My transition from sportswriter to sports fan becomes a half-empty glass as I dread start of soccer season
A college basketball coach once told me something that best explains the relationship fans have with their sports teams. He said, “Some of these fans want us to win even more than we do.” For 40 years, I catered to those fans. As a sportswriter in suburban Seattle, Las Vegas and Denver, I worked day after day, month after month, year after year, to print every tidbit of information about whatever team I covered. I uncovered the truth, I criticized, I praised. The fans were often vitriolic, either wanting me or the entire coaching staff publicly executed.
Now I’m one of them.
My transformation from sportswriter to sports fan began shortly after I retired and moved to Rome in January 2014. I reattached myself to the fortunes of A.S. Roma, a legendary soccer club that lured me into its cultural kaleidoscope when I lived here the first time from 2001-03. This time it’s different. My Italian is better and I read the national sports dailies. This website gets me into Olympic Stadium’s press tribune for games. I found a fan club around the corner from my apartment in Testaccio, the neighborhood where A.S. Roma was formed in 1927. I found a pub in Centro Storico that shows every game on Roma’s schedule.
I bought enough A.S. Roma paraphernalia to outfit a souvenir store. I have A.S. Roma T-shirts, sweatshirts, warm-up top, slippers, bathrobe, watch, pennant, scarf, wallet, bookmark, photo album. I have a giant A.S. Roma flag in my bedroom. My girlfriend, Marina, often surprised me on dates by giving me new A.S. Roma underwear. I have become a full-fledged romanista.
The transformation never became so apparent than after games. In the U.S., I scrambled out of my press seat to interview the players while forming in my brain a halfway decent opening paragraph I’d turn into a story in less time than most people take to write to-do lists. In Rome, after a game ends, I order another beer or head to the closest wine bar to the stadium. However, as a fan there is one colossal downside.
Sometimes I don’t feel like drinking.
After 40 years of objectivity choking me of all subjectiveness, I now comprehend the fans’ anxiety, their depression, their anger. It hasn’t been easy being an A.S. Roma fan since I’ve arrived. Roma is a perennial second-tier club in Serie A, Italy’s top league. I take little solace knowing that only one club is first tier. Juventus’ six straight league titles, known as scudettos, kill my optimism by Halloween when Juve starts pulling away from the pack. Of the four major European soccer leagues — England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Serie A — no other club has ever won six straight league titles. In France, Lyon won seven straight Ligue 1 crowns from 2001-08. Juventus is favored to match that this season.
I don’t hate Juve like most Roma fans. I love its city, Turin, too much. However, I’ve learned to distrust Juve fans. All over Italy are Juve fans who hop on the bandwagon because they’re too boring to ride a wagon without company. Rooting for Juventus is like rooting for Goldman Sachs. After every conversation with a Juve fan, I check my wallet.
The new Serie A season starts Saturday with Roma opening Sunday in Bergamo against Atalanta, last year’s upstart. My blood is beginning to race. I’m devouring every word about Roma in Corriere Dello Sport. I can already taste the Nastro Azzurro at Abbey Theatre pub. I also have a feeling in my gut that so many of my readers had throughout my career. It’s a gnawing, an intuition that you tell everyone around you is true.
We could really suck the great big green one.
A reader once wrote me that about a story I wrote carving up Colorado’s football program. I have no idea what it meant but it sounded pretty negative. It seems particularly appropriate here. Also, take this with a grain of salt. There are people who see the glass is half empty and people who see the glass is half full. I see a glass so barren it has formed cobwebs. Combine that with my journalist’s ingrained pessimism, and you have a Roma fan who may watch the season with my fingers covering my eyes.
Keep in mind European soccer is different than American pro sports. Europe has no amateur draft. Bad teams in Europe are like moldy cheese. They can’t get good in a hurry. In the last 15 years, Major League Baseball has had 10 different World Series champions. Serie A has had three. La Liga has had four, Bundesliga and Premiership five. In Scotland, no one but Glasgow-rivals Celtic and Rangers has won the title since 1985. There is a bigger discrepancy of wealth in European soccer than on the island of Manhattan.
European teams are fueled by ticket sales and TV money and unlike in the U.S., TV money is not equally distributed. In Italy, the rich get filthy richer. Serie A signed a three-year, 2.82-billion euro deal that runs through this season. However, only 40 percent of the money is distributed equally. Another 30 percent is distributed based on club appeal. Plus, Serie A gets 300 million euros from overseas rights in continental competitions. Only 40 percent of that is divided equally. The rest goes to participating teams. So two seasons ago, Juventus received 122.8 million euros from TV. Carpi received 25.2 million. Needless to say, Carpi, a town of 70,000 where the 5,000-seat stadium was so small it had to play in nearby Modena, dropped to Serie B the next season.
Equality in ticket sales is a geographic impossibility. In Serie A, stadiums range from Milan’s 80,000-seat San Siro to Spal’s 12,348-seat Stadio Paolo Mazza in Ferrara. Juventus’ Allianz Stadium seats a relatively modest 41,570 but there’s one difference.
Juventus owns the stadium. It’s one of only three clubs in the 20-team league that reaps all stadium profits.
