Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
Synonymous with Grand Prix since 1922, the Lombard city of Monza had to wait an entire century for its football club to join Italy’s elite. After 98 campaigns in the second, third and even fourth tiers, an extra-time goal in an epic promotional play-off in Pisa pushed AC Monza into Serie A in 2022.
That night, as 120 minutes and long-awaited glory approached, anxiously checking his watch in the crowd was Silvio Berlusconi. Outside the stadium, his long-term associate, Adriano Galliani, paced nervously, occasionally popping in to check on the score. This pair had changed the course of football history with AC Milan three decades before – why would the travails of an underachieving club 15km away, in a city where football wasn’t even the main sport, be of such consequence?
For Monza-born Galliani, his motivation was personal, having been taken as a child by his mother to see his home-town team at the San Gregorio, a former Fascist parade ground just behind Monza station. Today called the Stadio Gino Alfonso Sada, the stadium is home to Fiammamonza, once one of Italy’s top women’s teams.
From 1945, this was where AC Monza embarked upon a long stint in Serie B during Galliani’s boyhood.
Their visits were no idle pastime but family business. Galliani’s mother’s uncle was once president of the club. AC Monza had been founded in 1913 as an amalgamation of Monza Foot Ball Club and Veloce Club Monzese, itself formed by Pro Italia and Pro Monza, all in the run-up to World War I. The first games were played at the Boschetti Reali, the huge public park just north of the city centre, established by Napoleon in 1805. This is also where the motor-racing circuit was established in 1922.
Just beyond the north-east corner of the park is Arcore, the leafy Monza comune and seat of Silvio Berlusconi’s Villa San Martino retreat, scene of so many of his game-changing deals and discussions with Galliani over four decades.
The first proper football ground in Monza was the Campo di via Ghilini, just over the canal from San Gregorio. It’s also still there today, although long abandoned, hardly a fitting memorial to Gianni Pioltelli, the toupee-wearing roller hockey journalist it was later named after.
By the time Monza outgrew San Gregorio, just missing out on promotion to Serie A by a play-off in 1979, Galliani had teamed up Silvio Berlusconi to create Canale 5, Italy’s first nationwide private TV network.
In 1975, unsuccessful in his bid to be mayor of Monza, Galliani had left behind a position at the city council to move into telecommunications, acquiring the company Elettronica Industriale. It later supplied Telemontecarlo, Italy’s fourth biggest channel.
Upon selling half the company to Berlusconi over dinner at the Villa San Martino, Galliani and the owner of Telemilano embarked on a partnership that would transform Italian media, transform Italian football through AC Milan and transform Italian politics. The Rossoneri chapter of the story ended when Berlusconi sold the club to Chinese investors in 2017.
Back in Galliani’s beloved Monza, the home-town boy had served as the club’s vice-president in the mid-1980s only to give up his post, but not his affections, when he became general manager of Berlusconi’s Milan in 1986.
Four decades later, the pair were enjoying yet another lengthy dinner at the Villa San Martino, Italy’s three-time Prime Minister now in his eighties, his right-hand man long past his 70th birthday. During their glory years at Milan, Monza had operated as its satellite team until the 1999 departure of long-term chairman Valentino Giambelli.
As a boy, Galliani would have seen Giambelli play in the team’s midfield in the 1950s; as a man in the 1980s, he would have shared the club’s boardroom with him, overseeing the tortuous planning of Monza’s new Stadio Brianteo in the far east of town.
With Giambelli gone, Milan ended the association with their neighbours and Monza nosedived in the early 2000s, almost disappearing entirely.
By the time Galliani and Berlusconi were talking turkey in 2018, Monza were not long bankrupt after several seasons of irresponsible management. Galliani knew how disastrous UK ownership had been in 2013, knew American investors were now circling and knew that Berlusconi should have sold Milan long before he did. He just couldn’t let football go.
Monza was his chance to get it back – and for under €3 million. Even after all the scandals and pay-offs, Berlusconi’s fortune was still in the billions. The pair aimed to reverse a century of near-misses and disappointment, and lift Monza into Serie A. Società Sportiva Monza 1912 that is, name changes among the many bureaucratic sidesteps as recent owners warded off creditors.
