Bologna 1 Cagliari 0 (23rd March 2014)
On a weekend trip that would end with me wondering if I was standing next to ex-The Who and Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones on the bus back to the Gatwick car park, and start with me wondering if I’d spotted various members of punk band The Exploited on the flight over, and in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, if there was one thing I did know for certain it was that wearing a thick coat on a warm day, while walking up the steep portico towards a church overlooking Bologna’s ground, was something of a mistake.
In my defence the weather forecast had been poor. It suggested 13 C temperatures and rain, but after a fresh start it just got warmer and warmer. On the flat it was actually very pleasant, just less so going uphill.
If Bologna has a signature it’s its porticoes, the ornamental covered walkways that line the streets of the city centre. The longest of these, the longest in the world at over two miles, leads from the city centre, right past Bologna’s Stadio Dall’Ara, up to the church of San Luca overlooking the stadium from its slopes. I had planned to go to the top, but about a quarter of a mile was enough. The fitness freaks who seemed to be running up to the top deserved applause, or maybe sectioning.
For once, it was maybe the attraction of the city rather than the football club or stadium that brought me to Bologna. It is a fine city that would be an international tourist magnet in most countries, but Italy is rather well blessed with cities of fine architecture, and Bologna falls down the list. In a city of towers, even its leaning tower, overhanging 3.2 metres from its 48m height, is completely overshadowed by the more famous example in Pisa.
Before its refit for the World cup in 1990, the Stadio Dall’Ara was probably a pretty handsome building too. Built in the 1920s, its exterior was all brick arches and classical styling. The addition of a dozen or so extra rows of seats necessitated the building of a steel cage around the stadiums exterior, and while not exactly ugly, it is akin to a pretty girl with braces obscuring her smile.
I’ll draw a veil over the detail that the portico directly bordering the east side was not only closed for renovation, but covered in graffiti, on the grounds that at the centre of it was the Marathon Tower. This brick tower formed one of the more unusual entrances to a stadium that there must be, and one of the grandest too. The arches of the vaulted ceiling underneath formed an almost medieval looking concourse, where you expected to see Guy Fawkes stashing barrels of gunpowder rather than football supporters buying pre-match snacks.
Walking up the stairs to the very top of the stands, it was quickly apparent that the earlier sun had given way to weather more like I’d seen in the forecast earlier, as a blustery wind whipped the upper reaches. This wasn’t ideal, as the good weather had seen me think it safe to buy a seat on the uncovered east side. I believe the covered side seats were a minimum of €55 anyway, so it would have taken the prospect of quite a drenching to make me buy one of those.
Even when people were raving about the new Italia ’90 stadiums, it has to be said that the Dall’Ara wasn’t one that too many were mentioning, and the years haven’t really been kind to the renovations. It’s bad enough that the seats have faded miserably, but the fact that because they are fixed rather than tip up seats means that people generally use them as stepping stones when walking between the rows. The result is a side full of seats that are dirty, broken, or faded, and often all three – even the ones that have been replaced. My own allocated seat had either been kicked through at the base, or been sat on by a fat man with very bony buttocks. Not thinking it the last word in comfort, I opted for a seat further along. With Bologna in the bottom three, and Cagliari bring barely 200 fans, it’s not as if the game would be selling out.
One thing that doesn’t come across on TV is just how steep a bowl the Dall’Ara is. It also seems a lot bigger as a result, and if smartened up, would actually be quite impressive. As it is though, it’s perhaps the archetypal Italian ground, oval with a traditional “curva” behind each goal, and completely open on three sides. It does have some distinctive features though. The Marathon Tower, once outside the stadium, is now part of it, with the extended seating wrapping round it, welcoming it into the ground. Perhaps most impressive, never seen on TV, is the view beyond the south end, looking towards San Luca, with the last mile of terracotta portico snaking up the hill.
Much less welcome, as I settled in anticipation of kick off, were the increasingly frequent spots of rain. First there were grumbles, then the red and blue plastic ponchos came out, then an exodus for the sanctuary of the concourses and the rain increased. Football grounds seldom seem cheerful in the rain, but in the rain in uncovered seated areas… Suddenly €55 didn’t seem all that expensive after all.
Luckily, as kick-off approached, the rain eased, if not quite stopping. It was time to brave the elements, opting for a new vantage point slightly higher and further along the stand. One definite drawback with fixed seats is their moulded shape creates natural hollows where rainwater can collect. The designers have though of this though, and added holes for the water to drain away. Unfortunately, poor design or poor installation meant that these holes often weren’t where the water collected.
As for the match at Zenit a decade ago, it was a case of finding spare bits of paper in pockets etc to try to mop my seat dry. The popularity of free matchday programmes (I saw no fewer than three different ones) becomes obvious when they can double as something to sit on. And with those red and blue ponchos being so popular, not to mention a couple of red and blue flares going off, there was at least a bit of colour to contrast with the grey sky.
Bologna really aren’t having a good season. No home win for three months, and a poor goalless draw in the previous home match against bottom-places Sassuolo, followed by losing at fellow strugglers Livorno, had seen them drop into the relegation zone. And to be honest, it wasn’t difficult to see why.
Bologna might have only scored 23 goals in 28 games, but there was no hint of negativity about their play as they pushed forward at every opportunity. Unfortunately for all their attacking intent, they had the killer instinct of Bambi, with seemingly no idea how to create a scoring chance. Even when crosses in beat the first man (and didn’t sail past everyone) attackers would dither like pensioner drivers at a t-junction, waiting for the perfect gap that would never arrive. With Cagliari sitting relatively comfortable six points above, and happy for a point, it had the look of a game with 0-0 stamped all over it from about a quarter of an hour in.
At least by the second half, the rain had not only stopped, but the sun had returned, and Bologna were definitely doubling their efforts. There were still moans of “Imbecille!!” greeting the home team’s more frustrating mistakes, but the surprisingly loud home fans were cheering their team on, and it did look like if there was a goal, it would be for Bologna.
Everyone thought they had scored when one effort fired into the side netting. Prior to that Bologna’s best chance had probably been from a mistake, when a poor cross to nobody was left by a Cagliari defender for his keeper, without letting the keeper know. He only just managed to dive across his goal to tip in wide.
There had been the odd shot away in the second half before that, but maybe the highlight was seeing a Cagliari defender trying to save a corner with an overhead kick, only for the ball to hit him in the face and go out for a corner anyway. It was that sort of game.
In fairness, there were a few shots from both sides, and it certainly wasn’t a boring game. It just that you seldom felt that any of shot that did come in were likely to be anything other than a save. It would take something out of the ordinary to get a goal.
With 12 minutes left, it came. Another poor cross was avoiding everyone, only for two Cagliari defenders to inexplicably make a sandwich out of a Bologna forward who was doing no more than watch the ball fly over his head.
The ref pointed to the spot, and up stepped Greek midfielder Lazaros Christodoulopoulos to take the kick. He wore Lazaros on his shirt, presumably because Christodoulopoulos wouldn’t fit even if they used both sleeves of a long sleeve shirt, and if you want someone to bring a season, not to mention a game, back to life, then someone called Lazaros seems a perfect choice.
He sent the keeper the wrong way to put Bologna the lead, with the crowd, and the PA announcer in particular, cheering this very important goal. He repeatedly shouted “Lazaros…Lazaros…Lazaros” over and over as if overcome with disbelief.
It did mean for the last 12 minutes we had a real game on our hands. Cagliari, who seemed to have taken the 0-0 for granted, suddenly had to push forward. In fact their domination from there on was so total, it made you wonder why they didn’t just try to win the game from the outset. They’d had a couple of decent chances in the first half, but just eased off, and now they had it all to do with just a few minutes remaining.
Despite a few scrambles and ten minutes or so of nail-biting tension for the home fans, Bologna held on, and the team went over to the fans on the curva to celebrate. The fans, many astride the plexiglass barriers, crisscrossed with cracks from having the shatterproof quality tested presumably on less happy afternoons, showed their approval. With a less than easy run-in, Bologna’s status is hardly secure, but with the sun shining on Bologna’s afternoon, being out of the drop zone was something to savour on the walk home.