Eternal City. Eternal Hatred. Derby Diaries.

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Would you give up this Sunday’s derby to win this year’s Scudetto?

The answer should, really be simple. Six points away from a chance at their first Scudetto (league title) in over a decade, in what would only be their fourth in a 90 year history, you would think an accolade so hard to come by for the Giallorossi would far outweigh a victory in a fixture played twice annually, of which the first they had prevailed. Yet, it was in the hesitation from every single A.S Roma fan asked this question that the meaning and importance of the ‘Derby Della Capitale’ could be found. The match really is a ‘trophy’ in itself.

In each of the cities we have visited for the series, I’ve made a habit of noting how quickly it takes to find football and in particular the derby’s presence. In Barcelona it was the club store in the airport, in Milan it was the Ultra stickers planted on the light posts near our accommodation, but Roma took the cake. As our arriving plane approached its gate, and I peered out the window, I could see the baggage handlers so neglectfully handling our luggage had their high visibility jackets decorated in Roma merchandise. This city was already breaking new ground.

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Arriving four days prior to the game, we gave ourselves a lot of time to get out to as much of the city and its people, and really get an in depth understanding of the fixture. From street vendors to the Corrielle Della Sport journalists to Taxi Drivers, the message we received was that this was the derby of Italy. No ‘perhaps’, no “in my opinion’. Even those who weren’t fans of either club made clear to us that it was this fixture that encapsulates what a derby is meant to be.

Whilst the consensus was that yes the Derby Della Capitale was the most intense of the country, the reasoning behind why this was depended on who you spoke to.

More often brought up by neutrals and journalists who only seemed to manage any kind of impartial opinion due to their profession, a notable argument we heard was that is was perhaps due to either side’s lack of actual title success.

From England, to Argentina, to Spain, the formula of domestic football usually works out that the clubs coming from Capital and/or major cities, possess or at least challenge for a fair share of the countries accolades. A quick Wikipedia search of Roman football and it’s fairly evident that they’re an exception to this rule. With a mere 5 league titles combined, accrued from over a century of football, it’s fair to say Roma and Lazio aren’t exactly bastions of success. Even today, despite the funds of their relatively wealthy owners, their modern stadia (by Italian standards anyway) and their ability to offer a life in one the world’s most beautiful cities, neither club have really succeeded in recruiting any superstar players. An aging Miroslav Klose, and a promising Strootman and De Rossi aside, you would hardly look at either squad making much of an impact on this years upcoming World Cup. This being the case many argued that with such a lack of trophy success, the emotions and expectations usually associated with following a team challenging for titles, have instead transferred to the derby, a far more achievable honour.

The other argument for the fixture being Italy’s biggest Derby was the pure hatred and resultant violence between the two sides.

As an avid follower of the off field going ons around all of European football, hearing of the violent nature of the Roman derby didn’t really surprise me. I knew of the attack on visiting Tottenham fans last season and I was aware of city’s penchant for knife assaults. What did surprise me was the ease and comfort of which it was spoken about. Usually when speaking to fans (especially on camera) any trouble attributed to their groups are comprehensively denied and instead blamed on an overenthusiastic media. Once again, Rome broke new ground. Fans of both sides had no qualms in sharing the violent tales of any confrontations they were part of. It was at times surreal standing besides men, dressed in sweaters and leather bound shoes who otherwise would pass for any other businessmen on their way to work, talk of their desire to see the tears and pain in the eyes of their city rivals. In Rome, even the term stabbing had been re-affectionatly labelled ‘pinching’ dumbing the callous act down to some sort of childish misdemeanour. It was at this stage, we were really starting to appreciate the bodyguard we hired as protection for game day. ‘Meet the wrong fans and they will take him too’ I was told. Great.

Our Match day began earlier than most. Despite Italy’s culture of late kick offs, with many starting as late as 9:30; (even the Milan Derby we covered was able to kick off at 8pm) the Roman authorities were having none of it and the game was scheduled for a 3pm kick off in the interests of safety and security. Trawling through the papers over breakfast as we always do to get a sense of hype of the occasion, it was the same as Barcelona, Milan and Liverpool with back to front-page coverage. However something noteworthy we did see was a six-page dedication to the players of Roman descent, and the neighbourhoods they grew up in. The city and its people had a notably proud sense of identity. This was reinforced to me when our ‘protection’ Pedricio arrived, who explained to me that even to be considered Roman it took seven generations of ancestry born in the city.

