Rome’s Eternal War
Three hours before kick-off. The streets surrounding most stadiums would be empty at this time, save for the occasional merchandise stall and a coachload of tourists assembling their selfie sticks. Not here though. Not today.
Even with so long to go before the game gets underway, you can feel the tension in the air. You can see it on the faces of the hundreds of riot police, standing behind their shields and backed up by a thousand flashing blue lights. You can even smell it, with a strong scent of recreational drugs coming from the gangs of supporters who have been in place for some time already.
This is Roma vs. Lazio. The Rome Derby. Derby della Capitale. Whatever you call it, it has a reputation around the world as one of the most intense and indeed, violent, fixtures you can possibly witness. How does it compare to Red Star Belgrade vs. Partizan Belgrade, Feyenoord vs. Ajax, Inter vs. Milan or Djurgarden vs. AIK? I was about to find out.
The first sign that this was something special came outside the ground, with thousands of people waiting outside for the team coaches to arrive. Obviously the Lazio fans were kept well away from where these Roma fans had gathered, so it was the dark red side of the city who were able to provide their team with an incredible welcome as they pulled up to the ground. There was a ridiculous noise as the team coach slowly worked its way through the masses, with flares, firecrackers, smokebombs and bangers all being set off. If there were any new players who didn’t know what playing in the derby was like before this, well, they did now. The atmosphere was as though Roma were celebrating winning the title, when in reality they were just welcoming their players to the stadium. I didn’t stay around to see the Lazio coach arrive (or perhaps I had missed it), but it’s probably a fair bet that it wasn’t welcomed quite so warmly.
I decided to go into the stadium fairly early, I knew it was common for Italian fans to gather on their respective curvas hours before the game to trade insults, and I was not to be disappointed here. The stadium was already mostly full at both ends by this time, with a gigantic ‘away’ following on the North side, and the most passionate home supporters gathering in the South. As a rough estimate I would say that 20,000 Lazio fans were in the stadium, not something you see every day from an away end!
Lazio has always been a club that interested me. When I was a child and used to watch Italian football on Channel Four, they were always the side that interested me most. With the likes of Nedved, Salas, Crespo, Nesta, Veron, Gazza and of course, Paolo Di Canio, I am sure they are a side that dazzled many people between the age of 25 – 30 like me. At this age I had no interest or understanding of politics, for all I knew St. Pauli and Lazio could share exactly the same political views, and I would have been none the wiser. However as I grew up and began to take an interest in supporter culture for the first time, the same points on racism and the extreme right came up regarding Lazio again and again. The club has been fined for racism by UEFA several times, and it is a complaint which is raised time and time again.
However, I am of the mentality that you should only judge others by actions that you have seen, rather than what you have heard about. So, rather than dismissing Lazio as racist before the game had even begun, I wanted to see what they were really like with an open mind. I had heard of some supporters displaying swastika flags in the past, and kept a close look out for anything of this nature. Out of the hundreds of flags and banners on display, there were certainly none that I could see that would suggest any strong connection with the far right. Indeed, the most popular connection I could see was with West Ham United, with numerous flags including the crossed hammer symbol as a tribute to their friends from Upton Park.
This bond does not go unnoticed by the Roma fans, who had a banner on display referencing the friendships that Lazio have with English clubs. The translation from Italian reads loosely “Yesterday Chelsea, today West Ham, tomorrow Spurs?” Highly insulting of course if you were an away supporter, you can call a Lazio fan whatever you like, just don’t accuse them of liking Spurs.
Still, a pleasant surprise to note that there did not appear to be any racist flags on display, and I also did not notice any racist chanting from the away supporters during the game, who provided their team with magnificent support throughout. Now, I am not trying to suggest that Lazio do not have any racist fans – they certainly do, as does every club in the entire world. Racism is so widespread that it cannot be considered a football problem, or a problem for an individual club, it is a humanity problem. I’m only basing this on one game of course, but I wanted to give an honest opinion on what I had seen first-hand, rather than jumping straight on the “Lazio = fascists” horse.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the game. And what a game it was. I’ve watched an uncomfortably high number of football matches in 21 different countries, and very few were as exciting as this one, even before you consider what happened in the stands. Derby matches can sometimes disappoint after all the hype and excitement in the build-up, but not this one. Not today.
