In the first part of Fred Tickell’s effort to join The 54 Club, he takes in a game in Rome.
As usual my parents escaped England for Christmas, thus shirking any festive responsibilities, and 2012 saw them wintering in Rome. Taking up their kind offer to join them I deliberately arrived late in December with the aim of fulfilling the dream of every child who grew up watching James Richardson sip coffee and hold the Gazetta Dello Sport aloft outside the Pantheon, watching some live calcio.
With the winter break arriving I expected my options to be limited and would have been quite content to seeing one of the Roman teams play a basement dweller but luck was on my side and Roma had a home fixture against my childhood sweetheart, AC Milan.
The first goal I recall seeing was George Weah’s infamous length of the field jaunt against Verona and from that moment I fell in love with the Rossoneri. Evidently a football hipster from a young age the first jerseys I owned had Kluivert and Baggio on the back and while everyone else my age was watching Dixon and Winterburn, I admired Maldini and Billy Costacurta. Why would I care for the drudgery of English hoofing when the elegant Italian game was so seductive?
Despite my fears of an early sell out, purchasing tickets was a fairly straightforward affair and was done online over lunch in November with the occasional assistance of Google translate. They did not offer a print-at-home service as has become the standard across Europe and instead a confirmation email arrived in my inbox with vague instructions as to where to collect them on the day of the match.
Our flat was in the Trastevere region of Rome on the west bank of Tiber and four and a half miles down the river from the Stadio Olimpico. Believing the game was commencing at 1945 my father and I departed the flat at 1600 in case of any eventualities and made our way up river.
The Stadio Olimpico was the primary stadium at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and the proximate area lent itself to all sorts of sporting arenas with a similar architectural style. From the moment you first encounter a clay tennis court it is a further fifteen minutes until you reach the main stadium with swimming pools, diving boards and various gymnasiums littering the route.
Upon encountering an official AS Roma Fan Park it was evidently time to track down the ticket collection office which was apparently on the corner of the Foro Italico Swimming pool complex. It was not. The address, Lungotevere Maresciallo Cadorna corner Via Canvaro, was spectacularly meaningless.
In search of an English-speaking steward and orange Fanta, I wandered into the mass of fans. After purchasing my beverage and conversing with three friendly but ultimately unhelpful officials I found a knowledgeable police officer who pointed me to an inexplicably inconspicuous building with four closed port holes.
One hundred Italians were impatiently waiting for the ticket office to spring in to life and although the queue was unorthodox we were stood roughly 20 deep. Forty minutes elapsed before two of the four windows opened up and while the majority converged on one a small handful fulfilled whatever criteria a poorly crafted sign demanded of them at the other.
Having picked up tickets in a similar way many other times the sheer incompetency of the operation was impressive. Every transaction involved some form of bickering and on more than one occasion a lengthy counsel was held inside the cramped office between several members of staff whose time could have undoubtedly been used better elsewhere.
After thirty further minutes it was our turn and the confirmation email and two passports endorsing our identities crossed the rubicon. The woman was clearly bemused by these two English gents fancying a spot of calcio and after several comments and smirks were exchanged with her idle colleagues our tickets and passports were returned.
By this stage it was 1845 and the boisterous crowds were growing as each bus and car emptied their contents. It was notable how few fans were attired in jerseys and how many were sporting a Roma scarf. Conscious of time we headed towards the wide boulevard that led to the stadium. Our progress was short-lived and we soon found ourselves among a crowd of several thousand standing in front of an absurdly inadequate number of gates.
Once again there was a lack of any discernible activity for half an hour until several police officers bellowed out incomprehensible instructions and the collective moved forward at a glacial pace. Slightly unnerved by the bevy of armed guards I keenly watched a number of people pass through the gates to understand what was required. It was a simple case of “ticket please, ID please” which presumably was to root out any notorious hooligans or ne’er-do-wells however the crowd’s later behaviour proved that this was evidently a mere show put on to appease the football authorities.
Having satisfied a distrustful constable we headed towards to the somewhat dated, 73,000 seater Stadio Olimpico and met a third, and thankfully final, check point. Traditional turnstiles were a welcome and familiar site and after negotiating the electronic entry system I enjoyed a gruff frisking from a burly Italian.
Once more, the pyrotechnic display that night suggested that this was not a universally thorough process.The immense security was in lieu of much police presence in the surrounding area as the peacekeepers were wise to the fact that the night’s fan-on-fan aggression would all be contained within the stadium.
