History, politics and death: How Lazio-Roma became Italy's fiercest rivalry

For the April 2009 FourFourTwo magazine, Andy Mitten visited the peninsula’s capital to discover a long-running climate of animosity and hatred…

“There’s blood on the bridge. Don’t go there.” FourFourTwo has just stepped off a packed bus outside Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. The blue flashing lights of police riot vans add further chill to the cold night air.

Robocops sweep between the traffic, their batons poised. A cry goes up from an officer and police swarm around a group of Ultras, arrest a handful and then march them to a wagon holding temporary cells.

You don’t expect football violence to be played out amid the granite statutes, boulevards and rich mosaics at the foot of Monte Mario

Something sinister has also just taken place between the Tiber River and the beautiful Cyprus trees which surround the stadium. Four Manchester United fans appear.

“Don’t walk there,” one says, pointing towards the police vans. Another warns against going to the bridge, a notorious ambush point of Roma’s violent ultras. Several United fans were stabbed there six months ago. You don’t expect football violence to be played out amid the granite statutes, boulevards and rich mosaics at the foot of Monte Mario.

Roma fans

Roma fans have a history of trouble with visiting British supporters

It’s December 2007 and United are back in Rome. Lessons have not been learnt and there’s more trouble, just as there always seems to be when English teams play in the Italian capital. FourFourTwo's mobile starts to buzz with texts. ‘Reports that five United stabbed,’ says one. ‘Be careful.’ Caution is indeed exercised, but it was still very, very moody.

On a comedown at the hotel later, FFT hears: “You think that was bad, go to a Roma vs Lazio game.” It’s only from the receptionist, but the reputation of Il Derby della Capitale is ferocious.

Civil war

“The Rome Derby is the most intense in Italy,” states Aurelio Capaldi, football journalist for Italian state broadcaster Rai.

Apart from the Old Firm, nothing compares with the Rome Derby. The build-up is huge, nothing else matters

- Paolo Di Canio, former Lazio player

“Apart from the Old Firm, nothing compares with the derby of the Big Dome (St. Peter’s),” says former Lazio Ultra and player Paolo Di Canio. Having played in five derbies, from Milan to London, he should know. 

“The build-up is huge, nothing else matters,” adds Di Canio. “Roma and Lazio fans care more about winning the derby than where they finish in the league.”

Paolo Di Canio Lazio

Di Canio believes a win in the Rome Derby is more important than a league title

“Points matter in the Milan derby because Inter and Milan are usually chasing trophies,” Capaldi agrees. “In Rome it’s different. Only five Scudetti have ever gone to the capital. It’s all about the derby.”

There are other factors. While the Milan Derby is diluted by the existence of Juventus in nearby Turin - indeed the Inter vs Juventus clash is known as ‘the Derby of Italy’ because both clubs boast nationwide fan bases – the Rome derby only really matters in Rome.

Roma and Lazio focus on each other. Football is a serious issue in the eternal city and it affects Roman life

- Aurelio Capaldi, Rai journalist

“Roma and Lazio focus on each other,” continues Capaldi. “Football is a serious issue in the eternal city and it affects Roman life. With good weather, Romans live outdoors far more than people in Milan or Turin. They talk football in the squares, parks and bars. Roma and Lazio fans always tease each other about the derby.

“The Romans’ personality is suited to football– ironic and humorous. The Milanese character is far more reserved and the population of the north is diluted by many southerners who moved for work. In Rome, you are Roman. And you’re either Lazio or Roma.”

Changed days

It’s Easter 2008. The winter gloom that enveloped the December trip is receding and Rome is full of tourists taking in world-class monuments like the Roman ruins of the Colosseum and the Renaissance grandeur of St. Peter’s.

Both clubs have suffered sharp decreases in crowds since the turn of the millennium, with Roma’s average crowd dropping from 58,000 to less than 40,000 and Lazio’s from 53,000 to 29,000

Groups of appallingly dressed middle-aged Americans follow uninterested tour leaders holding yellow flags. They talk of Bernini’s Baroque fountains, the Spanish Steps and of hoping to see the Pope’s Easter address. But there’s another big event in town and FourFourTwo walks the other way, towards the Stadio Olimpico, which Lazio and Roma share, for a league game. Back towards the bridge.

