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For me, Italia 90 wasn’t just about the football. Here’s how it inspired a life of travel

Ross and his friends outside the San Siro stadium in Milan.
Ross and his friends outside the San Siro stadium in Milan. Copyright Ross Woodman
Copyright Ross Woodman
By Ross Woodman
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Planning a European football break this summer? Here are my tips for how to make the most of it.

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With Real Madrid having won the Champions League on Saturday, football fans' attention turns to Munich and the European Championship. 

Although I don’t have the same obsession I did when I was younger, I still get more excited about major football championships than I should.

My first tournament was Italia 90 and it will forever hold a special place in my heart. I’m sure the same will be true for millions of kids all over Europe with their eyes on Euro 2024 this summer (even if future partners won’t let them have a Paul Gascoigne duvet cover and any future children will call Panini sticker books ‘boring’). 

What has any of that got to do with travel? For me, Italia 90 wasn’t just about the football. Yes, I watched nearly every game. But in between times, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the teams and the countries participating - the flamboyance of Brazil, the fun and joy of Cameroon, the mystery of the then Soviet Union team.

But the star of the show was the impossibly cool Italy. I was intrigued by the cities the teams were playing in. And with the unofficial anthem of the tournament being ‘Nessun Dorma’ performed by Luciano Pavarotti, nine-year-old me had become awakened to culture higher even than MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’. 

I’d also, unknowingly set the wheels in motion for a lot of city breaks to watch European football.

My first visit to Milan and the iconic San Siro

A group of friends and I have been to watch games in some of Europe’s most iconic stadiums, in beautiful locations like Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Naples and Norwich.

But until last year, the San Siro, home to AC Milan and Internazionale was missing. In Italia 90, the redeveloped San Siro was one of the host stadiums. It was also the coolest. 

When we heard the news that the Milan giants were looking for a new home, we knew we had to get there before they moved out. It also helped that it was in Milan, which offers plenty to see and do while not watching football or enjoying the nightlife.

Planning started the summer before. The first hurdle was finding a weekend we were all free (by far the hardest part, as anyone with kids will relate to). 

Next we scrutinised the fixture lists. Turning into middle-aged male versions of Goldilocks, we searched for a match that was good enough that we really wanted to see, but not so good that we’d struggle to get tickets. 

Eventually we ended up in Milan for the long Easter weekend with tickets for AC Milan - Empoli. 

We caught a game at Milan's iconic San Siro stadium.
We caught a game at Milan's iconic San Siro stadium.Ross Woodman

How I plan my European football breaks

Usually when planning a European football break, my friends and I pinpoint a city we’d like to visit that also has a good football team or an iconic ground.

After checking our availability against the fixtures, the next challenge is securing tickets.

For the Milan game, tickets went to general sale which made things easy for us. More popular matches often require a membership, which is why it’s easier to aim for ones that are less likely to be oversubscribed.

The tickets seemed cheap for us, but that’s probably because we’re used to the higher English football prices we encounter at home.

Having booked well in advance, flights and accommodation were all straightforward as well.

That didn’t mean it was all plain sailing. The risk of planning so far ahead is that game dates can change due to TV scheduling. As it turned out, the match was moved from Saturday afternoon to Friday night. Luckily, we were still able to catch it as we were in Milan for a long weekend.

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It was easy to get the Metro out to the ground and we arrived a couple of hours before kick off, as did a lot of other fans. There were food and drink options that were perfectly adequate and definitely a step up from the ubiquitous burger van at English football grounds.

Michelangelo's Pietà Rondanini
Michelangelo's Pietà RondaniniRoss Woodman

Squeezing in sightseeing between football matches

After arriving in Milan on Thursday afternoon, we spent Friday walking through Parco Sempione and browsing works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (or as one of my friends said “50 per cent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) at the Castello Sforzesco.

Then we wandered into the city centre for a very late lunch before the football. While the game itself was, frankly, terrible, the experience was unforgettable. 

The upside of the match being rescheduled was that we now had a free Saturday to play with. We took advantage of being just over an hour’s train ride away from Turin and got tickets for Torino vs Roma that afternoon instead, which gave us the chance to have a very quick look around the Piedmont capital - and marvel at the spectacular Milano Centrale Station along the way.

We then hopped on the bus to the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino - an old ground renovated for the 2006 Winter Olympics that is now the home of Torino Football Club. 

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While not quite in the shadow of the Alps the views were still amazing on a sunny afternoon.

The schedule change meant we could catch a Torino - Roma match.
The schedule change meant we could catch a Torino - Roma match.Richard Pearson

What else is there to do in Milan?

Back in Milan, we were able to revive our dashed Friday night plans to check out the bars in Navigli.

We woke up on Sunday and momentarily panicked as the street below had morphed into a busy market. Walking past the fish stalls didn’t necessarily help with the aftereffects of Saturday night.

Powering through, we visited the famous Galleria shopping gallery, the historic La Scala opera house and, of course, the Duomo di Milan. 

Duomo di Milan
Duomo di MilanAndy Thompson

We stopped for lunch and some Risotto alla Milanese before looking round the interactive Leonardo3 museum and ending the day with a hair-of-the-dog Aperol spritz by the canal.

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My only regret was missing out on seeing Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, but we were late booking tickets for that. They sell them in three-month blocks which are snapped up very quickly. 

Apart from that, in four nights away we managed to combine some culture, great food and drink and a lot of laughs, even if we only saw one goal in two matches.

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