‘10,000 Km For You’ – Chapter VI: The Match

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 VI: The Match.

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

The Italian anthem plays before kick-off to commemorate the forthcoming 120th anniversary of the country’s reunification. Singing along is less of a problem than I had thought, as I know the lyrics at the back of my mind. Totally immersed with the anthem, I burst my lungs as I sing myself hoarse with the rest of the supporters in Curva Nord.

‘Siam pronti alla morte, Siamo pronti alla morte Italia chiamo! Duce!’ Supporters from a small section of the curva end the anthem with the chant of ‘Duce’ instead of ‘Si’.

I must admit the Mussolini reference at the finale of the anthem has me a little taken aback. I look at Matteo and he smiles. I don’t wish to get into the sensitive topic of Fascism, but it’s worth explaining the point of view of these fans. They (including the Roma supporters) are just trying to pay their respects to a dead man, who happened to play an important role in the history of the two Roman teams. There is no anti-Semitic or racist expression here, but rather, something that came naturally to them.

I am not a fascist or a racist, and I do not look up to Mussolini or worship him like a pagan god. I do not condone all the violent atrocities he committed during World War II, nor sport a tattoo of him on any part of my body. In my opinion, I feel that it is all right for someone to adore him, as long as he or she does not go on starting a violent campaign. The truth is that only some minorities in the stadium chanted ‘Duce’. Matteo and Massimo do not condone it, apparently.

Roma, being the home team, play their anthem, ‘Grazie Roma’, to thunderous applause from the Romanisti. At our end, supporters from Lazio react in disgust. Fingers are raised, and whistles and jeers are heard. The supporters in Curva Nord respond with the popular club song of Lazio, ‘Vola Lazio Vola’, and everyone stands up on their seats, holding up their scarves in both hands while singing aloud.

I stand on my seat with my banner and look down at the curva. Then I understood what Matteo and Gianmarco meant. People can easily topple over each other when there’s any sort of a goal celebration; the arrangements are that precarious! Strangely, I also notice that the first few rows of seats in the curva sud are empty. That’s some kind of protest imposed by the Roma Ultras for their team’s recent bad performances, most notably their Champions League elimination at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk.

Finally, the referee blows his whistle and the 152nd Capital Derby kicks off. The rain begins pouring heavily.

The tension in the air has reached its zenith. Losing four derbies in a row was bad enough; none of us could imagine losing a fifth. It’s simply unthinkable!

For a coach plying his trade in Rome in particular, winning a derby match means everything to his future in the dugout. If he does not win derby matches for the team, he’s considered incompetent. The team can beat the likes of Barcelona, Juventus or Real Madrid on the European stage, but if the derby win doesn’t come, then he is simply not good enough.

The derby is the most important match of the season, and those native to Rome are known to have especially little patience. Lazio has not won a single derby under coach Edy Reja, who started at the capital side mid-way last season. Club president Claudio Lotito, in a bid to avoid relegation and salvage the season, had called upon his services after sacking the inept Davide Ballardini. The former Napoli coach was instrumental in guiding the Partenopei from Serie C1 to A after years spent in the lower divisions of Italian football.

Edy Reja does not share an especially good reputation with the Lazio supporters because of his constant snub at flamboyant Argentinean striker Mauro Zarate, a fan favourite. He has also not beaten Roma in four previous outings, so the fans are beginning to lose their patience. For this important game, Reja opts to change things around by fielding Zarate from the start alongside Sergio Floccari, supported by the Brazilian, Hernanes, in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Roma fields the same 4-2-3-1 system, albeit a striker-less one, comparable to the modern usage of the false nine. I remember Manchester United having no small amount of problems coping with it, during the first leg of their Champions League encounter a few seasons ago. Of course, the English side went on to register a 7-1 mauling in Manchester in the second leg. But this system was remarkable for how it gave Sir Alex Ferguson some initial headache as he had to counter the lack of opposing players in the box.

I did some research on Roma’s tactics prior to attending the derby. The Giallorossi love to initiate their attacking movements from down the flanks, and true enough, most of their attacks could be spotted from those areas, with John Arne Riise looking particularly menacing on the left. This approach by Roma drew the Lazio midfield out wide, leaving more space in the central ground for Mirko Vucinic and club legend, Francesco Totti, to exploit.

From the curva, I can barely make out what’s going on. The players appear like ants to me, and the athletic track that separates the pitch and the fans do not help.

Out of nowhere, the Chilean, David Pizzaro, gathers a ball from the wings and tries a long-range effort from some way out that rattles the crossbar, leaving Lazio keeper Fernando Muslera stranded.

‘Ohhhhh’! The Curva Nord lets out a sigh of relief.

