‘10,000 Km For You’ – Chapter I: The History & Rivalry

Nigel Gan is a dedicated Lazio fan from Singapore who is the author of ‘10,000 KM FOR YOU – The Travel Diary of a Football Fan: The Rome Derby’. Written entirely in English, the novel focuses on Nigel’s adventurous journey to the Derby della Capitale between Lazio and Roma while also briefly touching upon both history of the club and how the rivalry between the Biancocelesti and Giallorossi kick-started back in 1927. In collaboration with Nigel, The Laziali will be releasing a chapter of ‘10,000 Km For You’ every week for 12 weeks, starting on June 1, 2020, to promote his work to Lazio supporters worldwide; below is Chapter I: The History & Rivalry.

10,000 KM FOR YOU- The Travel Diary of a Football Fan: The Rome Derby
10,000 KM FOR YOU- The Travel Diary of a Football Fan: The Rome Derby

“Excuse me, sir, are you okay?” The flight attendant asks. I’m perspiring profusely, and have just returned to my seat.

My second Rome adventure hasn’t really kicked off in an auspicious way, with a nightmarish interconnecting flight from Dubai.

I force myself to have a sandwich that tastes like rotten tomatoes and go to sleep. A terrible spell of turbulence wakes me up, prompting a mad dash to the lavatory, where I force everything up.

(I’ve completely forgotten about the bag located in front of my seat for an event like this.)

Composing myself and my injured ego, I pretend that everything is okay, and smile away at the flight attendant. The truth is, I feel awful.

Seated at the window, I have the privilege of catching a glimpse of the majestic Stadio Olimpico from above, as the plane descends. At ten thousand feet above the ground, her sheer beauty and intricate architecture are exquisite.

Led by engineer Angelo Frisa and architect Enrico Del Debbio, construction work on the Olimpico began in 1901 and was completed in 1910 amidst several variations. The initial capacity was estimated to be about 10,000. Since then, it had gone through several facelifts, including major upgrading work for the 1990 World Cup. The Italian national team played all their matches there, as did Germany and Argentina in the final which saw the central Europeans lift their third World Cup trophy.

In recent days, most notably the Champions League Final of 2009 between Manchester United and Barcelona, the Stadio Olimpico again went under renovation in order to meet the requirements outlined by UEFA. The scoreboards had been changed to high definition LED screens, while the press rooms and player’s dressing rooms were refurbished. There was also a complete replacement of seats in the stadium.

However, the athletics track that separates the pitch from the stands remains probably the only negative side to arguably the best stadium in the world.

Some of the greatest significance of the Stadio Olimpico, home to local teams S.S.Lazio and A.S. Roma is its elevation to a kind of modern Colosseum where the famous Rome derbies have been fought since 29th November 1953. The very first derby played in the Olimpico finished in a one-all draw with Carlo Galli netting for the Giallorossi (Yellow and Red), and Pasquale Vivolo for the Biancocelesti.

The ‘Derby Della Capitale’, as it is famously known in Italy, is more than just a game; it is a battle for pride and honour and is widely considered to be one of the most fiercely fought capital derbies in the world.

A victory in the hotly-contested match affords fans the bragging rights as the true representative of the city. It is also regarded as the most anticipated and important match of the season in either side’s eyes. Coming into the derby, form or league position means nothing as if the domestic campaign revolves around the particular fixture. It has been proven on numerous occasions that even if one side was leading the table, or on a winning roll, it could still lose the derby in a clash of passions.

A victory is arguably even more important than winning the league title itself – that is how much the supporters value the derby. Months before the match itself, fans would begin racking their brains for themes of the choreography display, and what messages claiming superiority they wanted to display on massive banners for their rivals on the opposite stands to see.

In 1983, with Roma closing in on their second Serie A title, the Lazio fans orchestrated a display of blue and white placards that, when held up together, displayed the message “ROMA ARE S***!”

On the Curva Sud where the Roma fans were seated, the supporters wore red shirts bearing the name of Lazio defender Paolo Negro; Negro had scored an own goal during the previous derby which Roma won 1-0.

Local television and radio shows would have fans flooding the airwaves, debating which players should or should not be playing, and what formation the coaches should deploy.

The entire city would be absorbed in the excitement, and tension building up to the game is often unbearably stressful. Former England international and Lazio star, Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne was under no illusions when he described that “the derby is a matter of life and death. Wherever you go, in the restaurants or the streets, people just want to talk about the derby.” He added in the same interview, “Every club I’ve been at, I’ve scored in derbies. But I have to say I was petrified going into the Rome derby. The players from both sides were nearly crying because there was nowhere to run or hide for the losers.”

As they say, every story has a dark side. In the derby of 1979, a rocket fired from Roma’s end hit a Lazio fan, Vincenzo Paparelli, in the eye and killed him instantly. He was the first fatality in the history of the Italian game.

