Bologna FC 1909 – Stadio Renato Dall’Ara

Renato Dall’Ara, living off 2008
Renato Dall’Ara, once up then back down again

These are the lyrics of a relatively unknown single by Welsh indie-pop outfit Los Campesinos. It is an ode, in a mysteriously arcane fashion, to the tribulations of Renato Dall’Ara; the much respected former president of Bologna FC. Perhaps the band could have been commissioned to write a similar song detailing the abject failure of Aidy Boothroyd. A man who to this day, still finds himself as manager of the England U21 side despite an insipid and uninspiring showing.

The summer of 2019 saw the UEFA U21 Championships were take place in Italy and San Marino. A convenient break in my employment allowed me to join my companions who had been to the tournament in Poland two years earlier. They were seasoned campaigners. As a quartet, we were all too young – not alive in fact – to experience Italia 90. Here was the next best thing, Italia 19.

During our foray into northern Italy, we submerged ourselves deeply into local culture. We lived as locals. Yes, we watched six matches in four different cities but there was so much more to this trip than football. In Cesena, in the ruins of the old castle which overlooked the city, we had a chance encounter with guitar hero Johnny Marr. Over in Venice, we were followed around by former Cardiff City manager and alleged closet racist Malky Mackay. He didn’t appear to like the idea of sitting in a gondola. Meanwhile in Verona, we watched in astoundment as tourists flocked to see the balcony where Juliet (a fictional character) had spent her time.

Bologna, the culinary capital of Italy would be our base and it would be a city that we all fell in love with. Rugged, sun kissed and off the tourist trail, the streets of the city felt like our second home by the end of the trip. The Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, home to the city’s Serie A side stole the show and we were fortunate enough to visit the historic venue on two occasions.

Host nation, Italy beat Spain in a sell out match that opened the tournament. It brought goosebumps to my gradually tanning skin and provided drama throughout proceedings. Our second visit, days later, allowed us to explore the stadium further as we watched Spain again, this time in front of a sparse crowd against Poland. That day will be remembered more for the immense thunder and hail storms that swept across the city as the annual Pride march attempted to swim its way through the local park.

Temperatures were soaring upon our arrival, as our early morning flight landed. Ben, Adam and I met at Manchester Aiport while Aaron flew in from London. Kick off was at 19:00 local time, allowing us many hours to stock up on beer from the local shops before embarking on a bar crawl along our 6km walk across the city, to the stadium. Bologna boasts the second largest historic city centre in Europe and has 24 miles of porticoes which allow pedestrians to amble through the streets away from the beating sunshine.

We passed by the cities distinguishable landmarks, the Two Towers, Garisenda and Degli Asinelli. Taking ten years to build, they were completed in 1119. They were built at the meeting points of the five main roads into the city centre. It was down one of these, Via Ugo Bassi that we would join droves of Italians making the long walk down to another landmark, the home of the cities famous football club.

Many families were out in the streets enjoying meals that were accompanied with bottles of wine; they appeared to eat far later in Bologna than we do at home. It was approaching 21:00 as we got to the stadium. Occasionally, a bus packed with local football fans would crawl through the traffic that was stacking up. It was no quicker than walking. Those that did opt to travel by foot would fall out of view, dipping into the numerous shops on the way, buying large bottles of beer to keep fuelled.

I was speechless when we arrived at the Dall’Ara. The structure’s flamboyant and grand design, crammed into a residential area helped to create a palpable atmosphere in the surrounding streets. The entrances became narrower and darker as we approached, making it feel like we were going into battle at a Roman Colosseum. Vast arches and columns featured heavily. It was like being transported back in time.

The stadium was originally named the Littoriale and was opened in 1926 by Benito Mussolini. The former Italian dictator entered the ceremony on horseback, as he proudly opened what was then one of the largest and most modern venues in Europe. It was to be an example of what Italians could achieve and became the first facility of it’s quality in the country. It had been constructed by the cities mayor, Leandro Arpinati, who was inspired by a visit he made to the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

Stewards, who appeared to be volunteers who were excited by the occasion, were dotted around the stadium. They all proved as unhelpful, unable to guide us to the correct gate as even they were confused with the lack of signage. This just added to the atmosphere with everybody hustling and bustling to find their way in before the national anthems were sung.

Our four tickets were scattered in various areas through the Tribuna due to a strange ticketing system for the tournament. Our route to the seats took us underneath the depths of one of European footballs iconic sights. La Torre di Maratona (Tower of Marathon) sat precariously above us. It was here that the more vocal Italian fans congregated, under constant scrutiny from an overzealous security official who was pitchside.

On our venture around this busy area of the stadium we unfortunately witnessed the most ridiculous system ever to purchasing a pint. It even made the German’s infamous ‘stadium cards’ that you have to top up seem rather desirable. 

