I watched Inter Milan at the San Siro & discovered the meaning of life
It’s a warm Saturday morning in October because the planet is dying. The sun is unimpeded by clouds and the temperature in Milan is already above 20 degrees. Each passing second sees the thermostat continue its remorseless journey northward.
In a few hours time, the San Siro will be abuzz with activity before Inter Milan’s match against Bologna.
One of football’s great cathedrals, it’s a monument to human endeavour and home to the full spectrum of emotions that infuse our existence with meaning.
Cesare Maldini was no stranger to those. More commonly known as Paolo’s father, Maldini made 347 appearances for AC Milan in the 1950s and 1960s and was a proud proponent of the catenaccio system that defines perceptions of Italian football.
But, this morning and every morning hereafter, Maldini rests in the city’s Cimitero Monumentale.
The vast site, full of artistic tombs and monuments, is blessed with an arresting quietness. The noise of the living, including my shuffling and sweating self, doesn’t intrude on the peace of its inhabitants.
We’ll all end up like Maldini, I observe morbidly over the grave he shares with his wife. Such is the perverseness of the human mind, it’s instantly followed by an internal lament for not packing suncream.
But it does reinforce the importance of actually living life. An afternoon at the San Siro certainly ticks that box.
Rice and polenta
In many ways, Milan feels divorced from the rest of Italy.
The financial and industrial centre of the Italian peninsula is unmistakenly affluent. The signs are everywhere you care to look, from the skyscrapers of the business district to the transport infrastructure that puts the UK to shame.
Forget perceptions of a leisurely pace of life, whiling away afternoons with a vino rosso in the sun – the work ethic in Milan is relentless, not dissimilar to London or New York.
Sipping an Aperol Spritz by the canal in the early evening is the Milanese way of unwinding after a stint in the office.
And its citizens are the picture of health. To put it another way, denizens of Dry January and Weight Watchers zealots would have a hard time recruiting here.
Rice and polenta are the staple carbohydrates in Milan, with risotto on every menu, while olive oil is eschewed in favour of butter.
The Cotoletta Alla Milanese, a veal cutlet fried in butter and covered in breadcrumbs, wouldn’t feel out of place in neighbouring Austria.
The only places to eat pasta and pizza are in the tourist-heavy centre or the plethora of Neapolitan restaurants in Milan, many adjourned with humungous murals of Diego Maradona in a belligerent middle finger to a city that still reflexively looks down on Italy’s southern regions.
In football terms, it’s easy to see why Milan wears its superiority like a Giorgio Armani jacket; AC and Inter have won a combined 38 league titles between them. Only Juventus in nearby Turin can match that level of success or the size of their fanbases.
And it’s not all ancient history either; last season saw the Milan clubs face off in the Champions League semi-final with Internazionale winning the right to be ignored by English broadcasters covering the final. Their performance in defeat to Manchester City was stirring and unlucky.
Both have carried that form into the 2023-24 season. Before Inter face Bologna, the two Milan giants sit first and second in Serie A with seven wins from eight matches.
But it’s Inter supporters that are more peacock-like at present. They beat their city rivals 5-1 in mid-September, with former Arsenal and Manchester United midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan scoring twice. Andre Onana, sold to United this summer, is already regarded as ancient history.
Thousands of supporters, dressed in replica shirts while fanning themselves as the metro arcs westwards towards San Siro, ooze unspoken confidence about this afternoon’s match.
The feeling of upward mobility is impossible to escape.
Concrete. Lots and lots of concrete. That’s my first impression of the San Siro upon arising from underground into the pleasant Milanese afternoon.
What the 85,000-seater lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in breathtaking scale and construction. The famous spiral pillars, with walkways guiding fans to their vantage point, make those at the Etihad look as flimsy as a child’s sandcastle.
The roof, added before the 1990 World Cup, is both incredibly dated and incredibly modern. It’s not a stretch to imagine Orson Welles time-travelling into the future and using the site as inspiration for War of the Worlds.
Surrounded by a vast flat expanse, the temptation of constructing the world’s largest car park would be irresistible for English authorities. Instead, scores of food and merchandise stalls fill the area and add to the carnival atmosphere.
It’s pleasing to note that matchday grub is the same everywhere; bunches of football obsessives from Milan and Bologna tuck into variations of meat in bread or an alternative of fried potato with sauce.
After soaking in the surroundings, and rocking up at the wrong turnstile, me and my father flash our passports and tickets before completing the trek to our seats.
Even here, the concrete is impossible to escape. It looms from above like an impending thunderstorm at a family picnic, obscuring our view of the sky and upper tiers of the stadium.
Luckily, as Europeans are treated like grown-ups, you can drink beer in your seat. And the sightlines of the see-saw encounter on the pitch are unimpeded.
Inter start like a runaway locomotive, scoring twice in the first 12 minutes and reducing the Bologna defence to the status of mannequins.
Francesco Acerbi nods in a near-post corner before Lautaro Martinez wallops a bending, swerving shot into the net to the particular delight of hundreds of fans who wear his name on their shirts.
Flags at the front of the stand are waved in jubilation, including one with the image of St George by a man puffing on a cigarette with an intensity that made you wonder whether it’s his last on this mortal coil.
— Inter (@Inter) October 8, 2023
But Bologna are no mugs. Eighth in Serie A, they quickly launch an attack and Lewis Ferguson is unlawfully impeded by Martinez. Justice is served, eventually, via a VAR check.
Riccardo Orsolini buries his spot-kick, making it 2-1 in just 19 minutes. What’s happened to good old-fashioned Italian defending?
The action quietens sufficiently to cast a glance around. The sight of Heinz popping up on the advertising hoardings genuinely takes me aback. You’re never too far from England.
There’s also time to look towards the dug-outs. Inter boss Simeone Inzaghi, wearing a crisp white shirt and black tie, hops around his technical area like Mikel Arteta after necking a Sunny Delight.
Meanwhile, Thiago Motta looks like a competitive dad at Sports Day. Wearing a polo shirt and white trainers, the Bologna manager bellows Italian oaths as his team frustrates their fancied hosts.
Their equaliser at the start of the second half is stunningly simple. Joshua Zirkzee is treated like a leper by three Inter defenders, allowing him space to turn and lash his shot past an unsighted Yann Sommer.
Inter respond by huffing and puffing, but rarely threaten to blow Bologna’s house down. Alexis Sanchez is introduced and his first touch is a lackadaisical flick. His second is a goal, but one correctly ruled out for offside.
Inzaghi has clearly told his wing-backs to bomb forward, as Stefan de Vrij becomes playmaker-in-chief. On the opposite flank, Juan Cuarardo reproduces a performance so anonymous that he could still be at Chelsea.
It finishes 2-2. The Inter faithful are displeased, having spent the second half exhibiting a wide variety of hand gestures at their team’s limitations, but the scoreline is a fair one.
And, traipsing away from the steel bemouth with its sardine-like seats towards the metro, it becomes clear that any frustration with Inter’s performance has melted like a gelato on the pavement.
It’s hard to complain after a match full of goals and incident on a beautifully warm day. Life goes on.
Far better to smile and continue living than dwell on a tiny smudge on life’s canvas.
By Michael Lee