See the fireworks!
I am new to soccer, but the second game I attended was a derby
between crosstown rivals, Lazio and Roma, in Rome's Olympic
stadium. It was my introduction to Italy, to the passion of
European football, and to the specialized language of soccer, a
derby being a match between two teams from the same town.
It was an intimidating and exhilarating experience. The intimidation started in Chicago when I tried to buy tickets. I had a number to call in Italy for tickets. All of my Italian speaking friends lost their facility in that language immediately upon my request that they make a simple call for me.
Feeling the need for assistance with this task, I took my number to the Italian tourist office. It was the office's last day in Chicago, but I persuaded a staffer to stop packing and call. It turned out I had the wrong number, but she got me a number where they spoke English and sold tickets.
I called this number and they neither spoke English or sold tickets. However, the person I spoke with understood my request and he carefully and laboriously, with shouted assistance from co-workers in the background, gave me a phone number in English.
This third call to Italy I was successful, again due in large part to the unheralded Italian patience with English speakers. There were few seats left, and they were all quite expensive. But I gave them my credit card number and they told me I was to be one of over 80,000 fans attending the match.
This game was for big stakes, more than just home town bragging rights. At the end of the season, the two teams that finish at the bottom of the top division, Serie A, exchange places with the two teams at the top of Serie B. It would be as if the two worst major league teams went down to the minors, and two minor league team were promoted to the big leagues.
I expect the relegation as it is called is not easily lived down, and as it appeared Roma was headed for Serie B, their fans could be in for what baseball fans would term a "long winter." Position in the standings, or table, is determined by points. Points are gained in a win or a tie and Roma could spare few losses and still stay up in Serie A.
I spent a few days in Rome prior to the match. The hotel breakfast staff was very amused with an American going to a "calcio" match and would question me before pouring my coffee, "Forza Lazio? Forza Roma?"
I wore a Lazio scarf around Rome the day of the game. This made me the target of good natured teasing, but also got me involved in discussions of the sport all over the center of the city. The evening of the match I intended to take a tram, but was much too excited to puzzle out the route and so hailed a cab. After requesting I remove my Lazio scarf, a Roma cab driver took me as close as he could to the stadium.
Twenty minutes later, having made my way past enough mounted riot police to make me second guess being there, I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie. I was tempted to photograph the police, but it was night, and that would violate my rule against taking flash photographs of people who are carrying semi-automatic assault rifles.
I waved my ticket, gaining access through the barricade, and was instructed to walk around the stadium to the other side. I was rebuffed periodically in my attempts to take a shortcut through the wrong gate, but fifteen minutes brisk walking brought me to the proper gate, where I entered and was instructed to circle the stadium yet again.
This attempt to disorient me was successful, and I could not tell you which side of the field I sat on. The ends were segregated, with each team behind a goal. The sections behind the goals were the cheap seats and they were favored by the more partisan fans.
Happily, I was in the middle seated among fans from both teams who had paid $80.00 for their seats and who were complaining about the "crazies" on either end. Had I been seated behind the Roma goal in my Lazio scarf, I probably would have ended up on the field along with the plastic Coke bottles that were tossed there during play.
The Lazio fans had a truly impressive banner of a giant fist. The banner covered all of the fans behind the goal and was displayed before the game. There were many flags and banners, including two in English, "Lazio The Religion" and "I Don't Want Mineral Water."
Immediately before the start of the game, both sides launched pyrotechnic displays of flares and smoke bombs that would bankrupt any small town on the fourth of July.
Play got underway with a hard tackle, setting the tenor for the game. Although only a few yellow cards were issued for fouls, it was a rough game and the referee's attitude was let them play.
About five minutes into the game, Lazio scored the only goal when Winter passed to Signori. No one behind the Roma goal could have seen the play. The smoke from the fireworks set off before the game was still so thick that I could not see the crowd behind the goal, or the big screen television above the goal.
Flares continued flying out of the stands throughout the game, several times landing on the field, where they remained, and were played around until a break in play. The area behind the goal lines was watered down to extinguish the flares, and there were firemen in helmets with face guards patrolling that area.
The fans behind me said that there was a suspicion that the fireworks were being planted in the stadium bathrooms before the games, and that the police had conducted a search that day. As police raids go, it was a spectacular failure.
The often injured Gascoigne was helped off the field by a teammate at about 25 minutes. It was a sobering moment if you had binoculars, because he was weeping in pain or perhaps anger at again being hurt. The fans kept up their chanting and singing, and I could only suppose as soccer injuries often turn out to be so much acting, the fans don't take them seriously.
Roma looked very weak in the first half, and had bad luck with their shots on goal in the second half. When Lazio's keeper Marchegiani blocked a penalty shot, the Lazio fans began to chant "Roma Serie B." That moment took the heart out of the Roma fan next to me, and I think of the team as well.
I lingered at the end of the game to watch the Roma fans behind the goal burning their seats. The Lazio fans were dancing behind their goal and the firemen were spraying them with fire hoses to little effect. The fire hoses might have been put to better use on the handiwork of the Roma fans.
I was somewhat concerned about what the crowd outside might be like, but the fans who were leaving were very well behaved. I saw no drunks, no fighting, just exuberant Lazio fans honking their horns in celebration and Roma fans with broken hearts.
Read "A Roma Fan Responds"
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