March in 2004 was a month of football a lot like many others. Juventus and Milan were having their annual battle for supremacy at the top of Serie A, Andriy Shevchenko had fired Milan into pole position and they were looking good for the title. Their recent Champions League victory over Juventus had rejuvenated the squad while simultaneously deflating that of their Turin rivals. The biggest story of the season wasn’t that perennial battle between northern rival Juventus and Milan, it was the story of another game played in further south down in Rome.
On that bitter night at stake were the bragging rights for the Derby della Capitale. Roma had previously beaten Lazio 2-0 in November, so Lazio were desperate to not go down to their inter-city rivals again. Lazio’s season was certainly lacking the success of the previous year. Long since out of the title race, to some this game was all that was left to fight for that season. Roma on the other hand were holding firm in the Scudetto race only a few points adrift of leaders Milan.
It wasn’t what was to happen on the pitch during that match that was so incredible, but actions off the pitch that would demonstrate the power of the Ultras and give every politician, talk show host and priest something to talk about in the days after. To the outsiders of calcio Ultras are most well known for their tifo’s and in some circles their violence, but in reality they have become institutions in their communities and bridging points between the fans and the clubs. Even today they remain one of the strongest and most feared fan groups in any of the top leagues in Europe.
On the hallowed turf of the Olympico the game had ground to a halt. The referee shouted “Come on” and pleaded for the players to resume but neither the captain of Roma, Francesco Totti, nor Lazio’s Sinisa Mihajlovic were willing to resume. Four minutes into what should have been the second half of the Derby della Capitale the players on the pitch stood still. After much discussion match official Roberto Rosetti resigned to calling an end to proceedings and the match was abandoned. I sat perplexed in a room full of equally confused fans, we were expecting or at least hoping for a more exciting second half to the game, but what had happened? The pitch was blanketed in smoke, but that was a regular occurrence in Italian football – usually met with a delay while the smoke cleared but this time there was no movement. The players stood idly by, some passing the ball to and fro to keep warm but we were witnessing nothing more than a light training session in what should be one of the games of the year. There has been many instances of fans attempting to have games abandoned, but never after kickoff. The expectation was that the game would be resumed again, albeit with an 8 minute delay.
The cameras panned the stadium and the crowd were obviously agitated, both sides were equally perturbed. The two sets of fans seemed to be acting in unison with their chants, but we all knew that couldn’t be the case – this was Roma-Lazio after all – perhaps the most heated rivalry in football. What was bringing them together, what interests did they share on that day, we all discussed the possibilities ad nauseum as we waited for play to resume.
Skirmishes had occurred before the game. That isn’t unusual by any means in Roma before the derby. The fans had entered the stadium and while normally the focus would shift to the match and away from the thought of hurting some opposing fans and/or the police, this match continued particularly vicious tone in the stands. The chanting was loud and voracious but it was aimed more at the police than the opposing team, but even this isn’t uncommon so why did the atmosphere turn so sour?
A rumour had first ignited the Roma fans and then later the Lazio contingent, claims that a young boy no more than 14 had been run over and killed by a police vehicle outside of the stadium. Some fans in the upper tiers had seen a boy covered in a white blanket during their ascent and had relayed the message across the stadium. There was some truth to this, but the Ultras didn’t wait for confirmation and ignored the seven different statements over the PA system saying that no such accident had occurred. It was later revealed a boy was under a white blanket receiving treatment, the air thick with tear gas had caused him severe breathing difficulty and a makeshift solution to cover him with the blanket until an ambulance could arrive. In the end he was fine, oxygen was provided to him and his issues dissipated, he was even able to watch the game on TV from the hospital.
Despite the allegations against the police being untrue, the Ultras still held to their plan to abandon the game and demonstrate their power. In the Curva Sud 3 fans moved past security and onto the running track, where they stood calmly and waited for their club captain, the very symbol and personification of Roma, to greet them. While impossible to know what was said in that exchange between fans and player, the body language of all involved made it clear what was happening, the Ultras were dictating to Totti the game was not to be resumed under any circumstances. One of the three man delegation put his arm around Totti in a both menacing and condescending fashion. Totti, a man known for his on the field ferocity looked meek as the camera flashed to his wife – the lovely Ilary Blasi – who looked decidedly terrified by the unfolding events. After the brief exchange Totti plodded back to the gathered crowd of waiting police and league officials, but before he arrived he turned toward the sideline and caught a glance of manager Fabio Capello, to whom he shouted
“se giochiamo adesso, questi ci ammazzano”
“If we play on they’ll kill us.” Although not heard on the live broadcast the close up of Totti’s face meant that those words could be read by the millions watching at home.
To this day the club still holds that it was not bullied or forced into abandoning the game but Totti had soon convinced both his own teammates and those of Lazio to withdraw. It was Rosetti who held firm, listening to the senior police officials he was aware of the danger of not restarting the match; the police had advised the league officials that it did not have the numbers necessary to deal with the now enraged stadium full of fans.
A well dressed figure emerged from the crowd and handed Rosetti a phone, on the other end was none other than Adriano Galliani, then head of the league and the mighty AC Milan. After a quick discussion a reluctant Rosetti abandoned the game, the Ultras had got their wish. At this moment the camera swung to a boy no older than 11 fidgeting as he was watching these events unfold, unable to comprehend what was going on, something I and many more watching on could relate to.
The police fears were soon realised as the now furious fans of both Lazio and Roma went on to battle the police around the stadium and later the city itself. Violence and intimidation had won that day, the average fans of both Lazio and Roma who had merely wished for an exciting game of football had instead been witness to the power of the Ultras. While the three man delegation may never step foot in the Olimpico again and be subject to serious restrictions on their movement on future match days, this was a clear indication to all that the Ultras were in charge of proceedings and that the police and league officials are merely along for the ride.
It was Adriano Galliani himself who realised this and it was definitely his motivation behind the abandonement. Fan groups like those in the Premiership or elsewhere often threaten boycotts and absences but rarely are they backed up with violence, while the Ultras have little time for talk and demonstrate their grievances very publicly and forcibly. Few have Ultras as passionate and organised as that of AS Roma, something new owner James Palotta should consider as he continues to act in contrast to their wishes.