When I got to Rome, I one way to learn Italian would be to read the newspapers as much as possible. Since the politics are too complicated to understand in English, let alone in choppy Italian, I decided to start with the sports pages. Rome has two top division soccer clubs, Roma and Lazio. I had no idea who to root for, and neither were doing particularly well to start the season. One Saturday, one of the people I was studying with suggested we go to a game. The games were at 3, and we could walk up to the stadium and buy tickets. About 5 of us got there around 2:30, but the game didn't actually start until 8:30 because it would be shown on national TV.

We bought tickets anyways and just wandered around the area near the Olympic Stadium for a while, then went out for Chinese food. In the end we had to rush back to the stadium to get there on time. Italian soccer is like nothing else on the planet, and I think all of us were shocked by the scene. We were in the Curva Sud, behind Lazio's goal for the first half, which are the cheap seats not inhabited by the ardent fans. But these folks were plenty ardent for me.

The Stadio Olimpico, as the locals say it, is a big wide bowl with a running track separating the single deck from the playing field. The sections are divided from each other by thick panes of bulletproof glass, about 12 feet tall. [see it]. Because we got there a bit late, we were forced to sit up against the panels of glass separating the Curva Sud from the visiting fans from Bari. Visiting fans are not like the people who root for the Red Sox but now live in San Francisco and so go to watch when the Red Sox come to town to play the A's. They are the mentally difficient people who have nothing better to do than to travel all day to fight with the police who are dressed in riot gear to keep them from fighting with the similarly difficient home fans. All this while people have paid to watch a soccer match at the same time. It's quite enjoyable, actually.

So we were pressed up against a column of bulletproof glass, and almost right away, Lazio went in front 1-0—but down at the far side of the stadum, and it was hard to see through the haze from the smoke bombs traditionally detonated at the beginnings of games. The game went back and forth until Bari equalized at the very end of the first half on a Lazio own goal. At the beginning of the second half, Lazio went down after leaving a man virtually unmarked on a corner kick, and suddenly, the visiting fans right next to us went wild. They started running and jumping into the bulletproof glass dividers and the five of us were honestly and probably rightfully scared. They were launching flares and smoke bombs, and making coordinated runs at the riot police. It was hard to concentrate on the game.

Then, in the 40th minute, just as the visiting fans were really ramping up their celebrations, smelling a victory, a Bari player was controversially sent off after a tussle with a Lazio defender. Lazio smelled the opportunity for a tie, and we started to get excited. Just after the end of the regular 45 minute half, Lazio had a free kick just outside the penalty area, just in front of us. Giuseppe Signori stepped up to take it, and blasted it into the net. [see the film—you will need quicktime, I think].

We started going nuts, and, more importantly, the fans around us started going nuts, and running back at the Bari fans and hurling themselves into the bulletproof glass. Now we really had to fear, as we were beseiged on all sides. There was still soccer to be played though, and four minutes later, now fully five minutes into discretionary time added by the referree for injuries and whatnot, Lazio grabbed a winner on a sort of freakish goal by Pavel Nedved, a Czech midfielder who would become my favorite player. [see the film] We spilled back into the streets as the game ended soon after, but not before waving goodbye to the Bari fans sequestered inside the stadium until it had emptied—for their safety as much as for ours.

And so my alleigance was set for all time. Not a good reason, for sure, but sometimes there aren't good reasons for loyalty.


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