‘10,000 Km For You’ – Chapter III: Piazza Della Libertà

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 the book chapter-by-chapter (on the website) to promote his work to Lazio supporters worldwide; below is Chapter III: Piazza Della Libertà.

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

I wake up at five the next morning and can’t get any more sleep. My head is heavy and I’m suffering badly from jetlag.

While having my breakfast in the hotel, news flashed across the television screen. A devastating earthquake had hit Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, and the tsunami that swept ashore destroyed everything on land.

The footage is disturbing, and I can’t help but feel sadness for the victims and their families. Deep down, I question why the Almighty would desire to inflict such a calamity on the mortal realm. Has the depth of our sins reached a point of no return?

Then, my cell phone vibrates. It’s my wife. 

“Are you ok? There was a tsunami in Japan!” Her voice piercingly loud as usual.

“Yes I’m fine, I’m having breakfast now, and Rome is quite far away from Japan, you know?” I reply.

“Ok. Just calling to check if you have gotten the bag for me? Remember the colours and the design.”

“My dear, it’s now only eight in the morning in Rome, I don’t think the shops are even open yet!” I muse in response. She has given me a list of things to buy for her. That was the agreement we had reached before she allowed me to fly ten thousand kilometres from home to catch one football match.

The sun rises over the eternal city, and the wailing sirens of police cars resonate throughout the city. Rome is awake and the day has started in Italy.

I’m determined to visit the birthplace of Lazio – Piazza Della Liberta – as I had missed it during my last visit to Rome two years ago. Since the locale is within reasonable walking distance from the metro station of the Spanish Steps, I decide to walk to the main railway station from my hotel to take the subway.

After twenty minutes of walking, I arrive at the Termini railway station. It’s a beautiful day and I cannot wait to explore the city. Just then, I hear the voices of people in unison from afar. A group emerges in the distance, some of them shouting into microphones. I fail to understand a word as they are speaking too rapidly in Italian.

“Must be some damn election campaign, don’t bother,” I tell myself.

But when I get closer, I see flags – so many flags carried by people marching together and shouting slogans as if they are on strike. In fact, they really are! Workers from Rome’s public transportation are in the midst of a protest, and all metro services are closed until four o’clock! The entrances to the train station are locked and no one is allowed access. I can’t believe my luck.

So I’m forced to walk a good five to six kilometres before reaching Piazza Della Liberta, or the ‘Freedom Square’. This historical square is a sacred and symbolic place for Laziali. Located along the Tiber River, it has existed for more than a hundred years. A plaque was erected in this square in 2000 to commemorate a hundred years since the founding of the S.S. Lazio, and its very presence gives me goosebumps.

The plaque, mounted on the wall, reads:

In honour of the oldest Sports Society in Rome and the founding of her birthplace in Piazza Della Liberta, below, these words are the names of the nine founding members of the oldest football team in Rome.

At this moment, I feel like a pilgrim who has flown halfway around the globe to embrace the birthplace of my religion.

I sit on a bench to rest my legs, trying to blend into the quiet ambience of the square. Besides me, there is an old man with a hat and a walking stick, reading the newspapers. He speaks English and has an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Magneto in the film ‘X-Men’.

“Ciao! Are you a tourist? Are you lost?” He asks in his strong Roman accent.

“Ciao! I am not a tourist, and I am not lost.” I smile.

“Well, there is nothing much to see here at Piazza Della Liberta.”

“Oh, I am here to check out this Lazio plaque. I support Lazio.”

I’m prepared for a negative reply from him, as many Roma supporters have been known to reside around the city centre.

“Bravo!” He replies.

“This very square we are standing on was where the founding of S.S. Lazio took place. And this plaque over there is to commemorate that beautiful day.”

There are sparkles in his eyes; he seems like an entirely different person when he talks about Lazio.

“Why do you support Lazio, young man?” He asks.

“Beppe Signori!” I answer excitedly, as a child who has been asked what his favourite cartoon character is. “I was mesmerized by all his goals, and he inspired me to support the Biancoceleste.”

“Bravo! He was a very good player, had a great left foot!” Mr. Magneto is positively beaming.

“Allora, my favourite player was and still is Giuliano Fiorini.” His expression changes.