There were plenty of moments that I could mention in the build up to the game, but there is one incident in particular that I think is very significant when you are looking at Italian football in general and the power that is held by the fans. With around 90 minutes to go before the game began, the Roma ultras entered the stadium. With the obvious exception of the away end, every other supporter in the stadium rose to their feet, clapping and cheering the arrival of the ultras. Honestly, it was one of the most unusual things I have ever seen – that these supporters would be greeted to the stadium as if they were players running out to the pitch to play in the game. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it is certainly something that will stay with me for a long time.
Cut to five minutes before the first whistle, and the first moment of the day which gave me goosebumps. After announcing the Lazio side to a chorus of boos, the stadium announcer came to the Roma team. He announced the first name of the player, with the crowd shouting the second name. He did this ten times, and then paused. Hands are raised in the air, a buzz of excitement as the fans yell “OHHHHHHHHHHHH….” In anticipation of what is to come.
I’ve seen games with 90th minute winners that did not produce a reaction like the one Francesco Totti got for simply starting the game. But then, there are players who are idolised at their clubs, and then there is Francesco Totti. There is no other way to describe him than as the icon of Roma. He made his debut for the club when I was just three years old, and here I was 23 years later about to watch him captain the team against their great rivals in the battle for the title. In that time he has played more than 700 matches for the club, lifting 5 trophies and countless other individual awards. There is almost nobody else left in the game like Totti, and in the era of players moving clubs every couple of years to ensure their agent gets rich, there probably won’t be another one like him again. The day he retires, Rome will weep in a way not seen since the fall of the empire.
Then of course, as with any Italian derby, you come to the tifo displays. Both Curva Sud and Curva Nord had prepared excellent displays, with an interesting and unique display of support. I do not speak Italian, so please do not fill the comment section with BEN MERDA if my translations are slightly different to the original!
The Roma fans had individual flags for many of the clubs most legendary players, proudly displayed against a backdrop of the clubs colours. The message on the flag which ran along the front of the stand read “Roma’s greatest players, your quest is to join them” – a message intended to inspire the players on to finally taking the Serie A title away from Juventus. Juve have dominated Italian football in recent years, but Roma had closed the gap to just one point going in to this match. Indeed, with the Old Lady not in action until the evening, Roma would go top with a victory.
Lazio meanwhile had also prepared a tifo display in reference to the Scudetto, with references to Greek mythology. First of all, the stand was divided in to blue and white quarters with thousands of handheld flags being waved back and forth. Then, a huge banner was unveiled from the top of the away end, depicting Caronte, the individual who would ferry the dead into the underworld. He was shown taking away Roma, with the message reading “Don’t dream that you will see the sky, we’ve come to take you to the other side, to eternal darkness…” The inventive and unique nature of football culture in Europe will never cease to amaze me, with many of these displays far more deserving of a place in a museum than the paintings and statues which are given such honours.
Despite the fact it was Roma who could go top of the league with a win, it was Lazio who started the game better. Their players played without fear, not intimidated despite the swirling red smoke, flares and bangers which were being hurled from the Curva Sud from the very beginning. One (clearly not Italian) cameraman had taken up a position behind the goal, unaware of what would happen once the game got underway. He soon realised that there was a reason the locals didn’t get too close to this particular part, and scurried away to a safer position after narrowly avoiding having a flare bounce off of his head. The noise from both sides was tremendous, and the game rewarded it with a flurry of chances.
It took 25 minutes for the first goal to come, but it could have been 3 – 3 by this stage already, a fine display of attacking football in complete contrast to the outdated stereotype of boring Italian football. With all the talk of Totti’s legendary captaincy of Roma, it’s easy to forget that Stefano Mauri is also pretty special. After some excellent work down Lazio’s right wing from Felipe Anderson, Mauri was able to sweep home from close range in front of the Curva Sud. The away end. Wow.
The Lazio side of the stadium explodes in the way which is only possible following an away goal in a derby. The Stadio Olimpico opened in 1937, and it looked like it was in real danger of collapsing in 2015, such was the reaction from the visitors. Their thousands upon thousands of supporters went absolutely mental in response to taking the lead, as did the players, who ran and jumped on their captain in a display which proved it meant just as much to them as it did to the supporters, something which is rare to see in modern day football.
