Benito Mussolini was a man who usually got his own way. But when his hopes of building a single football team in Rome to take on the supremacy of the teams in northern Italy were scuppered by Lazio, who refused to join forces with three other local teams to form AS Roma in 1927, a rivalry was born. Since then, the Derby della Capitale has been punctuated by violence and riots. It's safe to say it remains the fiercest in Italy.
Lift the collar of a Lazio shirt, and you’ll find it. Enter their dressing room at the Stadio Olimpico, and you’ll see it. The writing is on the wall. “La Prima Squadra della Capitale.” The capital’s first team.
Lazio were established in 1900, long before AS Roma were founded. That’s what owner Claudio Lotito never tires of telling you. It’s one of the nerves he most likes to touch in this rivalry.
Roma supporters aren’t short of a counter-argument. They start with the colours: “You got here first and didn’t choose the red and yellow of Rome.” They then move onto the name. “Why didn’t you call yourself after the city itself? Oh, yes, that’s right. Because it had already been taken by another club, Ginnastica Roma.
“And how come you settled on Lazio?”
Sure, other teams had chosen universal names: Juventus and Internazionale. They did so because it meant they were attractive as clubs to more than just residents of Turin and Milan. The founders of Lazio also wanted to appeal beyond the walls of Rome.
By adopting the name of the region, Lazio allowed another club to claim it didn’t represent the city, and that’s what Roma has done ever since it was formed through the fusion of Alba, Fortitudo and Romano in 1927. If you’ve ever wondered why Romanisti take pleasure in portraying Laziali as simpleminded farmers visiting the city as they take their livestock to market, now you have an explanation.
Of course, they aren't always seen as yokels. Sometimes, it’s out-of-towners and landed gentry. Posh boys. Because Lazio, you see, were initially a running club. It expanded into other sports, most famously football, which included a rowing club. That inevitably formed an impression of them as highfalutin and blue-blooded even though their boathouse, the Pippanera, was altogether rather spartan.
Roma instead liked to think of themselves as the team of the working class, the heart and soul of the city. They didn’t draw their fans from the well-off and leafy parts of town like Parioli, Fleming, Monteverde and Olgiata, but the blue-collar districts of Trastevere and Testaccio in Rome’s congested centre. A lot of this, of course, was geographical accident. Lazio’s first home, the Rondinella, and their Tor di Quinto and Formello training grounds were closer to the privileged and affluent areas in the north of the city. By contrast, Roma’s mythical Campo Testaccio, about which Romanisti still sing, is smack bang in the middle of impecunious inner-city life.
This is also where opinions about their political persuasions originate: those that proclaim Lazio the team of the right and Roma the team of the left. Truth be told, it’s never quite as simple as that. For instance, without fascism, Roma likely wouldn’t even exist. Football in the capital was too fragmented to compete with those that were dominating from the North, particularly as Serie A, a national league, was inaugurated. It was at the will of Italo Foschi, the secretary of Rome’s Fascist Party, that three clubs became one, Roma.
Using football as a propaganda vehicle and metaphor for his idealisation of society as strong, fit and healthy, creative and hard-working, there has been a lot of speculation about which team, if any, Benito Mussolini actually supported.
Ask ten people and nine will likely say Lazio. Mussolini attended games at the Rondinella with his kids, and there are conflicting reports about when, if at all, he became a paid up member. Are reports of it happening before the March on Rome in 1922 true or is the autumn of 1929 when there was even talk of Mussolini paying 1000 lire for the privilege to be believed? A membership card either never existed or has been lost. And besides, legend has it, he switched sides too, not least because Il Duce watched Roma at Campo Testaccio as well.
What is incontestable is that he was in the stands for the third-ever Derby della Capitale. Roma had been victorious in the first and second encounters, led by heroes like Rodolfo ‘Big Saber’ Volk and Fulvio Bernardini. Bernardini, who later became a coaching all-time great, was a striker at the time, which must have come as a surprise for supporters of Lazio. He’d once played in goal for them.
It is Roma's early success that made them suspect of Mussolini's favour. In the 1942 Scudetto, Roma, not Lazio, were the first of the Eternal City’s clubs to be declared Campione d’Italia. The integrity of that win was questioned decades later.
Sacked by Roma in 1971 and bitter that he had been adjudged a failure after not having anywhere near the same success with them as he did with Inter, Helenio Herrera huffed: “And they complain about me. To think the only time they won the league they had Mussolini to thank for it.”
Amadeo Amadei, the baker’s boy from Frascati and one of the first in a long and illustrious line of Romans to captain Roma, was mortified. “Mussolini had bigger problems at the time [like the Second World War], and besides, his sympathies didn’t lie with us, they were with the Laziali.”
Even so, the waters are muddier than the received wisdom would have you believe. The extreme politics of Lazio’s Curva Nord in the `90s, and instances of high profile players like Sinisa Mihajlovic and Paolo Di Canio paying homage to figures like Arkan the Tiger and Mussolini, only reinforced perceptions of them as right-wing. But though traditionally on the left, the politics of Roma’s Curva Sud are no longer clearly defined.
If lines like these are blurred, others in this rivalry couldn’t be more distinct, and crossing them isn’t for the faint-hearted, even if 34 players (and six coaches, including Englishman Jesse Carver, Sven Göran Eriksson and Zdenek Zeman) have done just that.
We’ve already mentioned Bernardini but Attilio Ferraris’ move from Roma to Lazio in 1934 was arguably the first controversial one. Roma insisted a clause be placed in his contract stipulating that his new club would have to pay a fine if they had the nerve to play him against them. Ferraris played and Lazio were only too happy to cough up as he was one of the best players on the pitch in a 1-1 draw.
