Many will remember the early 1990s, when James Richardson often presented Football Italia from inside the stadium. Whether on a frosty Sunday morning, a sunny afternoon in April or a Derby match under the lights, this stadium holds a place in the hearts of many people for providing nostalgia and drama.
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.
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 the Boys Roma.
During the rest of the season, these groups make sure the stadium is still an intimidating place 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.
Nobody wants to come and play in Rome. Whether this be down to the intimidating atmosphere, the ultras or that fact that there are no easy games here, the Eternal City has a stadium with an eternal atmosphere.
Romanisti are vehement in the belief that, far from being just a team from Rome, AS Roma is the team that truly represents the capital. This sentiment largely stems from their aversion towards city rivals S.S. Lazio. “We carry the city’s name, we carry the city’s colours and we carry the city’s symbol,” Federico affirms brusquely. He is, of course, a Romanista, hailing from Rome and studying in Siena. “How could they [S.S. Lazio] reject the city’s colours back in 1900. It’s shameful,” he pauses before delivering his conclusion: “Burini!”
Burini, perhaps best translated as “peasant”, is a term used by Romanisiti to belittle Lazio fans, suggesting they are simpletons who hail from the agricultural regions outside the city’s confines. While Federico admitted his trips to the Stadio Olimpico were sporadic, this had clearly done little to diminish his antipathy towards Lazio. His disparaging words are symptomatic of one of football’s fiercest rivalries, but they also capture the identity and history of AS Roma and its supporters.
In the 1920s, no fewer than eight football clubs represented Italy’s capital. This superfluity meant they were unable to compete with the dominant clubs of northern Italy. Unhappy with this disparity, a representative of the National Fascist Party (Italo Foschi) organised the merger of three clubs: Alba, Fortitudo and Roman and on 22 July 1927, AS Roma was born.
The only major club to resist this merger was Lazio and despite the fact the Aquile had been founded 27 years earlier, the Romanisti immediately considered their team as the peoples’ club. Why? Then, as now, there were more Roma fans, having absorbed supporters from three different clubs. In their early years, the club also settled in the heart of working-class Rome, playing their matches in the Testaccio neighbourhood. But a crucial part of the answer also lies in an issue touched on by Federico: how could Rome’s first club, Lazio, have neglected the chance to adopt the city’s colours and emblem. It’s a decision that bewilders locals and one that may have pushed many working-class Romans towards AS Roma.
However, in 1977 this lack of homogeneity prompted three groups to merge: Fedayn, Pantere (Panthers) and Fossa dei Lupi (The Wolf’s Den), who collectively became known as the Commando Ultras Curva Sud (CUCS). The CUCS announced their arrival during a fixture against Sampdoria, unveiling a 42-metre banner, the longest ever seen at that time. The amalgam breathed new life into Roma’s support and other groups quickly rallied under the CUCS name. “Heart in the south, metal bars in the north,” was adopted as one of the group’s mottos, a reference to their rivalry with Laziali. Their impressive choreographies, high numbers and willingness to go “behind enemy lines” earned them notoriety across the peninsula, but their obstinate nature would also contribute to their demise a decade later.
In 1987 the Roma president, Dino Viola, sold team captain Carlo Ancelotti to AC Milan and replaced him with former Lazio player, Lionello Manfredonia. Manfredonia was despised for insulting the Roma fans during a derby game. His arrival caused a schism between CUCS members, some of whom were willing to forget the insult and some of whom were not. This saw the birth of the splinter group CUCS-GAM (Group Against Manfredonia) whose focused on honouring the city and its imperious past. “Roma e Gloria” (“Rome and Glory”) became their slogan and it was around this period that the political ideology on the Curva Sudshifted drastically.
