Champions League final? The Vatican had its own championship soccer game

St. Peter's Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday's final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

St. Peter’s Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday’s final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

Every seminary student in Rome studying to be a priest sets himself on a personal mission. He is dedicating his life to carrying God’s message, to bring joy to people, to build fraternity among his fellow man.

Saturday afternoon the mission for Stephen Cieslak, ordained as a deacon just a week ago, is to stop a penalty kick from Robert Kayiwa, a seminary student from Uganda. There will be more important times in these two men’s lives, but without a Bible in hand and clerical collar around their necks, no moment may be bigger than right then.

The two were engaged in a penalty shootout in the championship game of the Clericus Cup, a Vatican soccer tournament involving 16 teams made up entirely of seminary students and priests. Organized by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, it started 12 years ago when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, wanted soccer to teach the “language of the world,” billing it “Prayer and Player.”

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Saturday was the morning of the Champions League final. About 1,500 miles to the north in Kiev, Ukraine, Real Madrid and Liverpool would play before a worldwide TV audience and two fan bases that don’t take a back seat to any in the world. Going from one extreme to another Saturday, I took a bus to Centro Sportivo Italiano’s nice sports complex a long goalie kick up the hill from the Vatican City walls.

Past a basketball gym, swimming pool and soccer fields of various dimensions is a main field with a small grandstand where the third-place game had just finished. I met Mark Paver, an Englishman who just won third place with Gregoriana and is a four-year veteran of the tournament. Tall, lean and fit, he looks younger than his 42 years. I asked him why he plays soccer while studying to enter the priesthood.

“It’s a chance to be a Christian with one another and secondly to be seminarians with one another,” he said. “In my case, at this point, to be a priest and create an environment and set an example for others to see and think, ‘Oh, yeah. Those are normal guys. I can be a priest, too. I can be a Christian, too.’”

Paver started playing soccer at 6 years old in Manchester where he later played in semipro leagues for several years. Most of the players in the tournament played as youths then in other cities as they went through their religious studies. These are serious, pious men, dedicated to a religious calling where righteousness is at the forefront of their lives.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

But they play soccer. Many soccer players communicate on the field through conversational profanity. I asked Paver the obvious question.

Do you ever hear swearing?

“We picked a different way to live our vocation but we’re still human beings,” he said. “We still have blood running through our veins. And that blood goes to our heads sometimes.”

I asked what’s the worst he’s ever heard. He paused.

“I’m not sure I can repeat it,” he said, finally. “We try to let each other know when we think we’ve been wronged. Let’s say that.”

I walked through the fence onto the field in front of the two finalists who entered side-by-side in single file, just as Real and Liverpool would do later that night. These two teams were from opposite sides of the world: an American side with THE perfect nickname, the North American Martyrs. Their opponent was the defending champion, Pontificio Collegio Urbano, a group from all over Africa. Pope Francis even greeted and congratulated them at the Vatican earlier in the week.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Appropriately, the Martyrs were dressed in red, white and blue and Collegio Urbano wore uniforms of bright yellow and white. They looked like sprinting Vatican flags.

Without their religious gear, they looked like any rec league players, except the African team was almost universally short and the Americans were almost all boyish and almost, well, virginal. But they were all fit. I was curious about the level of play.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m still playing it,” Paver said. “That answers your question.”

If the level isn’t high, the passion is. The small grandstand seating 200 was packed, all with mostly students from the 80 seminaries around Rome. On one side hung red, white and blue bunting, the kind you see draped around baseball stadiums during the World Series. Behind it and the Cyclone fence were Americans yelling “USA! USA! USA!” and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” On the other side, Africans with yellow and white stripes painted on their faces banged drums and sang the entire game, ranging from Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” to the rhythmic chant, “VAI! VAI! VAI! COLLEGIO URBANO! (GO! GO! GO! COLLEGIO URBANO!)”

The soccer wasn’t as bad as I thought. They passed well. They dribbled efficiently. They had a plan. Cieslak made a nice stop on a free kick then a cool one-handed grab of a corner kick. His counterpart, Emmanuel Umanah of Nigeria, had a couple of sliding stops on one-on-one confrontations.