Lazio are mid-table in Serie A and Roma second. It’s a Lazio home game, but 30,000 of the anticipated 70,000 crowd will be backing Roma, whose fans retain their Curva behind the south goal. Both clubs have suffered sharp decreases in crowds since the turn of the millennium, with Roma’s average crowd dropping from 58,000 to less than 40,000 and Lazio’s from 53,000 to 29,000.

Stadio Olimpico empty

Lazio and Roma fans boycotted the most recent derby in protest at barriers that were imposed in their Curva sections

Three explanations are advanced: the proliferation of pay-per-view television meaning that more fans stay at home or in bars to watch their team, a decline in the standard of both teams – although Roma have improved greatly in recent years. And it is often unsafe to watch football in Italy.

It’s two hours before kick off and the fans crossing the bridge towards the blaze of Olimpico’s lights wear Roma’s red and yellow. Roma have always been the better supported of the two clubs. It’s assumed that this is a designated entrance for their fans until a light blue Lazio scarf is spotted, then another, the fans walking unhindered past the thousands of motorbikes that spectators have left by the statues of former Olympians.

Hundreds of Liverpool, Manchester United and Middlesbrough fans have been attacked for the crime of wearing their colours outside the Olimpico, but tonight the atmosphere is maudlin, not murderous.

A rare ceasefire 

The Lazio team bus cuts through the city’s heavy traffic with a five-car police escort, but a horn would suffice, such is the indifference shown to them. A glance at the headlines in the voracious Italian sport dailies explains why the mood is so different for a derby littered with a history of violence, corruption and passion.

Rome-based Corriere Dello Sport leads with: ‘Emotion Derby.’ In November, Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri, a 26-year-old DJ, was shot dead by police in an accident at a Tuscan motorway service station after Lazio and Juventus fans had rioted.

Gabriele Sandri Fabio Firmani

Lazio's Fabio Firmani celebrates under a giant banner of the late Gabriele Sandri

That night, as Italian society attempted to comprehend another football related death, fans rioted nationwide. Lazio fans blocked the bridge over the Tiber and torched cars.

If the hardcore fans hate anyone more than each other in Rome, it’s the police, and for one game only, the Ultra groups of both clubs who yield significant power have agreed to pay their respects.

At an official level, a campaign name ‘Gimme Smile’ has been concocted employing cartoon like characters to promote goodwill. Few children will appreciate them. Italy may have an ageing population, but there are virtually no children in the stadium. Besides, it’s the curva who control the mood, not the authorities.

Flanked by both Ultra leaders, Roma captain Francesco Totti and Lazio’s Tommaso Rocchi walk towards the Lazio curva and a giant fan painting showing an image of Gabriele. Gabriele’s brother stands solemnly between the two captains, their arms joined around the rival Ultra leaders – stocky forty-something Stallone look-a-likes in baseball caps, trainers and pseudo army pants.

Francesco Totti Gabriele Sandri

Totti looks on during a tribute to Sandri

The relationship between Italian players and Ultras is complex, but such is their power, Totti, a living deity among Roma fans, will ignore media criticism to attend Ultra meetings, funerals and weddings.

The group are greeted by a respectful silence and the ambience remains sombre as the Roma Ultras raise huge banners for their hated rivals at the other end to read: ‘IN THE LIGHT BLUE SKY, A STAR SHINES. CIAO GABRIELE’, ‘TEARS DON’T KNOW PAIN’, ‘GABRIELE. YOU ARE ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS’, ‘GABI IS ONE OF US.’

In the past, both fans have used the same sky theme in provocation. In 2000, a banner on the Roma curva read: “Look up. Only the sky is bigger than you.” Lazio cleverly replied immediately: “You’re right, it’s blue and white.” Lazio fans were waiting, literally, with a giant blank canvas and paint.