Divided and united: The paradoxical politics of the Rome Derby

Rome is a city of extremes. One where classical ruins and Renaissance palazzos provide a majestic backdrop to the pulsating chaos of urban life. For its people, there are no half-measures. Romans live and breathe the city, proud in the knowledge that their home is the peninsula’s fulcrum, neither northern nor southern, just Rome. And in this intoxicating atmosphere, there is perhaps no question more important than Romanista or Laziale?

The History

Few fixtures in Italy have inspired as much animosity as the Derby della Capitale. Unlike other cities, Rome is not diluted by fans who look beyond the confines of their own territory. If you hail from the capital, you either support AS Roma or SS Lazio, Red or Sky Blue, the Wolf or the Eagle.

In the 1920s, a multitude of clubs represented Italy’s capital. This hampered Rome’s national competitiveness, an issue Benito Mussolini and the fascists sought to remedy. As part of their vision for a new and regenerated Italy, Rome had to be restored to its former glory and in 1927, fascist party member Italo Foschi organised the merger of three clubs – Alba, Fortitudo and Roman – and formed AS Roma.

Lazio, founded 27 years earlier, resisted these changes thanks to their own influential fascist supporters (including the Administrative Secretary of the fascist party Giovanni Marinelli and Mussolini himself). However, despite Roma being younger and the product of a political construct, their fans quickly identified themselves as the city’s true heirs. Why? Then, as now, Roma boasted a larger fan base having absorbed supporters from three clubs. Furthermore, they adopted the colours and emblem of the city (the Capitoline Wolf) and settled in the working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio.

Meanwhile Lazio – who took their name from the region in which Rome is located – drew the core of their support from Rome’s wealtheir northern suburbs. This demographic association remains in place today and as such, their supporters were and continue to be cast as outsiders. As a Romanista once passionately reminded me: “We carry the city’s name, colours and symbol. How could they [Lazio] reject this back in 1900. Burini!”

Burini is a term best translated as “peasant” and is used by Romanisiti to denigrate Lazio fans, reinforcing the narrative that they are provincial pariahs. Laziali resent this depiction, especially given that their club was founded first.

Historically, their differences have also been drawn along political lines, with Romanisti associated with the inner city left and Laziali with the suburban right. This was encapsulated by the ideology of the duo’s most renowned and now disbanded Ultrà groups, the ‘right-wing’ Irriducibili of Lazio’s Curva Nord, and Roma’s ‘left-leaning’ Commandos Ultrà Curva Sud (CUCS). Although these political divisions have since been blurred, the rivalry has lost none of its vitriol.

Indeed, followers of Roma and Lazio share no pact of non-aggression such as the one made by AC Milan and Internazionale fans. Generally, when the capital clubs meet, no quarter is given. At times, this has culminated in deplorable acts of violence and even tragedy, such as the death of Lazio fan Vincenzo Paparelli, who was hit by a pyrotechnic fired from Roma’s Curva Sud in the derby of October 1979.

There is, however, a paradoxical dimension to this derby. A form of fan politics that has seen the Ultras of Roma and Lazio transcend their mutual hatred and unite in protest against what they consider the systematic oppression of their world and culture.

Boycotting Barriers

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The last Derby della Capitale was played in front of empty Curve due to ongoing protests by the Ultras
During the last two derbies, the Curve of the Stadio Olimpico were deserted. This made one of Italy’s most combustible contests a rather sombre affair. The explosions of fireworks and the crackle of flairs had been drowned out. The fumes of smoke bombs had evaporated and the artistic élan of the choreographies had been stifled. The grievance compelling these foes to forego their derby rituals? Plexiglass barriers.

The problems began at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, when Rome’s prefect (or director of civil protection) Franco Gabrielli imposed new safety measures in the Curve of the Olimpico. On his orders, barriers were installed in the Curva Sud and Nord, partitioning a body of one into two separate sections. The move was presented as a mechanism to prevent overcrowding, with Gabrielli arguing that as many as 12, 000 people had been cramming into spaces designed to hold two-thirds of that number.

