Take a good look at this stadium. It’s called lo Stadio Domenico Francioni. It’s in Latina, Italy and one day Manchester United might well play there. In my little dreams.
Lower league football is great. You can tell a lot about a place, its culture and its people by going to a grassroots game of sport and immersing yourself in it. Going to the Stadio Olimpico for the derby between Roma and Lazio in 2007 was a lifetime highlight for me. But so too was attending a very different game a week later in Latina.
Latina, a city close to my father’s home town, is a funny sort of place unlike anywhere else in Italy. It is a new town, created by Mussolini’s government in the 1930s as a demonstration of the so-called glory of fascism. It is situated on what used to be known as the Pontine Marshes, an enormous swamp that emperors, popes, and kings had tried to drain for the previous 2000 years. It was not only a vast region that was completely unreceptive to any sort of agriculture, but it also provided a breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitoes. When Mussolini decided to tackle this problem, he ordered a massive project that included rounding up the unemployed from across the country and putting them to work digging canals, mostly by hand. They built new towns, cities and farms on the newly arable plots. Mussolini then personally handed the titles to the land back to the workers co-opted to the project. He became a hero to those people and remains to this day a hero in the local area. Latina, elected an openly Fascist mayor in 2002 with 73% of the vote.
This history is one of the keys to understanding the club. When you understand what makes the region and its people tick, you can understand the passion of the ultras and why, for example, they would do such a thing as storm the pitch and chase their own players into the dressing room after a loss, as they famously did in 2004. Stories like this are unsettling, yes. Yet they are also somehow endearingly quirky and quintessentially warts and all Italian.
Latina Calcio has not always been lowly. AS Latina has previously played as high as Serie C1 (now Lega Pro 1) before a rapid fall from grace that saw the club enter administration and split into two clubs, FC Latina and Virtus Latina, on the way down. FC Latina was entered into the Eccellenza division (sixth tier) of Italian football, Virtus started one division lower in Promozione.
When I visited FC Latina to watch an Eccellenza game, the first thing that struck me was the enduring memory that still burns strong in my mind. The ultras. Here I was, watching the 6th tier of Italian football and there was a packed curva nord waving flags, firing flares and singing with every fibre of their beings complete with choreography. Three years on and the song is still ringing in my head. I find myself singing it in the car, at the office, at the supermarket to the astonishment of those around me wondering what gibberish the crazy man is babbling. Foooooorza Latina! La la la la la la. La la la la la la. Ole ole ole ole ole ole ola. Foooooorza Latina!
It might not look like much compared to Roma’s curva sud:
(I had to find a way to use that picture)
However when you compare it to what I’m used to, perhaps a similar level in New Zealand, the best club in our top tier…
…ahem…it really makes Latina look wicked cool impressive.
The game itself was fairly unremarkable – it finished 0-0. But as I sat in the middle of the tribuna (a safe distance from the dressing room storming ultras) I felt all the passions of the spectators around me. My Italian isn’t flash but I know when people’s lineage is being alleged to contain various species of ape and I think the odd goat. As frustrations boiled over, hats were thrown to the ground with great force and people paced and stormed around in front of me with choice words and wild gesticulations. Through it all the ultras never stopped singing and dancing. The crowd must have numbered a good 2-3000 – the sixth tier! Incredible.
It turned out I was the inspiration that spurred them on to greater things. At least, that’s what I’m telling people. For the next year and a half I was nervously looking up FC Latina’s results online every Monday – even though the updates were so slow for such lowly football (I was finding out the result of each game two weeks after it had been played). In 2008/09, FC Latina made the promotion playoffs and went up to the heady heights of Serie D.
I was in Italy again at the time of the playoff final and I wanted to go to the home leg – the chance of seeing a promotion was too good to miss. So good that when I realised it fell on the same day as Roma vs Torino – the last game of the Serie A season, I thought long and hard. But given Roma’s position on the table out of the top 4 couldn’t change regardless of their result I decided to attend Latina instead. When I told some Romanista friends that I wasn’t going to the game and why, they looked at me like I was crazy! They didn’t say it but I could see it in their eyes – “you call yourself a fan?” As it turned out, they might have had a point. We had the date of the playoff wrong so I ended up missing both games – something that will always sting when I think about it.
Virtus Latina has been on the rise too. They were promoted to Eccellenza in 2007/08 and along with FC Latina, to Serie D in 2008/09. At that stage, sanity finally prevailed and the two clubs merged back together to form US Latina. US Latina finished last season mid-table in Serie D well out of the promotion zone, but applied for a Lega Pro 2 license anyway and due to so many clubs above them succumbing to financial difficulties they received it. Back in professional football, US Latina now sit in Lega Pro 2, not just making up the numbers but top of the table after eleven games. I hope this post does not jinx them but if they can hold that position, automatic promotion to Lega Pro 1 awaits. Next stop Serie B.
Having a second team, a lowly, even a semi joking team to support is not only romantic, but it can be just as rewarding as following the top flight. I would genuinely be delighted to have to hope they lose two games a season against Roma even if that would take away some of the quirkiness. They wouldn’t be as interesting in the San Siro or Stadio Olimpico playing in front of 80,000. However, until then, forza nerazzurri! No! Not THAT nerazzurri. The REAL nerazzurri!
NOTE: A portion of this post was taken from another I wrote about ANZAC Day over on the political blog Just Left under the pseudonym of ‘Dolan’.
UPDATE: Since writing this post, US Latina have finished top of their Girone in Lega Pro 2 and will be playing in the third tier of Italian football in 2011-12. Forza Latina!
Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma.