Saturday, April 9, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 6: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

One of the first things we did in Rome was go see a soccer game.

Andi the Tour Guide was frankly a bit taken aback that we had done this, since this is not something that most American tourists think to do, and then he was somewhat envious since he had not been able to score tickets for this game himself. Because this was not just any game. This was Roma v. Lazio. This was Derby Day.

It was an experience.

We knew going in that it would be more than just the average sporting event. Roma and Lazio are the two top-tier soccer teams from Rome. They were roughly tied in the standings (which are referred to as the table there). It would be a good game.

We did our research carefully before we got there. In particular, since we didn’t really know where we’d be sitting relative to the two fan bases, we made sure not to wear either team’s colors. You do NOT want to be sitting in the Roma section wearing the blue and white of Lazio. Nor do you want to be sitting in the Lazio section wearing the red and gold of Roma. Basic black – that’s the ticket.

I spent some time going through the Roma website the night before the game, since they were listed as the home team for this game (the teams share a stadium) and I figured their rules would apply. Getting into an American stadium these days is an exercise in security theater – you can’t bring in much more than your phone, your keys, and your wallet – and I wanted to make sure that nothing I brought with me would be confiscated by security.

This is when I made the discovery that fans are strictly prohibited from organizing unauthorized choreographies in the stands.

This tells you two things. First, that there are authorized choreographies which have been thought out, approved, and communicated to all of the fans heading in so they know which ones they’re allowed to use. And second, that people have gone beyond them and tried to introduce new ones without proper authorization, which were frowned upon. Rules are made when they’re necessary, after all. Given this, I thought, it was likely to be a fascinating game.

This was reinforced by a few of the other rules on that page that you can also see in that screenshot. You’re allowed to bring in alcoholic beverages, for example, just not strong ones. Anything that’s 5% alcohol or less is fine. You’re also not allowed to block the view for other spectators with “material” – a prohibition that apparently nobody bothers to enforce in the least as the seats at either end of the stadium were full of people waving vast flags (often two or three meters on a side) throughout the game. If you tried that at an American stadium somebody would shoot you and nobody would admit to seeing anything because they’d all feel you deserved it.

We took the bus up the stadium. We had thought the game was at 11am because that’s what it said when Kim did the investigating and bought the tickets before we left, except that the website had helpfully translated the kickoff into Wisconsin Time and the game actually started at 5pm. Our tickets said we had to be there well before then, though in the end nobody really cared as long as the foot traffic flowed along smoothly. It was a long bus ride to the stadium and we got to see a good chunk of Rome that we never did get back to so it was interesting. We probably got off the bus a stop too soon, but a lot of people did and we just followed the crowd. It meant a decent walk to the bridge that led toward the stadium, but we got there in plenty of time and we could revel in the energy of the crowd.

The spike there in front of the stadium says “Mussolini” on it in rather unmistakably large characters, which came as a bit of a surprise, but then we have monuments dedicated to Confederates all over the US so walking by a Fascist spike isn’t the strangest thing in the world.

The outside of the stadium was a carnival. Kim ran into the Roma mascot and got pictures with it.

And we passed by an informal band that was happily celebrating the fact that there was a soccer game about to start and they were near where it would happen.

There are vendors all over selling Roma gear and Kim ended up buying a scarf on the way out after the game. She wore it around Rome a few times after that, much to the joy of passersby. “Forza Roma!” they’d shout, suddenly instant friends. So there’s a bit of advice for you. Buy a Roma scarf if you plan to stay in the city for any length of time.

It is not easy to get into the stadium.

First you have to find your entrance, which is listed helpfully on the map that comes with your ticket though the ticket provides no real directions on how to get to it. The map does identify all sorts of landmarks you can use as reference points but these are completely unlabeled in real life so you just have to ask the security folks where you should be headed. They’re pretty helpful as it turns out.

Second, you have to have proof of vaccination. At least three different officials asked me for this proof before they let me head toward my seat, and none of them could read the American QR code that my healthcare provide had given me. This turned out to be not that big a deal because a) my health care provider’s QR code did not include the fact that I’d had my booster shot and they categorically refused to correct this before I left, which made it somewhat less than useful to start with, and b) I therefore also had my CDC card with me at all times, and that worked. But some form of proof was important. You also were required to wear masks in the stadium at all times, and this was actually done a surprising amount of the time. They're serious about things in Rome.

Eventually we made our way inside and up to our seats. We were way up in the nosebleeds – there were only two rows of seats behind us before you ran out of stadium – and way over by the Roma end of things. If this had been an American football stadium we’d have been roughly even with the back line of the end zone. It was a steep climb, and when we got to our seats there were two old men already sitting in them, but after a bit of gesticulating and vague Italian/English exchanges they moved on to squat in someone else’s seats somewhere else. Why they wanted our seats up in the rafters I never figured out.

