Ultras, Riot Gear, and Train Stations: My First Italian Away Days Experience

With no football for the foreseeable future, all we can do is take a look back at some of our most memorable experiences with the game. For Wayne Girard, it was his first true Italian away days match as an AS Roma supporter. From conflicted feelings towards his fellow ultras to a night spent in a train station, he recants the fateful 24 hours from October 2009. 

It’s important for young adults to take risks. Youth provides room for error that only dissipates with time. When I was 19 — a decade ago — I decided to move to Italy for school. It was a dream — an incredible chance to get away, and not just anywhere, but Italy. My friends and I had gone our own ways since high school, my grades were pretty good, and I reveled in the chance to grow (up). My university had a neat program with an international school in Florence. I knew next to nothing about the city, but hey, why not?

So one Sunday in late October, I hopped on a train from the Tuscan capital and went to see my beloved AS Roma play at the San Siro in Milan. Getting to the train station in the outskirts of Campo di Marte, I put my debit card in and validated my ticket under the yellow stamping machine. I didn’t want to be caught without validating it since I was handed a fine a few weeks before, and I knew this trip was going to be lengthy. Standing on the platform in my light wool peacoat and maroon scarf, a chilling gust of wind made me improvise a hood to keep my mouth and ears covered.

A policeman then taps me on the shoulder: “E’ tuo biglietto?” (Is this your ticket?) I shook my head “No.” I checked my pocket just to confirm, and sure enough my ticket was missing. Somehow it had blown out of my buttoned pocket.

Documenti” he asked, in a matter of fact fashion.  I did look a bit malnourished, maybe a bit lost and confused. That’s what ramen every night can do to you. He then checked my passport, giving me a sideways glance of approval as the train approached.

The Ride

florence train station

Taking two steps up into the carriage, I entered a Roma inferno — a true baptism by fire. On both sides of me there were teenagers and 20-somethings hanging over the seats talking to one another, passing around a bottle of Sambuca and shots of espresso. One had his hand dangling on the luggage rack, in a sleeveless tee with a skull on the top right of his chest. Our eyes locked.

He asked me where I was from and where I was going. I only understood a little Italian then, and with a Brooklyn-meets-New-Jersey accent, I was a dead giveaway as an outsider. “La Roma!” I exclaimed in the best natural accent I could muster.

These magic words turned tension into elation as the five around me erupted in cheers. They grabbed me on the shoulder and took me in as one of their own. The only thing that mattered to them was that I was Romanista.

For the next three hours I more or less minded my own business, just listening and watching their behavior. There were so many choruses — some I only knew from RAI — that they sang in unison. Some were more aggressive, like turning Milan into flames, and some just about supporting the giallorossi. It was intimidating, intriguing, and nerve wracking all at once. I was captivated.

football derbies
Roma’s ultras are some of the most intense — and occasionally violent — supporters across the globe.

Were these the ultras that I had heard about for years? The ones who I remember throwing flares onto the pitch during my first time at the Olimpico? They just seemed like a bunch of guys my age who wanted to get away from their moms’ eyes for a little bit and have an awesome time with their mates. That perspective changed when we pulled up to Piacenza.

About an hour south of Milan, it’s a working class city that tourists don’t often frequent. While we were stopped, an Asian man was making his way towards the end of the train. The youths around me took note, all raising their heads to look at him.

Suddenly, as if choreographed, everyone set upon him from the windows with name calling and chanting that I had never seen before growing up in New York’s tristate area. It was vulgar, racist, and transitioned to violent, as they ripped off the headrests from the seats to throw them out of the windows at the man.

I didn’t suddenly become Robin Hood, but it was definitely a point where the alarm bells went off in my head. This wasn’t normal to me, and as accepted as I was at the beginning of my train ride, I now felt a bit more distant from some themes throughout my adventure.


milan duomo

Coming off the train I distanced myself from the pack. I wasn’t sure how the rest of them would be getting there, but I knew I now had a bit of a challenge. I had looked up the best way to get to the San Siro using a fan forum. The Milan metro isn’t that big when you compare it it to the New York subway or the London tube. Lampugnano is where I was heading.

First though, I wanted to see Milan’s cathedral, Santa Maria Nascente. When you walk out of the stop on the Red or Yellow Line it is point face in front of you. Walking around the facade, it was truly breathtaking. The gothic architecture is something to behold, composed of jagged yet harmonious edging. A style much further away from Florence’s Duomo, Milan’s tall stained glass windows were the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Sightseeing would have to subside quickly though, as I had a game to catch.

milan derby
The San Siro — one of football’s most iconic cathedrals. Photo by Ignasi Torné Gualdo.

The walk leading to the stadium was lined in black and red. Not just rageful, espresso-fueled teens, but families, solo patrons, and casual fans. It was a much different atmosphere than my first time in Rome, where everything seemed centered around the match itself rather than the experience of the day. Crossing the bridge to the Olimpico versus strolling into the San Siro is just a different vibe. I don’t want to use the word commercial, but the match day climate was definitely somewhere between fun and competitive. To compare it to an American baseball game wouldn’t be fair, but the air was surely less tense.

