After a few weeks of shuffling, the Serie A table starts to look more familiar. This is unfortunate since with the defeats of surprise challengers Napoli and Udinese, the big boys of Italy are on top. The Milanese teams lead with one point dividing them and Juventus are trailing close behind. Roma, of course, are still missing from the usual gang of four, and will be come the end of season, even though they might just have pulled themselves back on track with their unspectacular but hard-fought 1-0 victory in the Rome derby.
After an excruciating start to the season (eight points from ten games), Roma managed to turn their fortunes around in the match that matters the most. It wasn’t one of the most thrilling derbies seen in the capital but that doesn’t disguise its significance for the Giallorossi. The match also showcased Luciano Spalletti’s capabilities as manager with his successful re-organization of the team. The trademark stunning, dynamic football Roma has been capable of producing during the Spalletti era has for some reason lacked its gusto this term. It still remains a question whether it’s been because Totti has been lacking match-fitness, or the new signings (Babtista and Menez) haven’t settled in to cover the departure of Mancini. Be that as it may, now Spalletti seems to have found an answer. Roma might have lost some of their sparkle but have gained much in the overall balance between midfield and defence. Daniele de Rossi has had to carry most of Roma’s defensive responsibilities before, especially in big matches, but now part of the weight was taken from his shoulders by Matteo Brighi. The former Italian Under-21 captain played a simple but fundamental role in the victory intercepting Lazio attacks and occasionally surging forward dangerously. However, the masterstroke by the Roma tactician was the application of the criticised Babtista behind the forward duo (Totti and Vucinic) in a dynamic link-up role which suited the robust Brazilian perfectly. Babtista may lack in delicacy when on the ball but his sense of position, forceful dribbling and overall power were the keys in unlocking the Lazio defence. When in possession, the Lazio players were constantly forced to foul him with the conclusion that Cristian Ledesma got himself sent off for a second bookable offence that seemed a long time coming for the Argentinean. Fittingly, Babtista capped his man of the match performance with a wonderful header from a Totti cross to score the winning goal.
After the final whistle it seemed like Roma had won the Scudetto. The Rome derby is never a small occasion but this time it clearly had added significance. In no one was the emotive outpour embodied more than in the Ostia born Roma trainee Daniele de Rossi who was in a state of incoherent bliss after the match ended. He surged from one heap of players to the next before running to the front of the Curva Sud and spurring the Ultars on to an even more deafening roar. Yet, there’s a thin line between encouragement and incitement.
As a player De Rossi is the epitome of a dying breed: a local boy and a fanatical supporter of his home club who becomes an icon of worship for the very same people he used to stand and chant with in the Curva on Sundays. In an interview with Calcio Italia he stated that “Rome is my city and Roma are my club. I live amongst my people and I am happy here.” In purely footballing terms, the over joy shown by the future Roma captain gives a needed, humane face to the cynical world of badge-kissing footballers where all notions of locality, belonging, loyalty and pride have lost their meaning.
However, when this picture is looked at in the context of calcio where football and politics are not only connected but indivisible, the image looks worrying. During the last couple of months some Italian footballers (including De Rossi) have flamed the fire of latent fascism looming dangerously beneath the surface of Italian society. Although it’s the footballers that have recently been in the headlines, it is extremely naïve to think that this sobering development delimits only to the world of football. In a country where hard-line right-wing politics are enforced by a government that seems upsettingly sympathetic to fascist ideals, it is no wonder that pronouncements of extreme right-wing opinions have become more common and in the case of De Rossi they can be seen even beneficial to the person in question.
Although AS Roma’s hard-core supporters have traditionally come from the left as opposed to the fascist tradition among the Lazio fans (Lazio being the club of Mussolini), the Roma Curva, like most Curvas in Italy, has been taken over by the extreme right. Because in Italian football the Ultras still continue to retain an influential role in the power structure of the clubs, De Rossi’s flirtation with fascism can be seen if not necessarily calculated at least as a consciously fraternising act of loyalty to the people that make or break you in the stadium: the Ultars.
The city might be eternal, but times are changing at the Stadio Olimpico. Totti has been the untouchable talisman loved by the Roma faithful for nearly two decades. But with his advancing years, the throne will soon be taken over by another prominent figure similar in his relationship to the club yet completely different as a signifier and personality. With Totti Roma has had a lover who inspires with his exquisite touch and sublime skill. Who, despite all his on and off the pitch contradictions, radiates a cool, aristocratic grace on field. Because of this, though, he is more detached as a symbol. He is a figure who awes and inspires but with whom it is more difficult to identify. With De Rossi, on the other hand, the Roma Ultras will have a fighter to identify with, someone who in spite of his enormous talent signifies pure force and relentless determination These are the kinds of footballing virtues that work more expilicitly as signifiers of identification but also easily and for a valid reason get negative connotations in contexts outside football.
After the final whistle, as the substitute players along with Luigi Spalletti sprang ecstatically to every direction, Totti emerged from the dug-out composedly amongst the field of celebrating arms and faces. Statuesquely he looked on his elated team-mates without loosing his cool for a moment. Further away on the pitch, however, De Rossi looked a contrary image when orchestrating the Curva Sud in their celebrations. While Totti left the field applauding the Curva in his trademark regal manner, De Rossi strode off looking a militant sight dressed in a long overcoat and constantly punching his fist in the air like a man possessed until he was out of sight in the darkness of the player tunnel. AS Roma may still be ruled by the King of Rome but soon they will be getting an intimidating general.