A separate incident in 2004 saw the derby postponed, amidst false rumours that a boy had been run over by a police car outside the stadium. Ultras of Roma invaded the pitch and demanded that Roma captain, Francesco Totti, call a halt to proceedings. The referee abandoned the match after just four minutes.

Infuriated by the action of the police, and believing the rumours, the Ultras from both teams clashed with the police outside the stadium. More than a hundred police officers were injured and countless supporters arrested. All these events occurred despite the chief of police making several public announcements in the stadium in an attempt to assure the fans that the rumours were not true. People only discovered that the rumours were untrue the following day. Several leaders of the Roma Ultras were put behind bars as a result of this pandemonium.

THE BIRTH OF TWO ETERNAL RIVALS

The bitter rivalry between these two city cousins, S.S. Lazio and A.S. Roma, began in 1927. Seeing the continual dominance of teams such as Juventus, Torino, and Bologna, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini ordered his Fascist regime to form a football team in Rome strong enough to compete with the Northern Italian teams.

Led by Italo Foschi, Mussolini merged the three smaller clubs of Pro Roma, FBC Roma and Alba Audace into one conglomerate and named it ‘A.S. ROMA’. Meanwhile, one of Mussolini’s generals, Giorgio Vaccaro stood his ground for Lazio to remain an independent team.

The General, who had just been made President of Lazio, went to Foschi’s office to voice his disapproval about the possibility of a merger.

“I called the President!” Foschi demanded. “The President is here,” answered Vaccaro. “And I would like to tell you that it is impossible to transform Lazio into another team, or change her colour, and to use our stadium.” He added.

The Lazio President went on to make his most famous and important speech to Foschi: “S.S. Lazio is different. S.S. Lazio does not come from words. The fans came only after S.S. Lazio was born. As for the others, the fans were there, only after someone had given them a team to support.”

In other words, it means that Lazio was born from the true spirit of sport. The Lazio supporters only appeared after her formation, unlike Roma, which was contrastingly created to please the citizens. Vaccaro thus prevented the merger and became a cult figure amongst the Lazio supporters. Flags in honour of him can be seen in the stadium even until today. For the Laziali, he emerged as one of the most respected forefathers – on a par with Luigi Bigiarelli – in the history of the club.

Bigiarelli had founded Lazio at Piazza Della Liberta on 9th January 1900, along with eight other men. These nine friends wanted to sign up for a running competition, but back in those days, unless you were a member of a sports association, you were not allowed to participate in any sports-related competition. Moreover, to gain access to a sports association, you would need to be a noble, rich businessman, or an aristocrat – Bigiarelli and the founding members were commoners. So frustrated were they by the ruling, they set out to form their own association. They drew their inspirations from the Athens Olympic Games in 1886 and adopted the colours of the Greek flag, which explains the official colours of the club and her nickname, ‘Biancoceleste’, which means white and sky blue. Societa Sportiva Lazio started out as a General Sports Club more than a hundred years ago and presently boasts more than thirty different kinds of sports (the largest in Europe), ranging from football to sky diving, water polo, badminton and fencing.

The Lazio supporters are very proud of their history, especially the fact that they brought football to the capital. Romanisti, on the other hand, argue that the origins of Lazio’s identity are based on the club being named after the general area of the region in which it is based, rather than after the capital city – making theirs the first team to originate in Rome itself. This also led to many Roma fans labelling the Laziali as ‘countryside peasants’.

Unravelling the cultural implications of the divide requires travelling back to the year 1900. It was not the most prosperous of periods. Not many would have envisioned their newly formed club lasting more than a hundred years, and even fewer could have thought of naming their organization after the city of Rome, one of the greatest capitals in the history of the world. It was unthinkable for common folk; only someone as powerful as Mussolini befitted the picture. For the case of the nine founding members of S.S.Lazio, the reason was simple. The club was based in the region of Lazio, and the members wanted to embrace and encompass more than the city of Rome.

Despite A.S. Roma’s formation in 1927, the first-ever derby in the capital only took place on 8 December 1929 at the Campo Rondinella stadium. All hell broke loose in the Lazio camp when a former star player of Lazio, Fulvio Bernardini, was spotted in the ranks of the Roma team. Fights broke out and the match, as documented in the history books, was “very near to being called-off”. Roma subsequently won the match by a solitary goal from Rodolfo Volk. This particular event turned out to be a historical turning point and compounded the start of the deep-seated rivalry between Laziali and Romanisti. A journalist once asked former Roma player Christian Panucci during an interview which was the greatest derby he had ever played in his illustrious career.

“I played lots of derbies in Milan, Madrid and London, but it’s in Rome that the passion for the derby is the strongest,” he said.

As I ruminated on the history of my beloved club, I was met by the stark screeching of the aeroplane’s tyres hitting the runway. Soon, the plane came to a halt. Surprisingly, nausea had vanished.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have landed in Rome,” the captain announced. “Benvenuti a Roma!”