Yeah, guys dribbled the ball out of bounds a couple of times. They kicked the ball over the goalpost more than under it. Cieslak’s goalie throws looked like a third baseman pegging one to first base. None of it bothered the fans who kept up the beat of the drums and the Americans’ chant that couldn’t prevent me from smiling: “LET’S GO MARTYRS!”

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Regulation ended in a 0-0 tie, leading to the penalty shootout, leading to Cieslak staring down Kayiwa. With the Martyrs converting their first penalty kick, Kayiwa took a long run and kicked a medium-speed line drive to the right — just about where Cieslak was waiting. Kayiwa walked back slowly with his head down. Umanah, showing fraternity, gave Cieslak a fist bump. Matthew Goldammer, a hulking redhead who looks a transfer from the Vatican rugby team, banged one off the left goalpost, making it even.

But Collegio Urbano’s Victor Tibanyendera from Tanzania skied one over the goalpost and William Nyce scored easily to clinch the shootout, 4-2, sending him storming into a sea of hysterically happy seminary teammates.

Cieslak, 26, comes from Portland in my home state of Oregon and went to De La Salle North Catholic High School. A goalkeeper since second grade, he showed up as a freshman and quickly became the starter when the regular keeper got angry and punched the ground.

Was it because he swore, he showed anger, he failed to show moral restraint and the school benched him to teach him a lesson?

“No,” Cieslak said, “He fractured his wrist.”

OK, it wasn’t the first dumb question I’ve asked in my career. Soccer is, in a small way, part of the plan for all these future priests. It’s not only to show their human side but it helps them work on the same skills they’ll need in a future parish.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to grow in fraternity,” said Cieslak who soon goes to a parish in tiny Tillamook, Oregon, for a year. “A lot of the things we try to do in seminary formation is to relate to each other on a fraternal level and on a personal level. When you’re out playing with other guys who are working toward the same goal, working to become priests, it’s amazing.”

Being a sportswriter for 40 years, I know athletes pray before games. I asked Cieslak who would God favor in a game if both sides are seminary students and all are praying.

“He favors us all,” he said. “There’s no favoritism with God.”

Then what’s the point of praying? I asked.

“It’s to thank God,” he said. “Thank God for our athletic gifts, gifts of our bodies and we can glorify him and we can glorify him whether we win or lose.”

The two sides greet each other after the game.

The two sides greet each other after the game.

But what does He think when you swear?

“We’re all capable of sin,” he said with a smile.

Soccer and religion transcends the world. Umanah, 28, the Collegio Urbano goalkeeper, started playing when he was a little boy in Nigeria and his friends kept taking him by the hand from midfield to the goalpost.

“They said, ‘Since you’re not good, stay here,’” he said. “‘If the ball comes, you take it.’”

Like the others, Umanah sees a direct connection between soccer and the priesthood.

“The world today, just like Pope Francis tells us, it’s a world that really needs people to go to the different areas to find people,” said Umanah who’s studying canon law. “I think football, apart for the passion I have for it, is also entering society and meeting people like me who are out in the world and trying to dialogue.

“Just like every other social activity (soccer) puts you in contact with people. For example, I never knew some of these footballers. Today, we and the Americans got to know each other. Now we know each other from different realities, from different countries. We get to share our stories and experiences.”

Later that night, I went to my soccer pub and watched Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius make two of the biggest errors I ever saw a goalkeeper make. In the Champions League final. In front of the world. He was last seen walking across the field crying, trying to hide his face and tears with his jersey. It was a night that may scar him for life. I’m interested to see what will happen to him, if he’ll ever recover.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

It’s all about perspective. A few thousands miles and even more levels below the action in Kiev, Umanah put the Vatican spin on sport.

“Today was a very nice match,” he said. “We could really see the evangelical spirit. If someone gets down, the other one helps the person. To me, that is the gospel.

“We lost and I’m smiling.”


Rome public transportation: A fiery controversy leaves me waiting for answers — and a bus

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo

The app on my cell phone mocks me.

I stare at it and so often it lies. It’s maddening, like the worst girlfriend you ever had, one that keeps returning to haunt you. It must have a mind of its own. Can apps have evil souls? The app is called Citymapper. It gives me the public transportation route from any Point A to any Point B in Rome. It also lists the time of arrival of every bus to every bus stop. Only one problem.

