In five seconds I will shake Silvio Berluscon’s hand, or be shoved aside by a bodyguard. It’s the early hours of Monday morning, downtown Milan.
Four hours earlier (Sunday August 29th) I had seen Berlusconi wave and smile at clapping fans as he entered the Tribuna d’Onore before match kick-off. At half-time Zlatan Ibrahimovic introduced himself to standing cheering tifosi, as the team’s newest super signing. At full-time Milan beat Lecce 4-0.
An hour and a half ago, walking back from the game with a mate, we came across a group of young men wearing the black t-shirts of the 1899 Ultras. We stopped to see why they were standing around.
Nothing giving, so we moved off.
A few metres further up we veered into the roadway to avoid a huddle of five or six people standing on the pavement opposite a restaurant door. From the corner of my eye I spotted TV cameras, like oversized shotguns, hanging from hands.
We took up position behind them, just to see what was going on.
“Someone famous inside?” I asked, in my best schoolboy Italian. A middle-aged reporter turned and shot back, “Berlusconi e Ibra stanno mangiando.” They were having a meal – our opportunity to become real life paparazzi when they come out.
Standing behind the news crews, we waited.
Every time someone came out through the door cameras snapped onto shoulders, only for them to drop a few seconds later.
Every twenty minutes or so the Maitre d’ arrived at the door, smiled, extended his arms, and gave an update of the meal inside. On his fifth turn I heard the word ‘dolci’ – pudding time, so any minute now.
Cameras now remained on shoulders. A young woman, in a strappy white dress, stood by the edge of the doorway. The maitre d’ came out of a door further down the street, and handed out bottles of beer to the Ultras.
They bunched together and unfurled flags and banners. Cars passing on the road slowed. Passengers rolled down windows. They stuck their heads out to see what was happening.
Out nowhere a phalanx of men, hard-faced and black-suited, lined up between the restaurant and the fleet of cars that had arrived by the pavement. Fingers pressed to their ears, they whispered rapidly into hand sets.
Through the door I saw a group of bodyguards surround Berlusconi as he walked through the dining area. At the last minute they swerved to the right and came out a door further down. The crowd, as if whipped, jumped. They swung towards that door.
Road-side tables and chairs rattled off the pavement, as the scrum butted them out of the way.
Pushed off my feet, I stumbled forward, propelled by bodies as they surrounded the body guards ringing Berlusconi. I saw my comrade-in-arms on the outer edge, iPhone raised as he snapped the scene. When the whirling scrum came to a stop I found myself in the inner circle, pressed up against two bodyguards, my head wedged between theirs. Berlusconi and I stared at each other briefly.
The ultras behind roared, “U Presidente! U Presidente! U Presidente!”. Berlusconi smiled broadly from within his protective ring. The reporters had first shot at questions. We strained to hear his replies.
After about five minutes, an ultra, second next to me, shouted out, “Grazie Presidente per Ibra.” Berlusconi started to blink rapidly, moved by the fan’s tribute. He shouted out, “Il Presidente ringrazia i tifosi.” The young man extended his hand, Berlusconi grabbed it, and covering the handshake with his left hand, pumped it up and down. The guy next to me stuck his hand in, Silvio shook it. I stuck my hand out nex, but as he took a step towards me the bodyguards took it as a sign that he wanted to move on.
I felt them brace against me, getting ready to spring forward. I leant in against them. They inhaled deeply, preparing to advance. Berlusconi grasped my hand, and looking me in the eye, shook it firmly. Then he was gone, whisked off towards his car.
The piazza cleared as quickly as the line of cars sped off.
Around us waiters straightened the scattered table and chairs.
“You shook his hand, you really shook his hand.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I did.”