Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, capacity 70,634
This stadium is Rome’s second Coliseum but this one is active. Since its construction in 1910 it has been a venue for all manner of events, from fascist rallies and the Olympic Games to World Cup finals. It has seen all emotion known to mankind: love, passion, competition and hatred.
Primarily it is home to arguably the fiercest rivalry in world football and one of the most passionate derby games on the planet, the Rome derby. The stadium itself has had many facelifts, most notably in 1960 when it was transformed to host the Olympic Games and again in 1990 when the stadium was almost entirely rebuilt for the World Cup finals.
In 2008 changes were again made to bring the stadium up Uefa’s elite standards. This makes the venue perfect for the explosive Derby della Capitale in which Roma and Lazio fight it out to bring pride of the city. Winning the derby can be more important than winning the Scudetto for some fans.
The derby involves fireworks, choreographed flag and banner displays and an intense level of noise. It has also been the scene of violence, racism and extreme ultra groups, such as Lazio’s infamous Irriducibili and Roma’s legendary Boys Roma.
During the rest of the season, these groups make sure the stadium is still an intimidating place to go for away teams, but they are constantly struggling against low attendances in their vast arena. At one of the recent low points, the 2010-11 season, Roma averaged an attendance of 33,952 while Lazio only managed an average of 29,122. Things are changing on the Roma side but the Lazio ultras still boycott many games as they contest the way the club is run.
“T’avemo arzato la coppa in faccia” (“We raised the Cup in front of your face”), read the banner that flew over the city of Rome. Lazio fans had hired a light aircraft to deliver the message. Another proclaimed: “The real truth is that we hurt you: 26-05-13.” This was one of the greatest days in Lazio’s 114-year history, the day they beat Roma in the Coppa Italia final. For the duration of the summer the Laziali revelled in schadenfreude, tormenting their Roman counterparts at every given opportunity.
For the derby in September 2013, the Lazio ultras had planned a special choreography. Balloons would lift a giant Coppa Italia above the Curva Nord, just as a reminder – as if Roma needed one – that the Biancocelesti had won the most important Derby della Capitale in their history. The authorities banned the display, wary of the backlash it could cause. In a sardonic response, the Laziali left the Curva Nord empty for the first five minutes of the game, but for a banner which read: “Ah, I forgot, it’s the ‘memorial’ derby. I’ll finish my beer first…”
“Laziale or Romanista?” There is perhaps no question more important in the eternal city. Founded in 1900, SS Lazio is the city’s oldest club. In 1927, when the National Fascist Party merged Rome’s biggest clubs, the Biancocelesti were the only ones to resist. Roma fans claim to support the club that truly represents Rome, however Lazio fans are quick to remind them who arrived first.
The realm of Lazio’s ultras – the Curva Nord of the Stadio Olimpico – is renowned across the world. It has been at the vanguard for some of Italy’s most colourful choreographies. The groups have changed but their support for the Aquile (Eagles) has been steadfast, none more so than the Irriducibili.
Formed in 1987, the first members of the Irriducibili were originally known as Cani Sciolti (Wild Dogs). After dislodging a group called Viking, the character Mr Enrich, a little man who kicks furiously, was adopted as their mascot. As one of their members claimed, he “signifies rebellion against the political and football system.”
In 1992 British flags adorned the Curva following the arrival of cult hero Paul Gascoigne. He was received warmly by the Irriducibili, who unveiled a banner depicting a pint of English beer with the message: “It’s ready for you.” That year also saw the dissolution of Lazio’s first prominent ultra group, the Eagles. They were formed in 1976, two years after the team’s first Scudetto success, which saw the numbers in the Curva proliferate.
The arrival of food tycoon Sergio Cragnotti marked the beginning of one of the club’s most successful eras. They won their second Scudetto in 2000, their centenary year, and the Curva Nord’s celebrations brought 25,000 people on to the streets.
The popular group numbered 7,000 people, sometimes even more. They became infamous across Italy and were distinguished for their merchandising business. The group franchised and sold their products around Rome. This helped them provide their own away-day packages and fund their fanzine, La Voce Della Nord (the Voice of the North).
The group gained brand notoriety but their merchandising business was criticised by some in the Curva. This led to a schism in 2006 and a group called Banda Noantri (Our Gang), now known as In Basso a Destra (Low on the Right), were formed. In the book Football, Fascism and Fandom Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong write: “The Irriducibili were challenged with the insult of embourgeoisement: that they had compromised and were now money driven.”
Both groups co-existed in relative harmony, mainly because of their ideological standpoint (both held neo-fascist sentiments), yet four years later a crossroads was reached. In 2010 the Irriducibili invited the moderate right politician Renata Polverini into the Curva during an election campaign. At a time when the club were struggling, this angered other groups on the Curva. To make matters worse, the politician sat on the portrait of Gabriele Sandri – a DJ from Rome who had been shot dead by police – an unforgivable faux pas for some.
In respect for what they had done since 1987, the Irriducibili leader Fabrizio Toffolo announced the dismantling of the group on the radio. It would appear the ultras are now united under the banner of Ultras Lazio. This group is mostly comprised of youngsters and former Irriducibili members. Other smaller groups including Avanguardia, In Basso a Destra and Caos Group also reside on the Curva.