The bus often doesn’t arrive. The app says “in 6 min” then “in 12 min” then in “8 min.” By the time the third bus was supposed to arrive and doesn’t, I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary of Romanaccio, the sub-dialect of the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. The Romans around me remain calm, standing serenely as if this is as much a part of their day as their morning cappuccino.

Rome, once the most powerful society known to man, a city that has many of the world’s greatest museums, the best food and most beautiful architecture, struggles to move its citizens along its potholed streets. It has, without question, the worst public transportation in Europe. I know. I’ve been in every European capital except for a couple in Eastern Europe, and I never rent a car.

Besides buses not showing up, they are as packed as any in urban India. Buses and the limited three subway lines are often not air-conditioned, the bus tires go flat, drivers often go on strike and women get fondled.

Oh, yes. About twice a month a bus will inexplicably burst into flames.

It’s a mishmash of explanations, kind of like the fall of the Roman Empire. Corruption. Incompetence. Disorganization. And of course, the root of so many problems in Italy, the Mafia. But crime bosses are bit players, mere dime-store hoods in this drama that would make a good TV series — as long as the actors had cars to get to the sets. Good Lord, Rome has the only bus system in the world where the drivers don’t take tickets.

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After nearly 4 ½ years in Rome, public transportation is the one area where my honeymoon has worn off. I arrived in Rome from a completely different perspective than most locals. I was born, educated and worked my entire life in the western United States. Out West, public transportation is a rumor. Not one person from San Diego to Seattle could tell you what bus to take for any tourist site. Buses were just something that held up traffic. Growing up in Oregon 22 years and working in suburban Seattle for a year and a half and Las Vegas for 10, I didn’t once take a bus. Never. Ever. Not even one time.

In 23 years in Denver, particularly after living in Rome from 2001-03, I adopted more of a European lifestyle. I often took the bus downtown, site of my office and favorite watering holes. But in Denver, the only people who took the bus were the crippled, the poor and one environmentally conscious sportswriter. One New Year’s Eve, Denver’s bus company, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), offered free bus service all night. I took it downtown — alone. I was the only one onboard. Everyone else preferred to drive and drink. Then drive.

Is it any wonder that two years ago 10,500 people in the U.S. died from drunk driving?

RTD tries. Many Denver buses come only every 30 minutes until 8:30 p.m. Then it’s one per hour. I never blamed RTD, saddled with a true chicken-or-egg dilemma. They don’t have enough money to send out more buses; they don’t have more money because few people take the bus. For RTD to change its schedule it must first change American society. In the U.S., if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a life. Automobiles in America represent everything from your income to your political party. Yes, cars disgust me.

This is why when I retired to Rome its public transportation provided such a soft landing. From my perspective, Rome’s public transport was pretty damn good. At least, it was good enough to not add 25 percent to my yearly budget on a car — or add 25 percent more time wasted trying to find parking spaces. Buses go everywhere. The subway runs every five minutes. My Citymapper makes maps obsolete. I pay only 250 euros for a year’s pass. Last year I made 621 trips on buses, trams, the subway and regional trains. At 1.50 euro per ticket, that means the pass saved me 681.50 euros. That’ll buy a lot of wine.

I'm not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. "Merda" in Italian means "shit."

I’m not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. “Merda” in Italian means “shit.”

But then I recently wondered about the price I really pay as I waited on busy Via Nazionale in a driving rainstorm, looking at the electronic board above the bus stop indicating my No. 170 bus would arrive in three minutes. It never came. Then it would arrive in seven minutes. It never came. Then eight minutes. By the third whiff, I hopped on another bus and patched together a new route home.

Frustrated? Yes. Fortunately, I didn’t burn alive.

In July 64 A.D. Rome burned for five days. To this day, no one knows who caused it. Many blamed Emperor Nero; Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. What ensued was the Roman Empire’s first persecution of Christians, or, as advertised outside the Colosseum concession stands during gladiator games, “Christians on a Stick.”

It’s nearly 2,000 years later, and Romans still can’t figure out what causes fires. Drivers blame bad maintenance. Rome prosecutors blame corruption. Romans blame skinflint passengers not buying tickets. Everyone, however, does agree with the numbers. On May 8, the ninth bus this year caught fire, this time on Via del Tritone, the popular street near Trevi Fountain. The last escaping passenger had barely stopped praying before another bus not far away went Mt. Vesuvius, too. That made it 10 in 2018, meaning we’re well on our way to surpassing last year’s total of 22 which surpassed the 2016 total of 14. That’s 46 bus fires in less than 2 ½ years.