Whilst the dangers of overcrowding have haunted Italian football before – most poignantly during the Heysel disaster of 1985 – the Ultras see contradictions in Gabrielli’s logic. They view the barriers as the latest in a string measures designed to marginalise them. Ed Moynihan, a graphic designer and Romanista, has witnessed these restrictions first hand. He, like many Roma fans, believes they are outdated, counterproductive and degrading:

Installing massive perplex barriers which look like something from the 1980s (both inside the curve and outside the ground which separate the entrances to the curve), in addition to facial scan recognition cameras at the gates, creates huge queues, increased police presence and limited parking and access around the stadium. This all adds up to making people feel like they are all criminals, like second-class citizens that have no rights or dignity whilst going to watch some football.

Consequently, both Lazio and Roma Ultras have been boycotting home matches for over a year. In order to comprehend this visceral reaction, one must first grasp the symbolic importance of the ‘Curva’. As a regular visitor to the Olimpico, Ed is again well-placed to comment. “The Curva is the heart of the stadio,” he explained, “where all groups of football fans – ultras and regular supporters alike – have been gathering every Sunday for generations.”

For tifosi of any Italian club, this area is a realm in which they can express themselves, be that through chants, banners, choreographies, flags or pyrotechnics. From a purely practical standpoint, such organised displays would be stymied by barriers which stand over two metres tall. Perhaps more importantly, the Curva represents an imagined community to many fans. Ed synthesised this phenomenon:

The Curva is a way of life for many young fans, where they gather to meet friends, support their team and feel united in something they all love. A lot of fans come from working class backgrounds where historically things have been tough, even to this day with the Italian economy the way it is, and going to the Curva was an outlet for them. Now, this is being repressed.


Historical Precedent

Although Laziali and Romanisti are uncomfortable bedfellows, when it comes to challenging what they perceive as state oppression, there is historical precedence for this incongruous alliance.

During the infamous derby of 2004, fallacious rumours about the death of a young Roma fan – said to have been struck by a police vehicle – spread through the Curva Sud. As a furore broke out, Roma Ultras entered the field, informed captain Francesco Totti and demanded the game be abandoned. Laziali reciprocated, removing their banners and echoing calls for the game to be postponed. Eventually, they got their wish and the episode brought global notoriety to Rome and its football. Theories later circulated that the Ultras had manufactured the episode as a sinister demonstration of their power and influence – though the truth remains obscure.

Three years later, the rival fans were brought together again after Biancocelesti supporter, Gabriele Sandri, was shot and killed by a policeman during a service-stop fracas between Juventus and Lazio fans. The backlash was unprecedented and in Rome, Ultras joined forces and rioted in the streets. Later, in November 2007, Sandri’s funeral was attended by more than 5,000 mourners, many of whom were Lazio and Roma fans. Mutual respects continued during the next derby, after captains Totti and Tommaso Rocchi – flanked by Ultrà leaders of both clubs – walked towards Lazio’s Curva with a giant fan painting of Sandri.

These two adversaries have also reached a détente when protesting against the Tessera del Tifoso (Supporters ID Card), and of course, most recently the new security measures installed at the Olimpico. Suffice it to say, demonstrating solidarity and exercising a form of fan-diplomacy is not alien to Roma and Lazio Ultras.

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Roma Captain Francesco Totti holding a banner dedicated to Gabriele Sandri in front of the Curva Nord
United and Divided

“The division of the Curva is an abomination that destroys the club’s most passionate fan base,” Marco declared. Once a regular in Lazio’s Curva Nord and now a postgraduate student, he preferred that his real name remain undisclosed. “The Ultras see it as an intrusion by the state into their territory,” he opined, “they often joke that they will soon be expected to donate blood in order to enter the stadium.”

It sounds ludicrous, however across Europe, some nations are taking a particularly stringent and scrupulous approach to security and identification outside stadia. In Hungary for example, authorities recently introduced biometric palm scanners at the gates of Budapest club, Ferencváros TC – much to the disgust of the club’s Ultras.

