The notorious fans of Hellas Verona arrive in Roma, Stazione Termini, on their way to a crucial game in Naples. It’s 2001 when, amazingly, you could still smoke on a train.
7.40 am. Exhausted and hung-over after a long night on hard seats we were finally allowed out of our two locked, segregated carriages onto the platform at Termini, only to find ourselves under attack from a huge crowd of Roma fans departing early for a game in Bari. Nervous, our police minders made a rapid change of plan. We had been supposed to get on an eight o’clock train that stops at Napoli Campi Flegrei not three hundred metres from the stadium. But suddenly, coincidenza! Now we had to get on the quarter past seven locale to Napoli Centrale. The advantage was that the train was waiting right there beside us. That would stop us clashing with the Roma fans. But the guard was already blowing his whistle. The doors were closing. And no segregated carriages had been provided. All of a sudden the notorious Brigate Gialloblù were being hurried onto a packed train where they were actually going to mix with normal people. It was a startling development.
By a miracle I found a seat at a window opposite a pretty young girl. She was smoking in an absorbed kind of way, an exercise-book on her lap. Beside me was one of the fan leaders, Spada, and opposite him one of the younger boys with long black hair bursting out of his brigate cap. Seeing the girl, my new friend Scopa stops in the corridor. He flourishes a cigarette. “Got a light, signorina?”
The girl has a cute pink plastic handbag. She rummages and finds a matching pink lighter. Scopa takes it and runs the slim cylinder back and forth under his nostrils. He shakes his head. “Perfumed,” he says. “Troppo bello!” The girl giggles.
Suddenly everybody needs a cigarette, everyone is asking for a light, everybody has to smell the girl’s perfumed lighter. “Chanel. Fantastico. So delicate!” Scopa begins his twenty questions. Who, where, when? It seems she’s called Gabriella.
“Ma che nome bellissimo. Isn’t that a beautiful name, butei? Gabriella. Can we call you Gabi?”
She’s Roman. She’s nineteen. She studies pedagogia, which means she goes to teacher training college.
Scopa starts getting serious. “Could you fancy a guy like me, Gabi? What do you think? I am carino, aren’t I? Do you think I’m carino? Could you go with a guy like me?”
Nato appears. There are people who, when travelling in groups on trains, feel the need to walk endlessly back and forth along the carriages, checking up on all their friends. He has a beer in one hand, a leg of chicken in the other, a blue and yellow Hellas flag round his shoulders.
“What have we here?” he looks at the girl. “Hey hey hey hey hey! Is she going to give it to us boys?” he looks at the others. “Is she?” Then to the girl. “What’s the point of having it, if you don’t use it. Open your legs, kid!”
“Leave her alone,” Spada says. “Don’t be so invasive, for God’s sake.”
He actually used the word invasivo! This crude behaviour in front of a nice young lady isn’t the fan style Spada dreams of. When Spada gets on the Hellas Chat line he writes things like: Honour to the butei who went to the lion’s den in Napoli, honour to the yellow-blue army.”
Nato pays him no attention. “Out with those tits” he shouts. He starts a little chant usually sung at the expense of women police. “Fuori le tette, adesso fuori le tette.”
Sitting by the window, I’m getting nervous. What do I do if something really unpleasant starts to happen? But Nato has already lost interest. He’s wandering off. It’s early in the morning after all.
“Could you fancy me?” Scopa repeats.
“I’m sure you’re very nice. But it’s not the right moment.”
“Oh, so we already have a boyfriend, do we?”
Gabriella is small with a denim skirt pulled down to slim, even bony knees, pale, thin calves, white socks and grey gym shoes. Up top she has a pretty blue cardigan open over an impressive cleavage. Her features are small and neat under a ruffled helmet of black hair. A glint comes into Scopa’s eyes: “No, don’t tell. Don’t tell me you’re going down to Napoli to see this boyfriend.”
“Oh no!” Everybody groans. “Butei, she has a terrone for a boyfriend!”
“Leave off,” Spada mutters.
“Aren’t there enough handsome boys in Rome without going out with a terrone?”
