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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Dec 21, 2002

When in Rome...

Live on prejudices, die on them. Set the wrong impression, and you will forever share a room with it.

Italian football is no different from any other aspect of life. You'll find a good assortment of cliches wherever you look, frequently mixed in with just about the right amount of blind bias which adds more spice to proceedings.

One of the most curious aspects of Italian soccer - although not unique to Italy - is the obsession of some sets of fans to establish themselves as the only and true ambassadors of a particular city.

The decades-long diatribe in Milan between AC and Internazionale, as to which one truly represents the essence of the place, has never been resolved and never will be.

It can be a geographical distinction, which does not hold true in the First City, or a social one, which brings us to the capital, Rome, and its long running rivalry between Roma and Lazio.

One would think that a city so passionate about soccer and with such an history of huge crowds would have achieved a little more than five Scudettos combined in nearly a hundred years of Serie A (or its previous incarnations).

But the capital's teams have frequently been an afterthought in Italian soccer, which has been dominated by the Northern teams who have often looked at the Romans and their perceived stature with a raised eyebrow.

The emergence of Roma and Lazio as forces in recent years has added interest to the whole matter and brought about a competitiveness which hadn't always been the norm, but has also opened up the intricacies of their intra-city rivalry to everyone else.

And quite a rivalry it is: all over the world, big (and small) cities graced with a couple of top class clubs have witnessed the rise of the same diatribes and controversies, and if you take out the religious humus of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry, you can see a pattern underneath all those feuds.

One club will claim they are the 'real' ambassadors of the city while the other will make the same claim and the controversy will go on forever as, obviously, no one can have the final word.

The same happens in Rome, and its consequences have now been fully understood all over Italy: Roma fans claim they are the 'real' Romans. They dismiss Lazio fans as country bumpkins who just happened to one day wander into the Stadio Olimpico, and who as soon as the game's over sod (literally) off to their provincial towns and tractors.

After all, 'Roma' is also the name of the city, and 'Lazio' is the name of the administrative region, so it's only natural that Lazio fans are scattered all over the less civilized parts of the area and only congregate for the game.

Except, it isn't true. Or, at least, not as true and clean-cut as many Roma fans would have you believe. Lazio do enjoy a smaller following in the capital city than their rivals, and they have more trouble putting bums on the Stadio Olimpico seats than their counterparts.

This was witnessed during their 2000 championship season when they rarely filled the place even in the run-up to the deciding game.

Surely, they could not have gathered a 900,000 crowd at the ancient site in central Rome as their rivals did during the unforgettable celebrations right after the 2001 Scudetto.

That evening made the headlines for the appearance of local actress and icon Sabrina Ferilli who'd promised she would strip naked if the giallorossi ever won Serie A, and kept the promise only to a point by shedding most of her clothes but keeping a tiny bikini on.

So, Lazio have fewer fans, but Roma fans have been so eager to push the envelope on this subject, and on the fact that they believe Lazio fans are 'burini' (local words for un-educated country people), that this has frankly become an annoying cliche.

Francesco Totti
Totti: The butt of many jokes
(Buzzi/Empics)

Most of the mickey-taking is made in jest, as done by a Roma fan who goes by the assumed name of Galopeira and has been re-writing the lyrics of popular songs, adapting them to the rivalry and sniping at Lazio in a humorous way.

Galopeira once left in the middle of a Roma game, saying the tricks and flicks Francesco Totti had done up to that point were already worth more than he'd paid for his ticket and he did not want to steal money from the club.

It's easy to imagine that such a person would approach the rivalry in a creative way, but others have not been so kind and things can get nasty when the political side of Lazio fans is touched.

Most of the ultra-politically correct Italian press has been ready to pounce on them because of their alleged right-wing inclination, but again this has been a gross generalisation.

A good chunk of the Lazio fans have definite right-wing beliefs and their cause will not have been helped by the shameful banners in remembrance of deceased Serbian warlord Arkan. There was also the beating of a North African immigrant by a few Lazio fans who used baseball bats emblazoned with a logo and name of a well-known supporters group.

It is disturbing to see that this propaganda has now been widely accepted and that every Lazio fan is now seen as a fascist who comes from bumpkin county and speaks a constantly-mocked spurious Roman accent ('Lazie' instead of 'Lazio') by the Roma 'tifosi'.

On the other hand, cliches can hurt Roma, too, and Totti in particular. For no specific reason, the brilliant Roma forward has now replaced the Carabinieri, one of Italy's police forces, as the butt of everybody's jokes centered on his - as it was with the Carabinieri's - perceived dumbness.

You'll receive Totti jokes through email every day, if you have a large enough address book, and now even people who know nothing about football will have and share their favourite ones.

The Roman accent and dialect have long been 'choice one' for comedies and low budget movies. Italy's most talented and famous comedy actor of all time, Alberto Sordi, made his name by frequently using his native dialect.

This, however, has sometimes translated into the perception that everyone who speaks like that and becomes a public persona is fair game for criticisms and snipes. Totti may be in the 'David Beckham category' as far the number of books he's read (not written: Beckham leads by a mile), but he's not dumber than any other footballer.

This national, underground campaign against him has become so disturbing that some people wonder what's next. It has affected Roma fans, obviously, but sometimes not in the manner one might have expected.

One of them, a comedian named Massimo Giuliani, became something of a television personality by mocking Totti and his speech pattern in a national television show.

The backlash has been huge: Roma fans have risen as one in defence of their captain and icon, and Mr Giuliani - again, a longtime Roma fan and season ticket holder himself long before it became fashionable for artists and actors to associate themselves to football - has been forced to stay away from the Stadio Olimpico as persona non grata

A popular Roma website has been promoting a collection of banners stating that Giuliani 'has been forced to step on the love of his life in order to make a living'.

As everyone else on this planet, Totti can become the target of comedians and impersonators. But when a simple characterization becomes a national obsession and turns a decent person and a star player into a national joke and a cliche for ignorant footballer that, frankly, is taking things too far.

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