Fiorini was a striker who played for Lazio in the eighties. Due to Lazio’s involvement in the corruption scandal in 1985, the club was relegated to Serie B, Italy’s second tier, and docked nine points. It was a massive penalty, considering that only two points were awarded for a win back then. Fiorini was heroically remembered for his winning goal in the do-or-die match against Vicenza, who was also in the bottom four of the table. It was arguably the most important match in the history of S.S. Lazio. A victory would guarantee two vital points and save the team from the drop to Serie C.

Eighty thousand supporters packed the stadium that day (still a record for a Serie B match) and many more were glued to their radios back home. And when Fiorini turned the ball into the net with ten minutes remaining, the stadium erupted.

“I was in the stadium that day when Fiorini scored; the entire stadium nearly came down!” Magneto’s eyes are teary. I was only eight when the match was played on the 21st of June 1987, and Singapore did not broadcast Serie A until the ’90s.

I did not know anything about the match, and what the goal was like until the Internet came along. With the help of YouTube, I had the chance to relive the battle. Proceedings were extremely tense, with no sight of a goal. In the eighty-second minute, a cross-shot from Gabriele Podavini found Fiorini, whose exquisite first touch confused the marker before he poked the ball past the keeper into the net with his outstretched right foot.

“Rete! Rete! (Goal! Goal!)” The commentator screamed.

“Fiorini always gave his best whenever he played! After the game, he was always exhausted as he used up all his energy!” Magneto continues.

The saviour of Lazio passed away in August 2005 after losing a long battle with lung cancer. He was 47 years old. Before a home league match, Paolo Di Canio held up Fiorini’s number ‘eleven’ jersey and paraded it in front of the Curva Nord to rapturous applause.

In memory of the player, Lazialita TV (the Lazio television programme in Rome) produced a tribute video in honour of him. It was incredibly touching and moved me to tears.

I take a few more pictures of the plaque as well as the Piazza before bidding Magneto farewell. “We will beat those pepperoni!” I tell him as I get up.
“I don’t want to talk anything about the match.” He stops me.

I do understand that Italians are superstitious, and it is even more so when it comes to football. I have a friend who has a ridiculous derby ritual. He refuses to make love to his wife the night before the match and would put on two pairs of underwear on derby day itself. (Yes, I am laughing while I am writing this).

I wave goodbye to Magneto, indulging in a final glimpse of the Piazza before I set off. I try to picture the eve of the ninth of January every year. This place, filled with a sea of Lazio supporters complete with flags, banners, fireworks, and all happily singing and celebrating their hearts out. Lo spettacolo!

I originally hated social networking websites until I found out how beautiful a tool it can be. I met Massimo, Stefano, Gianmarco, the supporters in Indonesia and Sweden, and a whole lot of Laziali around the world through Facebook. I can also post videos of Lazio’s matches and compare opinions with all of them. It was also through Facebook that the S.S. Lazio Singapore group was founded, and I have to admit, it is very addictive.

Anyway, prior to this trip, I met a person named Leonardo on Facebook, when he sent me a message after discovering that I was a crazy Lazio fan like him. What got him, even more, intrigued was the fact that I lived so far away from Rome, and yet, my passion for Lazio surpassed even those in the city. We became friends.

Leonardo is in his mid-twenties, speaks four languages and runs the ‘Since 1900’ group on Facebook, which has close to twelve thousand members. So when the time came for us to finally meet in Rome – and my host being so gracious to pick up at my hotel – we drive to the Lazio Style original store. He has always known that I wanted to acquire some memorabilia from there.

It’s five in the evening, and the traffic in Rome is just warming up. Wherever you are from, if you think the traffic jams in your country is bad, you must witness the mayhem that unfolds in Rome. The traffic jams can take up to eleven hours to clear.

Tucked away at a quiet street, the Lazio Style store is beautifully decorated in typical Lazio manner. Everything is in sky blue, with even the sculpture of an eagle on the ceiling, which catches my attention.

The store has two floors, and sells merchandise ranging from baby milk bottles to Lazio bedsheets, carpets, motorcycle helmets, and iPhone covers! I’m like a child walking into a Toys “R” Us, and come close to becoming hysterical with amazement. A true haven for Lazio supporters looking for souvenirs and memorabilia indeed. I buy myself a new iPhone cover, some scarves and bags, as well as several T-shirts for my young nephews back home; it’s hardly surprising that I burnt a hole in my pocket.

As Leonardo needs to rush, we bid each other goodbye. I thank him for driving me to the Lazio Style store, amidst the insane traffic. It’s an incredible gesture of warmth given we’ve only known each other on Facebook.

