Livin’ la Vida Loca

On the TBIR private jet on the way over to Rome,  Danny and I tried to draw up the best derbies in Europe. Between us we have covered quite a few. The Copenhagen derby (three times at both venues), the Stockholm derby, the Spakenburg derby in Holland and even the El Grande Island Classico (Canvey Island v Concord Rangers), but outside of Istanbul, is the Rome derby the most “atmospheric”? We said “yes” because otherwise we were heading off to the Stadio Olimpico for no real reason.

In the past the game has had drama, controversy, clowns and championships. It was first contested back in 1929 and since then AS Roma have led the way with 63 wins to Lazio’s 46. In 1979 a Lazio fan was killed by a flare fired from the Roma section at the far end of the stadium and in 2004 the game had to be abandoned after the leaders of the Roma Ultras groups walked unopposed onto the pitch and approached Francesco Totti to tell him to walk off after a rumour spread that the riot police had killed a fan. Violence then escalated onto the streets outside the stadium.

Few players make the move across the city which them either being a blue or a claret. The rivalry comes from the moral right to be the one true team to represent the city, as well as how the clubs were originally formed. To us mere English fans Roma means Top Totti, Cafu, Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Panucci. Lazio is Pepe Signori, Ravanelli, Alessandro Nesta, Gazza and Paolo Di Canio.

Both teams have been through the mill in terms of off the field antics. Back in 1980 SS Lazio were relegated, along with AC Milan after being implicated in a betting scandal. Match-fixing also cost the club dear in 2006 when they were implicated in the Calciopoli scandal that saw Juventus relegated and Lazio excluded from European competition. Long time club owner Sergio Cragnotti arrived at the club in 1992 and initially funded some massive transfers (£18m for Veron, £19 for Vieri & £35m for Crespo). But when his Cirio food empire collapsed, so did the club’s fortune.

AS Roma were also implicated in the 2006 scandal but have had a bit more of a stable time financially since, although like their cross-town rivals have had to play second fiddle to first the Old Lady of Turin and then the Milan clubs.  Every season they were one player away from a Scudetto-winning side, one decision away from beating their rivals, and one manager away from getting the balance right.  Today it’s the turn of the Spanish duo Luis Enrique and Ivan De La Pena to try and bring some Barca magic to the side. On the other side of the stadium all of the tittle-tattle talk was of Gianfranco Zola arriving on a little white pony to save the club from the management of Edoardo Reja.

Danny wasn’t excited at all about the game. He confessed to me on the way over that he had dreamed about the game all week. In his last vivid encounter we were in a corporate hospitality box at the Stadio Olimpico. He had been reading the small print on our box, which apparently said “‘Food is provided, but it’s a lottery, please understand that the odd box will only contain a mere goose”.  He had gone Roma Magic Box crazy.

Ah yes, the magic box.  Cast your mind back to yesterday’s opening piece on the avventura Italiano.  In summary, we left our intrepid heroes Danny, Adam and Stuart leaving the tinderbox atmosphere of the Stadio Septembre VIII in Frascati armed with their magic boxes – the football equivalent of a Fortnum and Masons picnic hamper.  We left our Roma umbrellas at home (as well as our headbands, rucksacks and scarves).  In fact we were armed just with our invite as he boarded the football special from Frascati to Roma Termini.

One 30 minute train ride and we walked out into the Roman sunshine.  Nothing screamed Derby Day to us.  No riot police, no sirens, no fans.  Strange.  If this was Manchester Piccadily, Liverpool Lime Street or even Mile End in London on derby day two hours before kick off there would be chaos.  But here in a country dominated by chaos there was calm.  We hopped in a taxi and went on a nice (but somehow unnecessary) drive through the Villa Borghese (think Hyde Park but with sunglasses and Vespas) before eventually being deposited at the Ponte Duca d’Aosta.  This was the bridge that everyone we spoke to warned us about.

“Watch your arse on that bridge”…”If they clock you are English they will stab you in the bum”…”They will throw you in the river if you look foreign”...Thanks Mum for the words of comfort. But all we saw were souvenir sellers and families wandering down towards the stadium.  Granted some of the scarves said things like “Die, Lazio, die” but even so it was a serene scene.  The reason?  Because of the hardcore fans were already in position in the ground.

We had to go and pick up our tickets so we entered the stadium, walked around a bit, went out of the stadium and finally found “box one” which was a stall manned by a stunning Italian women (there is a theme here – bear with me).  She checked our ID, slapped a plastic wristband on us and ushered us through a magic gate, where we got to re-enter the stadium on a red carpet which led to the same spot we were five minutes previous.

