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It smells like piss and cigarettes, but I love it

April 14, 2023

Kate Padilla

In my life, Italian soccer—calcio—has always been an afterthought, only to be considered when scouting a young talent while in FIFA career mode with my brother. The golden age of Italy’s greats—and their even greater hair—was resigned to forever be an unlearned history. The glory of Gattuso, the might of Maldini: these were men, stories and dramas paramount to this incredible sport. And I knew nothing of them. But now, living in Milan among two teams that are giants of the game, I can’t believe I’ve gone all these years without it.

It’s weird, living in a Milanese apartment. That is, with no roommates to convincingly coerce me into putt-putt competitions or a ‘quick four’ Mario Kart grand prix. My small studio is no larger than the elevator lobby in Adams Hall and doesn’t necessarily have the same charm as Brunswick Apartment E1. Now, (mom), don’t worry—it’s not some hospital-like room where everything is white and stale, but there definitely aren’t any Obi-Wan Kenobi posters on the walls, and there certainly aren’t any Jayson Tatum Ruffles on the shelves.

I keep my bookshelves busy. It gives the room some life and love, plus it keeps me reading. Soccer scarves droop from the built-in bulletin board behind my desk alongside letters from loved ones four thousand miles away.

Frankly, I love my apartment. I truly do. It’s exactly what I need: my own space where I can remove myself from city life, not too grand that it feels empty while not quite small enough to make me feel cramped.

It is perfect. But no matter what, it isn’t my home.

I believe home doesn’t have to be where you live. Everyone is welcome to their own thoughts on the matter, but that’s what I think. Home can be anything. Sometimes it’s a feeling, a sensation. Home can be a memory; home can be a person. Today, 3,739 miles away from my family and friends, I call Stadio San Siro my home.

It’s about a forty-minute commute from my house back to my home. I take the tram to the Duomo stop, switch over to the underground metro, then take that for eight or so stops before switching trains and taking the purple metro to the end of the line. The final stop is San Siro Stadio. There’s another stop right before it called San Siro Ippodromo. I won’t make that mistake twice.

As you rise from Milan’s underground, with each step up, a little more of the stadium comes into focus. The putrid scent of booze, urine and hand-rolled cigarettes strengthens as you walk. You observe—the glowing spires of concrete walkways, the light from the beer and panino stands affront, the people, oh the people, all together for a single cause, leaving all of life’s issues behind them—it never fails to take my breath away.

The first time I walked down the concourse from the station to the stadium, dwarfed by its mass, I just kept repeating under my breath, “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” I was mesmerized by the siren’s song. You would’ve thought I was a 13-year-old on middle school dance night. Goosebumps all around. Heart in my stomach.

As I arrived at the stadium’s base with this Mecca of the game flaunting its barreled ramps above, I began to hear the songs. The Ultras—the most die-hard fans arrive hours early and don’t stop singing until well after the final whistle. Their voices echoed off the San Siro’s metal roof, so perfectly held in place by its famous trusses of red. I didn’t know what they were saying (I’ve picked up one or two songs since), but I knew I wanted to be there.

That first match was as exhilarating as the next six. But when I attended the Derby della Madonnina—the match played between the two Milan sides (Inter and A.C Milan)—I knew this place was special.

I grew—am growing—up in a soccer household, an effort spearheaded by my dad, whose love of the game dictates what’s on TV from 7:00 a.m. every Saturday morning until the final Premier League match of the day. I explicitly remember him telling me once that when he was my age, it was these two Milanese clubs that dominated the sport. It wasn’t until I saw them pitted against each other—until that night at the San Siro—that I truly understood the might of these two megaliths.

The Milan tifosi sat behind the net at Curva Sud. Opposite them, Inter’s Ultras claim Curva Nord as their home. And through the entirety of the match, I wasn’t convinced any of them were watching the game. Instead, they spent the entire 90 minutes hurling insults, both written and verbal, at one another. Next to me, two middle school-aged boys who sported Milan scarves withstood insult after insult from the much older Inter fans seated around us. I sure as hell wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The elderly man on the other side of me, an Inter supporter, never sat down once, resting seemingly all of his body weight on his cane for the entire match. I found myself both impressed but also a little concerned for his well-being, but after Lisandro Martinez’s goal in the 34th minute, the image of his wife hugging him like they were long-lost lovers reunited will forever be imprinted in my mind.

Personally, I hoped Milan would win, but I’m also a sucker for passion. This, coupled with crossing off a bucket list item resulted in a night to never forget.

So when I returned to the San Siro to watch Milan against Tottenham in a Champions League knockout round fixture, I found myself falling in love with this place all over again. The Champions League is different. It’s regal. Approaching the stadium felt special that night. Singing the Champions League anthem with eighty thousand people felt special that night. But when every man, woman and child held up the flags placed under the stadium to form a stadium-wide tifo, I found myself choking up.

“Non ti ho tradito mai,” the tifo read. I have never betrayed you.

I was home.

Sam Pausman is a member of the Class of 2024.


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