Part 2: The Match
It took me a while to accept the surreal feeling born of both Milan teams playing in my back yard. I was at Gillette Stadium watching soccer and the place was bursting with energy.
Average attendance for the New England Revolution in 2008 was 17,580. Only two sides of the stadium will be sat during most MLS matches. The Fort end will be filled with lively fans and the sections in the low hundreds will hold a decent showing. The rest of the seating is closed off because it simply isn’t needed.
Sunday, everything was open except the highest tiers and the sections behind the monstrous staging setup for AC/DC’s upcoming concert. Attendance for the Milan Derby reached 42,531. For whatever Revs supporters were there this was a wet dream. A look at what could be. 42,000 people in Gillette and real grass on the pitch. If New England ever got to play under such conditions every week, the loyal supporters will declare: we’ve made it! (Even if New England make it to another final and don’t win: a long-standing New England sports tradition.)
Point is, we’d been transported to another world. We’d been given a vision of an alternate reality where American support for world football can be as healthy as it is in Italy, England, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Spain. And it was beautiful. The crowd chanted and clapped and roared. I wished I was down in it. I considered an escape from the press area (although our seats were amazing and my view was completely unobstructed). I wanted to plant myself between a Milan fan and an Inter fan (there was no separations down there). I wanted to know: were they arguing and razzing each other? Or were they so happy to be watching the Derby in their own back yard they kept the spirit of the friendly extended into the seats? And if so did this change once the goals came?
As the players went at it, they looked exhausted. I don’t watch enough Serie A to know how it compared, but it seemed a tame match by European standards. The busy schedule and long journeys across our continent was taking its toll.
Of course a tired Milan Derby was still pretty damn thrilling for an American.
Here were the highlights for me:
In the opening moments, Milito ran onto a promising ball in space but he couldn’t get the right cross in. Minutes later he’d run onto an almost identical ball. He decided to make an adjustment since the last one didn’t work…. Milito’s adjustment: I’ll do this all myself, thanks. He cuts into the box. Turns his man one way. Turns him back. Takes the shot. It’s the tightest of angles. It deflects of the keeper and goes in. Goal!
This was at the farthest part of the pitch from where I was sitting and I still got chills as if Milito had been dribbling right in my lap… (ooh, what an awkward phrase… don’t quote me out of context with that one…)
Ronaldinho looked one of the few Milan players willing to get something going to equalize. When he’d left Spain, I thought he was slowing down. But I didn’t need binoculars to see the class he oozing from his pores. He was the best player on the pitch. With Kaka gone, nobody could compare. Immaculate touch and flawless vision. He always knew just how long to spend on the ball and where to ship it when it was time to pass. His teammates didn’t always keep his brilliant moves going, but I was dazzled every time he made them.
Inter seemed in control after they scored. But Milan had tons of promising approach play. They just couldn’t find that finish. I came as a neutral, but now I wanted Milan to score. If only to keep the balance after such an early goal.
I knew nothing of Pato going into the match, but I promise you I was quickly dazzled. He’d already made an early searing attempt from distance. Now, I watched him get trapped in a cul de sac, Inter players swarming around him. With two touches, he turned the trap inside out and sped into open space. My jaw was wide open. It didn’t turn into a goal, but it was so beautiful in and of itself who could care? (Okay, the Milan supporters obviously did…)
Do they do the wave in Italy? At 21 minutes one went around the stadium. Perhaps this was a move to keep us grounded. To remind us we hadn’t been teleported to Milano.
The best moment of the first half (after Milito’s goal) was the accidental slapstick when the ref went to caution Ronaldinho. I think for dissent. (The guy sitting next to me said Ronnie grabbed the ref’s arm.) The ref pulled out the red card and held it in Ronaldinho’s face. He quickly caught his own mistake and shook his head at Ronnie: No no no, wrong one… sorry.
Ronnie milked the moment. Hands up and a goofy “what’d I do” face. Buster Keantoninho.
At half-time some of the players changed jerseys. I’d never seen that before. Did they know they were getting subbed off or what? I still don’t get it.
In the second half, Milan turned the heat up a little and I really thought they were going to equalize, but they still could not turn their fluid movements into a killer finish. The stadium seemed to be quieting down. I think it was mostly Milan supporters. The Inter supporters made noise, but they’d probably all gotten rides with the Milan supporters and didn’t want to be stranded in Foxborough.
On 47 minutes, Ronaldinho puts a free kick on target but it is well saved. I just want to see one of these go in. Be able to tell my kids I saw him convert from distance in Foxborough. It wasn’t to be.
The crowd buzzes when an Inter coach runs over with a clip board to give instructions to Vieira.
Ronnie gets two more free kicks. Nothing goes in. He comes off in the 68th. The crowd is now in a coma.
Incoming Flamini takes a blistering shot in the 74th. Deflected.
But then Stankovic is bursting forward, splitting the defense. At pace, he makes the perfect pass to Milito who drifts out left, then cuts in, then shoots. The keeper gets a foot to it but cannot keep it out.
Vieira, Matterazzi, Quaresma, Oddo, Antonini, and Nesta were all amongst the day’s subs. Matterazzi snuck on initially and then when the announcer retroactively told us of his addition the crowd let out a huge mixed gutteral groan/half-hearted cheer. Like a beached whale dying.
However when Milan’s new American, Oguchi Onyewu came off, the cheering for him was well-rounded and all consuming.
In the end it was a brilliant day. I would have loved to see at least one Milan goal, if only to inspire some frenzied pacing from Jose Mourinho. But just being able to see these two giants play in Massachusetts on a warm July evening was a pure treat. Come back any time.