At 1915 we were happily seated but the lack of activity and large number of empty seats suggested that the game was not as forthcoming as expected. The “Countdown to kick-off” timer on the enormous screens reading 90 minutes settled it. Like a true amateur I had forgotten to account for the extra hour and if only the game had been on British shores our timing would be exemplary. Although mildly irritated I kept myself amused by watching the fellow spectators bicker over anything and everything as Italians are so wont to do.
The stands gradually began to fill out but rather sadly the ground never reached more than two-thirds of capacity. Zdenek Zemen’s Roma were entertaining but deeply frustrating and relentlessly underachieved. Furthermore, practically every bar and café in Rome would be showing the game on TV which dissuaded many from forking out £35 for a cold night of possibly disappointing football.
With ten minutes to go the compere ran through the starting eleven in the well-trodden manner of shouting the first name with the second name roared in retort by the crowd. Stars such as Osvaldo, Lamela and Marquinos received notably louder receptions while De Rossi’s was particularly raucous. When the last name rang out, “Francesco!”, the stadium dropped to a hush. Feet began to stamp on the metal bleachers, slowly at first but growing in pace and ferocity. A crescendo grew among the 50,000 supporters and in an explosive din seemingly every man, woman and child screamed “TOTTI!”
While there are plenty of one-club men elevated to the status of deity by their fan bases, Gerrard at Liverpool, Baresi and Maldini at AC Milan, Giggs at Manchester United, one cannot help but feel Totti exists on a higher plain to all of them. Why that is the case is a topic for another day but never have I felt such a palpable connection between a footballer and his club.
Five minutes until kick off and the atmosphere was excellent. The ultras in the Curva Sud were waving their wonderful array of enormous flags and sporadic flares were hitting the running track when a song came over the PA system and the Stadio Olimpico rose to its feet, scarves aloft. How many in the Bay of Naples or Turin know “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “Blue Moon” or “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, I wonder, because I felt foolish for not expecting Roma’s wonderful pre-match song.
Antonello Venditti’s Roma, Roma, Roma was adopted by the football team and is sung before every game. Much like “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, its slow tempo, simple lyrics and small range of notes make it the perfect battle cry and a chorus of tens of thousands of Romans bellowing “Roma! Roma! Roma!” into the night air was unforgettable.
A camera panned the crowd throughout, rarely struggling to find large groups singing along. It memorably lingered for a while on one rather portly fellow who proudly held a scarf overhead emblazoned “Curva Sud – Ultra Commander”. While the Commander did not see it fit to join in, he looked , for lack of a better phrase, like a right hard bastard.
At 2045 the game was finally underway, a moment the Ultras celebrated with a superb pyrotechnic display. The space between the Curva Sud and the pitch prevented the fireworks from troubling the players and diligent stadium workers quickly saw to any rogue missiles with wet towels and reinforced dustbins.
While most the Ultras were encamped in the Curva Sud, the opposite end had their own hardcore supporters next to the AC Milan fans and they did a superb job of making the visitor’s evening thoroughly unpleasant.
On at least three occasions the Rossoneri supporters all sprinted madly to one side of their section moments before a large firework exploded where many of them had just been standing. The stewards were too busy enjoying the game to care terribly much and only cursory efforts were made to quell the offenders.
Roma were three goals to nil up at the half and made it four before Milan scored two in quick succession in the dying moments after Marquinos had been sent off. Bafflingly, Bojan Krkic, who was on loan at AC Milan from AS Roma, was noticeably cheered upon taking the pitch as a late substitute only to be mercilessly booed with every touch of the ball. Regardless, the early lead caused the Tribuna to relax greatly and with smoking commonplace and numerous vendors supplying overpriced beer, soft drinks, snacks and wine it had a distinct lounge feel.
When the final whistle blew an enormous roar went up and the ultras who had not ceased waving their flags finally caught some respite. To play out the victory Antonello Venditti’s Grazie Roma came on the PA and the fans sang along as they streamed out. Although not as catchy as his other hit it was a fitting end to a superb performance. I am yet to learn if they play it after a loss.
Leaving the Stadio Olimpico proved as unnecessarily challenging as entering. Several thousand people moved in opposite directions along narrow walkways surrounding the stadium but with good feelings abound most fans responded affably to the jostling and I soon forced my way to the Tiber for the long walk back to the Trastevere.