Unless you’re one of the hardcore fans you don’t want to sit on the ends of the stadium – the Curves, as they’re called. Those sections are literally walled off from the rest of the stadium by plexiglass. We were only a few seats away from the South Curve which is where the Roma faithful were, though, so we got all of the entertainment without the security risk. The Roma fans dominated the straight sections, since they had been designated the home team for this game. The Lazio fans only got the North Curve.

We settled in.

We were there early enough that we could watch most of the rest of the crowd filter into their seats, and watch the players take the field for warm ups. They played music over the loudspeaker the entire time, including “Jump Around,” which Kim as a native Wisconsinite felt obligated to comply with.

Right before the game the placards came out. All the hardcore fans in the Curves got little placards that they held up at the appropriate times so you could see the Lazio eagle or the Roma colors. It was impressive, especially when you added in the giant flags and the smoking flares. With all the red and gold of the Roma fans it did sort of feel like you were in the Gryffindor section of a quidditch match, to be honest.

And then the game began.

There is no equivalent to Derby Day in Rome anywhere in American sports.

For one thing, European soccer leagues don’t have playoffs. They just run through the season and whoever is on top at the end wins, which means that each game is that much more meaningful and that much more intense. Il Derby della Capitale – the Rome Derby – is one of the most hotly contested games in all of European soccer.

For another thing, these two teams are natural and long-term rivals. Lazio was the only one of the four professional Roman soccer teams that was not folded into Roma when Mussolini merged the other three into one big team in 1927, and they have not forgotten this. Nobody has. They play for the same city. They play in the same stadium. There are no wars so vicious as civil wars.

Also, the two Roman fan bases hate each other with a passion that does not exist in the US. No, not even with your team and its rival. Trust me on this. Your two fanbases are dating compared to what goes on between Roma and Lazio fans. To the best of my knowledge there is no American team in any professional sport that blocks off its hardcore fans or its opponents’ hardcore fans from each other and the rest of the stadium with plexiglass walls. There have been riots and fatalities in the past, though things seem to have calmed down at least from that level of late. Andi the Tour Guide explained that Roma fans were generally left-wing in their political views (and Italy has an actual Left, as opposed to the center-right that passes for such in the extreme-right political culture of the US these days), tended to be working class, and lived for the most part within the city of Rome. Lazio fans, on the other hand, were generally right-wing in their political views, more affluent, and tended to live in the suburbs. The fan bases have all sorts of reasons to hate each other, in other words, and sports is just one of them.

Imagine, if you will, a Super Bowl between your team and that team’s most bitter rivals. Eagles/Cowboys, perhaps, or Packers/Bears. Ramp that up – maybe neither team has won anything in a couple of decades and the opposing coaches have been stealing each other’s wives. Add in two rabid fan bases who hate each other, as noted. Now multiply the result by “Italian” – a culture not known for restraint – and stir, and then just sit back and watch the insanity unfold.

There were cheers. There were hand gestures. There was, yes, choreography. There were two announcers – one doing the more prosaic announcements and one whose remit seemed to be firing up the Roma fans (a thoroughly redundant job, but so it goes) and who was always one call away from losing his voice from screaming. There were songs. There were all sorts of songs. There were songs for substitutions. There were songs for goals. There were songs for no particular reason at all – notably the one that I later discovered translated as, “Hey Lazio! You’re shit from the city sewer!” that came complete with both fist shaking and double-bird waving. This one would break out roughly every seven minutes and somehow all 60,000 Roma fans in the stadium would be singing and gesturing in unison. I never figured out how they all managed to start and stop at once. I’ve been in choirs that couldn’t manage that.

It was, as Kim put it, “two hours of cardio opera.”

It was also the loudest unamplified event I have ever attended.

You know how when you go to a concert in a small venue and about halfway through the second set your ears start to buzz with white noise? Imagine that in an open-air stadium that seats 75,000 people.

There was, underneath all of that, a pretty good soccer game.

The action got started very quickly, as Roma scored within the first minute – a rarity in professional soccer games. The Roma fans on the other end of the stadium hadn’t even finished rolling up their giant Roma emblem (you can see it in the photo with the Roma placards, above) and actually missed the goal. If you click on the photo below and look closely at the man in the red uniform standing squarely in front of the goal and wearing the #9 jersey, that’s Tammy Abraham and he’s maybe half a second away from scoring this goal. He would go on to score another not long after.

And let me tell you, when Roma scored, the Roma fans




There was screaming. There was singing. There were gestures and choreography. Old men jumped up and hugged and kissed each other, total strangers or not. Scarves were waved frantically in the air or stretched out taut in front of their owners. Thousands of little red and yellow flags flapped energetically. The stadium vibrated and shook. There were flares.

Three times this happened, and each time was more raucous than the time before.

In the end Roma won 3-0, which made for a very happy Roma crowd.

It took us a while to get out of the stadium, but eventually we followed the crowd to where the buses were coming and found one that would take us back to Testaccio. Squeezing on board was a bit of a trick, and once on board we inched forward through solid traffic for maybe half an hour or an hour before we really started to move.

But the crowd was joyful and the ride passed happily for all concerned.

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