In the piazza in front of the San Siro though, the throng of Romanisti had reappeared. After speaking to another group, one pointed and looked past me. On the street next to the bus stop, someone in their mid-20s in red and gold was being thrown to the floor and handcuffed by police. He raised his head to resist, but was quelled by two other officers who arrived on the scene. Two more ultras were suffering the same fate. Fan violence.

Some 30 years ago, Antonio De Falchi came on a similar trip as I had. Alongside his Romano pals, they were attacked by a group from Milan. The facts from the police report indicated heart failure, although the actual events from the tragic day remain unclear. He was beaten and pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital. From a young age these things seem “cool,” almost like they are defending your club’s honor. In reality, one doesn’t need to be violent in order to sing from the stands and support their team. Stadium atmosphere has no benefit from violence.

I went to my section inside the stadium. The ticket collector noted my United States nationality, and sat me right next to Milan’s Curva Sud, the infamous supporters’ section. The shape jumped out — two terraces, one on top of the other, separated but in unison. Flare dust fell over the second level, dissipating below in a trail of smoke. It was easy to see why they’re called I Diavoli. The acoustics of the Sud made the nose vibrate, ultimately finding an escape onto the pitch.

Almost immediately after the referee’s whistle, Roma’s Jeremy Menez stripped the center back for the first goal of the match. Racing towards me, I was most amazed with the young Frenchman’s speed. His pace was staggering to see from up close. He continued running even after he scored, celebrating on the track right beneath me. I held my scarf high, alone in the corner of the stadium, next to a cauldron of devils.

Mirko Vucinic came close later on, but then it was all Milan. Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi almost leveled it, before none other than Ronaldinho converted his penalty. Alexandre Pato won it a bit later on. I’d say I was mad about the loss, but just seeing ‘Dinho in the flesh, scoring a goal in front of me was worth this adventure.

Throughout the match, the Romanisti from the train were making themselves heard from a distance. Even as security tried to keep Roma’s ultras as far as possible from the pitch by tucking them into the upper-most section opposite the Curva Sud, they were by far the loudest entity. The 40,000 Rossoneri supporters were no match for the 2,000 or so who came a full day’s journey to see their Wolves play.

Milano Centrale

milan train station

Getting back to the main station, I had a feeling there wasn’t going to be any trains heading back. I checked on the Trenitalia website, and thought that maybe I could get lucky and they would add one at night. If I had to sleep in the station though, how bad could it be?

The first hour or so, I walked around, just trying to feel out all the different areas. Were there any nooks and crannies I could pop into while waiting? Maybe, I thought to myself. It started to get even colder, and I started to get the feeling this was going to be an uncomfortable evening.

Eventually, I found the rest of the ultras, who had been hanging out and starting to get restless. On the lower platform, protected from the elements, all were getting exhausted. The full day of traveling, drinking, cheering, and screaming seemed like it was getting to everyone.

As I went back upstairs, I tried to get some rest on a bench. I started to doze off. After a half-hour or so, the cold and the arm rest sticking into my back had taken its toll. I woke up, red-eyed and shivering, and could smell something foul. As I looked to my left, a handful of vagrants were laying down next to me. Their clothes of course, not being the cleanest. Waking up next to strangers as a 125-pound teenager is probably not the best idea. Nothing happened, but it was definitely not a situation you want to rope yourself into.

I retired to lying down on the floor next to everyone. Yet, as I tried to close my eyes, someone would come around every 20 minutes. “Cigaretta?” Italians love cigarettes, and it’s a way of life that hasn’t waned the way it has in the U.S. I tried to politely decline each time, but after the 15th person asks you for a cigarette that you don’t have in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping in the cold on a train station floor, you’ve about had it.

As 5 a.m. rolled around, the lanterns around the tracks started to flicker on one by one, and the first rays of pink and purple ascended over the glass pane roof of Milano Centrale. In a desolate station, track numero cinque was announced — the regional back to Florence.

I momentarily forgot about the cold, and added some pace to my step. Up the stairs and to the platform, I noticed some kind of commotion beginning to transpire. As I made my way closer, everyone against the police was in red and yellow.

I joined the frenzied group, and I was told we weren’t being allowed to board the train. There would be no passing the riot gear and two German Shepherds. This is the exact moment where being an American passport holder made me realize that I had one of the strongest pieces of paper in the world.

In the gap between the police and the ultras, I entered no man’s land. Slowly walking, approaching the police, I held out my passport and kept my hands in front of me, rather than by my pockets. They stared me down, wondering what the hell I was doing. I held out my golden ticket, and as they read it, they looked me up and down. They let me go, and I walked onto the train. The group cast their eyes on me, wondering how I could be working this black magic.

The next thing I heard was Santa Maria Novella — my stop — over the train PA speaker. In a dazy slumber, I popped out of my blue felty seat, making my way back to my apartment past the crowds of early morning tourists. Crossing the Pontevecchio, I looked down the river, taking a moment to think about the last 20 hours. An unforgettable expedition into football fandom — navigating through Italy’s central-northern interior, confronting uncomfortable social scenarios, and lasting a night in the depths of Milano Centrale. It was now 8 a.m., and I had an hour to make it to class.

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