Despite the fact that his job was to make us feel safer, Pedricio’s initial relays of information about the derby did the opposite. Telling us of his knowledge of makeshift bombs ripping legs of unwitting fans, it didn’t leave us with the best spirits heading out.

Nor did the police presence. Before the Stadio Olympic was even in sight, we came across neighbourhoods swarming with riot gear-equipped officers blocking off roads and watching out for anything resembling a meeting of Lazialli and Romanista.

Whereas in past derby’s, we’ve found fans of both sides, whether amped up by the excitement of the derby or the excitement from their pre game drinks, have been more than willing to share their feelings to with us. Rome provided another exception to the rule. From men, to women to children. No one wanted to talk to us, no one wanted to smile at us, and whilst the early morning Roman sun had finally come out, this was in no way reflected by the mood of the fans. It was tense, it was secluded and without an allegiance to a club, the Copa90 crew and I, with two heavyset cameras and a lack of Italian were well out of place. Even my cameraman, weathered by the hostilities of Galatasaray and the Ajax derby expressed his concerns.

Coming to our rescue was BeInSport reporter Tancredi Palmeri who offered his services in explaining how to go about the situation.

A new concept to me was the presence of what Tancredi aptly called ‘filters’. Discreetly standing yards in front of their fellow closely assembled fans, the ‘filters’ appeared at the entrance of both areas designated for where the respective set of fans of each team entered the Olympico. Essentially giving up their pre game socialising before what is the most anticipated event of the season, you could say such an assignment, basically checking for any unwanted persons or colours was quite an undesirable task. Yet with even the slightest infiltration of a rival making their way into an opponents area deemed a loss almost as heavy as one on the pitch, we were told their roles were taken upon by only the highest of members.

Despite keeping our distance, filters on both ends of the stadiums approached us. After a quick consultation with Tanc, we gained the approval of both sides, as long as cameras were put away… a bittersweet victory to say the least.

After to coming to a realisation (one I suspected all along) that neither group of fans wanted to have anything to do with us and with smokebombs and icy stares becoming more and more frequent, we decided to pack it in and head for the game. My cameraman headed into the Curva Nord to capture the scenes amongst the Lazialli, and I joined an old friend and lifelong Romanista in the Curva Sud. For the first time in the series excitement was not the first thing on my mind.

Making your way into the Stadio Olympico on derby day is as strange a process as I’ve been through. There are a good three or four checkpoints, with multiple police and security officials at hand. Don’t be fooled, however, it is all for show. Frisks were about as intense as a pat on the back and ticket checks were just as lenient. Initially meant to have been sitting besides the Curva, my friend and I were able to sneak into the heart of the stand, and bring two others along free of charge.

There’s a special feeling to entering any concourse at any ground as the pitch and stands ahead of you open up, but Rome was once again a whole new level. One of the most picturesque entrances you can imagine. As you come up the stairs and bustle through a rush off Stone Island jackets, cigarette smoke and Italian profanity, you become witness to an incredible sight. The immaculate ground opens up beneath you and the vibrant colour of the masses that stand opposite you really takes your breath away. Whilst early kick off has its critics, aesthetically the Curvas really do benefit from the Roman sunshine that basks down on them. I still hadn’t seen anything yet.

At a time when active support and the use of choreography of all kinds are under more scrutiny than ever back home in Australia, seeing the result of such a liberal approach by the football authorities in Rome was a refreshing experience to say the least.

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Taking my seat, well stance, with about twenty minutes before kick off, it became apparent to me just how much time, effort and organisation is put into the displays each Curva make for their beloved sides. Red and white tape sectored off every different part of Curva Sud, as different sheets of Cellophane were passed out to be displayed at different times. The Italian was flowing a little too quickly for me to make out but low and behold when it was time to take part, it was made clear. Being involved and hence standing amongst its choreography meant I couldn’t quite make out what Roma’s display was about, but I was in full view of Lazio’s. What a sight. No words I say are going to do justice to what they produced, but if you can imagine the 9,000 strong Curva split in three, by what they displayed. In homage to the clubs colours the outer sector in unison waved a mass of sky blue flags while the inner sector waved a mass of white flags. Then in the middle a sixty odd foot banner was unveiled paying homage to ‘that derby’ of which occurred last year, when the two teams met in the Coppa Ittalia Final (Cup Final) in Rome, of which Lazio prevailed. That victory is considered so rare and hence cherished; I met Lazialli with the date of the win tattooed to their arms. The banner (below) was worthy of a place amongst any of Rome’s renowned galleria, depicting a loving embrace between two Roman sculptures, the Coppa Italia besides them, a biancocelesti sash flowing amongst them.

