Neil Loughran: Boxing, broken dreams and the ballad of Busto Arsizio

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

The E-Works Arena in the Italian city of Busto Arsizio
The E-Works Arena in the Italian city of Busto Arsizio

SO, Busto Arsizio then... why? How, even?

How does a World Olympic qualifier, bringing together boxers from all corners of the globe, come to be hosted in a place most outside of Italy have never been to or heard of.

Who studied all the possible destinations - every sporting venue across all continents - and thought, you know what, this is the place. We are elected here.

Because now, every time I think of the Olympic pursuit of excellence, the ideals that define the greatest show on earth, the pinnacle of so many athletes’ careers, I will think of Busto Arsizio.

It is such an obscure location you would expect Ryanair to fly here.

The E-Work Arena, where all the action is taking place, could hardly be further out of the road from anywhere if it tried. Organisationally, it has been a bit of a shambles, with many more entries than expected leading to the competition being curtailed at the quota places – quarter-finals in most cases – rather than run its full course as usual.

Despite the significance of this event, Olympics.com will only stream bouts from Friday onwards, leaving federations and fans to pick up the slack in the five days before.

Irish super-heavy Martin McDonagh celebrates victory over Turkey's Yusuf Acik on Wednesday. Picture by Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Irish super-heavy Martin McDonagh celebrates victory over Turkey's Yusuf Acik on Wednesday. Picture by Ben McShane/Sportsfile (Ben McShane / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

On top of that, the International Olympic Committee taskforce responsible for organising this qualifier originally wanted teams to ferry boxers from their hotels, invariably miles away, to the venue to weigh-in, before returning to their hotels, then coming back for their fights later in the day. Mental.

Thankfully common sense prevailed in the end, but not before a few choice words were spoken. If this is how much the IOC values boxing, and its future as an Olympic sport, well then there is cause for concern.

The real treasure is inside the place, though, where this unloved building boasts a certain 1980s Eastern bloc charm, scuffed magnolia walls following along stairs in a circular motion, adding that dated multi-storey car park feel.

Even the National Stadium in Dublin would appear palatial by comparison.

Okay, that’s harsh. That’s too far. Apologies.

For context, and to justify the rant thus far, Busto Arsizio and I got off to a pretty bad start. First impressions count, after all. When the train pulled in from the station at Milan Malpensa airport getting on for 8pm on Tuesday, omens were not good.

The station, and the town itself as I would later discover, was completely deserted, only the eeriness of flickering strip lights leading the way to the exit. Ever seen the film Saw? Yeah. A bit like that.

A yellow weather warning had been in place in the Milan area for a few days, and the sight of torrential rain hammering down was unwelcome. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Before travelling to Italy, I had visions of recreating James Richardson’s easy Saturday mornings from Serie A’s Gazzetta Football Italia heyday. You know what I’m talking about.

Cheeky wee espresso in some picturesque piazza, a huge slab of panettone, that day’s Corierre Dello Sport unfurled on the table while beautiful bronzed ladies marvelled at the pasty Irishman wiping crumbs from his chins, unable to read a word of the broadsheet before him.


But no. Instead I found myself tramping around aimlessly with a laptop bag and an increasingly sodden suitcase. My phone, on its last legs by the time we were flying over Switzerland, had given up the ghost. A portable charger followed suit before the laptop, the last remaining hope of Lazarus coming back to life, went the same way.

All the instructions from the owner of the apartment I was staying in were on the phone. Everything I needed to know about Busto Arsizio was on the phone. This was not good.

A nearby Mexican restaurant didn’t get the best of me as, not even hungry, I fumbled and flailed my way around a plate of tepid tacos - power the only thing of theirs I really wanted.

But I had brought the wrong adapter for Italy. Of course I had. What unfolded was like a sketch from Mr Bean as I wrestled maniacally with the socket, flipping the plug this way and that until defeat was regrettably admitted.

Two waitresses looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain - mostly disdain - as I attempted to explain the situation, bonjourno and arrivederci no longer cutting the mustard while communication broke down in a flurry of sighs and sagging shoulders.

And so, with that, it was back out onto the street. Not a clue where I was, not a clue where I was going. For a few minutes it felt kind of liberating. What an adventure.

But Ernest Hemingway this was not.

In Busto Arsizio, impossibly narrow footpaths just taper off and come to an end. No explanation, no reason why. Enjoy the road now son, you’re free to go. Mind yourself. And on those undulating footpaths, while they last, are craters. Not potholes, craters, in this case filled with days’ worth of rain.

I must have missed the part in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ where Santiago has to do a breast stroke to escape a puddle.

The beautiful Basilica di San Giovanni Battista in Busto Arsizio
The beautiful Basilica di San Giovanni Battista in Busto Arsizio

So I kept walking like a mangy dog that had lost track of its scent in the rain until, somehow, I ended up back at the train station. Before, I had found myself laughing at the madness of it all, sure it would work out alright.

At this point, it no longer felt like an adventure. It was only 10pm but nothing was open, and there wasn’t a sinner on streets shorn of light – until, like an oasis in the desert, an open bar appeared.

It was bedecked in Chinese and Russian flags, and the only people inside were a Chinese lady, an elderly Chinese man chugging on a pipe and a small, balding Italian enjoying a bottle of Moretti.

Mercifully, he spoke enough English to get me by. A bottle of beer, and use of your phone charger please, all for the princely sum of €3.50. Thirteen per cent was all it got before last orders were called, but it would do. Anything, anything at all, would do.

Safely ensconced in my new abode 25 minutes later, the following morning showed Busto Arsizio in a different light.

Cobbled streets, the beautiful Basilica di San Giovanni Battista, and a piazza surrounded by quaint little coffee shops and pasticerrias - imagine the Moy, but without Pamela Ballantine flogging sofas.

So there I sat, smug as hell. An espresso, panettone and the techno beat of Football Italia’s intro music buzzing about my brain. Why Busto Arsizio? Who knows.

But maybe this place isn’t so bad at all.