The season’s first Roman derby is approaching so what better time to look back on one of Italy’s most illustrious and tragic of derbies.
“Are these ruins what they call Rome?’ wondered poet Joachim Du Bellay, walking the streets of the Eternal City some 400 years ago – and for football fans all over the world, the same question must apply to the Roman derby. Once one of the highlights of Mediterranean football, the Derby della Capitale is now one of the darkest, saddest and most disheartening spectacles in the Italian game. It is a match plagued by violence, controversy and racism, drenched in venom and spite. With not a single good feeling to it recognizably belonging to sports, the Roman derby is a sad synopsis of all that is wrong with Italian football.
As with Italian football, the ills behind the derby are ever more deplorable inasmuch they succeed an extraordinarily illustrious history. The Roman rivalry is older than that between England and Germany. It is older than Pelé. It is older than the World Cup itself. It begins in 1929, when the teams had no common stadium, and it stretches across the annals of Italian football history with a plethora of icons, colours and anecdotes (in 1956, for instance, after one of the heaviest Roman snowfalls of the 20th Century, the derby became the first football game in Italy to be suspended for snow. The supporters had to stride their way out in a Canadian scenario).
Roma so far has been the dominant team of the two, with 43 victories against the 33 of their rivals Lazio (54 draws for a total of 130 games), though the balance is influenced by the 12 victories to one that Roma achieved in the 1930s. The decades succeeding that were more or less in equilibrium, with Lazio dominating in the Fifties (a dark decade for Roma) but plunging into Serie B in the Sixties, limiting the decade to just six derbies. The Seventies saw Lazio winning their first Scudetto and could be called the decade of the draw (nine overall), while the Eighties were perhaps less interesting – Lazio’s protracted stay in Serie B meant only eight derbies were played, five of which were draws.
Nonetheless, that lacklustre decade only paved the way for one of the derby’s most golden periods, starting from the splendour of the Nineties. In the majesty of the Stadio Olimpico – refurbished and glittering for the 1990 World Cup – Italians witnessed the hegemony of legendary forward Beppe Signori for the Biancocelesti, while, on the Roma front, superb midfielder Giuseppe Giannini stepped down and left his place to the rising sun of Francesco Totti. From the 3-0 thumping that Roma’s Brazilians Balbo and Fonseca inflicted on Lazio in 1994, to the unstoppable Biancocelesti storm of the 1997/98 season (four consecutive victories over Roma, if we include the Coppa Italia), those years were grand for both sides. By the turn of the millennium, though, they became epic.
The seasons 1999/00 and 2000/01 saw Lazio and Roma rising as the only teams to challenge the crushing (political and economical) power of Juventus and Milan, winning a title per head. Both title-winning sides were glittered with stars – the Biancocelesti boasting Pavel Nedved and Hernan Crespo with Roma having the likes of Emerson and Gabriel Batistuta. The Roman derby back then was a confrontation between the two best teams in Italy and the stage for some fantastic drama (for instance Roma’s 5-1 victory in 2002, with an indelible masterpiece by Totti).
The decline of the derby has something to do with the economic decline of the two teams, obviously. When Roma managed to pick itself up and return to great levels (while Lazio kept struggling), the atmosphere lost its epic clash-of-the-giants aura and became something more akin to the Turin derby – a big team bullying a smaller one. Yet even when Lazio managed to crush the ‘bullies’ (as they famously did in 2004 and 2006, with 3-1 and 3-0 respective scorelines), it is hard to sympathise. Lazio supporters have become some of the most spiteful and unsportsmanlike in the continent. They are more anchored to the Roma team than the Roma supporters themselves, planning their seasons around the derby and following Roma’s games with a sort of negative fandom. Last season, when table-leaders Inter came to the Olimpico to visit Lazio, the tifosi refused to support their own team because the second place was being held by Roma. This not a healthy football rivalry anymore. This is just unadulterated hatred.
Roma supporters are hardly likable either, as Europe is beginning to find out. We may give them the benefit of doubt for the disorders with Manchester United (apparently the English started that), but what of the Real Madrid supporter stabbed last year? Perhaps the man had not been informed – stabbings are the norm in Rome and especially in the derby (four wounded last year in April). Fortunately, within the stadium, things were cooler as we only had to bear with the unified insults and booing against Madrid’s Guti, ‘guilty’ of being homosexual (for the record he is married with two children).
Yes, hooliganism is not a novelty – there were disorders after both Scudetti were won, and Vincenzo Paparelli, a Lazio supporter, became the first fatal casualty as far back as 1979. But it did not compare to this. It did not compare to the organised storming of police stations which occurred last year after the death of Gabriele Sandri, a Lazio supporter shot in the neck by a policeman. It did not compare to the urban warfare of 2004, when the derby was suspended because the ultras – mistakenly believing one of their people to have been killed – invaded the field and later attacked the police outside the stadium.
Hooliganism is not a novelty, no – but at least it used to be kept off the pitch. Lazio legend Paolo Di Canio extended it there when he addressed his supporters with the fascist salute in 2005. Sieg hail, Di Canio, and how did the authorities respond? Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, spoke out in his defence. Tarallucci e vino, as they say in Italy. Di Canio is gone, but his values, in the oh-so-mythic fashion of Leonidas and Alexander, live on.
None of these problems are exclusive to Rome, but nowhere do they find a better summation than in the Roman derby. Between the first and second death in Italian football there was a break of sixteen years. Between the last two – 28 year old Gabriele Sandri and policeman Filippo Raciti, who had a wife and two children – there has been one year. While we wait for that space to be reduced to six months, we can sit back in the wreck that the Olimpico has now become and watch the derby. If there is trouble, we – the ‘innocent’ – can blame it on ‘those four or five idiots who came to cause trouble,’ as the press always do. We will have to overlook them, to enjoy the football, and why not? After all, that is all that the authorities ever do in Italy. They overlook.