Rome sweet Rome

Published : Mar 28, 2009 00:00 IST

Foreign fans who travel to see their team play Roma in the Stadio Olympico are taking if not their life then certainly their physical safety in their hands.

It happened again. It was probably bound to. Vicious assault on visiting English fans by hooligan Roma supporters, on the occasion of Arsenal’s recent visit to the Eternal City. Back in season 1954/5, when I lived there and for the only time, both major Roman clubs had an English manager — enigmatic Jesse Carver for Roma, ebullient little Yorkshireman George Reynor for Lazio — and I myself was writing regularly for the Roman daily ‘Corriere Dello Sp ort’, such brutal episodes were pretty well unknown; even though the rivalry between the two clubs was intense.

But now, foreign fans who travel to see their team play Roma in the Stadio Olympico are taking if not their life then certainly their physical safety in their hands. On the latest occasions, the so called ‘teppisti’, or hooligans, surpassed themselves. They went to the horrific lengths of ambushing a bus carrying Arsenal fans to the stadium, blocking its passage with a car. They then smashed the windows with bombardment, tried to set light to the interior of the coach, and, when one of the miscreants got inside it, has stabbed a supporter. Yet, the final of the European Champions Cup is due for Rome this May and stabbing rival fans in the back is commonplace.

That Rome should have been chosen at all seemed daft from the beginning. I suppose the only valid hope is that since Rome themselves will not be taking any further part in the competition, meaning that two foreign teams will be contesting the match, there will be no real incentive for the thugs to go about their sordid business.

Yet, this sort of thuggery has been going on for years. Look back to May, 1954, when Roma played Liverpool in the European Cup Final there and lost on penalties. As soon as the match was over and the fans streaming out of the stadium, young ‘teppisti’, as chronicled in the outraged Roman Press itself, ran to their cars where they had left iron bars and chains with which they set about the bewildered and perfectly peaceful Liverpool supporters. Note the sequence of events. If the weapons were all there in readiness, the fact that Roma had lost so narrowly and even controversially on penalties had nothing to do with the assaults.

One of whose extraordinary facets was that Lazio fans pressed weapons into the hands of Liverpool fans so that they could defend themselves. It may very well be that these shocking scenes had much to do with the brutal disaster of Heysel which followed a year later when Liverpool met another Italian club, Juventus, in the European Final in Brussels. On that appalling evening, 39 Italian fans died when they were charged by drunken Liverpool fans behind a goal, and a wall collapsed upon them. A Liverpool fan who was there has told me that after what happened in Rome, the word among the Scouser supporters was, “Never again.” In all probability, they simply and dimly lumped all Italian supporters together, unaware that Turin where Juventus exist and Rome might just as well be two different countries.

Not only that but, abysmally, the Italian fans standing alongside the Liverpool toughs should really not have been there at all. The Juventus ultras, the hard nuts, were all down the other end of the stadium. Those at the Liverpool end were harmless “civilians”, in many cases families, who had probably obtained their tickets from Italian immigrants living in Brussels who had bought them. The shocking attack was something quite foreign to them and there was no chance they were ever going to stand and fight back; as full blown fans would probably have done. The Liverpool hooligans probably had no wish to kill them, but their savage attack had fatal consequences.

In April 2007, when Manchester United played in Rome in the Champion Cup, there had been scenes of appalling violence both before and during the match, in which the riot police when things turned violent — the United fans had been bombarded with bottles and threw some back — attacked the English supporters. “It happens to every team or country that comes here,” said a United fan. “But nothing will happen, it never does. Before the game, we were attacked by Roma fans with machetes and knives and the police teargassed us. One guy was talking to a steward and two police ran at him and cracked him across the face with a baton.”

How right he was to complain that nothing was ever done by UEFA, that abysmally ineffectual body. After such incidents, Roma should surely have been banned from playing Euro matches at the Olympico as indeed they should be now. It might not be necessary to decree that they play their home ties outside Italy; enough to oblige them to stage them in Turin or Milan, which would certainly reduce the dangers to a substantial extent.

Not that I expect much of a response from Michel “The Mouth” Platini who so disappointingly seems to be emulating the deplorable FIFA President Sepp, (“51 bad new ideas a day”) Blatter, constantly shooting out dubious suggestions. Castigating the major English clubs and their wealth or debts, while wholly ignoring the parlous plight of the major Spanish clubs, Real Madrid among them, with ill-administered Valencia crushed by a burden of debt which makes that of almost any English club look trivial. Platini; great player, dull administrator.

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