Reporting from Italian football grounds over the last two years has provided me with no end of memorable moments.
From getting lost in the labyrinth of tunnels under the Stadio San Paolo on a Champions League night to trying to block out a wall of noise at the Rome Derby, it has rarely been dull.
But attending a closed-doors game for the first time when Lazio faced Fiorentina on Saturday was a new experience, and one that offered an entirely fresh perspective on a game of top flight football.
Ahead of the match, all journalists were sent a self-certification form to print out and sign, confirming we haven’t suffered from Covid-19 symptoms, or been in contact with anyone who has.
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) June 27, 2020
Arriving at the Foro Italico complex where the Stadio Olimpico is located, it was immediately clear that security was heightened, with a substantial police presence in place.
There was one route in and out, and my identity had to be confirmed at two checkpoints on Viale dei Gladiatori before I reached the usual press entrance, where the self-certification was exchanged for a press ticket, and a temperature check was taken before entry.
A lot of these measures – signing forms, having your temperature checked – are so commonplace in Italy by now that nothing up to this point was even slightly out of the ordinary.
It was only once I had taken my seat in the Olimpico press box, 128 days after the last game I covered at the famous ground, that the unique nature of the occasion came to light.
Lazio had made a commendable effort to cheer the place up. The club slogan ‘Tu non sarai mai sola’ (You’ll never be alone) was plastered across the Tribuna Tevere, the stand facing the television cameras.
Below, in the lowest two tiers, there were cardboard cut-outs of fans in place – although the €40 price tag the club slapped on these appears to have made them less popular than they could have been.
Many pre-match traditions stayed in place. The lights flashed and Gigi D’Agostino’s ‘L’Amour Toujours’ was blasted out of the stadium speakers to welcome the Lazio players onto the pitch for the warm up, a slightly bizarre moment in a setting more akin to a library than a nightclub.
Lazio attempted to involve the fans by playing pre-recorded video clips of supporters shouting out the line-up and singing club anthem ‘Vola Lazio Vola’ on the big screens above the pitch. Sadly, though, Olimpia the eagle wasn’t there to complete her flight.
Just before kick off, the lights dimmed as guitarist Jacopo Mastrangelo stepped onto the centre spot to perform a solo written by Italian composer Enrico Morricone, as a virtual eagle projected onto the Tribuna Tevere flapped its wings.
The advertisement boards all displayed the message: “Innocent victims of a terrible virus, you will always be in the hearts of those who love you.”
It was a poignant moment, providing an emotional reminder of the devastation the coronavirus has caused across Italy and further afield.
Once the whistle was blown for kick off, the game provided a thrilling spectacle from my privileged spot in the upper tiers of the Monte Mario stand.
Watching a closed-door game on the television allows the viewer to hear far more of the touchline instructions from coaches than usual, but when sitting in the ground, it’s possible to get a real sense of how the players and coaches communicate.
I felt closer to the game than ever before, having been handed the ability to hear every shout, compliment, criticism, appeal, celebration, pained yelp and touchline instruction.
The sheer physicality of the match also stood out. You could feel every thud of ball meeting foot, every crunching impact of a robust challenge, every lung-busting sprint.
Here is what he made of the game ? pic.twitter.com/MpIT5JLQVS
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) June 27, 2020
It has to be said that the game itself did help to elevate the experience, with Lazio coming back from a goal down to win 2-1, several good chances falling at both ends and two red cards being flashed in stoppage time.
The game sold itself, and it’s hard to say how different the experience might have been if it was a mind-numbing stalemate.
But the distance between press box and pitch, which is about three miles at the Olimpico, felt closer than ever before as we watched the two teams battle it out.
Having said that, there is no denying the eeriness of the experience. Football needs fans, and a stadium of the size and scale of the Olimpico misses them more than most.
Lazio’s efforts to involve the supporters as much as they could and maintain a sense of occasion did thankfully help the evening feel more like a Serie A match than a training game. It was a privilege to be there and witness the new reality first-hand.
But the sooner it’s safe to welcome fans back, the better. The passion, noise and colour of a Serie A crowd is hard to beat and is as important to the spectacle as the football itself. Its absence was felt hugely.