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Fortress San Siro: venue for the 2021 UEFA Nations League final

UEFA's Italy correspondent Paolo Menicucci reminisces about the mystique of the near 100-year-old stadium, where the Azzurri had remained undefeated until Wednesday's Nations League semi-final defeat by Spain.

©Domenic Aquilina

Until their UEFA Nations League semi-final, I had never seen Italy lose at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza – better known as the San Siro – a period stretching back to my first match report filed from the grand old stadium in 2002/03. It was a first in a lifetime experience, and one that I shared with just about every other Italian. Since making their debut at the stadium in 1927, the Azzurri had never previously tasted defeat there.

For just short of a century, the San Siro had been the national team's impregnable fortress. Perhaps, because it looks and feels like one, its twirling turrets and steep stands towering above visiting teams. This seems to amplify the sound, creating that intense cauldron effect you rarely get in such a huge football ground.

I have been to many stadiums across the continent – some more modern, some with just as much history, some bigger, some even more beautiful. But nothing compares to the San Siro on a big match night. It is something different. The atmosphere can be incredible. An adrenaline injection.

Suburban spaceship

©Getty Images

Even from the outside, you get the sense you're in for something special. With its 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 the present and, even more, the past – a reminder that generations of football fans have walked the same route, to watch the stars of Italy, AC and Inter Milan perform right here.

For me, it conjures up images of black-and-white footage of Helenio Herrera's Grande Inter, or Gianni Rivera's AC Milan with coach Nereo Rocco – El Paròn (the Master) – screaming instructions from the sidelines. Going even further back, this was the setting for Italy's 1934 semi-final victory over Austria on their way to winning the Azzurri's first ever world title.

European triumphs

Demetrio Albertini, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard at Milan
Demetrio Albertini, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard at Milan©Getty Images

Passing through the gates, you are met with plaques recalling the Milan clubs' European triumphs, including Milan's back-to-back wins under Arrigo Sacchi and powered by Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, followed by the victories of Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti – best known as coaches today, who both played at the San Siro for the Rossoneri.

Some things have changed in recent decades. The four turrets that resemble coiled springs from outside the stadium were added to support a new roof and an extra ring of seats for the 1990 FIFA World Cup. There is now a San Siro underground station, built before another facelift for the 2016 UEFA 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 big match night takes over.

Treasured memories

One of my most treasured memories here is forever tied to prolific striker Filippo Inzaghi, who claimed a quick-fire 11-minute hat-trick during the second-half of Italy's 4-0 victory over Wales in a UEFA EURO 2004 qualifier.

Former Milan and Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo – another player who must have known every blade of grass on the San Siro pitch – scored his only brace of goals for the national team at this venue in 2005. Both goals came from trademark free-kicks, one in each half accounting for Scotland. Chapeau maestro.

Italy's worst night

Nations League finals host cities

While last week's defeat by Spain brought the first ever crack in Fortress San Siro's façade, the national team's worst night at the stadium came in 2017. The Azzurri had never failed to qualify for a World Cup finals since 1958, and coach Gian Piero Ventura's team were confident of securing the three points required against Sweden to reach Russia 2018.

Despite enjoying 76% possession, Italy could not break through the visitors' defence. A sense of panic enveloped the stadium, as the home side missed chance after chance. When Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen palmed away substitute Stephan El Shaarawy's thumping late volley, I knew I had witnessed a painful chapter in the national team's history.

Gazzetta dello Sport's headline the morning after captured the mood perfectly: "Italy, this is the apocalypse." Today, we know that San Siro setback opened the door for Roberto Mancini's appointment as national team coach and the revolution that led to Italy winning EURO 2020.

A perfect storm

Milan celebrate their 2007 semi-final victory
Milan celebrate their 2007 semi-final victoryGetty Images

Ask me to pick the greatest game I've seen at the San Siro, and I won't hesitate. It was the night Mother Nature played her part in creating the best atmosphere I've ever experienced at a football game. Heavy rain, lightning flashes and thunder. A perfect storm, drowned out by screaming Milan fans as their team put in one of the competition's all-time great performances in the 2007 semi-final against Manchester United. Goals from Kaká, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino overturned a first-leg deficit and set the Rossoneri on course for their seventh European crown.

"Perfection is not of this world," Samuel Beckett said. Well, if you were a Milan fan at the San Siro that night, you might disagree.

This article is based on an article originally published in issue one of Champions Journal.