“I fell in love with him,” she says. “He’s very dolce.”
“Do you have sex?” Scopa asks. “Sorry if I seem rather inquisitive.”
“Oh God,” Spada says. He gets up in disgust and leaves his seat. Immediately it’s taken by a fan in his mid thirties who leans forward earnestly.
“Ciao Gabi! You’re a beautiful girl.”
“Do you?” Scopa insists. “Have sex? I mean, I’d just like to know where I stand.”
Gabi answers cheerfully: “Of course.”
Everybody sighs. “And is he a Napoli fan? Don’t tell us you’re going to the game?”
“No, he hates football.”
“And of course you support Roma.”
“Juventus,” she says.
Now there’s an even louder groan. Everybody is joining in, perhaps a dozen boys, kneeling on their seats in various parts of the carriage.
“A Juventina with a terrone for a boyfriend!” Could anything be worse?
“Will you think of us when, you’re making love this afternoon. Will you think of me?” Scopa asks.
“No really, let me give you my phone number. I know you’re planning to leave him today. You are planning to leave him, aren’t you? How can you stay with him now you’ve met us? Will you call me?”
“Maybe,” Gabriella says sweetly. Scopa is a handsome boy.
“We’re from Verona,” he insists. “Giulietta e Romeo. City of Romance. The best lovers in the world.”
Gabriella giggles nervously. She offers everyone cigarettes. The perfumed lighter does the rounds.
Mid-Thirties repeats his trick of leaning forward earnestly:
“I’m the one you’re interested in, aren’t I? It’s me not him.”
The girl has a lovely way of raising one black eyebrow in a pained but at the same time affectionate expression.
“Oh God, you’ve stolen my heart!” Mid Thirties announces.
The girl doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Really. Tell her it’s true,” he turns to me. “Tell her it’s true, Englishman.”
“Gabriella,” I assure her, “you are looking at a seriously passionate man.” And to him: “The fact is, she has never come into contact with the charm and wit of the north before.”
The journey drags on. Gabriella is chain smoking. A fat fan appears and bares his beer belly at her, wobbling it up and down. “Oh please,” she protests. He disappears. Boys are constantly offering her greasy roast chicken and fried mozzarella and salami and ham. At eight in the morning. When she refuses, they beg her to flash her tits. Or just one tit. “Oh please, just one. You see we’ve come down with our demands. We’ve halved our request. We’re willing to compromise.” This might be Umberto Bossi discussing how many ministers the Northern League is going to get in Berlusconi’s government.
Then Nato walks by again. “Has she given it away yet? What’s the point of having it if you don’t open your legs, girl?” He disappears down the train.
“Come on, one little nipple,” Scopa teases. “One dark little nipple.”
“Show us a bra strap then.”
This, to my great surprise, Gabi is willing to do. She reaches inside the blue cardigan and pulls out a silky grey strap.
“Oh, I’m head over heels in love!” yells Mid-Thirties. He stands up, grabs his knapsack from the luggage rack and produces a Hellas flag. “Take it,” he says. “I want to give you this gift.”
Gabriella accepts and folds the thing in her lap.
“You don’t know,” I tell her, “What it means for him to give you his Hellas flag.”
“A piece of my heart,” he says. “My yellow-blue innards.”
“I’ll always cherish it,” Gabriella says with head cocked on one side.
“I want you to spread it on the bed when you make love this afternoon.”
She hesitates. “I will.”
“And when you come you must shout: “HELLAAAAAAS! Like that. HELLLLAAAAAAS!” And all the boys begin to shout, as if in orgasm: HELLLLAAAAAAASSSSSS!!!!
Two hours later, on the platform in Napoli Centrale, I said, “So, Scopa, imagine you have to choose: you can either have a night with Gabriella, and Verona lose, or no Gabriella and Verona win. What do you go for?”
Scopa shakes his head at the stupidity of my question. “Verona have to win today,” he says. “Or it’s Serie B. There are plenty of Gabriellas, but only one Hellas Verona.”
Returning that evening, a number of the same boys would be in tears.
Napoli 2, Hellas Verona 0.
We hadn’t scored. We were going down.