The hardest thing about writing of sports is not slipping into the rhetoric. You can end this season with the rhetoric of the Ultrà -‘Inter had the favour of the referees and of Lazio.’ You can finish with the rhetoric of the journalists – ‘they didn’t get the title, but theirs has been a great season, and the fans should be happy.’ Or you can close with the Claudio Ranieri kind of rhetoric, which tends to be the most understated – ‘Inter deserved their victory, and it has been an honour to compete against them.’
Ultimately though, there is no way of describing Roma’s season if not as a resounding success, for a simple question of numbers. In the last 28 games, Roma count 21 victories, 6 draws and only 1 defeat. They earned more points this season than in any of the last three times they won the Scudetto. More importantly, they did so when it really mattered – when they were in the lowest of lows, in the thickest of fogs and in the deepest of pits. Six games into the league, Roma were in the relegation zone. Six games from the end, they were in first place. It crumbled inches from the final line, but the construction was glorious.
Given how the season started and given the mercato that had been made over the summer – it seems bewildering that a second-place finish two points from the top could come with bitterness. Roma are a qualified competitor in next year’s Champions League. Not by play-offs or knock-outs, but from the front door, bearing VIP tickets. When you barely notice this because you are thinking of what you could have won rather than what you have saved from shipwreck, then you really deserve to be called a team of champions. No rhetoric here, just taxonomy – after all, they call this ‘the league of champions,’ where Roma intend to compete.
On the subject of the bitterness, it all revolves around questions of what the team deserves or deserved. A great many would claim that Roma earned this title more than Inter. It is true that they seemed to start with a handicap, given Luciano Spalletti’s shedding of six points in the overture, and it is true that they fought admirably with less resource. On the other hand, Inter were competing in the Champions League, and that was a burden the Giallorossi did not have to bear. You could argue both cases endlessly, and none of the talking would have much value – if not rhetorical value. Besides, it is one of the lessons of football that this sport is not about what you deserve. A ball can turn ten centimetres more to the right or to the left (Siena player Aleandro Rosi with his last minute volley, and Julio Cesar beaten), a shot may slam against the post instead of the net (Diego Milito missing the decisive equaliser in the match against Roma), a handball may not be called and result in a goal (one Diego Armando Maradona comes to mind). And suddenly, a year of effort is worth nought, a cathedral of preparation and investment is brought into the dust. It may be most accurate to say that football is not about merit, but about fate. And then the only thing transcending rhetoric becomes the courage with which you meet your fate. Even if it’s not the one you were hoping for. Even if it is bitter.
Triumph and defeat, have been called impostors – to be met with the same face. The idea fits all sports, but perhaps this one more than any other. As we sit at the end of the last football season that will ever be called Serie A, on the edge of spring and with a World Cup fast approaching, it is such a shame to think that both impostors have been met with the same face of vanity and aggression. What, one wonders, will be the last images left to us by this unspeakably illustrious league? The one of Lazio fans booing their own team? The ravings of José Mourinho? The squalid pantomime(s) of Luciano Moggi? Perhaps one above all others – the image of Francesco Totti, as he kicks a nineteen year-old from behind, and the flurry of darts on racism that followed.
It may be the sense of finality that surrounds everything in Calcio, or perhaps it really is rhetoric, but there is so little that a Scudetto would have meant when the famous last words were so infamous. Trophies are, after all, just objects in a cabinet, and they do not make anyone’s life much better. On days when a victor shakes the hand of the man he defeated (like Massimo Moratti just did with Claudio Ranieri), on days when a man defeated applauds the man who defeated him (like Ranieri just did with Moratti), it is on those days that football seems not only worth following but worth believing in. The rest, the insults, the diatribes, the yelling, the choruses, the stabbings and the injuries, the kicking and the spitting, the disrespect in the streets and on the boards, are all guilt that we will bear at our door until we learn how to communicate with fans of our same sport who wear shirts of a different colour. The final rounds are done, and in the words of a better critic than this writer will ever be, it may be time to begin thinking in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction. It would be nice if the last words of the season could be kind rather than bitter, regardless of whether one follows the sport in Italy or abroad. It is neither difficult, because speaking words of respect will not cost anyone anything, nor even ambitious, because it is not about changing Calcio, it is about changing ourselves. Or to put it differently, we are Calcio. All we have to do is believe, starting from next season.
Grazie Roma, and Congratulazioni Inter.