Ronaldo in Italy should mean one thing and one thing only – those pumping Brazilian thighs obliterating any defenders foolish enough to dare stand in his way. Now it stands for the film-star looks and presidential majesty of a man named after Ronald Reagan. Juventus have bagged the most marketable man on the planet, but the whole circus could so very easily have begun 16 years ago, thanks to a grinning silver-haired old man in a sleepy Tuscan village.
Strangely enough, heaving heavy suitcases, sweating uncontrollably through an unkempt beard and babbling nonsense are not the best ways to attract Italian girls. As I gesticulated in front of the student notice board at Universita degli Studii di Ferrara with next to no coherent language skills, it was getting desperate. If I didn’t find accommodation by nightfall I’d be homeless.
Thankfully Anna took pity on the bedraggled foreigner. It turned out it was in fact she and her flatmate who were grateful for finding someone to pay for the empty room in their delightful little flat. Quite enjoying my unexpected role as chivalrous saviour, I gladly followed her to my new home for the next year, and collapsed on the sofa.
Societa Polisportivo Ars et Labor
Even with the mad whirlwind of the previous three days, there was one brilliant highlight that should have portended the magnificent madness of a May weekend the following summer. The day before, like any self-respecting football follower, I had hunted down the local team. Although this season they magically returned to – and survived in – Serie A, Societa Polisportivo Ars et Labor, or SPAL for short, were languishing in the fourth tier of Italian football in 2006.
In fact, back then there were regionalised divisions, meaning the standard was roughly equivalent to the fifth or even sixth tier in the English pyramid. No matter; it was love at first sight. The Paolo Mazza was a crumbling old-school type of ground, with four austere concrete stands crammed right up to the pitch in the middle of a residential area.
Only one stand, the legendary Curva Ovest, was worth being seen in. One afternoon of dreadful football was soaked up amidst swirls of smoke and wisps of steam from hot chocolate, and a sighting of Paolo Di Canio on the pitch for the visiting Cisco Roma. I just knew I was into something beautiful.
The obvious next step was to follow them religiously. Never mind the studies I should have been focussing on; there was a struggling club that needed my support. My time in Ferrara was not a fantastic advert for the study year abroad program at Leeds University, but my word it showed me Italy. Dreams of road trips down to Campania sprang up, and a year of fleeing around Italy exploring its grounds formulated.
SPAL were actually celebrating their centenary year that season, and had a reasonable amount of history. In the 1960s they had been a Serie A side that finished sixth, while Fabio Capello began his playing career – and met his wife – in the beautiful little town. Denis Law even knocked a local player out cold while playing for Torino on the hallowed Paolo Mazza pitch.
Serie C2 B was not the most glamorous of settings, but I loved it all the more for it. Gritty grounds in even smaller towns with bitter, wizened old men cursing our every movement seemed like heaven. For a while it looked like SPAL may even edge into the promotion places, but come the end of the season the playoffs were all they could manage.
Castelnuovo di Garfagana and Torino beckon
The last game of the season was scheduled for Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Being a shameless football whore I had of course followed the nearest Serie B side, Bologna as well, and it turned out they would be facing Juventus in Turin the day before. The denouement of the Calciopoli scandal had left the brilliance of Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon sweeping past a helpless second tier. Decision made: Darren and I would make a weekend of it.
We would spend most of our mornings perusing the Gazzetta Dello Sport searching for the most obscure results in the even more obscure sports possible, and picking a team to follow. Darren was a nutjob like me who had little interest in studying, so made the perfect travelling companion. I had some mates living in Turin who we could go out with in the evening after the game, and then catch the train in the morning via Milan.
The Stadio Olimpico was scorching hot. This was no holiday beach weather; this was Death Valley. Our seats were right near the pitch, which offered us no shade whatsoever. When Claudio Bellucci provoked the home fans following his opener, it was hard to care about the fury erupting around us. Even with the departures of some international stars the previous summer, Juventus had David Trezeguet, Giorgio Chiellini, Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon that day; it was no surprise that they strolled to a comfortable 3-1 win.
As the blazing sun mercifully slunk beneath the horizon, we headed to Piazza San Carlo. In beautiful understatement, my friends had told us ‘something was going on’; a massive open air reggae concert was in full swing, with beer flowing plentifully. By 2am the sunburn had faded out of my conscience as we headed to a late-night bar. This was the archetypal student hangout; graffiti littering every visible surface, drug dealers openly peddling god knows what, and clearly no door policy of any kind.
The plan had been to retire to a quiet bar until our train left at silly o’clock, but that was clearly out of the question. Eventually, even Turin’s nightlife petered out, so we made our excuses and decamped to a deserted pool hall next to the station. I say pool hall; for all I know we may have stumbled into someone’s living room with a pool table, such was the unhealthy level of alcohol I had somehow taken. By some miracle we managed to collapse on the right train bound for Milan where we had to change, and sleep blissfully swept over us.
The piercing shriek of the train PA system roused me. Milan had rushed to us in uncomfortable speed, and we need to get off. The connecting train into Tuscany left in 10 minutes. Darren was as good as comatose, so in a bid to shake him into action I shouted that I was getting off and that he might be so kind to join me – or words loosely to that effect.
