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By ESPN Staff

Let them please introduce themselves

Sympathy for the devil may contain at least two words too extreme for the circumstance, but there may not be a better way of summing up the uneasy relationship that one can feel with Lazio.

The devil, they aren't, of course, and sometimes the by-product of the negative perception being spread around by those do not like the club and its fans can generate, in those who try to delve a little more into matters with disregard to appearances, a little bit of sympathy.

In the true sense this sweet-sounding word has from its original Greek meaning, managing to feel a benevolent inclination towards someone without actually having part on his or her life.

If you believe Lazio are truly the dark side of Rome, living with a permanent state of soreness in their collective right arms for all the time spent extending it in a fascist salute, you can leave this page immediately by clicking on (hey, it would still keep things in the family).

But at your age you should know generalisations are bad and few things are once and for all white or, er, black with no grey area in between.

There is, for sure, a disturbing and distinctive element of right-wing inclination among Lazio's support, and by googleing your memory you can come up with more than a few instances - the banner honouring former Serbian warlord Arkan, the fascist iconography and paraphernalia, good old Paolo di Canio strutting his stuff in front of the fans.

That will vindicate that negative view, but remember that it's only a fraction of the stadium, indeed of the home end, that gets the most publicity, while few focus on the rest.

However a simple stroll through the Lazio world will reveal just what any analysis, even a superficial one, of any team's supporters would, that the biancazzurri fan base contains an equal part of this and that and even the Roma fans' favourite portrayal of their rivals as country bumpkins with a rural accent is not one hundred per cent accurate.

Last summer's events though, with Lazio's involvement in the Calciopoli scandal, seemed to reinforce even further the club's reputation as one toeing the line of lawlessness.

As the original sentence against the club got lighter and lighter as it went through the various, confusingly named - and managed - stages of the Italian justice system, going from a massive demotion to the Serie B with an added 7-point penalty to a mere 3-point deduction, their prospects for the season grew more interesting. But it's never easy to be sure about Lazio' exact role in the landscape of the Serie A.

Their owner since 2004, Claudio Lotito, 49, is already an iconic figure in Italian football for the variety of emotions he seems to elicit.

His penchant for sprinkling his sentences with a few Latin words, for added gravitas and perhaps to confuse the listeners, has spawned a TV impersonator, while his tendency to portrait himself as the 'Great Moraliser' has also been met with scepticism by the many who believe any word containing the term 'ethics' is simply out of place in Italian football.

And of course you may remember it was Lotito, with a considerable amount of help from politicians, that struck a sweet deal with the Italian IRS which allowed Lazio to repay 170 million euros in outstanding taxes in installments spread across 23 years to 2026.

On Saturday, one hour after Lazio had brilliantly disposed of sleepy Parma in the last Serie A round of matches before a three-week break, Lotito was arguing - very calmly, indeed - with a fan outside Parma's Tardini Stadium.

Here's why: a sizeable section of Lazio fans - including Di Canio, now playing for Serie C2 Cisco Rome - have long turned against Lotito, and some of the reasons are darker than you'd think.

Earlier this year, a group of foreign investors were apparently ready to launch a takeover, and former great Giorgio Chinaglia appeared to be the front man for this group of businessmen.

But a real offer never materialized, and in October, dramatically, Chinaglia and other eight men were hit by an arrest warrant for extortion.

It turned out four of the arrested were the leaders of a Ultras group called Irriducibili, and the reasons behind the physical threats to Lotito and his family were clear and familiar.

It was not truly a matter of 'lazialità' - the elements of true Lazio fanship and the lack of former heroes in the current club set-up - which were brought up by that fan who approached Lotito outside the stadium in Parma, but a matter of money, as Lotito had apparently revoked the absurd privileges Ultras in the Curva Nord, the North End, had enjoyed under previous regimes.

These include heavy subsidies, said to be up to 25,000 euros each time, for buying and preparing banners and fireworks and, even more maddeningly, control over the club's merchandising and marketing.

