By Erik Stein
I didn’t have much time to be away from work, so I really had to arrange this trip like some kind of travel ninja. I knew I’d come back home exhausted, but I didn’t care – I was totally amped to spend time in four countries over five days.
And, of course, to see the Arsenal away and at home.
Tuesday March 10, 2009: I left home in the morning to catch a flight to Philadelphia. From Philly I connected to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, where I arrived at 7:35 am on Wednesday, March 11th – Champions League match day. After 14-and-a-half hours on a plane, plus some train travel, I was ready to stretch out my legs. And my liver.
First order of business, pick up my tickets. The club didn’t send them to any fans outside the UK, so I knew I’d have to sort that out post-haste, or at least before I got too drunk to remember. I checked into my hotel – which was conveniently located within walking distance of the Stadio Olimpico via the Ponte Duco D’Aosta Bridge – took a quick shower and headed out.
The trip to get my tickets was largely uneventful except for the fact that the Italians apparently don’t believe in orderly address numbering. However, what was very interesting was the letter within my packet – it clearly said “You are urged not to attempt to use the Ponte Duco D’Aosta Bridge as this is a habitual route taken by the ‘Ultras’ to the stadium.”
I can’t remember where I was meant to go (might have been Scholars Lounge Rome). I had heard that all the away fans were meeting in a pub, but again the Italian numberings and winding streets got me turned about. Without a navigation system or a big “Hollywood” on the hill to navigate by, I’m worthless with directions.
As it turned out, I happened to walk by a table of young, loud Brits in Arsenal kits at an outdoor cafe. I asked them if they were attending the match. In retrospect I admit that was a really dumb question, but, anyway, they said “yes” and I told them I had just arrived from Los Angeles that morning to see the match. They didn’t believe me until I showed my passport and opened my jacket to unveil my “I (cannon) LA” shirt. That got a laugh and a few of the guys took pictures of it. I was invited to join them for a drink.
Beers turned to shots as the afternoon crept along. At one point, one of my adoptive posse turned his head to vomit (still in his café chair, mind you) onto the bustling sidewalk. Our waiter was somewhat nonplussed, but I rectified by the American custom of over-tipping.
|With new friends at Trevi Fountain
Shortly thereafter, someone suggested we head to the Trevi Fountain to toss in some coins for the team’s good luck. After flipping a few coins, we stopped off at their hotel – ostensibly to grab their jackets, but in actuality to polish off a bottle of cheap, duty-free vodka.
We all then headed to Villa Borghese to catch the club-arranged busses to the game. According to my new buddies, taking the coach and not my bridge route was the way to go. We arrived at the location, where about five busses were waiting -- the police escort wasn’t expected to okay the caravan to get underway in the immediate future. But it didn’t matter as this is where the anticipation and excitement really began.
The busses were packed like sardines with the Gunner faithful and just about everyone was jumping and singing. After what must have been nearly an hour, the Roman police cleared the coaches to roll under their escort to the stadium. (I thought this was overkill until I later heard that an Arsenal fan had been stabbed in the butt trying to keep in Ultra from climbing onto their bus.)
When we arrived the stadium was already jammed with the Roma contingent. The Stadio Olimpico is really big and loud. It’s the kind of loud you get in an enclosed U.S. dome arena for a playoff game – it’s really impressive as it’s that noisy uncovered. I found my seat and prepared myself for an awesome game.
I think I spent as much time looking around during the first 90, absolutely wowed by the atmosphere, as I did watching the pitch. One thing that really stuck with me was the chanting. While away matches generally find the Arsenal crowd in full voice, which I’ve since seen elsewhere – on this, my first occasion, I was floored.
I’m sure most of you saw that game, so I won’t go into too much detail of it in itself. However, as the game concluded, with us losing and drawing 1-1 on aggregate, the stage was set for some incredible drama – the match would ultimately be decided from the spot in a shoot-out. Looking back, this is certainly the way I’d want the match to end – something to be able to tell and re-tell.
But, then and there, I and thousands of Arsenal fans were sweating it out. Big time.
Eduardo’s first shot was saved by Roma’s keeper Doni, but then three kicks later Vucinic hit his straight at Almunia. Walcott, Nasri and Denilson all scored, before Totti stepped up and sent the shoot-out into sudden death at 4-4. Toure then nailed his, as did Sagna. With the count at 6-6, Diaby put in a key goal before Roma’s Tonetto skied the ball over.
The Gunners were into the quarter-finals.
|At the Stadio Olimpico
We went totally mental cheering for the players and our good fortune. The players came over for an extended time to our corner. It was clear that they were really appreciative of the spirit the fans bought with them to Rome. It was just plain awesome.
We were forced to stay in the visitors’ stand long after game. That wasn’t a problem for the Gunner faithful as they enjoyed taunting the Roma fans until the very last one left the stadium.
I ended up walking back to my hotel, over the maligned Ponte Duco D’Aosta bridge. But, at that hour, there wasn’t a soul around. By the time my head hit the pillow, I was out.
When I awoke it was time for a late lunch then a train from Roma Termini at 6 pm on to Paris Bercy. I Arrived in Paris the next day with a few hours to walk from Bercy to Paris Nord for lunch with a friend. I then hopped on a 2pm train to London.
Friday night was spent absolutely hammered (again). I then crawled out of bed on Saturday to head to the Emirates to see Arshavin score two glorious goals against Blackburn. Woke up Sunday (early) to get to Heathrow. Arrived Los Angeles. Sleep. Work.
Erik Stein, a member of the LA Gooners, became a casual Arsenal fan when his best friend first took him to Highbury in ’87, but has been “absolutely obsessed” with the team these past six seasons. He’ll be at the Emirates for Man City in January.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source