I started reporting from the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in 2002/03, the season AC Milan overcame Inter in the Champions League semi-finals before going on to beat Juventus in the final. I haven’t missed a European game there since. I have been to stadiums across the continent – some more modern, some with just as much history, some bigger, some even more beautiful. But nothing compares to San Siro on a big European night. This is something different.
Maybe it’s because the stands climb so steeply – you almost feel like you’re watching the game from above the pitch. This seems to amplify the sound, creating that intense cauldron effect you rarely get in such a huge stadium. The atmosphere can be incredible. An adrenaline injection.
Even from the outside you get the sense you’re in for something special. With its twirling turrets and suspended roof lit up against the night sky, it’s like a spaceship has landed in suburban Milan. The trams criss-crossing the roads around the ground bring you back down to earth and provide a glimpse of how things used to be. They conjure up images of black-and-white footage of fans arriving to see Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter, or Gianni Rivera’s Milan with coach Nereo Rocco – El Paron (the Master) –screaming instructions from the sidelines.
Passing through the gates you are met with plaques recalling the two clubs’ European triumphs – Arrigo Sacchi and the Dutch trio Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard for Milan; followed by Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti. For Inter, the presence of another coaching legend is equally palpable, José Mourinho, the man from Setúbal who steered the Nerazzurri to their first European Cup in 45 years in 2010.
Some things have changed. There is now a San Siro underground station and the stadium was given a bit of a facelift for the 2016 Champions League final. The atmosphere, however, is the same as always. I watch most games from the press box, and normally take the elevator up. But sometimes I still want to climb the stairs, the many stairs, leading up to the second tier, just to experience that feeling of anticipation as you approach the most beautiful view of all – that field of grass in the middle of this concrete-and-steel temple. The surreal silence before the gates open provides a moment of calm before the cacophony of a European night takes over.