Exile in Bologna

Monday 19 August 2002

If you can stop staring at the embryonic Premiership table for a few minutes, I'd like to take you back to Bologna last Tuesday. If you have read previous columns, you may recall that we were on holiday in Italy anyway, and the opportunity to see the Whites play at a Serie A stadium was too good to be missed. It turned out to be an extraordinary day (and night) and I'd like to try to put it into words.

It's not often you start your journey to a match with a glorious sail across a beautiful lake backed by soaring mountains. Nor do you often find yourself in an Italian restaurant at 11.30pm eating a late meal with 7 fans from the opposition. It was all part of the Bologna experience.

We took the boat down to Peschiera, the nearest railway station. Our train to Bologna must have been the slowest on Italian railways. We trundled across the countryside, stopping at tiny stations. At one stop I had plenty of time to go to the kiosk and get bottles of water (I knew this as the driver and conductor were both sitting on a bench taking a cigarette break). It was peaceful and utterly charming, like a journey from the 1960s.

In Bologna we were met by Max, a Bologna fan who had contacted me through the website, and were soon joined by his wife Maria (Russian by birth, despite her name) and friend Ricardo, who gave us two Bologna T-shirts. We rapidly discovered a glitch in our plans.

Picking up the kickoff time as 7.30pm from our website, I had completely forgotten that this was UK time and the game would actually start at 8.30. This meant we could not get back to Bologna station for the last return train, especially as Max explained that the police would probably keep us back. No problem - we could stay with Max and Maria.

After a tour of the old part of Bologna (a lovely area), we made our way out towards the stadium. At Max's office we picked up Eddie, a devoted Bologna fan despite living in Milan (a fellow exile!). As we approached the ground, we were offered a Bologna team shirt in exchange for one of our Fulham scarves. It would have been churlish to refuse (and it's a very nice red and blue shirt - Bologna are called I rossoblu). Max showed us our entrance and arranged to meet us there after the game.

At a street kiosk nearby we found other Whites fans, and a motley crew they were too. Two lived near Venice and were delighted to get a game so close. Others were, like us, on holiday in the area. A father and son turned out to be Newcastle fans who had heard about the match and come along to give us a bit of extra support.

The game itself was a fantastic experience. The Bologna equivalent of the Hammersmith End were in good voice (and all the chants were to the same tunes we use!), and as the team came out, set off firecrackers. When the announcer called out the Bologna team names, he gave only the Christian name, and the whole crowd roared out the surname.

I think we should adopt this immediately - it's brilliant! So Diddy calls out 'Edwin' and we all sing back 'Van der Sar!' and so on right through the team. The announcer got most of our team almost right though Rufus almost became 'Brevetti' and Bazza got two syllables - 'Hay-les'.

You'll have read the match reports, but I felt we showed great spirit to come back twice. The tie is not yet over, especially if we get the same Spanish ref. Even our Bologna friends agreed that their first penalty was a joke - the contact was a long stride outside the area and Nervo took a huge theatrical dive to make the most of it.

At the end of the game we were indeed penned in by a line of police. I found one who could speak French and chatted to him. They weren't in the least hostile, this is just standard procedure at all games. I made contact with Max on my mobile and he came round - and promptly found himself inside the cordon with us!

After about 15 minutes we were freed. Max took us to Trattoria Angela, where we found not only Ricardo and Eddie but also three other Bologna fans. The atmosphere was entirely friendly and welcoming, and I think there is something important here. This to me is what football should be about. You should be able to go for a drink or a meal after the game with opposition fans. Italians are passionate about il calcio but are also naturally hospitable, and I urge all Fulham fans to show Bologna supporters only friendship and welcome on the 27th.

At mezzonotte we drank a toast to Ricardo as it was now his birthday. We left the restaurant at 12.30, got to bed an hour later and were up 4 hours after that to start our return journey. Max got me a copy of the Corriere della Sport. It devoted three pages to the match, the headline saying that Bologna's performance was 'non basta' (not enough).

It also described Fulham as 'la squadra di Baresi', but this is very much Tigana's team and I hope it stays that way. There is naturally much talk in the Italian press about Franco Baresi, and they are also running a hare about Vialli coming to Fulham, but when you have an entire sports paper to fill every day I guess you go with any rumour that starts up.

Every player in every match involving a Serie A team gets detailed marking from the sports paper. To get 7 or more is very good. Most of ours got 6 or 6.5, but Junichi got a 7, and well deserved. The paper said that Abdes Ouaddou (who I thought had his best game at right back) was tranquilla but that Rufus was in difficolta su Nervo. Junichi had grande prestazione and Boa was tecnico e fisico. I'm sure you can easily work all that out.

Our journey back to Garda ended as the outward trip had begun, sailing across the lake in brilliant sunshine. We probably looked like a couple of ordinary tourists, but the previous 24 hours had been anything but ordinary. Neither my wife nor I will forget our visit to Bologna, and we will keep in touch with our new friends.

It was a memorable experience to watch Fulham at the Renato Dall'Ara stadium, doing us proud in front of 23,000 fanatical Bologna fans (the biggest Inter-Toto crowd they have ever had). Our friends were not optimistic about their chances at Loftus Road. We have only conceded one goal in open play in our last 6 games, and if we can stop giving away penalties we have a great chance of going through to the Uefa Cup, which in my book would be a superb achievement.

We should remember that Bologna finished 7th in Serie A, this most demanding of leagues, last season, and for a time were as high as 4th.

Forza Fulham!

Roger is always pleased to hear from other fans. You can contact him at roger@smithwalk.demon.co.uk