Cities have 46 tire sales. They don’t have 46 bus fires.

The organization running Rome’s public transportation system is called Azienda per i Trasporti Autoferrotranviari del Comune di Roma, or ATAC. I’ve suggested changing the acronym’s meaning to Authoritarian Transport Agency of Corruption but something was lost in the translation. ATAC is as popular in Rome as box wine. It receives less respect than Starbucks. Nero remains more beloved. Mussolini has nothing on ATAC. At least he got the trains to run on time.

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo

Romans have even adopted a name for the bus fires: flambus, a play off of ATAC’s previous name, Trambus. ATAC is just lucky the only person injured was a woman May 8 who had minor burns on her arm. In a city with 2,000-year-old backlit monuments and some of the most beautiful women in the world, it takes a lot for Romans to stop and stare. What usually does the trick is a 45-foot bus engulfed in flames rising to the sky and its tires exploding like small bombs.

One journalist was quoted in The Local, Rome’s English-language online news source, saying, “Only in Rome does a bus explode in the heart of the city and people immediately blame ATAC, with no thought of terrorism. It says a lot about our emergencies.”

Only in Rome can Islamic extremists become comic foils. After one bus fire, the TV ran a headline loop at the bottom of the screen reading, “Breaking News: ATAC claims responsibility for the attack in Rome.”

The center-right newspaper Il Foglio ran a headline over one fire story reading, “ATAC Akbar!”

Not everyone is laughing. Claudio De Francesco, the regional secretary of the Faisa-Confail union, which has gone on strike over the issue, told RomaToday that “It’s not safe with ATAC. By this point drivers can only pray that nothing happens, and we don’t even want to think about what will happen when it starts getting warmer.”

ATAC doesn’t just have bus fires. As an organization it’s a dumpster fire. It is 1.3 billion euros in debt and hasn’t turned a profit since 2006. Of its 1,350 buses, 500 were in the shop last June due to faulty air-conditioning or other problems, according to The Italian Insider. ATAC’s crack PR team jumped to the rescue, claiming the number was only 380. So it’s good ATAC cleared that up.

Many of the buses, including one that exploded this month, are 15 years old. Transportation experts, according to The New York Times, say a bus’s lifespan is about six or seven years. Thus, the list of maintenance problems would scare an Indy 500 pit crew: Overheated engines. Oil and gas leaks. Tires flat in a few hours. Jumping gears. Faulty brakes. One time last year the hand brake of a parked bus disengaged, sending it careening across Piazza Venezia, a massive roundabout with traffic similar to what swirls around the Arc de Triomphe. The bus hit a Smart car and injured a woman.

In 2016, a nuclear engineer named, appropriately, Manual Fantasia took over vowing to return ATAC to respectability. A 2017-19 industrial plan called for electronic tickets and an additional 500 administrative police to join 200 current ticket inspectors.

The electronic tickets never surfaced, meaning freeloaders are still hopping on and off the bus like children on a merry-go-round. In my previous three years in Rome, I was asked to show my pass, called a Metrebus Card, twice. In the last year, I have been checked about once every two months. Enforcement is improving. Getting caught means shelling out a 104-euro penalty on the spot, a fee that apparently deters no one. I see fewer tickets shoved into the buses’ little yellow machines than I do empty seats.

Adding to the nightmare are a fleet of drivers who no doubt hate life. You’ve heard stories about Rome’s traffic and drivers. Imagine spending eight hours a day driving a 45-foot bus through that mess. Adding ticket taking is apparently beyond their skill set, although they do manage to text at 50 words a minute during red lights.

My new approach to Rome's public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new approach to Rome’s public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Public transport strikes are also as common in Rome as wine tastings. No place else in the world do I know of where strikes are announced ahead of time. In fact, ATAC has its own web page listing all the fractured periods of operation and bus lines that shut down. And sometimes drivers act on their own. Strikes in Rome aren’t always over higher pay and better benefits. Sometimes they go like this:

Guido: “Hey, Giuseppe, you working today?”

Giuseppe: “Yeah, I’m driving the 170.”

Guido: “Want to take a break? I have a problem with my ex.”

Giuseppe: “Sure, I could use a caffe.”

