a header. As the noise level rises beyond anything I’ve experienced before, scores of young men begin to appear on the touch-lines. Who are they? Why are they there? They don’t seem to be fans.
The men have now formed a solid wall right along the near touch-line. Braschi walks over to complain to a Reggina official. The men stay put, numerous, threatening. Taibi takes ages to set up a goal kick. Ten minutes to go. I sit perfectly still. The men each side of me are clearly not journalists, but Reggina fans. They’ve realised what side I’m on, for I keep muttering “Obscene!” I can’t help it. The bottles rain. A second and even third ball is tossed onto the pitch. “Scandalous!” Five minutes. Four. Then, as Reggina’s defenders clear their lines and move up for the offside trap, something happens. Giuseppe Colucci gathers the loose ball, lifts his head, sees the mistake. Scooping with his foot, he sends the most perfect lob over the advancing Reggina players to Cossato. Just on-side, he already has Taibi charging out to him. With unexpected aplomb, Super-Mike doesn’t even let the ball bounce. He taps it up in the air over the keeper’s approaching hands, rushes round him and fights off two defenders to head home for perhaps the classiest strike of his career. 2-1. Verona winning on away goals.
Absolute silence. After the constant roar of the last forty minutes, there’s something surreal about it. Cossato doesn’t exult. He can’t believe it. He turns to the referee to check that the goal has been allowed. It has. He’s bewildered. Then, tiny, insignificant, tinkling, come the distant shouts of the brigate. There’s Fondo, shrieking, pumping his arms up and down in a gesture of derision. On the field, a mischievous Gilardino lifts his finger to his lips to shush the Reggina curva. They howl in pain. There’s a huge surge of rage. There are people lurching forward against the fences. Pastorello jumps to his feet and heads for the dressing rooms with staff and bodyguards. The noise swells. A noise of agony. Of death throes. Discreetly, I also abandon my seat to watch the last minutes among people who haven’t had a chance to see I’m not one of them.