AVELLINO, Italy — My long-awaited transition from sportswriter to sports fan has had its drawbacks. It’s kind of like leaving a long-time marriage then stumbling through the dating world again, getting in touch with heartbreak you haven’t experienced since high school.
My love for AS Roma has transformed my stylish penthouse apartment in Rome into a not-so-trendy red-and-yellow theme. I have AS Roma pennants, AS Roma flags, AS Roma couch pillows. I have AS Roma pot holders, for God’s sake. I even have two AS Roma boxes in my windowed cabinet just because, well, they say “AS Roma.” They’re even empty. I could wear AS Roma gear every day for a month and never wear the same thing twice.
My entire apartment looks like the bedroom of a teenage boy.
Every year I give Roma’s schedule to my girlfriend so she knows she’s free during that three-hour time period every week. I long ago free kicked my professional objectivity. When I watch my team gag like rabid dogs I want to execute the entire roster.
Now into my sixth soccer season in Rome, I’m experiencing something new, one few American sports fans ever feel.
Can a true sports fan give his heart to two teams in the same sport? I am. I find myself drifting up my hill to a small soccer field with a grandstand on only one side. Here I have become one of the growing number of fans following ASD Trastevere, a team in the bowels of the Italian soccer’s long hierarchy.
It’s in Serie D. That’s fourth division. That’s not even professional. It’s semi-pro. It’s like being a Yankees fan yet having season tickets to the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones.
I first wrote about Trastevere when I discovered it three seasons ago but now the love affair has advanced from a cheap fling to genuine feelings. Part of it is in April I moved to Monteverde, the neighborhood where Trastevere Stadium sits just a 15-minute walk away. I’m a one-stop tram ride down the hill to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood where the team was founded in 1925.
Also, ASD Trastevere is on pace to make history.
It’s in first place. If it finishes first, it will advance to Serie C for the first time since 1947-48. That’s Serie C as in third division, as in TV coverage, salaries, league money, legitimacy.
Then consider this: As recently as six years ago, ASD Trastevere did not exist. In seven seasons it has gone from Terza Categoria, the sixth division of the amateur ranks, to the brink of Italian pro soccer. While A.S. Roma has vacillated between Champions League fame and the coach hopping on and off the hot seat, I’ve watched ASD Trastevere slowly rise in my backyard.
On Sunday I went along for part of the ride.
I joined the team’s braintrust, president Pier Luigi Betturri and vice-president Bruno D’Alessio, along with friend and ANSA sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, on a 155-mile road trip against second-place US Avellino. Avellino, about 40 miles northeast of Naples, has two claims to fame: One, it hosted the greats of Italian soccer as a Serie A member from 1978-88; two, it served as the ancestral home of Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.” The show is dead but the Camorra crime syndicate remains alive in the Campania region.
Betturri owns Carlo Menta, the wildly popular Trastevere restaurant where photos of Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra share wall space with ASD Trastevere strikers. I could tell business was good when we met at the restaurant and hopped in his silver 2016 Maserati Ghibli.
“It has a Ferrari engine,” Betturri told me.
That explains why we tore down the autostrade at about 155 kilometers (95 miles) an hour. I’ve gone on a Trastevere road trip before but this was the first time with the president. Betturri, trim, always sharply dressed and looking much younger than his 65 years, was raised in Trastevere, back before it became Rome’s party central. Once slave quarters and a Jewish neighborhood, it evolved into a fish market and a close-knit home to many true Romans. It was considered the Brooklyn of Rome.
“It was populated by the neighborhood people,” Betturri said as I tied my seat belt into a double knot. “Then in the ‘70s came the artists, the painters, the actors, the journalists, the communists.
“It’s changed a lot. But its soul still remains.”
Financial problems sidelined Trastevere soccer from 2002-12 but since he took over in 2012 the club has expanded its footprint past the ‘hood’s birrerias, trattorias and pizzerias and gone across the bordering Tiber River. Two weeks ago Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based national sports daily, did a double-page spread on the club’s success. I’m seeing more people around Rome wearing red Trastevere gear, much of it sold from the Trastevere Store that opened two years ago near his restaurant.
But while nirvana may be on the horizon, demons await. Moving to Serie C would require a different stadium. Trastevere Stadium is as picturesque as an Italian model with the greenery of Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s largest park, forming the backdrop behind the team benches. But it seats only 800 and has only one entrance. It can not be expanded.
Betturri told Corriere dello Sport that one alternative could’ve been 30,000-seat Stadio Flaminio, built in 1959 and the site of Michael Jackson concerts, Italy’s national rugby team and the 1989-90 season for AS Roma and Lazio, its inner-city rival, while Olympic Stadium was being renovated. But the rugby team left for Olympic Stadium in 2011 and Flaminio is in full-fledged post-apocalyptic decay, an empty shell overtaken by weeds and civic neglect. It would be easier to renovate the Colosseum.
He told me two viable options are Stadio Casal del Marmo, a 2,250-seat facility in northern Rome which has been home to other Serie D clubs, and 9,980-seat Stadio Raul Guidobaldi, home to Serie C FC Rieti. But it’s in Rieti, 80 kilometers north of Rome. Trastevere’s one “in” is D’Alessio is friends with the Rieti mayor.
Also, Betturri’s expenses would explode. Serie D is semi-pro, meaning some players don’t get paid; others get some. Few get enough to live on. Serie C payrolls are about 500,000 euros. He’ll need to sell a lot of pasta carbonara.
However, the Serie C federation gives each club from 400,000-1 million euros, depending on the team, compared to the 20,000-30,000 Serie D receives. Betturri admitted a far-flung idea that maybe Serie C will let Trastevere compete as a semi-pro team and remain at Trastevere Stadium.
