MILAN // "What a noise, what an atmosphere," beamed Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, after watching his side beat AC Milan 3-2 in the San Siro on Tuesday. "Fantastic fans," added United legend Paddy Crerand, who was on the losing side in the same stadium in the 1969 European Cup semi-final, of the rossoneri. "But they quickly turn if they are not happy and they were throwing bottles at [Manchester United keeper] Edwin van der Sar."
Both were in joyous mood after seeing United win for the first time in nine attempts in one of football's great arenas. United's first goal from Paul Scholes was the club's first in the San Siro against AC Milan, while Wayne Rooney's brace led one hard-to-please Italian journalist to ask Ferguson if Rooney was now among the best players in the world. The United manager did not disagree. Ferguson had just witnessed Rooney star in a top-level match full of goals in front of a magnificent atmosphere from the 78,000 crowd. The 4,000 travelling United fans played their part. English clubs generally travel well, and though the visiting fans were located high on the third tier, they were loud enough for David Beckham to thrice acknowledge their: "There's only one David Beckham" chants.
Beckham appeared disappointed that he had not made more of an impact against his former club when he was substituted for Clarence Seedorf, but his popularity endures among fans of his first love - as it does among the Milanese. Italian football's stock may have slipped over the past two decades but the atmosphere in a big stadium like the San Siro on an important Champions League night was never lost.
It is something the Italians do well and the stadiums in Turin, Rome and Milan can turn into fervent cauldrons of passion seldom bettered in Western Europe. The Italian "ultra" culture is a major factor. Fans are involved in well-organised groups who expend huge amounts of energy making giant flags, banners or giant collages. Against United on Tuesday, when the flares were not burning brightly, different banners were unfurled with regularity during the match - an education into the thinking of Milan fans where you learn that Franco Baresi is far more popular than his predecessor Paolo Maldini.
Say "captain" in Milan and it means Baresi. "Maldini didn't have the emotion of Baresi," opined one ultra. "He saw Milan as his job; Baresi saw it as his life's mission." In contrast to England where the songs tend to be spontaneous, Milan's songs were led by chorus leaders perched precariously on the front lip of the second tier. There are dangers when fans are afforded too much power, as some are in Italy. The politics which infuse the ultras tend to be extreme. Players are often assaulted at the club's training ground for having a bad game.
Club presidents tend to be in cahoots with the ultras for fear of reprisals; supplying the groups with tickets and subsiding their travel, unholy alliances which discolour the already muddy waters of Italian football. High-profile deaths have made the conduct of fans an issue for the Italian government and attendances have slipped because families do not feel safe at the stadiums. These are all serious issues which need addressing, but hopefully not at the expense of the atmosphere which makes watching a big game in Italy such a rich experience, even when the home side lose.