"When in Rome, Do as the Romans do." So goes the familiar age-old adage. So for soccer aficionados, a pilgrimage must be paid to to the Stadio Olimpico if one is to fully enjoy the culture of "Eternal City."
For the glory and grandeur of imperial Roman Empire, the historic monuments at the Coliseum, the Forum, and the Vatican are not to be missed. However, the modern day gladiators and heroic battles, are to be found at a Serie A match of either AS Roma or SS Lazio in the Italian capital.
A top-flight soccer game in Rome, is where the passion and exuberance of the fiery Italian temperament are on full display. For the die-hard fans of the Roman football clubs, a weekend match is a way of life; for some it is tantamount to religion.
So seriously do they take their soccer that visitors would do well to consult with a knowledgeable club supporter first, lest they find themselves caught in the wrong section wearing the wrong color attire.
So with the help of my newfound Italian friend, Mr. Roberto Tofani, I was set to attend the AS Roma-Fiorentina match at the Stadio Olimpico last weekend.
Knowing this writer was keen for an authentic Italian Serie A experience with real soccer obsessives, Roberto secured tickets for the famous "Curva Sud" (the southside curve) section of the stadium, costing 15 euros each.
Roberto, a sports enthusiast who is a professional water polo player and a regular at Roma matches, said that he only goes to the "Curva Sud," because it is the heart of the Roma support, where the "Ultra" fans can be found.
About half hour prior to the match start, we settled down at our designated seats and surveyed the stadium facilities as the crowd started to trickle in. This was to be the only tranquil moment among the hardcore "giallorosso" (yellow-red, the color of AS Roma shirt) supporters.
Pointing across to the opposite side of the stadium, Roberto indicated that is where the cross-city rival SS Lazio "Ultras" take their seats, in the "Curva Nord" (the northside curve") section when they are attending home games.
As the players engage in their pre-game warm-up, the "Curva Sud" crowd rose up as one, and stood to cheer, as they would for the entire game.
Led by one or another of the Ultra fan groups, they started to bellow out a stream of the club's sing-along songs and chants. These would follow one another without stopping, an incessant series of vocal cantata resonating through the stadium ebbing and flowing to the rhythm of the game, which only subsided at the final whistle.
The groups include "Commando Ultra Curva Sud," "AS Roma Ultras," "Fedayn," "Opposta Fazione."
After kickoff, the spectators roared out more slogans and choral singing,a football terrace version of the slightly more sophisticated Italian opera.
Roberto explained the songs were mainly in praise of the players, with individual chants for the most worthy of their beloved heroes: Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella, Antonio Cassano, and Damiano Tommasi who grabbed a goal on the two-minute mark, igniting a wild celebrations. (The match would eventually end 1-1, after Fiorentina striker Luca Toni, Serie A's top scorer, leveled with a 67-minute penalty.)
The fans fired off at least two flares in the stands, and three "canon shot" stun-grenade type explosives during the game. These fireworks are illegal, however the resourceful Roma "Ultra" fans managed to smuggle them in, despite tight security checks including a body-search upon entry.
The crowd of 38,000-plus occupied less than half of the 80,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico but the Ultras filled up their Curva Sud territory and it was the only packed section in the stadium.
Roberto said, "My friends and I only come to the "Curva Sud." This is where you get close to the true spirit and where we can express our love for the club."
He pointed to the sections of the stadium where the more expensive seats are located. The difference was startling: people remained seated and were not participating in the vociferous singing. Roberto said that, "they are not passionate fans like us..."
When asked about the notoriety of some Ultra fan groups, at both Roma and Lazio, with far-right and fascist leanings, Roberto said he was aware of their existence, but he did not like the mix of politics and soccer, and the violent antics of such groups. The true fans, he said, were there to have a good time, like a weekly social get-together, and the most important thing was to enjoy the game, and cheer your team to victory.