It’s unusual for a capital-city derby to feel so parochial, but the Rome rivalry rarely affects matters at the top of the table: Roma and Lazio have collected only five scudetti between them.
While the colder northern cities hoover up the trophies, the games that matter to Roman fans are for local pride, for bragging rights in the bars and piazzas of this warm Mediterranean city where neighbours coexist in public spaces, ceaselessly teasing each other over the last derby and the next one.
As Paolo Di Canio – who knows a derby when he sees one, having been involved in Rome, Milan, Sheffield, London and Glasgow ones – puts it: “Apart from the Old Firm, nothing compares with the derby of the Big Dome (St. Peter’s). The build-up is huge, nothing else matters. Roma and Lazio fans care more about winning the derby than where they finish in the league.”
Enjoy the spectacle
Witty and ironic, the Roman temperament is well-suited to football fandom. Sharpened on the street, the banner-based banter between Lazio’s Curva Nord and Roma’s Curva Sud can be as eye-catching as the game itself.
As an example, for a 2000 derby the Roma fans had produced a giant tifo telling their side “Look up: Only the sky is bigger than you.” To which the Lazio fans – who had taken in an enormous blank canvas and paint, like opportunist art-school pranksters – responded: “You’re right: it’s blue and white.”
“The Roma vs Lazio derby is the best show in Italy,” says Rodrigo Cacho, a Roma fan lecturing at Cambridge University. “The fans like to outdo each other with displays. As well as being friendly, outspoken and convinced that they know everything, Romans are fixed with the idea that they are at the centre of the world – neither northern nor southern – but special and living in the most beautiful city.”
Add in the clever choreography of flags, flares and fireworks and you’ve got quite the sensory assault.
...but then again
However, “assault” might be the right word. Calcio’s first violent death came at a Rome derby: in 1979, a flare fired by Roma fans killed Lazio supporter Vincenzo Paparelli. As many English fans have found, bridge-based ambushes and buttock-stabbings seem to be Roman favourites; derbies do nothing to quell those urges.
Some ascribe the argument to politics, but as is often the case that’s somewhere between a generalisation, an extrapolation from a few carefully selected facts and a flag of convenience.
It may once have been true that to a certain extent Roma were the left-wing inner-city working-class team to Lazio’s middle-class suburban right-wingers, but Roma were formed at the behest of a Fascist Party official, while Lazio later thwarted Mussolini’s desire to form a Roman superclub from the two.
And for all the easy macho posturing of what Di Canio insists was a “Roman salute”, no football fan throwing a punch or a flare is doing so over their core beliefs on the equitable distribution of wealth. Besides, Roma’s more meat-headed followers are as likely to be right-wing racists as Lazio’s are.
Sometimes, the violence isn’t necessarily tribal but anti-authoritarian. In 2004 fighting broke out during the match after a rumour spread that a boy had been killed by a police car; Roma skipper Francesco Totti, who is close to the ultras and is rarely one to keep his counsel, persuaded the referee to telephone the league president Adriano Galliani and request a postponement. That gave both sets of fans free rein to riot for hours, with 13 arrests and more than 150 injuries.
READ THIS: More Than A Game: Lazio vs Roma
And on a lighter note, the fans have been known to rally together to defeat a greater enemy. Before the 2013 Coppa Italia Final – one of few recent derby clashes to affect the destination of trophies – the two tribes joined together in noisily booing a performance of South Korean pop wazzock Psy’s globally infecting ear-irritant Gangnam Style.
“Other derbies are covered with more glory, but nowhere is there such a definitive challenge like Roma-Lazio,” says Tancredi Palmeri, beIN Sports’ Italian correspondent. “For many in Rome, the results in these games and finishing above their rivals in the league are all that matters.
“Because this is a city where there are 15 successful radio shows that talk every day, every hour about Roma and Lazio. Not about football: about Roma and Lazio. Total passion, from the ground to the sky.”
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1