The day of the Derby Della Capitale
By Patrick Stoll
It was a beautiful day in the Italian Capitol. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was just about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And it was the day of the Derby Della Capitale, the “most violent and most dangerous game in the world.” And here I was, on my way to the stadium to witness it first hand.
My first feeling was of nervousness, for many reasons. I had been warned by Italian friends, from Rome and elsewhere, to not wear anything remotely Roma or Lazio colored, lest I be possibly assaulted. I was told to not wear any red, yellow, blue, or black. When I said to one of my friends, “Oh, I will just go wearing this black track jacket of mine, it’s pretty neutral,” my friend responded by saying, “Don’t wear black, because Lazio and their supporters have a history of being involved with fascism, and fascists wore black coats, so then if you are sitting in a Roma section wearing black, both sides will attack you.” Okay then.
Not only that, but in the day before the match, I read news that hooligans from England, Spain, and Poland had entered Italy, for the purpose of going to the Derby and causing trouble. Because of this, as well as general precaution for what is a historically dangerous fixture, the Italian police ramped up their security, and declared the stadium to be a “red zone” for danger. In addition, since last year, there was a law in the Roman legislature that states that the Derby may only be played on Sunday afternoons. It was so historically violent and chaotic that Rome had to institute a law, the equivalent of saying, “this is why we can’t have nice things, you’re losing this privilege.”
In the days leading up to the match, not only was there the concerning “red zone” warning about the stadium, but there was the upsetting news that the Ultras for both Roma and Lazio had decided they would not attend the game, leaving the Curve Sud and Nord empty, in protest of Prefect Franco Gabrielli’s decision to cut the Curvas in half with dividers. As I made my way out of the apartment, I tried to consider the Stadio Olimpico, with the Derby Della Capitale taking place on the field, with empty Curvas. I had attended the Euro 2016 Qualifying match between Italy and Norway at this very stadium, and the Curvas were empty, with people filling up the entire Tribuna Tevere (the long end of the stadium, looking at the team benches) to the top. The result was a match that was loud, yes, but disappointing. I was afraid I would be disappointed again, because the Roma Ultras had already protested the Roma-Leverkusen Champions League matchup. They were committed to leaving the Curvas painfully empty once again, in another huge game for Rudi Garcia’s squad, and Lazio’s Ultras agreed. I was just hoping I would be pleasantly surprised. Because what is football without its fans? What is a stadium without supporters filling the seats? What is a match without waving flags, and chants and songs? I did not want to find out, especially in one of the biggest matches, not only in Serie A, but also in the world.
I hopped on a bus to get to the stadium. As we got closer and closer to the stadium, the bus filled with more and more people wearing red and yellow. No one was exasperated, but you could feel in the air around the city a sort of tenseness. It was Derby Day. And everybody knew this, especially the police. Police and Carabineri cars blocked off multiple bridges. The bus, which passes right by the entrance to the stadium, was not permitted to go in the right direction to the stadium, due to a traffic guard saying the bus simply may not make that turn, much to the exasperation of the people in the bus. An hour before game time, a Roma fan man was yelling from the back of the bus Italian curses to the bus driver.
Five minutes later, we were all dropped off across the bridge right next to the stadium. I started walking over to the Stadio Olimpico, and seeing it with the throngs of people, in broad daylight, as opposed to in the night time, was a spectacle. I passed multiple stands selling scarves and memorabilia. Perhaps one of the most striking things to me, not only about this detail, but the experience as a whole, was how much anti-opposing team (read: anti-Lazio) sentiment and expressions there were. There were scarves hanging from merchandise stands holding a certain anti-Lazio phrase, which is not family friendly, but let’s just say it has two words, one of which is “Lazio,” and the other of which ends with an A. It’s very common to Romanisti. And it became more and more common as the day went on.
Just as a comparison, when I went to Milan for the Derby Della Madonnina, my observation was this: no, the teams don’t like each other. No, the supporters don’t like each other. Were there anti-other team chants? Sure. “Chi non salta Nerazzurro/Rossonero è” is a tame example. “Inter è un pezzo di…” is a less tame one. But the support, as far as I could tell, was more positive towards your squad, than raging against the other team. The opposition between the two sides was more spiteful than directly hostile. In this derby, it was not spiteful. It was hostile. You could feel it as soon as you pass a table with anti-Lazio and anti-Juve stickers, postcards, scarves, and more.
As I walked up to the gate, I entered a mass of people. This seems common in entering sports events in Italy. There is a mass of people waiting to get in the gate. You end up filing in, one by one, but there is not a designated line. I got through the gate after having my ID and my ticket checked, and proceeded to have them checked a second time, as well as briefly patted down, by a police officer in riot gear. I then walked 20 feet, and walked through a line of camo-clad, armed soldiers. I had my ticket checked one more time, then scanned my barcode, and went into the stadium.
As I entered the stadium, I heard a roar of the crowd, as the Roma players were entering the pitch to warm up. I thought to myself: maybe the Ultras did show up. Maybe they decided they would show up anyway.
My hopefulness ended up being just that.
The Curvas were empty. Barren.
It was disappointing.