In Rome, the imposition of restrictions is compounded by the fact that the capital appears to be the only city in which these steps are being taken. There are other, more decrepit, stadia in Italy whose Curve are often overcrowded and remain poorly monitored. Nonetheless, facial scan recognition and barriers are, at least at present, unique to the Curve of the Olimpico.

As such, Romanisti and Laziali feel unfairly victimised and their aversion towards one another has become a sideshow. “The boycott is more than not just attending a game of football because you don’t agree with new rules,” Ed elaborated, “It is more about your rights as a person and standing up against extreme and even draconian decisions. When it comes to matters like these, even the hardest opponents can unite.”

Others have also stood in solidarity with their Roman counterparts. Last weekend, Pescara’s Ultras – The Rangers – refused to travel to the Olimpico for their game against the Giallorossi, claiming they could not ignore the Curva Surva Sud’s ongoing protest as football goes beyond what happens on the pitch. Their gesture followed similar precedents made by other visiting teams, including Inter, Fiorentina and Palermo.

There is a complex dichotomy at play here. Undoubtedly, a stigma surrounds the Ultras. And indeed, there is no smoke without fire. In Rome, fans from both sides have been involved in shameful episodes of violence and discrimination, as well as even espousing neo-fascist politics. Yet, these groups are often a minority and tend to exist on the margins of the Curva. Part of the problem is the apparent lack of consistency and coherence shown by the Italian authorities. The policy to introduce barriers and facial recognition at the Olimpico not only singles out Rome’s Ultras, but also tars every member of the Curva with the same brush.

One Curva Sud regular captured this sentiment, telling AS Roma English that the legislators should “crack down on those hooligans who are responsible for violence, not the entire Curva.” This ties into a wider problem regarding the way Italian fans are policed in Italy – where punishment comes before education and attempts to engage in constructive discourse are rare.

This is why, when conversing with Marco, he told me that “Lazio and Roma fans see such state intervention as a threat to their world and culture.” The last game he attended was Lazio’s Europa League tie against Sparta Prague in March 2015. Then, as now, the Curva Nord was desolate. But with the next derby on the horizon, Marco informed me that some Lazio Ultras have decided to make an exception and return.

The reason is simple: the Aquile are currently in fourth position, just one point behind second-place Roma and five behind leaders Juventus. In order to help Lazio continue their push towards the Champions League places, some Laziali will postpone their boycott to support the team.

“In general, when there are important matches, a compromise is reached,” Marco explains, “for example, the Ultras won’t sing for the first 30-minutes, or they will leave the Curva empty for the first-half.” In the past, some Ultras have even amassed outside the stadium, and supported their team from the areas closest to entrances of the Curva Nord. The exact number and make-up of the Biancocelesti contingent planning to attend will be impossible to ascertain until the day of the derby. However, the stands will remain far from full and some of the more recalcitrant Laziali will stay away altogether.

At the time of writing – albeit the nature of such a situation is liable to sudden change – Roma’s Ultras will be indulging in no such compromise. This is despite the recent meeting between members of the Curva Sud and the Giallorsossi’s three Roman-born players – Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi. The trio pleaded with the supporters to return to the stadium. However, the Romanisti plan to continue their boycott. That some Laziali are breaking the picket lines has not been viewed kindly. Indeed, aspersions have already been cast about this ‘spineless’ act. But in general, the battle with the authorities shows no signs of abating. As Ed summarised:

I thought it may begin to end recently, as there were meetings between the authorities and the Prefect, but nothing came of it. The fans certainly won’t back down. The only way I see it ending is if Roma leave the stadium. Whether that means building the new stadio, or going somewhere else, I don’t know. Maybe the threat of leaving could do it, as the city takes half of all gate receipts, but I doubt it.

Regardless of how this saga concludes, the boycotts of the Derby della Capitale is yet more evidence of this fixture’s paradoxical politics. A politics that both divides and unites Rome’s eternal enemies.

Grazie to Ed Moynihan and Marco, two supporters united and divided by their passion for Roma and Lazio. You can find some of Ed’s Roma themed designs here

Words by Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25

Luca is co-editor of The Gentleman Ultra and was responsible for writing the guides to the Ultras of Italian football. His research interests lie in the intersection of football, socio-politics and history.