Which brings us to Roma’s dilemma and my angst. Its Boston-based owner, James Pallotta, is trying to build a $1.5 billion stadium about five miles southwest of me in an open, green area called Tor di Valle. Since the club formalized a construction agreement in 2012, the stadium has been one of the biggest hot potatoes for a city hall already bereft with problems ranging from disastrous public services to mafia corruption. City officials have mocked the original blueprint, told Pallotta to find another space and rejected the proposal before finally approving it in February. Meanwhile, the trash still never gets picked up.
Next month they’ll start a new planning process. In the meantime, the club signed a new lease with Olympic Stadium until 2020. Considering it takes that long to get a newsstand built in Rome, I’m not optimistic that Pallotta will get the stadium before I start babbling incoherently in a rocking chair about creeping fascism.
Neither does Luciano Spalletti. He’s the manager who led Roma to second place last season, its third runner-up in four years. So pessimistic of the club’s future, Spalletti is the only soccer manager I know who turned down a lucrative extension to go elsewhere. He’s now coaching Inter Milan which finished seventh last season. He left based on Inter’s new Chinese ownership which promised big investments but takes over a club deep in debt.
He left a club furiously paddling to keep afloat for another drowning in red ink. What does that tell you?
Following Roma in the off season was like watching Michelangelo’s Madonna crumble in the middle of St. Peter’s. First, striker Francesco Totti retired to the front office after 25 years as Roma’s icon. Then Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player, went to Liverpool; Wojciech Szczesny, arguably Serie A’s best goalkeeper last season, left for Juventus where he’ll take over for icon Gianluigi Buffon next season; Antonio Rudiger, their best defender, went to Chelsea; and Leandro Parades, a serviceable midfielder, escaped to Russia and Zenit-St. Petersburg.
In Spalletti’s place is one Eusebio di Francesco, whose claim to fame is taking Sassuolo from Serie B to Serie A in 2013. He got fired the next year, then came back a few months later and led them to sixth place last season and qualification for the Europa League, the continent’s second biggest club tournament. Di Francesco, who played on Roma’s last scudetto-winning team in 2001, may be a fine manager. But excuse me if I’m not excited about a team of Roma’s caliber taking its coach from a club that sounds like a porn film.
With limited funds, Roma brought in players who didn’t light up Rome chat rooms or its 24-hour A.S. Roma radio station. They brought in two defenders from Holland in Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord), who’s out until October with knee surgery, and Hector Moreno (PSV Eindhoven) who isn’t a shadow of Rudiger at center back. A third defender, Aleksandar Kolarov, played seven seasons for Manchester City, winning two titles, and earned 68 caps for Serbia where he was Serbian Player of the Year in 2011. Gregoire Defrel came from Sassuolo to take some scoring pressure from Edin Dzeko, whose 29 goals led Serie A last season, but Defrel hasn’t shown much in preseason. Cengiz Under, a young Turk (Literally, he’s from Turkey and its national team) may be the most promising new offensive player and looks young enough to be their academy ball boy. Allison, Brazil’s national goalkeeper but who lost the starting job to Szczesny last season, is elevated to starter.
They tried getting a marquis name in Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian star who led Leicester City to the shocking Premiership title two seasons ago and was named Premiership Player of the Year. But Leicester wanted 40 million euro and Roma wouldn’t go past 35 million. Roma has never spent more than 30 million on a player in its history.
They had a respectable showing in their U.S. summer tour. They lost to Paris-St. Germain and Juve in shootouts and beat Tottenham Hotspurs. They lost at Seville in a friendly only 2-1, all of which I followed in the papers. Sunday night my soccer withdrawal became too much and I made an early pilgrimage to Abbey. Its bacon cheeseburger and beer were a lot better than Roma at middling Celta Vigo, which finished 13th in La Liga last season. In their last tuneup before the season began, De Francesco started a squad that included only three starters. What, this is the NFL and he was afraid they’d get hurt? This is a team in transition, on its sixth manager in six years and in their last tune up he starts the B team.
My second beer hadn’t arrived before Roma trailed 2-0 after 22 minutes. Defender Federico Fazio, captain by default, nearly poleaxed an opponent in the penalty for the first Vigo goal and the fourth goal scored when he watched a cross go by like a little kid looking at a running puppy. They trailed 3-0 after 27 minutes and 4-0 at halftime.
At halftime, De Francesco reportedly exploded like a shaken bottle of fine Prosecco. He put in eight starters who held serve before losing 4-1. As Roma fans turned off their TVs at various points of the public execution, evil cross-town rival Lazio was stunning Juventus in Olympic Stadium, 3-2, to win the Italian Super Cup.
Juventus’ loss is a red flag for the rest of Serie A but from what I’ve seen and read Roma does not have the capabilities to fill the gap. We’re picked third or fourth, depending on the poll, with steady Napoli having the best shot at dethroning Juve and winning its first scudetto since Maradona led it to the 1990 title.
The season hasn’t even started and my descending hopes are already halfway to the gutter. Soon, they’ll join a thousand cigarette butts and maybe some shredded sports pages. I don’t have my objectivity to protect me. I don’t have deadlines to occupy me. I just have faith ingrained in the city and neighborhood I love, a faith that is more painful than joyful.
This is my fifth season in Rome. I’m wondering how fans do this for generations. I’ve never been to Buffalo. However, I now know what it’s like to live there. I’m discovering that the life of the fan isn’t all burgers and beer, high fives and cheers in the night. It’s anger. It’s frustration. It’s sadness. It’s resignation. Maybe fans were right.
Maybe I did have the perfect job.