Your legs are aching; you’ve been standing up for the last two hours after all. Singing, chanting, jumping up and down and the feelings of excitement, adrenaline, euphoria, heartbreak and frustration have taken all the energy you’ve woken up with out of you. You just wish there was a pause button where you can just sit on the concrete steps for five minutes, which would give you the ability to return and sing your heart out for the rest of the game. But it doesn’t work like that, and it’s 0-0 with fifteen minutes to go. Of course it doesn’t stop you from continuing with these antics; your heart’s in your mouth, all your fingernails have disappeared and that programme that you decided to buy before the game has been destroyed on the floor by you and thousands of your fellow fans doing, well, all of the above.
If you’re a supporter of an English Football League team, then you can probably familiarize yourself with most, if not all, of the previous paragraph. If you’re a Brentford fan, you would have felt exactly that multiplied by ten. Since my first visit to Griffin Park on a cold November afternoon in 2004, I’ve experienced four Play off heartbreaks, relegation, two promotions and, most painfully, Marcello Trotta-gate. But a temporary move abroad to Italy has inspired me to pursue a new local team, and to try and find again that spark which keeps me going every week I can, instead of spending my Saturdays sitting around wondering if the right side of Ealing Road has a song for Romaine Sawyers yet or not.
My new stomping ground comes in the form of U.S. Latina Calcio, who sit firmly in Italy’s second division. Like the Bees from West London, a few seasons ago they flirted with the idea of promotion to Serie A, which would have been a big deal for not just the football team, but for the whole town as well. Since then, neither team has managed to repeat a serious challenge to promotion to their respective top flights, so while there are clearly many similarities between the two clubs on the field, it is the off-field antics that separate, and I promise it makes for a very interesting read.
Griffin Park, to some the home of football, is one of the last bastions of the old football stadia in England, with the ability to host 12,000 fans. Four separate stands which do not link to each other, with standing terraces on Ealing Road, and the lower section of the away end, situated directly opposite the formerly mentioned. The set-up creates a fantastic atmosphere when at full capacity in a superb old stadium.
This compares very differently to the Stadio Domenico Francioni that lies on the very outskirts of Latina, a city only an hour drive south from Rome. The ground is something very similar to a place where you would have your school sports day. The main stand is the only stand with a roof, or seats in fact, with the only other stand, known as the ‘curva’ as it curves round half of the pitch, filling up the rest of the stadium. Although the weather in Latina is generally good, when it rains, and it does indeed do so, there is nowhere to hide from it if you are standing on the curva. The entire stadium is overlooked by a large vertical space ship-like object which is used to help store and transfer water, and when the weather is nice, it creates a shadow on the pitch of, unfortunately but ironically, an ice cream cone. With 2,000 seats and the ability to hold 8,000 fans on the terraces, this stadium has a very unfamiliar outlook to an English football fan.
One of the famous attractions about Griffin Park is its surroundings; 4 corners, 3 pubs (unfortunately it would have been a pub on each corner had one of them not closed down, yet there is one inside the ground in the Braemar Road stand if people get fussy). But one of the main things you do see in Latina’s ground is that most of the fans do not drink before, during or after the game. Whilst walking around the ground on my first visit to the stadium, fans were hanging around the bars and cafés, and although you could see a few bottles of Peroni lying around, the majority were drinking coffees and small cakes, instead of a burger with onions and a fresh pint of London Pride that the Brentford fans would be accustomed to on a Saturday afternoon. This meant that upon my arrival to the most popular terraced standing area at Stadio Domenico Francioni, known at the Curva Nord, the fans’ excitement levels were not fuelled by alcohol at all, but purely by their pride. At half time, everyone crowds around the bar, again not for a pint, but for a small dash of coffee, the size of a shot glass, to keep them motivated for the second half.
The Curva Nord is seen by the local residents of Latina who don’t attend football matches as the rough end of the ground; a place where you wouldn’t send your children unsupervised. And that is fair to a certain extent, as while it is very similar to Ealing Road in the way that fans stand behind the goal, sing their hearts out all game, and go absolutely bananas when the ball hits the back of the opposition net, there are some key and fundamental differences between the two. This is not an ordinary terraced standing area, simply because of the fact that on many occasions during the game, the majority of the fans in the Curva Nord raise their right hand high at an angle; the fascist sign. During the second half of this weekend’s victory over Trapani, these particular fans started to sing the Italian national anthem, followed by an Italian resistance song, and through the whole of this 5 minute spell their right hands were aloft in this manner. There were few in the Curva Nord, like myself, that did not comply with this at all, and while one man in front of me said it was not at all fascist, and instead purely a demonstration, then why weren’t the rest of the stadium joining in? Nowadays, this is not uncommon amongst Italian fans, but simply imagine if this happened in English football. There are some cases of racism in English football, but they are normally cases of the individual fan, not an entire stand. At Brentford, and other Football League clubs, you see fans expressing their love for their community, their city or their town. In Italy, you feel the heart of the country’s nationalism and patriotism, no matter what football match you go to.
There are more similarities and differences between the two experiences and while some leave a slightly bad taste in the mouth, both are good opportunities to find out what real English and Italian football is like. However, the common theme between the two is the simplest one; both sets of fans turn up in their thousands to watch their team play, and feel sentiments of pure joy when they win, and utter dejection when they lose. It is this that unites all football fans across the world together, and while different teams express this in different ways, it really it what football is all about.