I looked at the Curvas to find the barriers that were being protested. As soon as I looked, I found them. Right in the middle of each Curva, a set of stairs had been placed, as well as large glass barriers. I had not been aware about the barriers themselves, as I thought the Curvas were just cut, for the sake of security being able to make it in if they need. No. These were heavy duty, dividing, “You will not get to the people on the other side” barriers. It made a lot more sense why the Ultras were upset. I looked back and forth, and saw the Tribuna Tevere filled, and the Distini Sud filled. But the Curvas were completely empty.
The stands filled more and more as it got closer to kickoff. Before the players came out of the tunnel for presentations, there were the customary player introductions. The whistling towards Lazio was loud. Very loud. The Roma player introductions almost felt like they were missing something, though. It was loud, and the fans were clearly excited to see the match, but as I saw which players were presented, it made more sense to me.
For various reasons, neither Francesco Totti, Miralem Pjanic, nor Danielle De Rossi was in the squad. Alessandro Florenzi was not starting, but he got the biggest cheer out of everyone, except for Edin Dzeko, who was starting. Gervinho, Mohammed Salah, and Radja Nianggolan also got good sound. But not only were some crucial players missing, the Curvas were missing. It was such a big part of all aspects of the game that was just not there: the support, noise, and colors of the Ultras.
When the ball was kicked off, however, those feelings went away. While either side of the stadium lacked the enthusiasm the Ultras bring, that is not to say that the Olimpico was dead. The Roma fans immediately started singing and telling Lazio exactly what they thought of them, which is not positive. The stadium, by my estimation, must have had 40,000 people: more than half of the 75,000 capacity, but in no way full. But it did not lack energy. Roma fans had multiple songs and chants to cycle through, and kept encouraging their team throughout the whole game.
While the game was tense at times, it was like Roma fans, and Roma, saw themselves winning this game. The crowd was confident. The team played confidently. Even when Antonio Candreva hit the crossbar in the first half, Roma seemed to dominate the game. It never seemed like they were going to drop points. The winging pair of Salah and Gervinho were far too much for the Lazio defense, and while Candreva had some chances for the Biancocelesti, and caused trouble on his side of the field, Roma’s team defense, and a little bit of luck, helped keep a clean sheet and the three points.
Another general observation about Roma is just how much they have embraced Edin Dzeko. Dzeko arrived for the Galliorossi in August on loan, with an option to buy that became mandatory in October after certain conditions were met. He is now a full member of Roma, and has been for a month, but the supporters love him. LOVE him. There are scarves with his name and face on them. They have their own chant for him, which was the only player-unique chant I heard all game long. They love him in Roma, and it only helped his stock with the supporters when he drew a penalty from Lazio, then slotted it in to give them the lead, which they never gave up. The stadium got loud when he scored, and celebrated for not only the goal and the occasion, but also the player.
The noise level of Roma supporters in response to Dzeko’s goal was nothing compared to their reaction to Gervinho’s goal to put Roma up 2-0. Roma supporters had been teased for a good part of the game, with Roma getting closer and closer to scoring. It also seemed that Roma supporters just very badly wanted another goal on Lazio, not only to put the game away, but also to score on Lazio again. And they got what they wanted. And the crowd roared. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like with the Ultras. The ground shook underneath me. I felt the ground of the stadium vibrate. I can only imagine how much more intense it would have been. But even so, the side of the stadium absolutely erupted. People were jumping up and down, climbing on seats, falling over each other. It was as if they knew that it was the game.
Although it turned out, indeed, to be the game, Roma and Lazio each had a couple more chances before the end of the match, much to the excitement, and chagrin, of the sections where I was. They wanted Roma to score again. They wanted Roma to unload on Lazio, and it was clear. Roma did not, but there were chants saying they wanted to see one more goal. There was also a loud, bad reaction when it was announced there was to be five extra minutes. Even more so, anything a Lazio player did was boo-ed, and very harshly. More times than I could count, I heard lots of whistling and boo-ing, and I looked around to see what was happening, and I could not see anything going on from any of the players on the pitch. It seemed like the Roma fans were torn: like they wanted something to be mad about, or something to celebrate, hard. They got the latter. And they celebrated.
The final whistle blew. The stadium cheered and rose to their feet, applauding the victorious Roma. The song “Grazie Roma” played, and the whole section of supporters sang along. Few people moved until a couple minutes had passed, and at that point it was too late to get out of the stadium quickly, so the climb to the exit of the stadium was surrounded by cheerful, singing Italians, with one hand holding their Roma scarf, and the other around their friend, who was also singing. It was incredible. The stadium had erupted and risen together, despite the external noise around the game, and turned into a beautiful day, a beautiful game, a good crowd, and a good win. And it almost felt like the people in the stands knew that. They seemed so happy for the win and for their team, and for themselves, and their city.
As I exited the stadium, the music stopped playing. People filed out of the stadium, and it was over. While I had seen something that was a once and a lifetime experience, I could not help but think, one last time, about how different it was that the Curvas were empty. Did it ruin the game? No. But it made it seem so much less. It set the stage as if it was against a small club, not one of the Seven Sisters in one of the biggest matches in world football. I ask again: what is football without its fans? What is a team without the supporters? What is a stadium without a crowd? And what is a game without the atmosphere, the songs, the chanting, the flags, and even the not very legal flares? It is not the same. This game was not pointless. It had much implication for both squads in terms of league position, team form, and pride. But this protest by the Ultras has been effective, as it has made us think and consider what we are watching and supporting, and what we love. While not bad by any stretch of the imagination, the game was not the same. And it is not the same without fans.