Of course, this is all so much wine talk until they actually win their Girone G, one of nine Serie D groups, the winners of which get promoted to Serie C. Betturri remembers two seasons ago when Trastevere had a comfortable lead going into the last month of May and lost the title by one point.
“I guess we weren’t ready to move onto the professionals,” he said.
Maybe in Avellino, the biggest game of the season, they’d be more professional.
The town of Avellino has 56,000 people right smack dab in the middle of Campania. You won’t see Avellino in any guidebooks or in the pages of Architectural Digest. It has that drab uniform feel of a quick rebuild. It’s the result of an Allied Forces bombing raid that cut off a German Panzer division in 1943 and compounded by earthquakes in 1980 and ’81.
The stadium, Stadio Partenio Lombardi, was built in 1971 but looks like it got bombed in ‘43, too, and never rebuilt. Its green, yellow and white paint is peeling. About half the double-deck stadium is closed off, leaving most of the grounds holding 26,000 looking empty and cold.
But during those Serie A glory years of the ‘80s, Avellino packed in more than 40,000 for games. Then began a slow slide into irrelevance, dropping to Serie B then C then bankruptcy in 2009. After resurfacing and climbing back to Serie B, the federation booted it last spring due to incomplete paperwork concerning a bank guarantee. The penalty?
As we arrived at the stadium well early of game time, we sat in a circle with some disgruntled Avellino fans, including Pasqualino Vuolo, Avellino’s accountant last season. He left the team after the controversy, through no fault of his own, making him the perfect source for an objective opinion. I asked him what he thought of those responsible, mainly Cosimo Sibilia, the federation vice-president who’s from Avellino and didn’t lift a finger for the club.
Vuolo gave me the two-fingered “cornuto” sign, the Italian hand gesture meaning, roughly, someone is fucking your wife. In other words, I curse you.
“I don’t like people who don’t help the team,” Vuolo said. “They’ll come today but they didn’t help us when we needed them.”
Luigi Fossacreta has been an Avellino fan for 50 years. He’s seen it all, from visits by Juventus and Inter Milan to now: a visit from a Rome neighborhood team. I asked him what’s the difference in play between Serie D and B. He turned me around and pointed at Betturri’s Maserati.
“The same difference with a Maserati and a Fiat 500,” he said.
The game started and about 7,000 fans crowded two sides of the stadium. The green and black flags, one with a skull and crossbones, and roaring songs gave this a Serie A feel in passion if not in play. Avellino isn’t a shadow of its former self. Players, unchallenged, kicked the ball out of bounds. They lost simple passes off their foot. They looked slow and uninspired.
Trastevere seemed jacked up by maybe the biggest crowd they’ll see all season and making a giant leap toward history. Stefano Tajarol, arguably the face of the club at 37 years old, scored in only the seventh minute when a free kick inexplicable scooted through the goal box.
Seven minutes later, Daniel Sannipoli, one of Trastevere’s teenage prospects at 18, headed in another free kick to make it 2-0.
Avellino never threatened. Sannipoli scored again off a deflected free kick and Davide Lorusso made it 4-0 on a penalty kick, causing Partenio Lombardi to erupt in vicious whistles, the European boo. Fans chanted “TIRATE FUORI LE PALLE!” (TEAR OUT THEIR BALLS!)
Flags stopped waving and fans screamed, “DOVE SONO I GIOCATORI? MERITIAMO DI PIU! (WHERE ARE THE PLAYERS? WE DESERVE MORE!) Two fans below us started screaming at each other in the indecipherable local Irpinian dialect, obviously in agreement about the team’s suddenly embattled manager. Maybe they said something about cement and the Bay of Naples. I couldn’t tell.
This is what I missed in 40 years as a sportswriter? I wonder when I will reach that level of bitterness, where I react to defeat with threats of bodily dismemberment.
After the game, a 4-1 Trastevere rout, Avellino’s players walked to the stands and acknowledged their ultras as is tradition. The whistles became so loud, nary a player raised their hand in thanks. They merely trudged back to a depressing, dank locker room.
Darkness had descended on Campania but a bright glow appeared around Betturri as he landed the Maserati back on the autostrade.
“They were great!” he said. “They were fantastic against Avellino, against a team that’s second.”
The season is only at the halfway point but Trastevere is 10-2-2 for 32 points, two ahead of second-place — and oddly named — Latte Dolce (Sweet Milk), a club named for a neighborhood in Sassari, Sardinia. (As I said, the Premiership this is not.) I asked Betturri how optimistic he is about promotion.
“In soccer,” he said, “you should never be optimistic.”
He does see one area he can count on more than the great collapse of 2017. This team is older. Sunday’s starting lineup averaged 24 years of age, a year older than two years ago. It has only six teenagers instead of seven.
They have a rising young star in Lorusso, 22. Parma, in Serie A, wanted to buy him near the end of last season but a foul up in red tape botched the deal. That sent him into a funk that extended to the start of this season. But he’s broken out of it, leading the team with six goals.
The leader remains Tajarol, a scruffy-bearded striker who has toiled for 15 seasons in soccer’s lower echelons, including Trastevere two seasons ago during the collapse. Along the way he’s been a truck driver and a factory worker to make ends meet. However, he tasted Serie C with Lupa Roma from 2014-16 and appears set on sticking around until he does it at Trastevere, too.
“That would be the ultimate,” said Tajarol he said. “I was 33 and if I go back it would be a dream. I’d be really happy above all for the younger guys. For me it’s important but for the younger guys more.”
And for me, too. I’m 62. I likely won’t live long enough to see AS Roma bring home a title to my adopted city. However, I may only wait a few months to see ASD Trastevere bring one to my adopted neighborhood.