The incoming blue-chip stewardship succeeded in getting the club its old name back but on the pitch, AC Monza remained stubbornly anchored in Serie C. Pouring a fortune into the squad, the pair who had brought 29 top trophies to Milan eventually hauled Monza over the line to Serie B. Sensing the same struggle in the second tier, Galliani persuaded former Milan stars Mario Balotelli and Kevin-Prince Boateng to lend their costly expertise to the cause, only for modest Cittadella to bar Monza’s path to Serie A in the promotion play-off.
It was no wonder, therefore, when it came to another play-off in 2022, that Berlusconi and Galliani were nervous. Failure, eagerly anticipated by some, was not an option. Success in overcoming a resilient Pisa required extra-time and several testing moments to put two ageing Italians through the wringer.
When Berlusconi died in 2023, he had just overseen Monza’s passage to a safe, mid-table position in Serie A. Galliani was now on his own, no longer able to ride on this partner’s coattails for the first time since 1979, the same year that he witnessed one of Monza’s failed play-off challenges. It’s not an experience he would like to relive.
Arriving in town, local transport and tips
The nearest airport to Monza is Milan Linate 17.5km (11 miles away), but it has no direct links to Monza by public transport – you have to go via Milan. Frequent trains leave from Milano Centrale to Monza (€12, 10min journey time). From Linate airport, the M4 metro line goes to San Babila (single €2.20, 24hr pass €7.60, 12min journey time). From there you change for Milano Centrale using the same ticket.
A taxi direct from Linate to Monza should take 20mins and cost a maximum €45. Radiotaxi di Monza (+039 36379) also quotes €80 for Bergamo Orio di Serio and €100 for Malpensa, the two other airports serving Milan. Both are served by the same Orio Shuttle bus, (€20, Mon-Fri every 2hrs, Sat-Sun 3 times a day, journey times around 40-45mins) that stops on the outskirts of Monza by the retail complex on via Falcone e Borsellino.
Monza train station is just south of the city centre a short walk away. The stadium is on the eastern outskirts of town. The limited service of local buses is overseen by Nord Est Transporti, single tickets within Monza €1.70, day tickets €5.90.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
A good place to start would be the Bar Grand Prix on via Alessandro Manzoni, one of the first spots you come to walking into town from the station. TV football gets a look-in amid the decor dedicated to motor racing.
Overlooking focal piazza Roma, beside the former Caffè Roma where Monza Foot Ball Club was founded in 1912, Bar Dam is a handy pit stop if you’re sightseeing and shopping in the city centre. One great place to head for is Uain (‘Wine’) on via San Giovanni Bosco, which should be upscale hostelry for wine snobs but isn’t – it’s a friendly little bar that also pours pints of Castello and attracts Monza fans on match days. Quality reds and whites also feature, of course.
Bars dot the streets just beyond the Lions Bridge, most notably Woody Rock Bistrot, the nearest Monza has to an actual pub. Images of music icons share wall space with TV screens beaming match action while outside, smokers gather on pavement tables. Just beyond, on via de Gradi, Barbecue Hooligans serves craft beer and fine burgers while tuning into football in lively, friendly surroundings.
Further stretches via Bergamo, the main artery leading east from town to the stadium, where a flea market sets up on Saturdays. Among the many venues, Solobirra at No.17 offers a boardful of craft options amid bare brick, alongside the scenesters sipping aperitivi at the Rewind Lounge15 next door. Both places are evening-only.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the stadium and city centre
Monza Turismo has a database of local accommodation. For a city the size of Monza, the hotel stock is pretty modest. Rooms are booked months in advance for the Italian Grand Prix in early September, when rates rise and few hotels offer beds for single nights.
The main hotel in town backs onto the train station, the old-school four-star Royal Falcone, whose rooms have been given a modern makeover. Special packages offered for Grand Prix weekend.
For something even more contemporary, the fashionable nine hotel overlooking the water also features a quality restaurant. Just off the main squares on via Cortelonga, the Hotel Karol is a standard, mid-range city lodging convenient for everything you need. Also central, set in a little courtyard, Monza City comprises a handful of comfortable rooms and studios, with breakfast taken at a nearby café.