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My peep at the beautiful game...

By Jack Quinn

I see it looming large overhead. Nothing could have prepared me for its size; San Siro Stadium is
like the spaceship in that movie Independence Day- dark and doomful and forbidding. Past
civilisations built cathedrals of wonder for the glory of God, today they build stadiums in praise of
an English gentleman's game played by thugs. Speaking of which, we are suddenly swamped by
supporters in tribal garb stomping towards the gates.
I am left standing outside, a little bedazzled, when this beautiful blond comes up to me. She has a
cute Dutch accent, 'I heard you speaking English. You look a little frightened.'
I am pleasantly surprised, 'I'm not quite what you'd call a football hooligan.'
'You'll have to invite me out for a night at the opera then.'
She smiles this seductive smile and walks off. I am about to run after her when Salvatore pulls me
back, 'Don't let people to see you talk the enemy! Even if she is hot like the hell.'
We queue up at the gate. I've only been to a couple of international rugby matches in Landsdowne
Road. This place makes it seem like a doll's house. Rugby matches are always such spiffing middle-
class affairs, but the heads on some of these Italians- Geeze! I wish I weren't so tipsy. I have to keep
my wits about me.
We are underneath it now- holy moley; it's unfathomably tall! How many people does it hold? What
could possibly merit the construction of such a monster? What power festers in its belly?
'We ave to go to the top,' says Salvatore, 'I ope you're ready for some exercise.'
On reaching the top, Salvatore points out the toilets saying, 'Don't forget which section we are. And
don't speak English or they'll think you are Dutch and kill you.'
'Dutch? Oh, yes, that would explain the girl.'
'We are playing PSV Einhoven- cretino!'
'Oh, yeah, how silly of me. And who are we again, just in case someone asks, Inter or AC?'
'AC. You play with your life Party Jack.'
We are shunted out into the stands and this surreal widescreen world opens up in front of me bright
and vibrant. The haze of sound and tide of energy clubs me in the face. We are in a frenzied swell of
delirium: flags flow and fists and applause. I am marvelled senseless. Salvatore pulls me out of my
trance with a gruff hand, 'Come on Dorian!'
We clamber across to our seats. I sit down.
'Don't sit down, ever! They will think you are a spy.'
On my feet I try to take it all in; it's almost too much. It's stupefying; their mania. Down at the front
at strategic points are men with megaphones rallying the crowd, they sound like crackling rabid
dogs. Each section chants along with their leader. Beside them are lunatics hanging off the barrier,
one foot over the balcony, waving giant flags almost gracefully. It looks like an enormous effort and
incredibly dangerous.
A greeting comes from behind, 'Jack, my friend!'
'Hey Jericho.'
'Very nice ah?'
Jericho scares me, 'Yes, yes, very nice.'
I am introduced to five or six guys. They all cheer and shout along with the megaphone. I lip-sinc
along with them for fear of being taken for a traitor. We stand and wait. Salvatore's mother was
right; it is freezing. I can just make out a sliver of orange way over in the far left section, which I
assume is the Dutch- a little outnumbered, to say the least.
Nothing happens for an inordinate amount of time and I am getting pretty bored. Finally, it looks
like something is about to happen. Some deity starts announcing names over the loudspeakers. A
handful of players emerge from somewhere and start stretching and kicking balls about. Judging
from the booing all around me, I figure these are the Dutch. I don't claim to know much about 'the
beautiful game' but I have to ask, 'Salvatore, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there supposed to be
eleven players on each team?'
'It is the substitute.'
'Oh right. Salvatore, when is the match actually going to start?'
'Soon, soon. Enjoy.'
Then the voice of God reverberates round the grounds again. On hearing it everyone around me
seems to take a spastic fit. It's clearly the Milan substitutes. I feign along with them.
Twenty minutes later and the subs are still knocking balls around the pitch. God knows how long
they've been there. The criers never let the mob's excitement quell, even for a moment. Each one
berates them. There seems to be some sort of amusing competition going on as to how insulting
these criers can be. Salvatore translates the odd one- very inventive:
'He say he gonna take out our colonne vertebral (I assume this to mean the spine) and play Shanghai
if we don't start to shouting on the Dutch.'
I am too cold to laugh, my legs hurt from standing and my back is so sore that a spot of Shanghai,
what ever that is, might sort it out.
'Salvatore, I'm wrecked, can I sit down? And I'm freezin'; I think I've caught pneumonia.'
'Oh poor little bourgayzi boy! Your anticorps play ping pong!'
'Geeze, how can you get this stirred up about something so trivial when it's so cold?'
'It is the Italian way. We live our life alive. Not like you zombie, middle-class, plastic Paddies. You
don't believe in nothing, that's the problem.'