Things really began to escalate in the `70s. Remember this was a time when Lazio were the bad boys of the game. Forget Roma, they hated each other enough they had to get changed in separate dressing rooms. They carried guns, got into fights. Luciano Re Cecconi died when a prank robbery of a friend’s jewellery shop went horribly wrong. And the symbol of this team was Swansea-raised Giorgio Chinaglia.
‘Long John’ Chinaglia made his teammates burn their shirts after losing one derby to Roma. He also provided this rivalry with one of its most iconic moments. Upon scoring a penalty to clinch victory en route to Lazio’s first ever Scudetto in 1974, he went under the Roma end and pointed at them provocatively. Chinaglia stood there defiantly as coins, bottles and spit rained down on him. The tension didn’t subside when Franco Cordova then traded Roma for Lazio a couple of years later. No, it only intensified.
So charged had the atmosphere become that the matches themselves were getting dangerous. At a derby in 1979, Vincenzo Paparelli, a Lazio fan and father of two, was killed when a marine flare shot from the Curva Sud travelled from one end of the ground to the other and hit him in the face. To this day it remains the darkest day in the derby’s history.
The Paparelli tragedy should have brought perspective. Instead, the hatred ascended to new levels. When Roma signed Lionello Manfredonia in 1987, a libero in the Lazio team that won the Scudetto, a banner was unfurled in the Curva Sud depicting an axe. It read: “We’ll only accept you like this.” The dispute over Manfredonia opened up fissures within the Commandos Ultras Curva Sud, and a decade-old alliance between the groups it comprised — the Fossa dei Lupi, Pantere Giallorosse, Boys and Fedayn — came to an end. C.U.C.S split.
Feelings haven't eased with the passage of time. Last year, Manfredonia was one of the subjects of an installation by the contemporary artist Flavio Favelli. Blown up on the facade of an old warehouse, now a chic eatery in the Rome district of Ostiense, were a series of portraits, Panini stickers if you will, of the players to have played for both Lazio and Roma. Angelo Peruzzi, Mihajlovic, Diego Fuser, Cordova, Roberto Muzzi. “They have lived in a world of paradox, contradiction, the impossible, the unthinkable, the antithesis, the forbidden, the oxymoron and deadly sin,” Favelli explained. For him, they aren't traitors. Rather, they are anti-heroes who had the courage to defy convention.
But as intriguing as those who crossed the line are to some, the players who have a particularly special place in the fans’ hearts are the ones in whom they see themselves: the homegrown and the proud. For Roma, Amadei, Agostino Di Bartolomei, Giuseppe Giannini are hallowed figures, joined by a series of one-club men like Giacomo Losi, Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi.
For Lazio, they cite Bruno Giordano, even if his finest hour was winning the title with Napoli playing alongside Diego Maradona. Cinecitta’s Alessandro Nesta captained Lazio to their second and as yet final Scudetto in 2000 but then had to be sold to save the club from the brink of financial oblivion. Paolo Di Canio did a Chinaglia, celebrating as any 21-year-old Lazio fan from Quarticciolo would by going under the Roma end in 1989. He returned in his 30s and scored a goal right in front of them again.
This recurrent personal element, and the fact that Roma’s and Lazio’s seasons have with few exceptions historically come down to the results of these encounters, adds layers of sentiment to this derby that make it like no other in the world. It leads to players reaching to become larger than life.
Most recently, Totti has consistently risen to these heights. His profile decorates the side of an apartment block in the part of Rome where he grew up, Porta Metronia. The t-shirts he flashes after scoring are part of derby folklore, taunting Lazio with comments like “I’ve purged you again”. Now Roma's joint-all-time top scorer against Lazio, along with Dino da Costa, his brace in February, which he celebrated by taking a selfie under the Curva Sud, were his 10th and 11th goals in this fixture. Beating Lazio in May and qualifying automatically for the Champions League at their expense meant another t-shirt was in order. This time it read: “Game over”.
Consider that revenge for defeat in the 2013 Coppa Italia final, which made Lazio’s Senad Lulic a derby hero. His goal in the 71st minute, the only one of the game, inspired him to launch a clothing line. The name of the label? 71. Not since former coach Delio Rossi kept his promise to strip off and dive into the Gianicolo fountain, which Roma fans had been urinating in, had they taken such pride in victory. For the Laziali, the win in the Coppa was the most satisfying of all-time.
It must be said, November’s derby also wrote a new chapter in this rivalry. So often divided, Lazio and Roma ultras instead united in protest at the imposed segregation of the ends behind the goals by Rome’s prefect. Their depth of feeling was such that they went on strike. This really was a derby like no other. There were no grand choreographies. No cries of “where’s the pigeon?” from Roma fans, a mocking chant about Olimpia, Lazio’s eagle, which isn’t allowed to fly on derby day out of fears for her safety. Injuries meant Roma had no Romans in their starting XI and no Italians for the first time ever. In fact, the only Roman kicking off the game was Lazio’s Antonio Candreva, now a fan favourite, but once the subject of protests himself amid suspicions that he had supported Roma as a boy.
Victors and deservedly so, Roma’s opening goal, an Edin Dzeko penalty, should never have been awarded. Not that Roma cared. The ultras weren’t present, but De Rossi's celebration in the stands reminded everyone of what it must mean to win these games as a supporter of the team you play for. This rivalry gets under your skin. It lives with you. It never dies. Like the city itself, it’s eternal.