The book Football, Fascism and Fandom by Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong provides crucial insight. It explores the relationship between fascism and football support in Rome, following two ultras groups, the Irriducibili of SS Lazio and the Boys of AS Roma. Formed in 1972, the Boys were originally on the periphery due to their neo-fascist ideology. However as the CUCS’s influence dwindled, the Boys rose to prominence along with like-minded groups such as Opposta Fazione(Opposite Faction).
As Testa and Armstrong state: “From the late 1980s … political ideology became more evident among the hardcore AS Roma supporters, an important step in the emergence of the first true ultras.” The academics differentiate the Boys Roma and other groups such as Irriducibili and Internazionale’s Boys-San because their right-wing political ideology is at the nexus of their existence. “Right from the start, [Boys Roma] displayed a neo-fascist ideology in the language, actions and methods of support for their team.” This identity manifests inside and out the stadium and thus the authors coined the term “UltraS”.
Violence is also part of this extreme ideology and, unfortunately, AS Roma ultras have been involved in some particularly abhorrent incidents. During the infamous Derby della Capitale of 2004, Romanisti entered the pitch and had the game abandoned after false rumours were spread that a young boy had been killed by police. This year’s Coppa Italia final in Rome – a game in which AS Roma were not involved – was also marred by violence after Roma and Napoli ultras clashed resulting in the death of Neapolitan, Ciro Esposito. In some quarters, Rome is known as “Stab City”, due to a host of incidents in which travelling supporters have suffered at the hands of a “knife culture” dating back to Ancient Rome.
Many may argue documenting these contemptible behaviours only serves to give these groups the oxygen of publicity but, as Testa and Armstrong argue, understanding such phenomena can help create solutions. It is also important to remember that these elements are not representative of the club’s fanbase as a whole. In fact, Romanisiti are often appreciated as some of the most passionate fans in the world, capable of producing awe-inspiring atmospheres. Despite being starved of genuine success (the club have won just three Serie A titles) in the words of their famous anthem “Roma Roma Roma”, Lupi fans consider the club as their “city’s heart and only true love”.
On my birthday there are so many people I would like to thank… But I would like to say one special thank you to the heart of AS Roma – to our wonderful supporters. For the motivation they give us, their passion and unconditional love. It’s difficult to find words to describe what this means to me. Then, as now, you have always made me feel special. You are unique and simply fantastic.
Classic Player: Abel Balbo
Balbo’s career started in 1989 with Udinese in Serie B, were he scored 65 goals in 134 appearances between 1989 and 1993. In the 1992-93 season he managed to score 22 times and this turned the heads of Roma. He immediately repaid their faith, scoring 22 times again in the 1993-94 season and becoming one of the most feared strikers in the country. He finished his time in Rome in 1998, a fan’s favourite, after scoring 78 goals in 171 games.
His career wound down after this and he endured less fruitful spells at Parma and Fiorentina before returning to Roma. He played only three games and had no goals to show for it.
Balbo was quite simply a goalscorer: a poacher, a man who would gamble on a defender or a goalkeeper making a mistake. Near-post headers, tap ins, beating the keeper to a ball by inches, this was the way he played this was the way he succeeded.
He could also score spectacular goals. Just ask any member of Parma’s 1993-94 squad (not a bad team by anyone’s standards), who watched in awe as he hammered a 35-yard rocket into the top corner. The ball was hit with such force that it promised to break the net. His movement off the ball was superb. He made sure he was always within a 15-20 yard radius of his partner. His ability to second guess what the other striker would do left him in acres of space to score or (more often than not) beat the defender to the rebound.
Balbo played with some illustrious partners in his time and it is perhaps for this reason that he is not always revered as he should be. Totti, Claudio Caniggia, Marco Delvecchio, Roberto Muzzi, Marco Branca and Daniel Fonseca all played in this period, but from 1993 to 1997, Balbo was the top goalscorer every season.
At this time Serie A was the greatest league in the world by some distance and the Argentinian was helping his Roma side become one of the most potent goalscoring sides in the division. When calcio ruled the world, Balbo was causing the best defences in the world a lot of problems.