And so to the Eternal City. Rome is a city of grandeur past. A similar claim can be made of Roma, currently making stuttering progress under Luciano Spalletti. The Juventus monopoly over Serie A will not be an eternal one, but their empire is utterly dominant for the moment.
Last month, as part of my Italian grand tour, I went to see Roma – Inter. Setting out from the apartment, I crossed Piazza del Popolo on my way to get a tram to the Olympico stadium. As I approached the tram, a young Chinese guy approached me. “Excuse me mate, is this the tram to get to the football stadium? Where do I buy a ticket?” he asked. In a thick cockney accent.
I was as impressed by his English as I was disoriented by it. I was able to confirm that this was indeed the tram but unable to enlighten him on buying a ticket as I had purchased one at a kiosk earlier. I advised him just to get on and see if he could get a ticket aboard.
Of course, as expected, the tram was so packed that any ticketing procedures were rendered redundant.
For the second week in a row the game I was going to kicked off at 8:45 pm on a Sunday evening and thus I was alone and not with my young son as I had hoped to be. Security at Italian games has been increased significantly and I would feel entirely comfortable taking a 6 year old to a Serie A game.
Having made it to the stadium and through the myriad security, I took my seat behind the goal in the Curva Nord. Having paid a premium the previous week for a covered seat at Fiorentina, this time I had one of the cheapest tickets available for the game.
And it was a better seat than the one I had occupied in Florence.
Opposite me, behind the far goal, was the Curva Sud, home to Roma’s (in)famous ultras. Or at least some of them. One of the new security measures at the stadium is a barrier splitting the Curva in half and its installation has prompted mass protests and boycotts among the ultras. They had turned out in reasonable force for the visit of Inter but there were enough gaps to indicate that some ultra-boycotters are yet to be placated.
It was the week of Francesco Totti’s 40th birthday and the great and the good of the footballing world, and beyond, had been paying tribute to Il Capitano in the build-up to the game. Messi spoke of having “always admired” him while former teammate Cassano described him as “Italy’s greatest.”
Usain Bolt, with characteristic modesty, offered birthday wishes “from one legend to another.” Bolt is reportedly going to be training with Borussia Dortmund (most likely a sponsorship stunt since both he and the German club are sponsored by Puma) and has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United.
Mourinho’s side do currently lack pace at the moment.
Speed of foot has never been one of Totti’s greatest attributes, but his remains one of the quickest minds on the pitch. Sadly on this occasion, the Italian master only took to the pitch for the warm-up before remaining an unused substitute.
The crowd paid their own tribute with a prolonged chant of “uno capitano,” one of the few that I was able to follow and participate in with my limited grasp of Italian.
Five minutes in and it was uno – nil to Roma; Dzeko providing the fitting conclusion to a fast break down the right with a crisply clipped finish into the far corner.
The fact that this was a big game was reinforced by the sight of Spalletti in a suit. The Roma boss is more commonly attired more comfortably in a tracksuit but clearly felt that this was an occasion that warranted his Sunday best.
Also interestingly attired were the Argentinian couple sat next to me. One wore a Boca Juniors shirt while the other sported a River Plate top. This display of unity was in keeping with the overall atmosphere in the ground, which was passionate but mercifully lacking in much of the vitriolic excess I’ve witnessed at Serie A games in the past.
One observation that I noted down during the game was that Inter looked a lot better than their Milanese neighbours had the previous week in Florence. Milan were dull and utterly lacking in inspiration against Fiorentina. Inter were behind against Roma but playing with patient fluidity.
Subsequent results – and the sacking of Inter coach Frank de Boer – indicate the challenge of making judgements based on a single performance. Inter were impressive that night though and contributed significantly to a very fine game of football.
Roma were content to concede possession and ground to the visitors while focusing on breaking at great pace when they won the ball back. Salah was central to this tactic and several times found himself in excellent positions to increase his side’s lead but succeeded only in producing a series of erratic finishes.
With half time approaching it struck me that I hadn’t heard a single flare be let off. The last time I visited the Olympico (for Roma – Juventus in 2010) a flare exploded roughly every ten minutes, provoking a half jumping, half cowering motion from me on each occasion. Those around me at that game, much more used to the pyrotechnics than I, watched with some amusement.
Always worth watching is Daniele De Rossi, and once again he did not disappoint. He finds pockets of space and is able to play passes at the subtlest of angles, both in ways reminiscent of the great Xavi. He makes Roma tick and was the one who provided the platform for the majority of their most enterprising moves.
One slightly unusual feature of the game was Inter’s insistence on taking every corner as a short corner. I’ve never been much convinced by the short corner except on those rare occasions when it’s taken very quickly before the defending team has had a chance to organise itself.
When that’s not the case, the short corner is designed to create a better angle for crossing the ball but how often does it result in possession being squandered or in a sequence of passes that mark a retreat back as far as the halfway line?
Inter’s succession of short corners didn’t produce a single noteworthy chance. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, this was a mad way to proceed.
At half time the score, incredibly given the opportunities created at either end, remained 1-0.
Both teams were acquitting themselves well, with clearly defined patterns of play, yet it was obvious that neither side had the confidence to go on the sort of run that would cause genuine alarm in Turin.
These were two sides in transition; works in progress. Whether either turns out to be a masterpiece remains to be seen.
Serie A as a whole is not in rude health but on the evidence that I saw in two games, it is still much better than its detractors would have you believe. The essence of the Italian game – technical ability, tactical sophistication, and a sense of theatre – remains intact.
The biggest global stars mostly play elsewhere these days: in Spain, England and Germany. But like empires, footballing powers rise, wane and fall. Italy’s time will come again.
Football culture varies from country to country (and that’s one of the reasons I love going to games when I travel) but some aspects of the beautiful game are universal. It’s remarkable the extent to which crowds applaud the same things everywhere – a committed tackle, an earnest attempt on goal however wayward, a defender obstructing a forward in letting the ball run out for a goal kick.
After 71 minutes, the Inter supporters were applauding an equaliser; Banega cutting through the Roma defence to drill a low shot in at the near post.
It was a fine and deserved leveller and it would have been easy for panic to set in among Roma’s players. But instead they found fortitude and resolve.
And just four minutes later they found themselves back ahead; Manolas stooping to steer home a header from a free kick. It was the cue for bedlam in both Curvas.
The rest of the story, as told from the Curva Nord, can only be described as tense. Both teams created further chances but the scoreboard was not further altered.
I spent the last minutes stood at the top of the stairs as Inter forced several late corners. Many Roman prayers were offered in search of the final whistle. The ref kept the whistle in his mouth but silent. Time ticked on at the cruel, excruciatingly slow pace that it reserves for such moments.
We waited. And waited.
And panicked a little. Breaths started to be held for periods that were damaging to health. “Kick it anywhere son.” I think that’s what they were saying. They spoke to me in Italian and I did not understand the words but I understood. Men gripped each other’s shoulders.
Then it was done; and the sweet, sublime relief. The puffing out of cheeks. Hands raised. Faces of joy, slightly dazed. Victory is appreciated when it’s hard earned.
I ran with the crowds for the tram. After a reasonable wait, one arrived. The scramble aboard began, the scary surge of a mass of bodies entering a confined space.
The surge continued after I made it through the door. You cannot plant your feet in such circumstances, only wait for the wave to subside. But on it went, relentless and dangerous. Breath was no longer held but it was restricted. Limbs contorted into shrinking spaces.
It felt like the world’s worst game of Twister; played upright.
We were packed like that for twenty minutes, all the way back to Piazza del Popolo where we emerged into the late night: relieved and victorious, taking deep breaths.