Like many sports fans, I created a sports bucket list several years ago. Like most people when they do this, I included some of the most obvious event I have not yet attended like the Stanley Cup Finals (check!), the BCS Title Game (check!), The Final Four (check!), and the Masters (one day!). I also included international competitions such as the World Baseball Classic (check!) Olympics (nope) and the World Cup (nope).

As a big soccer fan though, I failed to write down the most obvious – a serious European football match – and I write this today to beg you to add it to your list if it isn’t there already. Now to be clear, I don’t include the EPL here because, while rowdy, isn’t exactly what I mean. What I mean is a match that includes (sometimes) violent fans, nonstop giant flags, and in-stadium road flares. The type of venue that requires about 10 levels of security before entering. There is, quite simply, nothing like it and something I feel every sports fan should experience.

So on September 29th, I had the privilege (with my wife) to attend a Serie A match between league-leading AS Roma and basement dweller Bologna at Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

The first thing you notice as a bit of a culture shock is the aforementioned entrance procedure. So here we go.

First, you better have your ID/passports ready at seemingly all times. Security layer #1 is the simple fact that tickets in many of these nations are assigned to people by name. Sure enough when I picked up the tickets, both my name and my wife’s name were clearly printed on the ticket itself. As you might expect, there are several fans that have had their game-attending privileges revoked and this is the security measure taken to make sure they stay out.

photo1So we have our tickets….

Next is entering under the sign of our section, in this case Tribuna Tevere. This gate is several hundred yards away from the stadium, but that’s where it stars. It is actually less a stadium entrance and more like an airport customs checkpoint. There are tall metal gates with narrow lanes where for the first time, your ticket is checked to match your passport. Once through that gate, you are met by a human wall of security personnel who are checking bags and doing pat downs – a bit more thoroughly than NFL stadiums I should add. Once past that is human wall #2 of armed military personnel. Awesome.

After that you get to the main tiled-mosaic walkway up to Stadio Olimpico. Time for a picture!

1383562_10102410087497182_431835917_nOnce you make your way to the stadium entrance, it is time for another security checkpoint! This time it is a metal cage looking thing with turnstiles. These guys won’t open until you scan your ticket into the barcode scanner. I didn’t take a picture, but here is an idea:

cageAfter the cage, ONE MORE security checkpoint where they check your passport to match your ticket. Finally, we are into Stadio Olimpico.

Our next challenge was finding our seats even though our tickets are in Italian and I don’t know any Italian other than “Bonjourno”, “Ciao”, and “Grazie”. My first attempt was wrong as I confused section and seat number – but we got to our seats and were met with one incredible view…

photo5Then the pregame…

Honestly it is kind of hard as an “outsider” to know when things are getting started because the noise is incredibly loud as soon as you walk in, even a good 30 minutes or so before kickoff. So once I saw the first crowd flare, I assumed this meant we were about to get going.

photo2Couple of interesting things from this part of the night. They do some crowd interaction things that are often tried over in the US, but often feel gimmicky and annoying. However when you have delirious crowds that are all in, it works. Two examples:

1. The PA announcer acting like a hype man. I have been to PLENTY of games in the US (mainly college) where the PA guy tries to steal the show with terrible results. He adds his catch phrases and ultimately no one is reacting. Not so in Stadio Olimpico. I don’t know a lick of Italian, but the guy was going nuts over the speakers like a coach giving a pregame speech. The crowd responded to every part of it, which really ratcheted up the noise by the time the players came out from the tunnel (which I didn’t even notice at first because I was too busy watching the crowds).

2. The gimmick of announcing the starting lineup interactively with the fans. Again another thing I have seen tried but never succeeded here (please share a video link if you have seen it work!) is the whole PA announcer says first name, crowd says last name thing. Holy *!%*, the AS Roma fans went nuts. By the time this part was over, I felt like I wanted to run through a brick wall for these people. I was pumped. The best part was how deafening the place got for AS Roma and Azzuri Hero/God Francesco Totti.

So then the game itself. All I was really hoping for was at least a goal by the home team that meant something in the match, just to feel the electricity of a goal in that environment. I was hoping with Roma playing the last-place team, this wouldn’t be too farfetched of a request.

It took 7 minutes.

A clean free kick was saved but an unmarked Roma player found the open rebound and suddenly Roma was ahead and the place lost its collective mind. It was like being in the crowd for an important touchdown in the AFC Championship Game. Loud. Group hugs. Grown men near tears as they are still coming to grips with AS Roma being the dominant first place team they currently are. I felt it all and it was just so different from what I was used to for any type of regular season game back home.

And then they did it again. And again. And again. And one more time. Five-nil to the home team and not a bad way to experience my first (of surely what will only be a small handful in my lifetime) European soccer match.

Here are the highlights:

On the way out it was a happy madhouse. Flags still flying, chants and songs still going strong, and everyone who had access to some type of vehicle’s horn blasting it as much as possible. It really recapped what was an awesome experience.

I know there are many out there who may not want to venture into these stadiums for safety concerns or whatever else you may think about European soccer, given its violent past. So here are a few tips for attending Stadio Olimpico in Rome:

  • There are several sections to get tickets. If you want to “sit and enjoy” it more, especially with family, then simply look for tickets along the sidelines such as the Tribuna Tevere. Typically the “ultras” (or crazy people with flags and flares) sit behind the nets. There were several kids around us where we were and at no point did we feel unsafe or amongst crazy people.
  • Keep in mind that alcohol and these matches aren’t as linked as sports in the US. People don’t go to these games tanked and drink 8 beers in the stadium. Yes they sell beer, but I saw wayyyyyyyy more freshly-brewed espresso being enjoyed (which I did enjoy myself!)
  • Bring your passports to the stadium or you are screwed.
  • Buy your tickets ahead of time either online on the team’s official website or through an official store in the city. Remember the tickets have to be assigned to your name, so don’t bet on buying them outside the stadium like you would a baseball game. Also the Serie A version of Stubhub is absurdly priced. I just used AS Roma’s official ticket website with no issues.
  • Research ahead of time how you are getting home. We took a taxi to the stadium, but finding one on the way out was impossible or I just didn’t do my homework to figure out where to find one. We ended up walking like 3+ miles back to our apartment because we didn’t know any better. This was not a fun walk.
  • Buy a home team scarf outside the stadium or at a local market in the city. It will make you feel more part of the experience plus it’s a great souvenir to hold onto.
  • Get to your seats at least 30 minutes before kickoff, which means to the first security wall a good 45 minutes-hour before. You want to take in the atmosphere even in the moments leading up to the teams emerging from the tunnel. It is worth it to be early.
  • Italian Stadium Pizza >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> American Stadium Pizza