In an unusual move for us, Mrs Football Nerd and I found ourselves looking into the potential for an autumnal sunshine Euro-break without basing it completely around relevant football tourism opportunities. We even found ourselves looking at some venues that… (don’t tell anyone will you?)… didn’t even have football teams!
For all our yours truly’s best intentions to put on a brave face, to pretend that it wasn’t an issue, that it didn’t matter in the slightest that I would be using up some of my overly generous local authority holiday allocation on a trip that wasn’t even going to involve going to a match, I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer and in the end the destination was confirmed as Cagliari in Sardinia due to cheap flights, the potential for sunny weather and glorious food and of course because it is the home of the world-renowned (sic) Cagliari Calcio 1920.
For English, and Irish for that matter, football fans of a certain vintage the name Cagliari will certainly conjure up images of a dire battle of attrition played out nearly two decades ago in the opening round of group games of Italia 90. Of Lineker’s early scrambled goal which was later cancelled out by an equalizer that former Everton stalwart Kevin Sheedy later described as: “the most important goal I’ve ever scored”; and a match that was as infamous for the reports of arrests and antisocial behaviour as it was for anything that happened on the pitch.
Throughout their 99 year history it is probably fair to say that ‘I Rossoblu’ (The Red and Blues) haven’t ever established themselves amongst the luminaries of Italian football. They won their first promotion to Serie A in 1964, winning their one and only Scudetto six years later. Since those halcyon days however their story has been one of yo-yoing between divisions even dropping down to Serie C1 in the late eighties until a certain Claudio Ranieri led them to two successive promotions and a return to the top tier.
In the mid-noughties Sardinian-born Gianfranco Zola spent his final two playing seasons with his local club amidst rumours that one Roman Abramovich was offering to buy the entire club for the hardly princely sum of £20 million to entice the playmaker back to Stamford Bridge.
Having been forced to leave the crumbling ruins of the Stadio Sant’Elia, the one we remember from the World Cup, in the final weeks of the 2011/12 season the club were forced to play in venues around the island while plans to revamp and modernise their famous old ground stalled and were eventually halted completely amidst safety concerns. With a new stadium due to be completed by 2020, Cagliari now play their home matches at a temporary facility literally next door to the original ground, the 16,000 capacity Sardegna Arena.
Much to our joy we landed in Sardinia at lunchtime on the Thursday and found that our dreams of sunshine and warm weather had been fulfilled with temperatures nestled nicely in the mid to high 20’s. Having spent a couple of hours ‘acclimatising’ (read: drinking a couple of beers outside of the Calgiari Calcio 1920 bar and souvenir shop just around the corner from our hotel) we set off to towards the team’s main store a comfortable half-hour stroll away, to secure our tickets for the match.
Surprisingly for Italian football this proved a fairly straightforward exercise with the added bonus that the missus’ ticket was discounted, presumably to encourage more females to attend and costing us only half what it cost for me; still for those of us used to paying Premier League, in particular Emirates Stadium prices, two tickets for €37 wasn’t to be sniffed at.
After a day seeing the sights of Cagliari on the Friday and then a 6km walk to the delightful Poetto beach via which, thanks to the vagaries of Google Maps, saw us pass both the seemingly falling-down-on-its-own Stadio Sant’Elia and its neighbour the Sardegna Arena on the Saturday; Sunday brought matchday.
Being the sophisticated world travellers that we are and enjoying the 27 degree heat we opted to start our pre-match preparations at the exclusively titled (but thankfully not priced) Hublot Nautic Club at the Marina where, a couple of bottles of the rather excellent Ichnusa Non-Filtrata lager and a prosciutto and brie panini for me and a ‘salad’ comprising the world’s biggest ball of mozarella and six quartered tomatoes for Mrs Football Nerd, helped us to stave off any potential heat-induced lethargy and prepare us for the half-hour walk up to the ground.
For the most part you wouldn’t have known a match was going on until we reached the access to the pedestrian bridge over the motorway, at which point fans bearing the famous half red/ half navy blue colours of the local side converged from all directions. Despite our (justifiable!) general mistrust of Google Maps we now knew we were definitely heading in the right direction.
Upon reaching the other side of the bridge we were thrilled to find, in a similar fashion to the San Siro in Milan, that there was an impromptu ‘street’ formed by a range of food trucks selling Italian takes on: chip butties, hot dogs, burgers and all sorts of other delights, with each wagon amply stocked with bottles and cans of the local brew. It seems the Italian reputation for not really being drinkers definitely doesn’t cover this island 350 kilometres to the West!
The decline of Serie A, since its star-studded heyday in the eighties and nineties has been well-documented and for the most part the lack of investment in stadium infrastructure and playing squads, alongside the failure to exploit new commercial revenues and emerging TV-based markets has seen it usurped and left trailing in the wake of the Premier League and La Liga, and possibly also the other two big European leagues: the Bundesliga and Ligue 1. Yet somehow that lends the experience a kind of retro-credibility akin to the increasing popularity of lower and non-league football, as fans who are increasingly disenchanted with the money/greed driven attitudes of the elite clubs seek something more genuine.
Certainly Cagliari’s temporary ground with one permanent stand and three sets of the portable structures you would more normally find at a major golf tournament featured none of the mod cons you might expect at the revamped or new stadiums that we are increasingly used to. Still, it sold beer at reasonable prices and the proximity of the stands to the pitch created a better atmosphere than the soulless stadia that unapologetically place income generation over and above the fan experience.
As we took up our seats beer in hand (yes apparently Italians / Sardinians are trusted enough to be allowed to drink alcohol within site of the pitch!) and doused in sun screen, we were happy to discover that our seats in the nominal ‘family stand’ were actually right next to the away section which housed the visiting supporters from SPAL, the fact that they numbered less than 50-70 at best somewhat undermined their pseudo-intimidating intentions.
As the game got underway the Cagliari Ultras behind the goal away down to our right created the sort of atmosphere that reminded us of the glory days of Italian football, while the dads around us demonstrated to their children how to goad the away fans with chants of “Serie B, Serie B, Serie B!” to indicate what they felt of the visitors’ chances of survival from relegation. For a brief moment Mrs Football Nerd and I contemplated teaching them: “You’re going down, you’re going down!” or “You’ll never play here again!” but alas our language skills didn’t stretch that far.
The game itself was fairly open from the start, not the stereotypical cagey Italian tactical battle we had expected, and after just 9 minutes Radja Nainggollan, who as hopeless football obsessives might remember scored a long range goal against Wales at Euro 2016, let fly from out on the right wing leaving the keeper with no chance as his shot nestled in the top corner. The Ultras behind the goal exploded and the dads and kids around us taunted the away fans further, who for their part tried to respond as aggressively as they could muster but their indignation brought only further mocking, not least from the stewards standing in front of the rickety-looking Plexi-glass screen that separated the two sets of supporters.
For the rest of the match Cagliari were largely in control and added another from right back Paolo Faragò midway through the second half and in truth could have had more if Argentinian striker and son of Diego, Giovanni ‘El Cholito’ Simeone had had sufficient pace/ energy remaining to latch onto a couple of excellent through balls late on.
In the end it was a comfortable win for our newly adopted Sardinian side which lifted them to fifth in the table after eight games, a highly encouraging start to the season. As we joined a significant section of the support in having a beer and soaking up the late afternoon sunshine back at food vans, we reflected on a fantastic football experience, we may not have come specifically for the football but we certainly aren’t ruling out coming back!