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To get a feel for Italy's national mania, it's difficult to do better than to see a derby match, a game between club teams from the same city. I chose to attend a derby between Roma and Lazio. The rivalry is an old one, and it has evolved since the early days when Roma was supported by the city's lower and middle classes, and Lazio by the upper crust. Today the boundaries are less distinct, and it's not uncommon for members of the same family to root for different teams.
Some fans couldn't wait for the kickoff to express their allegiance. Indeed, the day before the game, a band of Roma supporters, or tifosi, as fans are called, spotted a few Lazio players and pounced on them like wolves on a flock of lambs. The players took refuge in a bar and wisely waited for the police to rescue them.
Lazio has a group of tifosi known as the Irriducibili, the Diehards, who follow the team around the country, their faces wrapped in blue-and-white scarves, like terrorists on a suicide mission. But judging from their ubiquitous graffiti, Roma's rabid fans, the CUCS (pronounced "kooks"), are far more numerous than the Irriducibili. "CUCS" is the acronym for Comando Ultr� Curva Sud—Curva Sud being the south curve of Roma's stadium, where the CUCS cluster to chant, hurl smoke bombs and firecrackers, and unfurl banners insulting the opposing team.
Just before the derby, I met with the only American who is a regular denizen of the Curva Sud. As I arrived at our rendezvous, a restaurant on Monte Mario, I expected to see a boisterous adolescent with a shaved head, earrings and a motorcycle jacket. Instead, Christoph Baker was a sandy-haired, well-dressed man in his mid-30's. Urbane and intelligent, an employee of an international environmental group, he told me he had never played soccer—basketball was his game—and he hadn't followed the sport until he moved to Rome in the early '80s. At that time, Roma was always in contention for the first-division title, and soccer was something that everyone, even foreigners, could share. For all their friendliness, Baker said, "Italians are generally a lot more closed than one thinks. But soccer is a great icebreaker."
Baker started attending games and sitting in the Curva Sud. Because he wore a Stetson, he stood out, and the tifosi greeted him each week, shouting, "Ehi, americano!"
"There was an immediate sense of belonging," he recalled, "and since the tifosi aren't just spectators—they're experts—they taught me a lot about calcio. Soccer here is theater, a spectacle, and the CUCS are part of it."
Some tifosi, Baker admitted, merely wanted to dress in their team's colors, do something outrageous, and be infamous for 15 minutes. But there was also "a transmission of values" in the Curva Sud, and Baker soon took on some of the attitudes of his adopted tribe. He also delved into the history of the team. Roma was formed in 1927 and played its early matches in a rickety stadium in the Testaccio district, near a slaughterhouse. In contrast, Lazio was founded 27 years earlier in Parioli, an affluent neighborhood, and most of its supporters lived in the wealthier parts of the city. To root for Lazio was to be against the capital city, the central government and its indolent bureaucrats. To root for Lazio was also to be seen as a snob or, worse, a fascist.
The issue of fascism is a ticklish one. For all its importance to Italy, soccer, like pasta, was imported. The British brought the game with them in the late 19th century, when they came to work in northern Italy. But it wasn't until Mussolini's time that Italy became a major force in international soccer. II Duce, who realized the propaganda value of soccer and regarded athletic excellence as a sign of national superiority, launched a massive program to increase soccer's popularity. Stadiums were built throughout the country, teams and competitions were organized, and the Azzurri were held up as a repository of national values. The team won the World Cup in 1934, the Olympic soccer championship in 1936 and a second World Cup in 1938.
Today, far from being a cornerstone of fascist ideology, Baker said, calcio is a great leveler. "In the Curva Sud, there is no social stigma," he told me. "Class and politics don't matter." All that counts is devotion to the team.
Baker's fidelity to Roma reached its apogee not in the Italian League championship season of 1982-83 but in 1984, when the squad lost the European Cup final in Rome to Liverpool, in a penalty-kick shootout. Afterward, Antonello Venditti, a popular singer, gave a free outdoor concert at the Circus Maximus, and 200,000 fans showed up, many of them in a foul mood. But when Venditti came onstage, he said, "The greatness of men is seen when they lose," and that seemed to take out some of the sting. Soon they were all singing Grazie Roma .