An avid Roma fan told me earlier in the week that in the Curva I’ll only witness about 80 percent of the game, and I’d love it even more because of that. On both points he was correct. The second the game kicked off the colour, the noise and the pure emotions of it all came to fruition. Flares were ignited constantly. For the first ten minutes my eyes only saw hazes of red and yellow and when they stopped, the flags came out. The flags were some of the most intricate, well thought out odes to a club I had ever seen, others were just humorous, such as the mass of ‘Peppa Pig’ banners displaying the kids TV character adorned in Lazio jerseys. To see the size of these things. So large were some of these flags that they would block the majority of my view of the pitch. This led to a moment of pure terrace beauty, when, Gervinho making one of his marauding runs down the wing, forced every body to crouch in unison beneath one of the flags, as to not miss the chance of seeing the opening goal. Observing it from afar was brilliant as I watched as almost the entire Curva bobbed and ducked together in a way around the flags to the rhythm of Roma attacks.

Finally the banners came out. Ten, twenty, thirty strong. The terraces became a battle of words as wave after wave of attacks were displayed on these giant sheets. Each took a good fifteen tifosi (fans) to hold up. There was even a role dedicated to one fan in disposing of each banner when it was felt the message had been made. From Lazio claiming they had the true allegiance with the church (Roma is very proudly Catholic) to Roma reminding Lazio of their last confrontation to Lazio claiming Roma only fight in numbers. The sheer insanity of these arguments playing out in such a way was incredible to watch unfold live. It was clever, it was strategic, and it was pure credit to the energy fans put in to fight for their clubs.

Then amongst all of that, was the goal. At least what we thought was a goal. I couldn’t make out the preceding play but I did see Gervinho put the ball in the back of the net. Then I saw mayhem. I managed to turn and gain perhaps a glimpse of my friend beside me before I was picked up and hurtled forward. The word ‘goal’ was reverberating around me so loudly; no one could here my cries as my foot got caught in the seating as my body along with many others went plunging downwards. It was pure chaos but despite the pain I was in, the scenes going on around me made it completely worthwhile. Bodies flying everywhere, people shaking each other in embraces as if they had come back from war. It was an explosion of emotions. Until we realised it was offside. Slowly, the bodies were picked up from the floor and the cries of joy turned into slurs directed at the referee. The celebrations had only lasted seconds yet felt much longer. I couldn’t wait for real thing.

Despite the fact I had so far only caught a glimpse of the game, it didn’t matter, I saw the match for what it really was, an opportunity for the fans, and the people of the Rome to really celebrate their side of the city.

The second half was much of the same with more flags, banners and flares directed at opponents, including one particularly inventive use of pyrotechnics in the Lazio end as three flares (green, red and white) were let off together side by side to send a smoky recreation of the Italian flag flying up into the Rome sunset.

When the final whistle blew, and it dawned on me that it really was to end 0-0, the feeling of disappointment wasn’t in the poor performances played out on the pitch, but instead the fact that I wasn’t going to get to be part of the scenes of anarchy the earlier offside girl allowed me to sample. I truly felt that it would have been like nothing else.

All week I had been wondering why the fans of these two teams risk such a serious threat to their safety just to observe a game of football. The answer was right in front of me the whole day. From the way the fans walked into the stadium, to the way they supported. They did not see the derby as a form of optional entertainment. They felt their presence was an obligation to the team. A duty to support, celebrate, defend and more importantly assert as much influence as they could for the colour of the city that represented, them. The fans of both clubs truly see their role as just as decisive as the 11 men on the pitch and any risk in attending was a worthwhile risk. It was in this that I once again saw why football is so much more different to other sports. What plays out on the park is part of such a smaller tale. It is the stands that are the true focus. It always should be.

The product of rich art, bloody war and iconic rulers, Rome is often coined as the ‘Eternal City’. With the same components at the core of its football clubs, the Roman Derby too, shall remain eternal.

Eli Mengem is an Australian football presenter currently producing a documentary series called ‘Derby Days’ with Copa90. This is his first person account of what it was like being on the ground in Rome for the Derby Della Capitale.

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THE TURF