Isobel Lee was on the Curva Sud at the Stadio Olimpico when the recent derby was abandoned. Here she describes the atmosphere that night as the rumours flew
I’m too young to remember the 1970s, but in the Curva Sud of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico I wonder if English football was like this 30 years ago. It is complete chaos. The curva holds about 10,000 fans but it seems like 20,000 have got in, climbing over from other sections, or persuading God-knows-who to let them into the ground. You had to get here two hours ago to have a hope of a seat. Now it’s standing room only on the steps and no one can move up or down because all the gangways are blocked. More are still trying to get in.
There is a thick haze of smoke in the air, which has been created by a spectacular firework display in the curva. After that, flares are hurled randomly over the fences. All bounce harmlessly along the running track, falling short of the pitch, although the odd one strikes an advertising hoarding, setting it on fire. Unruffled firemen, posted ready, pick up the fireworks with long metal pincers and sink them into hissing buckets of water, while colleagues casually extinguish the flames. Police dogs are going ballistic, launching a volley of barks every time there’s an explosion, tugging and bouncing on their leashes. However, it’s the riot police who impress the most, lolling side by side with the fans, who are hurling and receiving such missiles as plastic bottles and flares. The police only get involved if it gets really out of hand. Then they enthusiastically batter anyone in sight.
Tonight is different, however. Tonight is derby night and there’s something in the air – apart from the tang of tear gas and firework smoke. I’ve been warned to stay away by Roma fans who know something is going to happen. It’s not insider information – just that everyone knows how unpredictable the Roma-Lazio derby can be. It’s a war, not a football match. Before kick-off, the streets round the stadium have been erupting with incidents, police in full riot gear charging battling fans, lobbing canisters of tear gas. Most fans watch the match with red and streaming eyes. I don’t enjoy the first half much anyway, the players are tense – passes are falling short, Francesco Totti and Antonio Cassano aren’t communicating like they can. I hope things will alter after the break.
Even before the first half draws to a close, however, there is a change of mood in the curva. A message is being passed along that a fan is dead. A child has been killed, run over by a police van. Emotions are so charged that no one doubts the information for a moment and there is a mixture of anger and incredulity which is further fuelled by the tension of the game. The fan leaders are still barking orders through a loud hailer to co-ordinate the singing as the players leave the pitch for half-time.
What happens next, to everyone’s amazement, is that only a minute of the second half is played before Totti strides over to the curva. Three fans have clambered over the barriers and are telling Totti the news that the police have killed a young Roma fan. They ask him to stop the match and open the gates to let the fans out. Totti returns to the pitch. He’s adamant that the game cannot recommence if a child is dead. The press officer from the local police insists that the information is false. The player returns to the fans, who tearfully beg him and the others to refuse to play. Totti, as captain, appeals to the manager, Fabio Capello, as club officials stream onto the pitch. When the referee goes to restart the game, Cassano childishly knocks the ball out of his hands. The stadium is in uproar.
In the end, of course, the match is abandoned because the players can’t stomach finishing the game under these circumstances and a call is made to the president of the league, Adriano Galliani, who agrees that the match should be suspended. Dense smoke is coming out of one of the main exits, so we are evacated via the running track in front of the curva.
For days after, the media are obsessed with what they are calling a dark night for Italian football. But what really happened? The most extreme theory is that there was a planned collaboration between radical Lazio and Roma fans to stop the game. Something which might seem unlikely, given the natural animosity between the two groups. However, in recent years, it has been suggested that local politicians have been manipulating the more extreme fan groups. Right-wing banners, traditionally associated with Lazio, have been displayed in some Roma sections. And on the night of the derby, police traced mobile phone calls and identified a pattern of text messages sent between the curvas. At half-time, banners appeared simultaneously at both ends of the ground, accusing the police of being “assassins”. The fans often produce slogans at short notice to display during the match, but the timing and the speed on this occasion was unusual.
Concrete proof is hard to come by, however. The three supporters who went on the pitch to tell Totti that a child was dead have been released without charge. And for the most part the rumour about the fan’s death was spread naturally by concerned and outraged spectators across the ground. Ultimately, the atmosphere became so ugly that it was impossible to continue the game. Totti told Capello: “If we restart the match, they’ll murder us.” After criticism over playing the night of the Madrid bombings, the team was rightly sensitive to an extremely delicate situation. If a fan really had died but the message was ignored, people could have been killed in the crush as the curva rioted.
The Italian media is now calling for clubs to take control of their stadiums and the supporters, “as they have in England”. There is talk of the rematch being played behind closed doors. It is perhaps true that disaster was only narrowly averted at the Olimpico on derby night, with an angry crowd and exits packed with distraught people. But without romanticising the danger, the Curva Sud remains one of the last truly exhilarating places to watch football and makes a vital contribution to the atmosphere of the stadium.
From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month