Napoli hosted Liverpool, the reigning champions of Europe, on a humid Tuesday night in mid-September at the Stadio San Paolo.
It would be their second game after the renovations which improved the quality of the seats and added a large high-definition screen on both sides of the stadium. There was excitement as soon as you reached the outskirts of the city of Napoli. A sea of cars, motorbikes, trucks and vans were streaming towards the Stadio San Paolo which caused an hour’s delay on the tangenziale, the main road that leads into the city centre.
This was only the beginning of the madness because during the walk towards the stadium, a group of English-speaking fans were confronted by a hoodlum looking for a fight. Luckily, the group’s Neapolitan handler was able to defuse the situation by using local dialect to explain that they were supporting Napoli.
This incident serves as a reminder to always listen to listen to the guidelines issued by the away club and listen to the local authorities. Upon arriving to the stadium, it is customary to taste the local street food which consisted of a sausage panino with French fries and mayonnaise.
As I have come to expect with big games in around Italy, the process to get into the stadium was chaotic and similar to herding cattle or sheep into a pen. I was fortunate enough to get tickets to the Curva A, which was located next to the away fan section. The beautiful thing about this curva is that its occupants weren’t concerned about where they supposed to sit, and that the most important thing is to support their hometown club.
They showed their support by yelling out “Champions” at the end of the Champions League anthem. The air was filled with tension as the game began, as the Neapolitan fans were at best hoping for a good performance against the reigning Champions of Europe.
Napoli started the first half with multiple chances on goal that were either offside or barely wide. As they have been prone to all season, the Partenopei began conceding counter attacks to one of the faster three strikers in the game: Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool came close, but they were denied by a competent yet nervous Alex Meret, who seemed overawed by the occasion by cheaply giving away possession multiple times in the first half.
Tension grew at halftime, as Napoli fans became aware of the score in the RB Salzburg game and they feared that a draw may not be enough to stay in contention to move on from the Group Stage of the Champions League. The second half started as the first one with Napoli on the offensive which produced a great save from Adrian off a Mertens volley to keep the game tied.
The Anfield outfit got back into the game with 30 minutes to go when Kostas Manolas failed to control a pass in front of his own penalty area, which allowed Salah clean on goal but was denied once again by Alex Meret. The most controversial moment of the game came around the 80th minute when the German referee Felix Brych awarded a penalty to Napoli.
Being in the stands, without the traditional replays that North American sports take for granted, it seemed like a clear-cut penalty. It was only after the game where it was known that Jose Callejon simulated contact in the box.
The Curva A urged calm, as they realized that Dries Mertens still must finish off the penalty shot. In the buildup to the penalty shot was stressful and exciting at the same time, the fans broke out in song and the stadium let out an explosion of joy when it was coolly tucked away to put Napoli up 1-0.
The next fifteen minutes were excruciating to sit through, as 38,000 home fans started whistling when Liverpool gained possession. It was one of the most painful noises that I heard in my life, even louder than the yelling of “Champions” before the start of the game.
I felt like my eardrums were going to explode and was praying that Napoli would regain possession to get a break from the whistling. The home fans were so nervous that I saw one of them sync his iPhone timer to get an accurate count of the stoppage time.
It was only when Napoli debutante Fernando Llorente picked up a loose pass from Virgil Van Dijk and toe poked it in to give Napoli a 2-0 lead with 3 minutes left to play.
In an instant, the tense atmosphere gave away to a party in the stands. The singing continued well after the final whistle, as the entire Napoli squad went around the pitch to salute and thank the fans. It did not seem real for a foreigner to be at the San Paolo to watch Napoli-Liverpool for each team’s first game in this edition of the Champions League.
The Stadio San Paolo truly lived up to its moniker of being a volcano. In all my travels around Italy’s stadia, I have never seen such an passionate support in the way the Neapolitans embrace their hometown club. It is recommended to anyone that enjoys football in its simplest and rawest form should visit the San Paolo to experience the fervour that is embedded in Naples and the Neapolitan people.
My trip would not have been such a great experience without my friend and Neapolitan tour guide, Antonio, who ensured that I made most of my experience under the shadows of Vesuvius.