Tricky territory, here.

It is well known, almost accepted in the lawless world of Italian soccer, that many clubs distribute money to hardcore fans group as a means of granting support and loyalty, a maddeningly amoral practice that makes the clubs' statements and protests whenever trouble occurs particularly hollow-sounding and hypocrite.

And there has been suspicion in some cases that directors at some clubs influenced the fans' protests against rival directors, but as there was no confirmed cases we'll stop at rumours.

But you can see how difficult it may be to try to build on those, whatever you think of Lotito, his close relationship with some centre and right-of-centre politicians who helped him obtain control of the club and his plans for a new stadium for Lazio just north of Rome, surrounded by the now obligatory commercial, residential and exhibition areas which would mean a lucrative deal.

Back to the better half of Lazio life, the side itself can be frighteningly good, on its day.

They had started the season with little consistency, losing a couple before winning three in a row then getting only three points out of a possible 15 with the nadir of a 1-3 defeat away at new boys Catania but what then appeared to be a simple tactical touch-up by 46-year old coach Delio Rossi, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-2-1-2 (4-3-1-2, if you will), added to a better physical shape.

This switch propelled them to a string of four wins in five matches culminating in the 3-0 dismantling of Roma in the December 10 derby which prompted the customarily restrained Rossi - who last year famously ended up on his backside after he slipped as he celebrated a goal - to strip down to his - too tight - briefs on a cold Roman night and take a dive into the fountain on the Palatino hill, as he'd promised a celebrity Lazio fan, a nun (don't ask) he'd do in case of a win.

Having few to no natural wingers in the side, Rossi figured he'd be willing to pay his midfield congestion charge if that meant pushing former wing man Stefano Mauri up behind the highly effective striker parnership of Tommaso Rocchi and Igor Pandev, and having Massimo Mutarelli and Gaby Mudingayi bookend Cristian Ledesma, the 24-year old Argentinian schemer who has replaced Fabio Liverani as the key man in midfield.

This new approach means a heavier responsibily fell on the eager shoulders of captain and World Cup winner Francesco Oddo, on the right flank, and on a lesser extent Luciano Zauri on the left.

By exploiting the space vacated by the men no longer directly in front of them Oddo and Zauri can add width and enjoy the fact opponents must basically stretch themselves covering a glut of players in the middle. Evidence of the benefits this new approach produced are Mauri's four goals since.

Oddo, 30, one of the best crossers of a ball in the game and a sure bet on penalties and free-kicks, has been rumoured to be joining Milan in January, but this has been going on for so long that one cannot be certain that is not one of those hearsays that seems to acquire a growing amount of credibility for merely being repeated every day.

Oddo's contract expires in 2008, and he has gone for the weary but understandable mantra that his next deal will also be his last one so he has to maximize his own worth.

Lotito, on his part, has often said Lazio are no longer a selling club but are not willing to retain a players against his own wishes, and the fact he added - predictably - that they would listen to offers who'd significantly contribute to the club's coffers and the side's quality, so stay tuned.

Not that his absence with a sudden hip injury bothered Lazio on Saturday.

After going 1-0 down and having defender Sebastiano Siviglia sent off, they regrouped in a 4-3-2 formation and unleashed a string of nice moves, equalising through a header by another defender, Guglielmo Stendardo.

They went ahead on a well-executed move by Rocchi who stole the ball on the right side of the penalty area and crossed for Pandev to slot in, then added a third in first-half injury time when an exquisite through ball from Mutarelli sent Mauri free and his right wing cross was met by Rocchi.

'I'd say this side showed it has a high level of quality and resilience. We did not lose heart after the defeat against Inter and when we went 1-0 down with 10 men my players never lost their composure, managing to keep the ball on the ground instead of just punting high balls. All credit to them' was how, on a direct question from your correspondent, Rossi replied.

He may or may not have been wearing those skimpy briefs under his stylish team uniform and coat, but I sure did not ask. Or check too closely.

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