…It’s in southern Italy in case you don’t know your geography. If Italy is shaped like a boot, then Bari is located at the top of the heel. Even though the city was overcast and cloudy upon arrival, the bright trani stone pavements along with the pastel and sand-coloured buildings, together with the laid back easy going pace of life are strong pointers to your location on the southern Adriatic coast. And when the sun does come out, it casts a positively warm glow amongst the palm-treed splendour.
I am here for Ireland’s World Cup qualifying match against Italy. Why it is being played in Bari depends on who you believe. Some point to Italian League President Antonio Matarrese being a Baresi (Bari local), others see Italy’s record of 7 wins out of 7 in Bari as the reason, whilst cynics suspect an attempt to further enhance the home side’s chances by holding the match at a comparatively inaccessible venue to keep the travelling fan numbers down. Whatever the motive, Irish supporters who booked flights to Milan or Rome in expectation of the tie being held there were left lamenting the choice of Bari. What’s more, those who didn’t reserve a hotel room immediately after the venue was announced were left to scramble for accommodation up to 60km away. Me? I stayed in the Hotel Boston – which I booked up whilst still in Zambia! – just off Bari Vecchia (old town). It was modern, functional and just fine. My sole complaint was that the only English news channel available on TV was Fox News. I’d rather live in ignorance than watch Fox News. Though that’s the same thing in my book…
Within the castle walls of old town Bari is Basilica San Nicola (Church of Saint Nicholas). Inside it is the size of an aircraft hangar with a luxuriantly ornate painted ceiling (no photos allowed sadly). Its building was funded by the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, as a place where Russian Orthodox pilgrims could come to worship Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century saint whose generosity saw his story and name metamorphose into what we know today as Santa Claus. The statue looked nothing like a fat bloke in a red suit though.
Irish fans made a less secular pilgrimage to the Sala Consiliare de Municipo (Bari town hall) where the Wold Cup trophy was on display. It is the anti-Mona Lisa in that it is larger that you would imagine it to be, about 14 inches high, the length of a forearm. Guards stood either side of the trophy as we all queued to snap a picture up close of the biggest prize in football. It might be the closest Ireland will ever get to it.
natural gathering point
Piazza del Ferrarese is the main square of the old town, near the seafront. It is surrounded by bars and restaurants and it was the natural gathering point for the visiting Irish fans. The night before the match, a concert stage was set up and Italian and Irish bands were playing as the Peroni beer flowed freely and we happily mingled with the locals. It’s stating the obvious to say the Italian girls were gorgeous, but are they particularly short-sighted in this part of Italy? So many girls – about half of them in my estimation – wore glasses. Not that it hindered any passes. Of the non-footballing kind. Allegedly.
Further along the seafront was the pick up point for the free shuttle bus service to the stadium. The local authorities really went all out to help us enjoy our stay. From laying on free buses to the match, to issuing English maps especially for the occasion, to handing out free match preview newspapers, which proclaimed that Italian coach Marcello Lippi’s new reign “was in the hands of less well-endowed players”. Obviously this was written in Italian and poorly translated into English. Either that or the writer had really serious insight to the Italian changing room…
San Nicola stadium
The San Nicola stadium, 6km south west of the old town, resembles a flying saucer from the outside. Inside the 55,000 capacity ground, an athletics track separates the stands from the pitch. Nonetheless, we had a great view of the action from the Curva Sud (behind the right hand goal if you watched on TV). About 5,000 Irish supporters made it here; though it is likely to have been somewhat greater had the game been played in Milan or Rome.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw, and I’m not being biased when I say Ireland should have won. Gianpaolo Pazzini was sent off in the 4th minute for elbowing John O’Shea in the face; the game was Ireland’s for the taking. But Vincenzo Iaquinta took advantage of some complacent defending to put Italy ahead in the 10th minute. From thereon it was all Ireland. Keeper Shay Given was barely troubled as Ireland practically encamped in the Italian half. But poor final passes and a bit of ill luck meant Italy held the lead until 87 minutes when Robbie Keane’s perseverance finally paid off; he latched onto a Caleb Folan header and stabbed an equalising goal past Gianluigi Buffon.
Ireland even had a couple of chances to win it late on, but it wasn’t to be. Still, if you had offered us a draw away to the world champions at the start of the evening, we’d have gladly taken it. We stayed behind in the San Nicola long after the final whistle, singing and celebrating as if we had won. Did I mention we should have?
another great trip
So there you have it. To a great extent, the result colours the judgement, but there’s little doubt that this was another great trip with the Irish team. The weather was mostly warm, the locals were friendly and helpful, the food was outstanding (shame on those Irish fans who still headed to McDonalds). And for all the criticism levelled at Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, there’s no denying he has got the team passing the ball to each other, and instilled a cohesion that has not been evident for some time. Next stop Sofia.