It was the kind of drunken stupour that made that seem like the logical step. I can’t to this day understand why I thought that would have been more effective than dragging his body off onto the platform. Determined to not miss the train, I legged it across to the platform and onto the nearest carriage just as the doors were closing. Darren was nowhere to be seen.
The problem was, neither were the tickets. There I was on a train to an unknown town with almost no money left, no way of getting into the ground and no mate. “Sod this,” my brain thought as a grumpy slumber took over once again.
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
By some miracle consciousness returned in time to alight from the final stop. Once again, though, blinding sunshine was my unwelcome companion. Stepping out of the sandstone station left a bizarre sensation of being unable to appreciate the breathtaking beauty flowing around. A luscious, soft green blanket gently coated the undulating hillside, dotted with patches of earth red roof tiles. Barely a sound interrupted the gentle breeze.
I glanced to my side and saw one other passenger had got off. He was an old man with thick silver hair and the kind of tanned complexion that told you he’d seen half the world. Tucked under his jacketed arm was the unmistakable pink of a Gazzetta. What the hell – perhaps he knows how to get to the stadium, I thought.
“Mi scusa, dove il stadio?”
His knowing grin spread softly. It turned out he was indeed also heading to the game, but was waiting for a friend to pick him up to take him to lunch beforehand. Taking pity, he invited me to join them. The offer of free homemade Italian food when deeply hungover and almost penniless is not one many people would turn down; moments later we were driving further up into the hillside round winding roads.
I almost laughed when we arrived. There are postcard images, idealised versions of places, but then there was this. My new acquaintance’s friend had the most gorgeous terrace overlooking the small town with a roughly-cut wooden table filled with plates of freshly-picked tomatoes, mozzarella, salad and Parma ham.
The mystery man
Our host’s pretty teenage daughter brought out some wine and joined us. It was enough to forget there was a football match on, but inevitably our attentions turned to the game. The silver-haired man turned out to be a scout for Modena, a middling Serie B side, and was there to watch a lithe winger named Luigi Grassi.
There was a permanent glint in his eye as he talked, as if he already knew the answer to whatever question you might have. In others it would have been unsettling, but with him it was soothing somehow. As we gratefully tasted the culinary delights on offer, he beckoned over the 17-year-old girl and invited her to talk to me. Shy, quiet, but entrancingly attractive, her mood relaxed as lunch wore on, and we got on wonderfully.
My new friend was enjoying watching us talk. Once or twice, he caught my eye with an encouraging glance. Although it might seem ever so slightly odd given we’d only met a few minutes earlier, his genuine warmth was hard to distrust.
With lunch completed and stomachs sated, we all got back in the car to head to the tiny stadium. The scout had a spare complimentary ticket to give me, so we took our seats high in the only permanent stand next to the directors. SPAL were by far the better side, and with the playoffs all be guaranteed already, a comfortable 3-1 win was secured.
The home side’s goal, however, was revealing. Eduardo Micchi, a giant beast of a lower league bulldozing striker, had rocketed a firm header in for a consolation goal. “Did you see who planted the ball right on his head?” asked the scout. Luigi Grassi, the man he had been sent to watch.
Grassi had a brilliant game, dictating everything Castlenuovo did in possession. Clearly, he was streets ahead of his teammates. As it turned out, he would sign for Modena after recommendation from my friend, and ironically would much later join SPAL themselves as they rose up the table.
Cristiano Ronaldo to Fiorentina
In the second half, we got to discussing his career. A few years earlier he had been working for Fiorentina, and had spotted two outstanding young talents for La Viola. One was a Dutch striker banging in goals for fun names Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The other was a spotty-faced whippet playing on the wing for Sporting.
My jaw dropped. Cristiano, it turned out, was within a whisker of joining Fiorentina the summer before United paid 12 million for him, but the board felt the 5 million asking price was too big a gamble to sign a raw 17-year-old. In 2002, the club were not in a position to pay for a paper napkin, yet alone an as-of-yet untested Portuguese wunderkid.
Relegated from Serie A, Fiorentina had also racked up debts of over 15m. Forced to declare bankruptcy and effectively cease to exist they took up residency in Serie C2 B – the same level we were watching that day in Castelnuovo – before reconstituting the club as a different legal entity and rising rapidly back to Serie A. Sixteen years ago, however, it is obvious how they couldn’t afford to sign Juventus’ new man.
After the final whistle I stumbled out of the ground still dazed at the bizarre events of the last 48 hours. It was at that point I realised I didn’t have the return train ticket on me. Darren had been holding the match tickets and our full return tickets, meaning I had somehow evaded the inspectors after leaving Milan.
Lingering by the away fans seemed like the best thing to do. One particularly boisterous group hurled an obscenity or two in my direction, until I showed them my SPAL scarf, after which they insisted I join them in their car for the long drive back across the country. They seemed hooked on the idea of entertaining the foreigner with how hardcore they were. This meant enduring their exaggerated Estense accents – imagine an inebriated Sean Connery speaking Italian, and you’re pretty much there – but I couldn’t care less, as I was heading home.
As we pulled away from Castelnuovo di Garfagana, still scarcely able to believe the wonderful stories, food and hospitality, I waved goodbye to the scout. I never did find out his name.