The Lazio celebrations went on for so long that they had barely finished in time to see their side make it 2 – 0. Four minutes after creating the first goal, Anderson struck from long range to score the second. The Lazio end’s head fell off once again, with some simply ridiculous scenes going on at the opposite side of the stadium. The noise that Italian supporters make following a goal is very different to the “YESSSS” you will hear in the UK, it sounds more like “OOOOOOOO”, and is a noise that resonates throughout your entire body. 29 minutes played, and Lazio are in dreamland at 2 – 0 up, celebrating wildly and somehow managing to raise the level of noise even higher.
What I haven’t mentioned in the description of these goals until now is the reaction of the Roma fans. They had gone 2 – 0 down at home to their fiercest rivals, in a match they couldn’t afford to lose if they were to keep up the pressure on Juventus. It would be easy for Roma supporters to be distraught and give up at this stage, but they certainly did not. After about 30 seconds of stunned silence following the second goal, they went right back to supporting their team – waving their flags a little harder, shouting just a little louder, desperate to give their side any edge they could in this game of games.
It did inspire their players, but perhaps not in the way they intended – a string of yellow cards were shown following tough tackles and plenty of pushing and shoving between both sides. By my count six players were booked in the first half, and it could have been a lot more had the referee not shown a sensible amount of restraint. Still, half time arrived and Roma could not find a way back in to the game, trailing 2 – 0 at the break, much to the delight of the army in light blue.
Still, if they, or indeed, the Roma fans thought it was over, they forgot about one man. You already know his name.
The Curva Sud goes completely wild. Supporters charge down 10, 15, 20 rows of seats to scale the fences and surge towards the field. Those who cannot reach the fences due to people already climbing them are tumbling over seats or the bodies of people who have already fallen off, and the noise is as if the whole world is coming to an end. Imagine hitting a beehive with a stick, and then sticking your head inside, and this is how it feels to be in the Curva Sud at this moment, an unstoppable buzz of noise, movement and excitement.
Francesco Totti has just scored his second goal of the game, before running to the ultras in the Curva Sud to celebrate. I have seen slightly wilder goal celebrations (Feyenoord vs. Zorya, Dortmund vs. Malaga and Red Star vs. Partizan), but there have been very few which could live up to this. Having been staring in the face of a crushing defeat, their legendary captain had saved them once more. Francesco Totti has saved Roma more times than Batman has saved the people of Gotham City, and this latest instance had sent the stadium completely insane.
So much so in fact, that the remaining 25 minutes passed by as though they were in a dream, with both sides having a number of chances to win it. If I am completely honest I believe that Lazio did enough to take the three points over the 90 minutes, but failure to take their chances when on top had come back to haunt them, as is so often the case in football. Having allowed Totti the slightest sniff of a comeback, he punished them often and with great force.
In the 92nd minute of the game, it appears certain that Lazio will score, the ball bobbling around the box for what feels like an eternity. Eventually it is cleared, with the Roma fans letting out a sigh of relief so loud that it would certainly have drowned out a goal celebration at the Emirates. Lazio fans held their head in their hands, just inches away from the ultimate experience, a last minute winner away from home in a derby. The game was on Sunday afternoon and I’m writing this on Tuesday evening, I think had the ball gone into the net the Lazio supporters would still be in the stadium celebrating even now.
I had hoped to see either side score a last minute winner for the sheer mayhem it would cause, but I couldn’t complain with what the people of Rome had presented to me. When these two teams are discussed, you will hear talk of racism, stabbing and violence. It’s perhaps understandable that this does happen, but it is also a great shame that the sheer insanity, passion and mayhem that goes alongside this fixture is not also recognised alongside these unsavoury elements. Belgrade is still number one on my list (it probably always will be), but it is a sign of just how intense this game is that it can be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest fixtures in football.
Rome is nicknamed the Eternal City by many, and while the Roman Empire did not last forever as predicted, it is home to a footballing rivalry that will never die. Until the last star fades in the sky and the last human alive takes their last breath, Roma will hate Lazio and Lazio will hate Roma, and that’s the way it’ll always be.