Inter Milan fans cowered against the rain and looked downwards, their view obstructed by umbrellas as they headed from San Siro’s metro station before Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League match against Barcelona. Perhaps they and AC Milan fans are such frequent visitors to the stadium that they become blasé with the view as they approach the stadium. They shouldn’t be.
No stadium in the world looks quite as imposing from the outside as Milan’s San Siro. Not Camp Nou, Old Trafford, Anfield, the Bernabeu or Maracana. None come close to the triple tiered concrete hulk of the 80,000-seater stadium in the wealthy western suburbs of Italy’s financial heart. "Milan earns, Rome spends", they say.
San Siro grabs you as you leave the metro station of the same name, its giant red girders sitting on top of cylindrical towers around the stadium’s perimeter dominating. For a night game, shafts of white light beam out through the slits in the vast stairs of layered ramps which hang on the the outer walls and lead in a clockwise direction from ground level to various entry points around the stadium. The overall effect is that the long-time home of Internazionale and AC Milan has an identity all of its own. It looks like a space ship, like it wants to fight, like it knows its place as a concrete, glass and steel cathedral of world football.
Officially, the stadium’s name is the Giuseppe Meazza, after a hero to a generation of Milanese in the 1930s. Fascist leaders loathed him for his off-field behaviour, but the men and women of Milan adored him. Meazza made his debut for Inter at 17 in 1927 and made 453 league appearances, scoring 272 goals. He won two World Cups with Italy, in 1934 and 1938. He had style, he scored bicycle kicks. Meazza spent two seasons with AC Milan and the Milanese were happy for the stadium to adopt his name when he died, aged 68, in 1979.
By that time, the stadium, which was the work of Ulisse Stacchini, the Italian architect who also designed Milan’s vast central train station, needed updating, more so when the 80,000 minimum capacity was needed to stage either the opening game or final of the 1990 World Cup. Milan rightly saw itself as the football capital and wanted the final, but Rome, Italy’s capital, got it.
San Siro was redesigned and largely rebuilt and finally covered over for Italia ’90, when it staged the famous opening game when Cameroon caused a huge upset in defeating world champions Argentina. Milan was the football capital of Europe back then, but has long fallen behind, just as the stadium is no longer cutting edge.
Does it need to be? Will they demolish Rome’s Coliseum or Verona’s amphitheatre because they don’t have a sponsored business suite? San Siro needs some love, but nothing major. It’s still a colossal structure where the pitch is framed by a roof so vast that the sky seems like a small rectangle from the pitch below.
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It’s not just aesthetics which make San Siro work either. Attendances lack the consistency of big English clubs, but fans of Milan and Inter really do bring the noise. No Premier League ground comes close to San Siro’s atmosphere, which was on form on Wednesday as the fans on the curvas behind each goal did the venue justice, with their giant flags swirling across the vast middle tier behind homemade banners reading "Ultras", "Irricibili" and "MilanoNerazzuri".
The two giant scoreboards work, with a camera picking out former Inter or Milan heroes before the game to raptures in the stands. It beats capturing gormless football tourists.
Outside, the impact isn't lost because of what’s around the stadium. London’s Wembley, a bigger, far more modern stadium, is being suffocated by endless construction of apartments around it. San Siro stands alone on a vast strip of concrete, unobstructed except for the city’s main trotting horse racing track on the east side of the stadium.
There remain doubts about the continuing financial viability of San Siro. Neither club owns the stadium and can't exploit it to its full commercial use. There are almost no executive boxes or business-type seats as there are at the new Juventus Stadium in Turin, which Juventus have used well and has been a factor in their continued domination of Italian football. But change would be resisted in Milan.
“We love San Siro – nobody calls it Giuseppe Meazza - it’s a major part of Milan and fans are strongly against any suggestion about a new stadium in another area of the city,” explains lifelong Milan fan Alexio Biacchi. “We know it would maybe be better from a business point of view, but no new stadium could have the same magic that San Siro has.”
On Wednesday, that magic was evident in the rain as Inter came from a goal down with a late Mauro Icardi equaliser against Barcelona. It was Inter’s first shot on goal, Barca dominated and had 26 before Malcom scored as the game finished 1-1.
“Mauro!” screamed the stadium announcer, four times. “Icardi!” repeated the fans four times. It was loud, so beautifully loud in this footballing citadel.