“We must stop Pizzaro! Take him out of the game or we will be in trouble!” Matteo says.

I agree with him. The impish midfielder is lively and arguably the most influential Roma player during the opening minutes. We need to do something to stop him, or else we’ll be punished.

We respond with several promising attacks of our own. A corner from Zarate only sees the ball half- cleared, and after several scuffles in the penalty area, it falls into the path of Matuzalem, whose well- placed shot is gathered with difficulty by the Roma keeper, Doni.

Hernanes is also forced to drop deep to help out in defence, as Totti and company seem to enjoy the upper hand. With the Brazilian maestro committed elsewhere and unable to weave his magic, Lazio’s defence has little choice but to punt ineffective long balls into the opponent’s penalty area.

A football match is a cauldron of insults coming from the stands. Behind me, Mr. Scientist is a true vocal springboard as he hurls wave upon wave of abuse at Roma. Some are even directed at the Lazio players for their lacklustre performances.

Giuseppe Sculli, Lazio’s January reinforcement from Genoa, looks out of sorts. A misplaced pass hands Roma a chance, and from the counter-attack, we nearly concede a goal.

“Porco Dio!” He thunders. ‘Porco Dio’ is the insult of all insults. The word ‘Porco’ is the noun for swine or pig, and ‘Dio’ stands for god. Put them together, it means ‘God is a pig’. However, some people argue that it translates to ‘God is Filthy’, or ‘F*** God’, as equally appropriate variants.

Considered a social taboo in Catholic Italy, this blasphemous profanity is deeply offensive if one utters it in public. Placed in a football context, however, it carries different significance and weight to it. ‘Porco Dio’ is frequently heard at the stadiums in Italy, and I can hear people swearing it every five minutes in the curva.

But why insult god, you might ask? Well, the reason is more straightforward than you think. The supporters are venting their anger at God, for it’s the Almighty who has denied their team a goal, either in the form of the ball hitting the woodwork, a player missing a penalty, or via a great save by the goalkeeper.

“God orchestrated everything, and that is why they curse god. It is just like saying ‘goddamn you’! Why deny us a goal?” Matteo explains.

Mr. Scientist is furious, and he continues to direct his abuse at Sculli – who is having a horrible derby thus far – as though the player can hear him from the pitch.

“It felt as though I was f***** by you!” He shouts. I can understand his frustration. Sculli is really having a bad outing on the left, and even I am growing angry with the winger.

Five minutes before half time, Roma very nearly takes the lead again. Totti beats the offside trap before playing the ball in for Jeremy Menez, whose return pass falls to Juan. However, the wet turf slows the ball down and forces the Brazilian defender to wait a split second, and that proves enough to allow Cristian Ledesma to perform a crucial sliding challenge.

That’s the last piece of the action before the referee blows his whistle to halt an electrifying first half.

Everything happens so fast when you are watching a game in the stadium. It is an entirely different experience compared to seeing it on television at home, where you have a clearer view of what is happening, a commentator adds excitement, and slow-motion replays show you exactly what happens. Strangely, I feel that it is way more stressful to watch Lazio on television than catching them live at the Olimpico – perhaps due to my proximity to ground zero.

The view from Curva Nord is hardly the best as it is situated behind the goal, and the players seem practically the size of your thumb. You cannot really make out what is going on sometimes.

Of course, living the game in the stadium, and being part of the crowd is a hundred times better than watching it parked thousands of kilometres away. People actually pay money to be close to their team as well as savour the atmosphere along with tens of thousands of fellow supporters. All these more than makeup for the poor view in the curva. Despite the average performance by Lazio until then, the fans are still singing and spurring on the team. Everyone is confident that we can get a result that day.

I befriend a young supporter beside me, Davide. Only fourteen years of age, he goes to the stadium regularly. Accompanied by his aunt, he stores all the songs and chants at the back of his mind like any seasoned supporter of Lazio.

“Che bella bandiera!” I say to him.

Holding on to his self-made Lazio ‘Tri-Colori’ flag, he replies in English, “Thank you! You have a beautiful banner too! Forza Lazio!” At that moment, I feel like an idiot. “Please forgive me, boy, for my knowledge of the Italian language is atrocious; they are limited to ‘Vaffanculo’ and ‘Dai Cazzo’.”

Lazio wakes up a little in the second half. Floccari times his jump well to meet a cross from Hernanes, but his downward header goes horribly wide. It’s a great chance and he really should have done better there. I clutch my face in anger. Like the rest of the crowd, I thought the ball had gone in.

“Arggh…Chao Chee Bye!” I swear at the missed opportunity. ‘Chao Chee Bye’ is a profanity from Singapore, which literally means ‘smelly vagina’. I figure that I have to contribute my knowledge of the explicit language with the rest of the supporters here. After all, it is all about cultural exchange and learning.