“Grazie amico! Thanks for meeting up, you have balls meeting a stranger from Facebook!” I said. “I could be a psychopath killer, you know! See you at Curva Nord and try to spot me,” I joke.

“You are welcome, Nigel!” Leonardo laughs aloud. “No Nigel, I will not be going to the Stadio. I have been there for the last four derbies and we have lost them all. So this time, I’m going to watch it with some friends in a bar!” he says.

We shake hands and he drives off, disappearing into the mass of cars.

My stomach lets out a loud groan. It’s time for dinner. I’d almost forgotten I have a dinner appointment with Matteo, Stefano’s best friend. He and Celia, his girlfriend, had arranged something to inaugurate my visit to their city. Like Massimo and Leonardo, it will be the first time I’ll be meeting them too!

A charming man in his thirties, Matteo is a kind, sociable, funny, and fantastic host. He is the type of person who can get along with anyone. A regional sales manager for a family-owned car tyre factory, he’s preoccupied with his work most of the time. However, regardless of how busy he is, he still finds the time to follow Lazio, and that is some passion indeed.

“How are you lah, Nigel? Nice to meet you!”

Matteo has been to Singapore and picked up some of the local lingo.

“I washed my car especially for you! I know the cars in Singapore are all damn clean lah,” he adds. It’s hilarious the way he tries to speak ‘Singlish’, a colloquial bastardization of English that is spoken among Singaporean locals.

“This is my girlfriend, Celia!” Matteo introduces us.

Celia is an American from Iowa living in Rome, gorgeous, sporting a pair of beautiful eyes, and boasting blonde hair that could have given Cindy Crawford a run for her money. A friendly girl capable of talking about pretty much anything under the sun, she had moved to Italy – you guessed it – for her boyfriend. Matteo and Celia met through a mutual friend and connected on an emotional level right away. Head over heels in love with each other, they were perfect examples of a match made in heaven.

Under the influence of Matteo, Celia became a Lazio fan and would follow him to the stadium whenever Lazio played at the Olimpico. For this derby, Matteo will have to go to the ticket store early in the morning, in order to secure a ticket for me. Tickets for the Curva Nord sell fast, especially for important matches like the derby.

Fans living outside Italy who wish to get a ticket have to submit a photocopy of his or her passport for identification and security reasons. Thankfully, it’s not too much of a hassle in my case.

Matteo started following Lazio and going to the stadium with his uncle when he was eight.

“It was in 1989 and the dawn of a new era in Lazio,” he says as the car comes to a halt at a traffic junction.

Sergio Cragnotti had just taken over the club as President, and was very determined to turn Lazio into a formidable force once again. He broke the bank and made several important signings. Among them was Signori, who went on to top the goal-scoring charts in Serie A on three occasions during his time with Lazio, and England international Paul Gascoigne, perhaps the best midfielder of his generation.

“When I was fifteen and old enough, I began to go to the Curva Nord with Stefano. That was when my passion and love for Lazio really blossomed,” he remarks. “The derby which we won ‘4-2’ – I was so excited when [Mauro] Zarate scored the second goal, I fell from my seat and hurt my back. You will understand why when you step into the Curva on Sunday. It can be quite dangerous at times,” he laughs. For a moment, I’m worried.

We arrive at the restaurant on a hill overlooking the centre of Rome, and the scenery is enchanting. Matteo presses the doorbell and someone comes to the gate. He whispers something inaudible and the man opens the door.

The decorations in the restaurant are strange beyond comprehension. There are all sorts of vintage collectables such as gramophones, old records on the walls, television sets, table tennis rackets, soft toys hanging on the ceilings, and chain saws. Yes, chain saws!

There are a group of friends on the next table, dressed up as though they are partaking in a gay pride parade. Some are taking drugs and merrily chatting away.

“It is a very popular joint amongst the youngsters as they can practically do whatever they want here,” Matteo says.

Another interesting thing about this restaurant is that it does not feature a menu. You do not have to order anything as they just serve you food automatically.

After some red wine and pasta, I begin getting visibly nervous about the match on Sunday, and Matteo can tell.

“Nigel! Don’t worry! It will be a great match. I’ve got a good feeling about it!” Matteo assures me as he passes me my match ticket.

I look at the ticket. Printed on it is my name, and the words, ‘Curva Nord’, at the top. My first derby in Rome. I’m fired up.