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My favourite game

[This piece was originally published over at Roma Journal, a fan site that will be picking up all my AS Roma related material from now on, and was inspired by Giancarlo Rinaldi’s newly released e-book ’20 Great Italian Games’, available on Amazon for the uber reasonable price of USD $2.99 – you’d be mad not to check it out.]

AS Roma 2, Sporting Clube de Portugal 1
Stadio Olimpico, Rome, October 23 2007

Sporting1A twitter account called ‘Half Scarf Twat’ recently featured one of my Scarves on Statues photographs – the one of Gandhi outside the Wellington Railway Station. The modus operandi of this self-identified ‘twat’ being to name and shame plastic fans who aren’t supporting their teams properly. According to him, “Half and Half Scarves are WRONG. They are the evil of today’s game. Support YOUR team!” So much anger…

I’m extremely proud of my half scarf. It is amongst my most prized possessions because it commemorates my favourite game of football of all time, the first AS Roma game I ever saw live and in person in my life – our 2007 group stage Champions League match vs Sporting Lisbon at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

In the football fan’s bible, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby lists the conditions that must all be met before a game of football from his childhood is deemed “really, truly memorable”.

“I had to go with my dad; we had to eat lunch in the chip shop (sitting down, no sharing of tables); we had to have seats in the Upper West Stand (the West Stand because you can see down the players’ tunnel from there and so can greet the arrival of the team on the pitch before anyone in the ground) between the half-way line and the North Bank; Arsenal had to play well and win by two clear goals; the stadium had to be full, or nearly full, which usually implied an opposing team of some significance; the game had to be filmed, by ITV for ‘The Big Match’ on Sunday afternoon rather than by the BBC for ‘Match of the Day’ (I liked the anticipation, I guess); and Dad had to be wearing warm clothes. He often travelled over from France without an over-coat, forgetting that his Saturday afternoon was likely to be spent in sub-zero temperatures, and his discomfort was so violent that I felt guilty insisting that we stayed right until the final whistle.”

A very worthy set of criteria indeed in my eyes and these factors were all more or less there for me at this game with a few minor adjustments.

My father died in 1979 when I was just 3 years old so I never really got a chance to get to know my Italian side. I discovered calcio in the 1990s partly thanks to ESPN showing Serie A in New Zealand at the time, and I fell in love with AS Roma as a matter of course, but what I knew about Italy then had only come second or third hand. When I went on my voyage of discovery in 2007, it was my chance to explore my roots and soak it all in for myself.

Experiencing a Roma game was top of my list of must-dos. When people arrive in Rome for the first time, their natural inclination might be to head straight for the Coliseum, or the Trevi Fountain. Mine was to make straight for the Roma shop in Piazza Colonna and snap up tickets for two games. Roma vs Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League and Roma vs Lazio in Serie A a week or so later.

My thoroughly kiwi mother, having watched me grow up, always a little bit different from the other kids, not really fitting in, wanted to be with me on this trip and be part of my journey. She wanted to experience what I experienced and she was keen to come along to a game and see what all the calcio fuss was about. We thought the derby might be a bit dangerous so the Sporting game was selected for this purpose.

On the day of the game we purchased train tickets and hit the tracks, arriving at Roma Centrale Termini from our Latina base with plenty of time to kill. We didn’t eat lunch in the chip shop – my Italian relatives never would have let us live that down. New Zealand was famous to them for two things – the All Black haka and fish and chips. One of their favourite things to do was screech “FEESH AND CHEEPS!” at us and burst into hysterics. I didn’t have the heart to break it to them that in New Zealand it’s actually “fush und chups”. So no chups for us, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We instead had pizza in the pizza capital of the known universe.

After a short taxi ride along the Lungotevere Flaminio, we walked across the river via the Ponte Duca D’Aosta with thousands of other fans, past all the kiosks selling scarves, hats and ultras memorabilia, though the gates, across the Foro Italico and into the famous stadium where New Zealand’s own Peter Snell won gold at the 1960 Olympic Games. We sat in the Tribuna Tevere, on the side of the stadium closest to the Tiber, between the half way line and the Curva Sud, so we had a great view of most of the excitement – both on the pitch and in the crowd. The magnificent crowd.

Focussing on the game was nearly impossible. I had to fight very hard with myself not to spend the entire time gaping open mouthed at the ultras. The Curva Sud was full of people, passion and choreography as you would expect in a game versus the champions of Portugal. The songs, the flares and the flags – it’s a feast of sight and sound that stays with you for the rest of your life.

CurvaSudRoma13_B72

We did however manage to tear our wide kiwi eyes from the fans and watch the game from time to time, and in terms of the emotional rollercoaster you get from a perfect football match, we got to feel it all.

The one thing I must disagree with Mr Hornby on is I place more value on a close game than he appears to and so winning by one clear goal is for me more satisfying than one of his soppy two goal victories, even if it doesn’t always seem that way at the time. You get to experience a fuller range of passions and there is nothing like the thrill of ecstasy that comes so soon after the depths of despair. You tend to appreciate things more when they don’t come easy. A late winner is the ultimate football experience.

But first there was the relief that floods through you after the tension that has built up over the months leading up to an experience like this, is released by an opening goal for your team, in this instance delivered through a header from Brazilian defensive rock Juan. The frustration of conceding almost straight after that was also a necessary element of our story, the agony before the ecstasy – how quintessentially Roma. The desperation and despair that came along with the prospect of only taking a point from the game was real. With Manchester United also in our group, it might as well have been a death sentence.

Then, in the 69th minute, just when we thought it was all starting to slip away, super-sub Mirko Vucinic gathered in a pass from Marco Cassetti a few metres out from the left hand corner of the penalty area, right below where we were sitting. He drove forward and in the process of shaking off his first defender he found himself right on the goal line, still only just inside the box. He looked to have blown it but then he drove along the goal line, somehow jinked slightly back inside around another defender on the edge of the 6 yard box and in the same movement, from an impossible angle, floated an inch perfect shot that dissected the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand and the inside post. It was the best goal I’ve ever seen in my life and never mind ‘The Big Match’ on Sunday, when we got back to New Zealand a month later it was still being replayed over and over again on ESPN.

My mum missed this wonder strike because she was using the bathroom at the time, a fact I will probably never cease reminding her of because it was unforgivable, but at least she was warm enough to never once suggest leaving early and as a result, I got to hear ‘Grazie Roma’, the song played over the stadium PA after every Roma home victory, in its full glory, without Tommy Smyth or Janusz Michallik talking over the top of it about some meaningless statistic. There is no other feeling like it.

The only slight dampener on the evening was Totti getting injured early in the game meaning I only got to see a limited amount of my all-time favourite player, but I’m not complaining, I still got to see him play half an hour longer than most people get to.

Not even the bus driver getting lost on the way back to the Termini could inflict the slightest dent to our spirits. Watching him ask for directions, only for half the bus to yell “DESTRO!” (right) while the other half yelled “SINISTRA!” (left) as he jerked around making up his mind who to believe only added to the Romanesqueness of the occasion. We didn’t miss the train back to Latina because that was an hour late too – nothing but another important part of my re-education on the quirks of life in the best place in the world.

The second AS Roma game I ever saw live and in person was, as alluded to earlier, the Derby della Capitale, won by Roma 3-2. Some people in my shoes might have chosen that as their favourite game. But nothing can beat one’s first time, and I’m pretty sure nothing ever will.

Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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