While the bar was ultra clean and modern and offered views on to the pitch, we would have missed the game if we’d managed to get our hands on a pint of Birra Moretti. Those who walked away victorious, with a beer in hand, were deserving of a standing ovation.

On one side of the dark alleyway, which led pitch side, was a kiosk that had a long, snaking queue where you could pay for your drink. Once you had parted with your cash and had been handed an order number, you then joined another queue. This led you into a bar area where you then had to queue again to pick up your order. It was like Argos – but for alcoholics – and it was totally bewildering how anybody ever thought it was an efficient system.

Having failed in our mission, we hurriedly trapezed along the front of the stand, trying to source five seats together. As the teams were entering the pitch, we finally had a bit of luck and found some. Leg space was a premium. People weren’t for moving, as they had nowhere to move to. We trampled across other spectators and a collection of flags, that formed a slippy surface underfoot, that had been thrown across the bucket seats in an attempt to boost the atmosphere further.

The whole chaotic nature of the stadium brought on a sudden and unexpected rush of adrenaline. It was accompanied by a rousing rendition of the Italian national anthem. All around us, it was proudly belted out by the majority of the packed crowd. If this atmosphere couldn’t get you interested in football, nothing could. Intermingled around us were a handful of Spanish nationals, proudly flying their countries flag during their anthem which consists of no words. 

Behind the goal to our right, the curved stand with two imposing floodlights quickly turned into a large, dark silhouette as the sun set. It lay well away from the action, begging to be asked forward. This didn’t deter the fans who had packed on to it, with not a single seat left empty, such was the interest in this match. 

Opposite was the end of the stadium where David Platt scored his spectacular volley for England against Belgium during Italia ’90. The whole place just oozed so much history and character; it was hard to pay attention to the match that was actually taking place in front of us.

As one member of our party persisted in trying to find beer, Dani Ceballos opened the scoring for Spain. The midfielder was vastly experienced compared to others involved, having already played 98 matches for my Spanish favourites, Real Betis. Weeks after this tournament, he was loaned out to Arsenal from Real Madrid where he had five goals to his name.

It turned out he wasn’t the only player in this match to be heading to the Premier League. His team mate Pablo Fornals had already secured a £24 million move from Villarreal to West Ham United just two days before this match. In the Italian camp, striker Moise Kean, who had a quiet game, moved to Everton from Juventus for a fee of £30 million.

Spain’s early goal had silenced the partisan crowd. The Renato Dall’Ara soon started bouncing again just before half time when Federico Chiesa, who already had over 100 appearances for Fiorentina behind him, equalised. 

During the interval, we managed to track down a bloke who was selling luke-warm beers on the tight, curved concourse. We surrounded him, allowing no other parties access to his precious cargo. His streetwise approach to trade was far more simplistic, taking money and handing over a beer. It wasn’t that hard, was it?

Spain, who we would watch three times on our travels, would go on to win the tournament quite easily. However, they found an inspired Italian side a tough opponent. The home crowd were vociferous in their support and they sealed the victory eight minutes from time. AS Roma midfielder, Lorenzo Pellegrini came up with a great finish that would have lifted the roof off the stadium, if it had one.

In the coming years, there may well be a roof to lift off. Plans to renovate the Renato Dall’Ara have been revealed and are largely sympathetic to it’s historical design. The tower and exterior walls will remain but the stands behind the net will be demolished. They will be replaced by new structures, bringing fans closer to the pitch and reducing capacity in the process. 

A roof was just what was needed for our second visit to Bologna’s stadium a week later. Instead, the handful of spectators resorted to sheltering under a collection of umbrellas. In doing so, they resembled the testudo formation that Roman soldiers had mastered, using shields to protect themselves from attack. See, I did occasionally listen in History lessons. The weather had been that bad, it made the news not just locally but nationally. We arrived back at the apartment in the early hours of the following morning, soaking wet and with a collection of suede shoes that no longer resembled their intended colour.

This was to be our designated blow out day. With no match to get to the following day, we created a full itinerary of drinking, football and partying.

Spain v Poland, like the previous match didn’t kick off until 21:00 local time. This allowed us the luxury of a rare a lie-in having watched England lose in comedic fashion to Romania in Cesena the night before. The sunshine tried to peep through the slats in the blinds, rebounding across the vast courtyard in the apartment block that we were staying in.

Venturing through the city centre, it appeared that everybody was heading down to Giardini Margherita to the south. Unbeknownst to us, it was the day of the annual Pride festival, which I thought was a spectacular planning decision considering Poland’s fans were in town; a country not exactly renowned for it’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The idea of a pride march is not exactly my cup of tea, or Aperol Spritz. However, in search of a cheap drink, some excitement and something a bit different we headed down to the public garden. This was despite large rain clouds gathering above. They formed a miserable blanket over the city and turned a darker shade of grey with each passing minute.