So Giuseppe skips three rotations of his bus line while sitting at a sidewalk caffe listening to Guido verbally charbroil his ex-girlfriend. Then guys like me wind up walking through the rain to find another bus.

The most recent commissioner tried requiring drivers to punch a clock, which drivers responded with by striking and driving their routes slower than the horse-drawn carriages hauling tourists.

Every new elected official vows to stamp out Rome’s Whac-A-Mole corruption rackets. In 2015 Rome prosecutors investigated corruption in awarding contracts without due process, siphoning funds for sham consulting contracts and laundering money in San Marino bank accounts. The amount of dirty money involved topped 1 billion euros, according to Wanted in Rome.

In the past ATAC has been accused of printing counterfeit tickets, bribing politicians and nepotism.

Overlooking all this has been a string of mayors who have made no one forget Caesar Augustus. Gianni Alemanno (2008-13) of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party was tied to the Mafia. He allegedly accepted more than 125,000 euros from Salvatore Buzzi, the leader of Mafia Capitale, Rome’s local Mafia chapter. Buzzi’s previous claim to fame was on June 26, 1980, he turned on Giovanni Gargano, a corrupt judge who threatened to blackmail him, and stabbed him 34 times.

Buzzi and 40 others went to prison last year for pocketing public works funds. Consequently, like a junkie losing his dirty drug, the city fell apart. Alemanno’s successor, Ignazio Marino of the center-left Democratic Party, resigned after he was investigated for embezzlement, fraud and forgery tied to an expense receipt scandal.

His replacement and current mayor is Virginia Raggi, a 39-year-old former lawyer elected specifically from the outside of Rome’s stench-spewing political cauldron to clean up the corruption. But before she could show her clean, virgin hands, accusations of corruption started knocking off her cabinet members like plucked mallards. She went under investigation for abuse of office and giving false testimony during the investigation of one of her associates.

Alemanno and Marino were both cleared of charges as was Raggi of abuse of office although she remains embattled. Next month she goes on trial giving a false statement to an anti-corruption official, a procedure she encourages to clear her name. Consequently, Rome mayors seem no more empowered to clean up ATAC as they do the city streets, which have made Rome the filthiest capital in Europe.

Still, I happily hop on my No. 8 tram from my new apartment to Centro Storico. I’ll take the No. 871 to my lovely park, Doria Pamphilj. I’ll board the subway’s A Line to visit my Marina on the west side of town. I still love living here. It oozes history. It just doesn’t learn from it.

Yes, Western Civilization, Rome is burning again.

Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent and short height

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the "chic" neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the “chic” neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Home hunting is never fun no matter where you live. But try looking for a home in a 3,000-year-old city. It’s like stepping through a time machine and emerging in post-apocalyptic neighborhoods where everyone is the size of penguins and living on top of each other. I read a lot about how crowded and chaotic Ancient Rome was, despite its bacchanalian image of gold goblets and bedroom fountains. I just learned first hand what some of the housing was like. I wonder if Caesar Augustus ever did.

After four years in my dream home, a 45-square-meter penthouse apartment with a huge 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber River, I moved. About three weeks ago I resettled across the river and up the hill in Monteverde, a leafy, upscale neighborhood my girlfriend Marina calls “chic.” Going from my old Testaccio neighborhood to Monteverde is like going from a working class, trendy ‘hood to upper middle class. I’ll be fine as long as I can overlook Monteverde’s fascist roots. For three weeks I’ve learned to overlook the swastika knife carved into my elevator door.

I never thought I could leave my old apartment without openly weeping. It was the best four years of my life. I had wild aperitivos on my terrace, made great dinners for Marina, wrote a lot of copy in my little writer’s nook next to my sliding-glass window. It was the happiest home I ever had.

However, I left for the dullest of reasons: security. In Rome housing, it’s standard to follow up a six-month contract with a three- or four-year deal, including a two-year tenant option. My landlady, a single mother non communicative in two languages, never gave me more than six months at a time. She never gave me a detailed explanation except for, “John, I don’t want to be married to you for three years.” The 900 euros I paid a month was always well below market value so I always signed. However, at the end of every six-month period I faced stress not knowing whether she’d renew my contract or raise the rent. Due to Italian tax laws totally beyond my comprehension, she could only raise it a certain percentage. However, she could throw me out on the street any time. Rarely did she tell me her intention until the day we sat down with a new contract. She only raised me once in four years so I always stayed on.