Geeze Louise! Salvatore can just floor me with a word, level me, define my petty existence in a
sentence. I am a plastic Paddy: I don't support any of the country's teams, I don't speak Irish. I
certainly don't know the national anthem- either of them. I never vote and I don't know who the
minister for whatever is. I have embarrassingly scant knowledge of Irish history; I always call
Daniel O'Connell Daniel O'Donnell when I'm relating the patches of it I pretend to know to foreign
girls. It's like for the middle-classes geographic and national identity aren't important. I leave that
kind of pointless crudeness to the louts, culchies and nordies who want to tear up O'Connell Street.
It's like the exuberance of the economic boom passed over them, left them behind, so they need to
cling to the tattered shallow identity Sinn Fein sells to them in an idiot's guide package, much like
the Front Nationale and the BNP. Perhaps I'm better off being a plastic Paddy than a caricature of a
real one.
How proud we all are of this new, 'anational', off-stage Irishman? Are we in a fleeting, post-poverty,
reactionary period? I am totally a stage Irishman though. But what's so especially Irish about being a
booze hound these days? I have more in common with Californians really. I even sound American-
well that's what people say. In fairness, there isn't a great difference between middle-class twenty-
somethings in any country in the developed world. I've become part of this greater mass that has
less to do with boundaries and citizenship and everything to do with a common popular culture. For
all this nihilism, because it's not west-Britishness or anti-Irishness, I'm supposed to be part of the
ascendant wealthy classes born out of The Celtic Tiger. What does it mean to be Irish anymore? I
look around at these possessed fans. What if their energy were channelled into something
meaningful? Surely then they could topple this Berlusconi regime that no one seems to admit to
voting for. I wish I were something, anything tangible.
The 'playing' players file out. It's as if someone has moved the entire stadium up a gear and hit the
throttle. The ritual is coming to a climax. I perk up. Perhaps this will be entertaining after all.
Forty minutes later I'm sorely disappointed. How spectacularly anti-climactic! It's not a 'beautiful
game'; it's an intensely boring one, like most soccer matches I've flicked through on the TV. No
score, few near-misses. Every time they get even close to the goal, I'm gripped quite painfully on
either shoulder by Salvatore and Jericho, who curse most violently when the ball is cleared away.
Naturally, I clap when appropriate.
'Stop to clap like you are at a theatre!' chides Salvatore.
The criers and flag wavers are utterly tireless in their endeavour. No one is going crazier than them.
And the funny thing is that they aren't even facing the pitch; they can't see what's going on at all. I
ask Salvatore if they are paid by the clubs.
'No,' he replies, 'it is a fanatic.'
'No- really?' I spout sarcastically.
Half time. I want to go home or out or something. The novelty has worn off, not to mention my
tipsiness. I have spent more time watching the crowd and pretty Mexican waves and pretty football
ladies than watching the match.
The second half starts up and it's beginning to feel like some kinda weird penance. Nothing
happens- nothing.
The match is over. The lads seem to be happy with a draw and disappointed there weren't any fights.
Down the ramps we go. We are walking out of the gate and Salvatore is explaining to his friends the
location of this factory where they are to rendezvous for a reggae night.
Oh, there she is, and she's alone, and she's coming this way!
'Hi Mr Hooligan!'
'So, did you enjoy the match?' I ask.
'Yes, I think we did okay.'
'So, what are you doing after this? We're going to some underground reggae night in an abandoned
'Sounds ghetto.'
'I know. I came here to get ghetto. I can't wait. I feel so gangsta.'
'Well, I have to see what my boyfriend is doing- sorry, I'm Annica by the way.'
'Oh, right…Jack,' I'm disappointed.
'Well, ghetto Jack, your underground club sounds cool. I want you to meet my sister too; she loves
'Sister eah? Hang on; I'll just go ask the guys for the address so you can grab a cab. Wait right here.'
I prance back to the lads. SALVATORE style="mso-spacerun: yes" to has gone the scooter. Jericho
gives me the address. I hurry back over to where Annica is standing. There's a big guy talking to her.
With all the noise around them I can't hear that they are arguing. I'm just worried that someone else
will snaffle up the sister. I arrive over. They ignore me for a minute. Now I know I should run away.
But by the time my head has convinced my body to make a retreat, the guy notices me and starts
shouting at me in Dutch. What a confused little language. I try to explain that I just wanted to give
them the address of a club and that I only want to meet Annica's sister, but the boyfriend decks me. I
don't know what's going on; I'm on the ground and my jaw really hurts. Then I see Jericho storming
up, he does a flying kick into the chap's stomach! Where the heck did he learn how to do that?
These ghetto boys; no messing around. Next the others arrive. I'm still on the ground; unable to
move. Jericho picks the Dutchman up then holding him by his shoulders proceeds to knee him in
the head over and over, hopping forwards while his friends punch the guy in the back and sides. Of
course the Dutchman's mates arrive over and full-scale mill gets underway. More Italians join in and
then Dutch dudes start appearing from nowhere. It's a mini-riot!
I'm completely paralysed. People are stepping on me. I think I'm crying. Next police and guards step
in. I'm lifted up from behind. It's Salvatore and Jericho. They pull me to the trees, stick a helmet on
me and tell me to get on the back of the scooter. We're gone. I don't look back.