A.S. Roma’s season breaks and swells the heart of this die-hard fan

The front page of Tuesday's Corriere dello Sport, writing how Roma's win over Napoli gave Juventus its fifth straight Serie A title.
The front page of Tuesday’s Corriere dello Sport, writing how Roma’s win over Napoli gave Juventus its fifth straight Serie A title.

My transformation from sportswriter to sports fan reached full immersion here in the back streets of Rome. It’s my second straight full season as a diehard A.S. Roma fan and I sense characteristics I hated to encounter in fans as a sportswriter. I’m equating sports teams with diseases. Lazio, Roma’s vile, puss-emitting, crosstown rival, is on my list for extermination by plague, locusts or nuclear weapons. I slam doors while walking out of bars after watching a crushing defeat on TV. I’m a 60-year-old man who wears red-and-yellow Roma gear on game days like a teenage boy on a playground.

I don’t get in bar fights over the best striker in Italy or write sportswriters with such constructive critiques, as I once received from a reader in Colorado: “YOU SUCK THE GREAT BIG GREEN ONE!” (I don’t know what that meant, it but it sounded pretty negative.) But after 40 years as a sportswriter, I have crawled into the skin of the average sports fan. I now understand what it feels like to have so much emotion riding on one sports event. I no longer look at sports as a launch pad for writing. I look at Roma games as a boost to a great mood the rest of the day. I care. I really care. Before, all I cared about was my deadline.

It’s with this in mind that I write an early season review of A.S. Roma. I say “early” because my lupi, my wolves, my giallorosso (yellow and red), are taking its dwindling mob of fans (more on that later) for a wild ride all the way to the final day. I went to Stadio Olimpico Monday to watch third-place Roma play second-place Napoli. Trailing by five points with four matches left, it was the ultimate must-win game. Roma won 1-0 in the 89th minute and now trail Napoli by two with three matches left. All that’s riding on second place is automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League and about 38.8 million extra euros to spend on players.

From a fan’s view, this season has taken me to dangerous preseason hopes, to a mid-season collapse to growing optimism, all the while laced with a growing resentment to other fans, Juventus and anything associated with Lazio swine. A quick review: Juventus, the four-time defending champ, lost three top players to greener pastures, leaving Roma as the smart preseason money to win its fourth Serie A title, or scudetto, in its 90-year history. Roma beat Juventus in Game 2 and started out winning 8, losing 2 and tying 2. Then over December and January it won only one of 10 games and James Pallotta, the American owner, fired Rudi Garcia, the nervous, skinny French coach whose team played as tense as he was. Roma brought back Luciano Spalletti, whom the team whacked in 2009, but has always pined to return. Since his hiring Jan. 14, Roma has gone 11-3-4 with its only losses coming against Barcelona in the Champions League and Juventus. Roma’s 74 goals are the most in Serie A. The fan base, meanwhile, has gone absolutely …

… pffft.

Curva Sud was less than half full, as usual, as Roma's Ultras continue to protest the barrier in the middle of the section.
Curva Sud was less than half full, as usual, as Roma’s Ultras continue to protest the barrier in the middle of the section.

In what is the most absurd fan protest of my life, a lifespan that goes way before the birth of the Super Bowl or designated hitter, A.S. Roma’s Ultra fan base has stayed away en masse. The source of their discontent is a little fence. The city police placed a barrier down the middle of the Ultras’ Curva Sud section to help create more order in the stands. The idea that a little fence separating their own fans down the length of the stands would stop them from throwing smoke flairs makes as little sense as the protest. Nevertheless, the club could do nothing to stop it and the fans were furious. Then Pallotta, after some banners criticised the mother of a Napoli fan killed by a Roma ultra last season, called the fans “fucking idiots.” That just steeled their resolve and even meeting with city and club officials has not closed the gap enough for the Ultras to return. And these guys have already paid for their season tickets.

Thus, arguably the loudest crowd I’ve heard outside maybe Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium has been reduced to something just above the level of some of the louder minor league baseball stadiums. It was no different Monday. I walked into my press tribune seat and Curva Sud was half full. No banners. No songs. No smoke. No nothing. Just a random collection of Roma fans curious about how the season ends.

A place in the Champions League wouldn’t be all they’d witness. They also might see the second to last game of the most popular Roman since Caesar Augustus. Francesco Totti, 39, has played 24 years for Roma. He has turned down big money in Spain to stay in his hometown. About 10-12 years ago he was arguably the best passer in the world. His 248 goals are the second most in Serie A history. He married a TV co-host so independent she has returned to her job and is often seen talking to fans and posing for cell photos at games. Totti has never had an off-field scandal or an abuse problem. When he scored two goals off the bench in the last five minutes Wednesday to beat Torino, 2-1, a young Roma fan was seen crying on TV. The next day, Totti tracked down the fan, a college student, and posed for a picture with him. Totti is the antithesis of so many American athletes. I find myself drawn to him like no other athlete in my lifetime. It’s the fan in me, not the reporter. It’s an admiration for all the ideals I believe in sport wrapped up in a hero for a team I’ve learned to love.

And the club wants him outtahere.

He’s not nearly as fast as he once was and he can’t crack the forwards lineup of Mohamed Salah, Diego Perotti and Stephen El Shaarawy, who’s on the Italian national team. Totti’s contract expires at season’s end. Pallotta offered him a vice-president’s position. Spalletti won’t start him. I read one report that if Totti returns next year, Spalletti will seek the Italian national coaching job. When Totti scored the second goal to beat Torino, Spalletti had a smile that, as ESPNFC.com’s Terry Daley wrote, “looked like it was being held up by a pair of wire hangers.”

Totti, who wants to play one more season, didn’t start again Monday. The game, despite its importance, had all the atmosphere of a Florida Marlins game. Napoli, merely needing a tie to all but lock up the Champions League spot, played defensive despite the return from a three-game suspension of Gonzalo Higuain, the top scorer in Serie A. Roma wasn’t sharp. Players were kicking and dribbling out of bounds. Higuain elbowed defender Kostas Manolas in the eye and he had to leave. Roma couldn’t mount a threat.

The crowd was so dead, I could hear the boots meet the ball. I heard players yelling at each other. I heard Spalletti yelling at the players. Napoli, whose fans travel as well as anyone in the league, had their fans in Campania banned to prevent any possible riots between the two bitter rivals. They had just enough supporters — transplants from around Rome — in their one section to fill the bathroom of a large enoteca. Wojciech Szczesny, Roma’s goalkeeper off Poland’s national team, stone cold stopped Higuain twice on dead-on shots.

Then Totti entered. Then something changed. I don’t believe in a god, but if there is one in Rome, he wears red and yellow. Nine minutes after he came off the bench, he clipped a pass to Salah who sent a beautiful cross to Radja Nainggolan, Roma’s heavily tattooed half-Belgian, half-Indonesian, tough-as-a-street-fighter midfielder. He beautifully curled a dribbler into the right-hand corner to keep Roma’s season alive.

As his shot hit the back of the net, the entire press tribune rose and scream, breaking every professional code in journalism. My 40 years of sportswriting held firm. I stayed in my seat, said nothing and merely wrote, “ROMA 1-0.” Then I allowed myself a little smile.

Maybe Spalletti has been the genius all along. Maybe this is how you use an aging superstar: in spots, in desperation, in positions Totti has been in so many times before. He has offers from U.S. and the United Arab Emirates and already turned down one from China. Tuesday La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the club will offer him a one-year contract. The club says there will be an announcement this week.

Thursday is the first day of season ticket renewals. The Ultras haven’t said they’ll be back. I will. FORZA ROMA! (GO ROMA!)