Floccari is constantly unmarked in the penalty area, and I struggle to believe the amount of space he’s afforded by the Roma defenders. He normally buries such chances and that miss is uncharacteristic of the Lazio striker.

The rain continues to pour down onto the players, as Ledesma lines up for a free-kick in a promising position. I place my hands on the shoulder of Davide, and he turns and smiles. I am sure he knows why I do that. Yes, it’s me getting superstitious again.

“Forza Lazio Ale, Forza Lazio Ale…” The curva starts singing.

“Come on Cristian, come on!” I whisper. The Lazio supporters hold their breath, as Ledesma sets himself up for a free-kick. He goes for goal instead of trying to pass to a team-mate, and the ball goes just over the far post. It’s yet another wasted opportunity but the Curva applauds the effort.

I’m beginning to get impatient. Something tells me that Roma will punish us if we continue to squander chance after chance like that.

The Roma player Pizzaro is brought down at the edge of our penalty area immediately after, and Roma is awarded a free kick in a very dangerous position. The tension makes it unbearable to watch, so I turn around with my back facing the pitch.

At that point, the Curva Nord starts to sing another great piece of Lazio titled ‘So Gia Du Ore’. This famous Lazio hymn was written and composed by Aldo Donati in 1977, and it comes with a very catchy tune, especially the chorus. And unbelievably, there is even an English version of it.

Listening to my fellow supporters chorusing its lyrics, in such a heart-pounding and nerve-racking moment, calms me down somewhat. It gives me a sense of reassurance, comfort and above all, the strength to face up to the enemy. It is as though we are telling everyone: “Hey look, we’re in a tight situation but it’s all right, we are going to get through this together, and we are Lazio!”

Despite the good omens, my worst fear comes true moments later. Pizarro touches on a free kick for Totti, who unleashes a cannonball that squirms under the body of Lazio’s custodian Fernando Muslera. The ball seems to have swerved in at the very last second.

The Curva Sud explodes with cheers as the supporters rush down to the glass partition and celebrate with their captain under the curva. The singing stops on our side, and we fall dead silent as if we are attending a wake. You could even hear the sound of a pin drop.

This particular goal would go on to be the hottest topic in town after the match. Television replays would uncover laser pointers being directed at Muslera by the Roma supporters, affecting the Uruguayan’s vision, just before the free-kick was taken. Laziali are crying for blood over the injustice and dirty tricks employed by the Roma supporters.

Back in the game, tension escalates and altercations break out between the players from both teams when Matuzalem allegedly stamps on Totti’s face after he collapsed under a challenge. The Brazilian is lucky to escape unpunished for that cynical foul.

Shortly afterwards, Lazio defender Stefan Radu is handed his marching orders when he loses his composure, head-butting Fabio Simplicio after the latter delays taking his free-kick, and causing Lazio to play with ten men.

In stoppages, Christian Brocchi brings down Simplicio in the box and Roma is awarded a penalty. It’s penalty number fourteen for Roma this season. Instantly, Curva Nord sarcastically applauds the decision. Ledesma becomes the second man to be sent off in the game for dissent, as he protests vigorously against the referee’s call.

“Rigore paa roma! Vaffanculo!” Mr Scientist screams.

“Why am I not surprised that Roma got a penalty?” Matteo shakes his head. As for me, I cannot help but succumb to utter disappointment.

Totti smashes the ball into the roof of the net and the referee blows his whistle to thunderous applause from the Roma end. The Giallorossi have extended their derby streak in a fiercely-contested encounter. I am speechless, and the only emotion I can muster is that of anger. Matteo, Celia, and Massimo are all equally gloomy – distraught over the derby loss, and the fact that we had lost five on the trot. Angry Lazio fans direct insults at the President Claudio Lotito as he makes his way out of the stands, and coach Edy Reja as he goes back into the dressing room. Lotito has never been popular with the supporters, so that comes as no surprise. As for coach Reja, many are furious with him because he had not beaten Roma in all four attempts – in fact, not in his entire coaching career – and he made controversial substitutions such as bringing off Mauro Zarate when the team needed a goal badly.

To us, Lazio supporters, winning the derby is more important than winning the Scudetto itself. The patience of the supporters is wearing thin from what I observed that day in the stadium, and I cannot imagine the consequences if we lose the next derby too.

As we exit the stands, I turn around and take a last glimpse at the mesmerizing Stadio Olimpico. Disappointed with the result, I still have no idea when I will be back again to the beautiful home stadium of my beloved club. Well, the least I can take comfort and satisfaction in the fact that I had lived through a derby in Curva Nord. It has to be the most emotional experience any Laziale living beyond the city of Rome can wish for.