Surprise number one was that they were serving beer in the stadium.  It wasn’t cheap (€8 a pint) but it was the real deal so we indulged.  There was still thirty minutes to kick off and the noise was on a par with anywhere I’ve been in the world, perhaps bar Legia Warsaw.  Both Curves were full and prepped for action.  The teams warmed up to incessant whistling and our Magic Box area around us filled up with people wearing their Roma headbands, carrying their Roma rucksacks (and undoubtably with their Roma umbrellas in).

Disappointingly, the “sell out” actually meant that for safety reasons some 15,000 seats would have to remain empty, most of them in the stand opposite us.  Quite what the atmosphere would have been like with those extra seats taken is nobody’s business. The club hymn, “Roma, Roma, Roma” started and most of the stadium rose as one.  The song was the cue for the pyrotechnics and banners from either side.  At some point the teams came out, but for once the focus was on the fans and not the players.  The time for singing was over.

AS Roma 1 SS Lazio 2 – Stadio Olimpico – Sunday 4th March 2012
In our earlier game in Frascati, one refeering decision early in the game essentially decided the result.  Across the city a few hours later you could argue the same point.

Just seven minutes were on the clock when the referee made himself the most unpopular man in the stadium by sending off Roma keeper Maarten Stekelenburg for a supposed professional foul.  The Roma players reacted as if they had been told that hairbands had been banned, clutching their faces and running through an impressive display of hand gestures but it wasn’t going to bring their keeper back.  Off came Erik Lamela, on came sub keeper Lobont and his first job was to pick Hernanes penalty out of the net.

Back in 2006 West Ham lost the best ever FA Cup final against Liverpool basically down to one man – on loan full back Lionel Scaloni.  His decision to try to hoof a ball upfield in the last-minute of injury time when West Ham were winning instead of whacking it into touch.  His clearance went to Gerrard and the rest is history.  Scaloni never played for the club again.  Scaloni then ended up at Lazio and here he was – my pantomime villain for the day.  His first act was to get booked for a silly foul on Totti, and then a minute later he was a spectator as Roma’s Fabio Borini equalised.  The ex-Chelsea youngster, who like so many before him was never given a chance at the club which was slowly self-destructing thanks to the way the owner treated his managers.

The game was no conforming to any calcio stereotype.  It was fast paced, open and chances were flying it at both ends.  The fans at both ends were distracted by the game for once, and whilst the noise didn’t really abate, the show did.  Both sides should have scored again before the break, and it was left to the referee to become the common enemy as he dished out four yellows in the opening period.

Half time meant we had access to a private lounge for “complimentary drinks and food”.  After the ridiculous long route we had to take to get to the lounge we had just 6 minutes to get a return on our investment.  The lounge was surrounded by very glamorous “hostesses”, all dressed in black and all six-foot plus tall.  They looked on as we tucked into the free wine and what seemed to be Angel Delight.  One wasn’t impressed when I asked if they had any Butterscotch flavour – either that or she didn’t understand my literal translation of Burro di Ecoste.

Four glasses of red and three “mousses” later and we went back to our seats.  The second half seemed much better through a haze vino rosso perhaps because it was a genuinely good game.  The yellow card count started to creep up with Mauri and ex-Manchester United defender Heinze going into the book.

Any controversial moment in the game and the crowd reacted as if they had been personally affronted.  One chap kept popping up and pointing his finger and thumb at the Lazio fans in a gun gesture, whilst someone behind him kept filming the whole thing on an iPad.  Yep, someone had brought their iPad, encased in a lovely Roma leather case of course.

On the hour came the winning goal.  A Lazio free-kick was floated into the area and Mauri sort of turned and stuck out a leg at the same time and diverted the ball home.  It had come against the run of play for sure but that’s life.  Bang went my tenner with bwin on 2.5 goals or less.

If the first eight five minutes had been dominated by a very un-Italian style of game, then the last five conformed to what we had seen a thousand times with time-wasting, play acting and cards galore.  First was a second yellow for Scaloni (shame that), although Lazio did try to send on a sub at the same time but referees never fall for that trick do they?

Four other players went into the note-book in the final few minutes including the legendary Totti for a desperate dive.  Even his God-like powers didn’t sway the officials who saw through his histrionics. The final whistle was greeted with fireworks in the Lazio end and boos all around the rest of the stadium.  Two derby defeats to their bitter rivals in the season seem to have ended Roma’s Champions League challenge as well.

We headed away from the stadium, again crossing the bridge of doom without any issue at all and were on a tram within ten minutes of the end of the game.  For all of the bluster, the city centre was a quiet place as we sipped our €9 beers in Piazza Popolo as the sun set.  It had been a great weekend, all thanks to Mr Lloyd.  Tomorrow would be a painful day in the office for many a Roma fan, but they would live to fight another day.

More photos from the afternoon can be found here.

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