The night the beautiful game turned ugly on a night of shame in Milan
It had all started so well.
Wales had won the first four games of their Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, including a memorable 2-1 victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium in October, 2002.
Hopes were high that Mark Hughes’ side would finally lay the national side’s long running qualifying hoodoo to rest and qualify for the Euro tournament to be held in Portugal.
An unlucky 1-0 defeat to Serbia in August 2003, meant Wales tasted their first defeat of the qualifying campaign. However, heading out to Italy to face the Azzurri the following month with a team that included current manager Rob Page, Hughes’ side were still hopeful that they could get a result in Milan’s imposing San Siro stadium.
Especially as they were to be backed by 10,000 Welsh fans who had made the journey to the Italian city.
For many supporters it was their first away trip. For many it would be the most unpleasant evening they had ever experienced in a football stadium.
That the final score was a 4-0 hammering, thanks to an 11 minute, second half Filippo Inzaghi hat-trick after a goalless first half, ended up being immaterial given what unfolded in the away end that evening.
While Wales’ Euro 2004 qualifying campaign lay in tatters after the heavy defeat, it wasn’t only the Welsh players who were beaten and bloodied. So were the thousands of travelling fans, subjected to shameful attacks from Italy’s notorious hooligans.
Prior to kick-off, the atmosphere outside the ground was noisy and colourful, but good natured. Rival fans bedecked in blue and red mingled freely in the shadow of the San Siro.
Inside, however, the air hung heavy with hostility. The incendiary vibe was matched only by the sound of a capacity crowd with thousands of Welsh voices belting out Men Of Harlech, more than a match for their Italian counterparts.
Sadly, while the goals rained in on goalkeeper Paul Jones’ net so did the bombardment of missiles on the heads of the massed ranks of Welsh supporters.
Situated in the lower tier of the showpiece stadium’s impressive structure, the 10,000 fans, in a 70,000 capacity attendance, were handy target practice for the Italian Ultras amassed in the tier above them.
Coins, gas canisters, flag poles, air horns, sticks and most disgusting of all bottles of urine were fired from the upper stands. Leering Italian fans openly spat on the Welsh contingent below. Unbelievably, one woman was seen shoving her fingers down her throat to make herself sick on the Welsh fans below.
Terrified children were led away by their shocked parents, fans were knocked to the ground as they dived for cover, but despite the repeated pleas to the hundreds of Carabinieri police that had encircled the away end, the bombardment continued.
If in the UK zero tolerance, the filming of fans and the apportioning of banning orders was seen as the way forward to cut out the cancer of football hooliganism, in Italy the Carabinieri style was evidently to stand idly by and let it happen.
Row after row of Italians could easily be seen spitting, throwing objects and abusing fans, but when Welsh protests became too vociferous, the Italian police just shrugged their
shoulders and turned their backs.
When a gas canister missed my girlfriend’s head by inches, my protestations to a nearby policeman went unnoticed. He lit a cigarette, turned away from me, taking no notice while missiles continued to rain down.
Shock then turned to anger when disbelieving Welsh supporters became incensed at the treatment they were receiving. Many forsaking the on field spectacle to harangue and implore police to take action.
But then should we really have been so surprised at what unfolded on the night? Back then Italy had a hooligan problem that put the UK’s to shame.
On the field, as evidenced by the Azzurri’s clinical destruction of Wales, Italian football lived up to the doctrine of ‘La Dolce Vita’, but off it Italy’s hooligans presented the ugly side of the beautiful game.
That’s not to say a minority of unruly members of the travelling support were entirely virtuous leading up to the game. The evening before the match groups of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport fans had clashed in the city centre. This was long before ‘Together Stronger’ was a slogan of strict adherence by Wales fans, inter club rivalry back then was still an open sore at Wales’ international games.
Defeat in Milan by such a devastating scoreline was a bitter pill to swallow, but after the shameful show by the San Siro hordes, the Wales travelling army were left with unpleasant memories that would live on for decades.
In the aftermath of the game UEFA announced that they were to launch an investigation into the crowd trouble, while the Football Association of Wales lodged an official complaint about the treatment of their fans at the San Siro.
An UEFA spokesman confirmed that claims from Welsh fans that they were pelted with missiles from Italians in the upper tier above them would be investigated.
The FAW wrote to UEFA to express their concerns over the stadium arrangements in Milan and the “poor behaviour of Italian fans in the tier above the Welsh supporters”.
FAW secretary general David Collins said at the time: “We had expected a sterile area in that section with the first three rows clear to protect our fans. We also asked for a police presence there.
“Unfortunately the advice given to the Italian authorities went unheeded.”
Somewhat predictably perhaps, given their standing as a world football superpower, while UEFA found Italy guilty of “a serious lack of security that led to crowd disturbances”, the Italian FA was fined a paltry £27,000.
European football’s governing body had also investigated a charge of improper conduct by the travelling supporters during the 4-0 defeat, but ultimately found there was no case to answer.
The FAW said UEFA’s decision vindicated their belief that the 8,000 Wales fans had “behaved with admirable restraint under severe provocation” inside the San Siro.
A small section of Wales fans had clashed with Italian police during the game, due to frustrations that the police were ignoring Wales’ fans protestations, but UEFA believed the incident was not serious enough to warrant any punishment.
As we all know now, Wales’ Euro 2004 qualifying campaign ended in heartache with a second leg playoff defeat to Russia at the Millennium Stadium.
It would be another 12 years before Wales fans could finally taste the sweet experience of qualifying for a major tournament.
The Euro 2020 clash with Italy in Rome this evening will no doubt evoke many memories of that night in Milan.
While there will be very few Welsh fans in attendance on this occasion, let us hope the scoreline is markedly different this time.