Unfortunately it is impossible to discuss Lazio’s ultras without mentioning their political extremism, something explored in depth in Football, Fascism and Fandom. At times heinous views have plagued the Curva Nord, with monkey chants, racist banners and fascist memorabilia all on show. One unabashedly racist banner that read “Auschwitz is your town; the ovens are your houses” was unveiled against Roma. The banner was a reference to Roma’s association with the Testaccio neighbourhood, which has a Jewish population. Paolo Di Canio performed a fascist salute to the Curva Nord while playing for Lazio during a derby in 2005. Di Canio – a former Irriducibili member – saw the salute as a badge of identity with the ultras.
The Laziali have also suffered two tragedies. The first was back in 1979, when a Lazio fan called Vincenzo Paparelli was hit in the eye and killed by a flare fired by a Roma supporter. It was Italy’s first football-related fatality. In November 2007, a 25-year-old by the name of Gabriele Sandri was shot and killed by a police officer. The police claimed the shooting was accidental after the officer Luigi Spaccatorella intervened to stop a fight between Lazio and Juventus supporters at a motorway service stop. Sandri’s death triggered nationwide outrage and displayed the deep contempt ultras feel towards the authorities. In the capital, Laziali and Romanisti even united to cause havoc across the city. Sandri’s funeral attracted over 5,000 mourners.
The Laziali feel it is their duty to look after the club’s best interests. This has led to years of struggle with Lazio president Claudio Lotito, a pantomime villain in the eyes of many. It appears strange that the ultras would protest against a man who saved the club from liquidation, but during his tenure Lotito stopped the policy of supplying the Irriducibili with 800 free tickets for matches. He also refused to fund the Curva Nord’s choreography and rejected a proposed takeover of the club by former Lazio legend Giorgio Chinaglia. The ultras feel that the their Eagles can soar once Lotito is jettisoned. Last season 6,000 supporters held a protest before their home game against Sassuolo. Thousands of placards reading “Libera Lazio” (“Free Lazio”) were displayed in the stadium.
The Laziali and in particular the Irriducibili could be described as pioneers. Having transformed the style of support on the Curva their name has become one of the biggest in the domain of the Italian ultras. When sky blue fumes choke the air and the Curva Nord ripples under a gargantuan banner to the back-drop of Vola Lazio Vola the Stadio Olimpico truly becomes the heartbeat of this ancient city.
Classic Player: Beppe Signori
Giuseppe “Beppe” Signori was one of the most complete and ruthless forwards of his era. His name is remembered, but why is he not on a pedestal. When one writes about him, the sentence feels like it should start with “lest we forget”. When he was at Lazio, he was more deadly than the eagle on his shirt; he was immense, he was devastating, so why is he overlooked?
Followers of the Italian game know who Beppe is. They know he played for Lazio and they know he scored goals, but there was so much more. The man with a left foot that destroyed teams in the world’s best league needs more accolades than this, does he not?
Despite humble beginnings at Leffe and Piacenza, he was then part of that Foggia side, which earned him his move to Lazio in 1992. Here he blasted on to the centre stage, scoring 23 goals in 24 games in his first season to win Serie A’s Golden Boot.
This was the first season that Seria A was broadcast in Britain, thanks to Channel 4 and James Richardson, and many fans in the UK won’t forget Signori’s devastating ability to poach goals and score from set pieces.
His classic, short walk up to the penalty spot had Lazio fans enthralled and opposition goalkeepers baffled. Penalty after penalty went in this season, adding to his total. He scored a lot of goals from inside the box, but he could also strike a ball. When he took a long shot against Cremonese in a 4-2 win in the 1993-94 season, the ball was hit so well it threatened to pierce the opposition net:
The 1994-95 season continued in the same vein, with Signori scoring 17 goals in 24 matches as Lazio finished second in Serie A. He started to drift away from his marker more this year and scored many more goals from open play. He proved much more dynamic, more complete, and now added the odd headed goal into his arsenal.
In 1995-96 Signori scored 24 goals (12 of which came for the penalty spot) to become the league’s top scorer. This was his high point, his victory in the amphitheatre. Admittedly, 12 of his goals came from the penalty spot, but his penchant for one-step penalties, ballistic free-kicks and tap-ins only fuelled his reputation for being a bloody-minded finisher.
He also indulged in the spectacular this season. Just look at this incredible volley scored against Juventus in a 4-0 win. He starting to drift out towards the left wing, deceiving defenders, and just when they thought they had figured him out, he did this:
He scored 15 goals in 32 games in the 1996-97 season as Lazio finished fourth. He improved his workrate and came deeper for the ball, continually adapting his game. Time was running out and in the 1997-98 season he scored two goals in six games before leaving for Sampdoria on loan. He still managed to finish top scorer in the Coppa Italia that year, in an amusing twist of fate.
His career was tainted after he retired, with accusations of match fixing and batting scandals. In 2011 he was banned from all football activity for five years. Perhaps this has muddied the memories. One thing is for sure, when calcio ruled the world, nobody was as deadly from the spot and nobody had been so single-minded about scoring goals.