When you’re retired in Rome, small stress becomes big stress. Hell, the only other stress in my life was getting enough foam in my morning cappuccino. Facing housing uncertainty every six months became too much. After four years, I had enough. During an argument over upgraded and ineffective radiators I paid for, through my one raised rent, I told her the Roman ubiquitous “Vaffanculo” (Go fuck yourself). I started house hunting the next day.

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci

There are two ways to go about finding a home in Rome. You can do it independently, scouring websites and want ads, meeting random agents or landlords in neighborhoods far and wide. Or you can go with one agency that knows your needs and notifies you of places likely suitable. I did both.

I have an excellent history with Property International (, run by two kind, knowledgeable British women with deep roots in Rome. The first apartment Property International showed me in my first Rome stint in 2001 I took. The first apartment they showed me when I returned in 2014 I took. This time it took a little longer. My apartment in Monteverde was the third one I saw. I had to pay a month’s rent as commission but that’s standard and it’s the best bargain in Rome. An hour after I paid it, as I sat on my long balcony overlooking the treetops of Monteverde, I forgot I even spent the money.

The search, however, revealed the real lows of Rome housing. Like any major city, housing is your most crucial expense. In Rome, where the cost of living (food, public transport, entertainment) is so much lower than London, Paris and New York, rent stands out even more. The rent here isn’t nearly as high but finding quality is challenging.

One advantage I have is I’m American. Many Italians prefer us as many of their brethren, rental agents tell me, often don’t pay the rent. Italian laws heavily favor tenants and evictions are nearly impossible. Many Americans here are on rich government contracts or, like me, are retired and financially independent. I don’t live hand to mouth. I can pay a year’s rent at a time if they want. I’m a landlord’s dream — except for the, ahem, occasional cleaning lapse.

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But along the way, I saw some hovels only a fruit bat could love. Some examples:

* The first place I saw was in Parioli, Rome’s most hoity-toity neighborhood. Its tree-lined boulevards pass pretty cafes with outdoor seating in the shade. Foreign embassies aren’t far away and embassy personnel populate some of the roomy apartments with doormen and elevators.

This was not one of those places.

As soon as I walked through a scruffy patio into a ground-floor flat, I came to the bed. That was most of the living room. A small table took up most of the rest of it. A tiny adjacent room held a kitchen and washing machine. The landlord, who was also the tenant, was moving to New York. At least he won’t be shocked at how small the apartments will be there.

* Centro Storico would be ideal. Rome’s historical center is the city’s nerve center. I stayed here my first two months four years ago waiting for a permanent place and had a blast. How could I not? Every night I walked past a dozen bars, enotecas and pubs and twice that many restaurants and trattorias. The first apartment I checked was on a quiet side street just across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, the massive 2nd century mausoleum Hadrian built that later became a fortress. The apartment looked perfect. Big bedroom. Shiny wood floors. Roomy kitchen. Long entryway with a writer’s desk. Only 950 euros a month.

Where do I sign?

Then I looked in the bathroom. The shower was built for jockeys. I had to bend over to get my head under the shower head which made my ass bang against the side of the shower. It’s a great place if I never wanted to bathe.

* I’m familiar with the neighborhood of Aventino. So are history buffs. It’s the hill across Testaccio’s main drag and is home to beautiful churches, an orange garden and one of the best views in the city. I’ve had numerous picnics on Aventino Hill, one of the famed seven hills of Rome. According to myth, Romulus and Remus founded Rome on this hill.

Just up the road from my old neighborhood, I wouldn’t have to change my nocturnal habits much. After I saw one 60-square-meter apartment, I wanted to ask the agent if the last tenant was a vampire. It was darker than the inside of a hearse’s trunk. We visited in the early afternoon of a sunny day. We turned the lights off and the 1,100-euro apartment was nearly pitch black. Rome is sunny 10 months a year. This would feel like every day was winter in Norway.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.

* Undeterred, I looked at two other places in Centro Storico. One was on Via Lavatore, so close to Trevi Fountain I could almost feel the water splashing on the front door. This zone couldn’t be more touristy if it was along the shore of Splash Mountain. A few doors down from the flat, a restaurant advertised, in English, “ITALIAN CHEF.” One gelateria may be the only one in Italy serving banana splits. Menus displayed outside had more translations than The Bible. I heard more Japanese on the street than Italian.

