WEDNESDAY, JAN. 22
So the Denver Broncos are in the Super Bowl, huh? Tuesday night here in Rome I experienced a sports event that’s even bigger. At least, the local press thought so. I don’t think my old Denver Post will devote 18 pages to the Super Bowl on game day. I doubt it will give 12 pages the day after, either.
The Corriere dello Sport did. This wasn’t the World Cup. This wasn’t for the scudetto, the Italian term for the Serie A, or Italian League, championship. This was for the Italian Cup quarterfinal.
Not that the coverage was over the top but one picture and caption covered a player’s girlfriend. The fact that the player’s marriage was falling apart because of said girlfriend was the hook. Nevertheless, it shows the Italian press doesn’t miss, pardon the expression, any angle.
Soccer as a religion is ancient news in Italy. There are archives of pictures of plump popes in full robes playfully booting a soccer ball over the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square. But how an Italian Cup quarterfinal captivated this city of 3.5 million is another example of how soccer in Italy can’t be described. It must be experienced.
Keep in mind that of all the trophies available to Italian soccer, the Italian Cup would not crack the top five. Played every year since 1937, it’s technically the national championship. It’s “technically” because it involves 78 pro clubs in the country, starting with Serie C teams who play in mud bogs next to vineyards and a few rows of bleachers. The knockout tournament doesn’t include Serie A’s top eight clubs until the fourth round. The winner’s prize is a berth in the UEFA Europa League, a continental tournament involving the second-tier clubs in every country.
It’s European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.
Since Italy’s top teams almost always qualify for the Champions League, involving the top clubs in Europe and considered the second biggest prize in world soccer, the Italian Cup is viewed as a necessary nuisance.
Except last night. Except in Rome.
A little background: Picture the New York Yankees in the 1920s and ’30s and you have what Juventus has been to Italian soccer in the last half century. It has won 29 scudettos and is fourth in Europe for the most overall trophies won. It is 18-1-1 this season and leads Serie A by eight points. That equals two wins and two ties just over halfway through the season.
Roma is in second at 14-1-5. Just 17 days ago, Roma went up to Turin, where Juventus plays, and got creamed, 3-0. Revenge is big in Rome. (Read what they did in the Colosseum to prisoners of war.) Add the nugget that Roma lost last year’s Italian Cup final to Lazio, a cross-town arch-rival so vile Roma fans spit up linguini when they see Lazio’s sky blue colors, and this Italian Cup has meaning.
It didn’t get the TV ratings the Super Bowl will but no way did Sports Authority Field’s noise meter Sunday reach the heights Rome’s Olympic Stadium did Tuesday. I covered the Broncos at old Mile High Stadium, Germany’s opening World Cup match in Munich and football games all over the SEC.
Nothing I have heard reached the noise output in Olympic Stadium. Nothing.
It was only 56,557 fans but they crammed every seat in the old yard. Built for the 1960 Olympics, it still drips with glory from the statues that line the walk into the stadium to trademark round roof. The only empty seats were one vacant section. That sliver of seats, along with a high fence and armored cops lining every row, separated the 3,000 Juventus fans from the vicious fan base in Curva Nord, the cheap seats behind the goal.
Roma hates Juventus. It has what Roma wants: world glory. Roma hasn’t won a scudetto since 2001 and has only nipped at Juventus’ heels ever since. The venom spewed forth the minute Juventus’ goalies went out to warm up. The whistles and taunts and boos rolled down the stands like runaway boulders. When the rest of the Juventus roster came out, the famous chant began.
“JUVE! JUVE! VAFFANCULO! JUVE! JUVE! VAFFANCULO!” (JUVE! JUVE! GO FUCK YOURSELF! JUVE! JUVE! GO FUCK YOURSELF!)
This was 45 minutes before kickoff.
As game time approached, Curva Sud, the more savage of the two end zone fan bases, set off flairs and smoke bombs, all barely hiding the hundreds of giant flags that made Curva Sud look like one giant pulsating muscle. Cannon shots went off every 60 seconds or so. Songs were screamed, a couple of them actually clean.
Meanwhile, Juventus treated the game like an amusing yawn. It held out five starters, including Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian national team captain, the hero of the 2006 World Cup victory and still considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Juventus hasn’t won the Italian Cup since 1995 and playing Roma didn’t inspire much more incentive.
If this is a rivalry, Juventus is Nebraska football to Roma’s Colorado in the late ’80s and ’90s.
Roma dominated from the very beginning. It peppered backup goalkeeper Marco Storari, a 37-year-old journeyman, with shots throughout the first half even though many were airmailed into the night. Juventus spent some of the first half just passing it among defenders, giving fuel to every American critic who calls soccer kickball.
Things intensified in the second. Rudi Garcia, Roma’s new French coach who has become more popular in Rome than Marcus Aurelius and pasta carbonara, put in Miralem Pjanic, a Serbian noted for an unusually large head and unusually great speed. The strategy paid off. In the 74th minute, Pjanic sped down the left flank and dribbled a soft pass toward the end line to Strootman. He stopped and kicked backward to a charging Gervinho, Roma’s explosive Ivory Coast striker who leaped and used his heel to ricochet the ball right under Storari’s arm into the net.
You could watch a season’s worth of MLS games and not see a goal that pretty. You could watch a decade and not hear a roar like I did.
The score held up. More than 56,000 fans stayed afterward, swaying back and forth in a long, heart-felt rendition of “Grazie Roma.” Roma’s players clasped hands and ran to Curva Nord and Curva Sud to, well, thank Rome.
Afterward in the press conference, Juventus coach Antonio Conte talked about how the loss only hurt their momentum in Serie A. There was nothing crestfallen about his face. In fact, I think I saw him glance at his watch a couple times.
Roma must wait for its next opponent. If Lazio beats Napoli Wednesday, the two hated rivals play the two-legged semifinals wrapped around a scheduled Serie A game.
Against each other.