The dark clouds formed a stark contrast to the scene in the garden where a colourful party was set to depart into the city centre. It was then that the heavy clouds opened. None of us had ever witnessed weather like it before in our lives. People ran away, sheltering under the large number of trees available. After downing the remainder of our beers in the storm, we found a small amount of space crammed underneath a roof. The deluge lasted for a good 15 minutes, with hail stones the size of golf balls descending on the city.

In the aftermath, revelers queued at ambulances, with injuries sustained from the hail stones. Cars became dented and had their windows smashed, while the very unlucky owners became stranded as the streets flooded. I didn’t come away unscathed. Not only had I seen more spandex than an individual should be subjected to, one hail stone had caught me on the hand. It resulted in a swollen finger which would turn a violent shade of purple and cause me pain for the rest of the day.

Despite it’s delayed start, the large procession managed to begin an hour later. Passing through an array of multi-coloured puddles, which had been formed by the remnants of face paints and hair dye, everybody was totally sodden. It was all rather amusing.

Ben had managed to water damage his phone after deciding it was a great idea to film the hailstones. Worried that he had totally ruined his expensive gadget, he disappeared in search of a shop that would be selling rice to help dry it out. A far fetched idea. Would lasagna sheets or a packet of linguine not do the same trick?

An hour later, we caught up with York’s answer to Inspector Gadget at Bar Cavour. This posh winery sat in amongst designer shops such as Louis Vuitton and Emporio Armani. We looked completely out of keeping with the rest of the clientele and neither the owner or Ben appreciated it when his precious bag of rice was poured down the drain outside the establishment when he nipped to the toilet.

We had been guilty of underestimating just how far the walk to the Dall’Ara was for the last match, so we set off earlier on this occasion. Still drenched, despite hammering the hand dryers in the wine bar we waddled across to BrewDog which was in an edgier part of the city. It was happy hour when we arrived. Ben was happy saving a full euro on a pint of Punk IPA as this could allow him to buy another family sized pack of basmati.

By the end of our time in BrewDog, we had inadvertently assembled a full compliment of England fans. We embarked on the rest of the journey to the stadium together, hoping that the match would be on and that the weather would start to be a little kinder.

Our experience was a lot different this time; a crowd of just 3,000. We knew exactly where we were going and knew where to get our beer from. Pushing our luck, we headed to the far corner of the stand where a steward eventually gave up and let us stand up on the back row of the Tribune.

Tattered flags from the previous match were still scattered everywhere, there had been no clean-up operation. Spain would walk this match, putting five past their Polish opponents who were made to look distinctly average.

Pablo Fornals showed why West Ham had gambled on him, opening proceedings before Mikel Oyarzabal and Fabián, another former Betis player made it 3-0 before half time. Daniel Ceballos and fellow Real Madrid loanee Borja Mayoral grabbed a goal each and it finished 5-0.

The final whistle signaled that it was time for us to make the 4km walk back to the city centre. Most cities tend to be more lively in and around the University area, so we took a gamble and investigated what it was like for a night out. Built in 1088, this is the world’s oldest University. It didn’t disappoint. Students and locals were already in the swing of a party, bringing along their own bottles and creating their own music in the site’s many open squares. Adam became a guest drummer for a five minute spell. He had upstaged the owner and was asked in no uncertain terms to hand the instrument back.

As cool as it was, sitting in the streets playing instruments we wanted something more. Nightclubs weren’t a popular attraction in Bologna, with all the locals telling us that in order to carry on through the night we had to head back to the Garden which we had been in earlier in the day.

As we arrived back at the garden, it was pitch black. The indistinct thumping of loud music in the distance guided us to where the party was. In the middle of this vast space, next to a lake which contained lots of turtles was a large, white building. The turtles didn’t fancy a rave, opting to continue hiding in their shells, scared at the prospect of more hailstone.

Included, very generously within the extortionate admission fee, were a couple of cocktails each. Mojitos flowed well into the early hours.  As the sun began to emerge, we perhaps knew it was time to head back and get some sleep. Drunkenly, the decision was made to hire bikes and cycle through Bologna’s empty streets to the north of the city. 

Italy, Spain and Poland all finished the group stage on six points. With only one nation from each group qualifying for the semi-finals it was Spain who progressed, having a one goal advantage over Italy on goal difference. 

Spain would win the tournament in Udine, beating Germany 2-1 in the final.

*Thanks to Ben and Aaron for letting me use their photographs, after I lost all mine with a corrupted hard-drive. I’m glad the rice worked.

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