I walked in as two other potential tenants walked out muttering to each other. The top-floor, 45-square-meter flat for 1,000 euros had a nice writing desk next to a small window. A kind gesture but the slanted roof was so low if I stood up suddenly I’d brain myself. I had to bend over to get into a storage room. Too young to stoop and too old to sacrifice, I politely declined and left wondering how Centro Storico had grossly slanted the market unfairly toward dwarves.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.

* Another Centro Storico apartment was just off the main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele about a spilled Guinness from my favorite bar, Abbey Theatre Irish Pub. The 55-square-meter, ground-floor apartment for 1,200 euros was in a giant palace where I imagined nobility or successful painters lived during the Renaissance.

Very short painters.

In two rooms the top of the door came to my shoulder. I’m not that tall. I’m only 6-foot-3. But I felt like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Vietnamese tunnel. Who lives in these places?

Some of the buildings are hundreds of years old, dating back to before the Renaissance in the 16th century. Back then, the average Italian was maybe 5-5. It’s still only 5-8. Most Italians would find these places ideal, especially if they wanted to learn the Japanese term for “banana split.” They’re welcome to them.

My writing post for the next four years -- at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My writing post for the next four years — at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I have found my new palace. My apartment is bigger at 55 square meters with a bigger living room, bedroom, kitchen, even bed. It has a real refrigerator, not like my old one that brought back memories of my freshman dorm. It doesn’t have the glorious riverside terrace but the wraparound fifth-floor balcony is a great place to watch the sunrise over the trees, cappuccino in hand. It even has — gasp! — an elevator. No longer will I have to hoof it up 90 steps straight uphill if I forget a pen.

I’m paying the same 1,000 euros as my old place but the key is this: My landlord, a gentle, kind, married guy who’s my same age, gave me a four-year contract. This entitles me to a resident’s card which, in turn, gets me a family doctor. That’s important as I’m starting to approach the age of some of Rome’s lesser monuments. I get utilities in my name which means lower bills.

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In other words, I left heaven and found a soft place to land. I have four years to explore a new neighborhood, make new friends, discover new restaurants and drink in new bars. Monteverde has a deep, haunting history waiting to be studied.

In the meantime, I don’t want to meet the guy who carved that swastika.

Anniversary in Venice: A beautiful city in turmoil

Lido is one place to escape the crowds in Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lido is one place to escape the crowds in Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VENICE, Italy — It’s a sunny May morning, and Marina and I are sitting in the lap of opulence. Marina isn’t a high-maintenance traveler. She doesn’t need five stars on a hotel’s front door or china with her airplane food. She likes a breakfast buffet. That’s about it.

But in Venice, where we are celebrating our three-year anniversary, we find ourselves in a 16th century palace. A real palace. The huge living room has large oil paintings over elegant couches we can see in the reflection of the wall-to-wall mirror. Outside the window we hear the warbling of a tenor serenading a Japanese couple in a gondola below. Our bedroom is old, stained wood with a king-size bed and old portraits of ancestors who lived here in past generations.

Our living room in our 16th century palace.

Our living room in our 16th century palace.

This palace, or palazzo in Italian, was built in 1600. It was the time when Venice had receded as Europe’s greatest naval power into the cushy role as perhaps Europe’s cultural capital. It had charged from the Renaissance to the Baroque period with flashy paintings and contemporary music. Not that it had become a full-fledged tourist destination, but it also had 12,000 registered prostitutes.

It’s 400 years later and the owner of the palace sits by the window. The sounds of a steady parade of tourists crossing the small bridge over the narrow canal below us drift into the room. Gianni Piani, 54, grew up in this palace. He still lives here. But Venice is changing. Piani is changing with it.

“I am in love with Venice,” he says. “But for my family it’s impossible to live here.”

Venice gets 25 million tourists a year and locals are getting angry. Alamy photo

Venice gets 25 million tourists a year and locals are getting angry. Alamy photo

Marina and I have been to Venice many times before but never together. I’ve always maintained it’s the most romantic city in the world and my previous visit in 2015 did not dissuade me. Neither does this one. You can’t overestimate the positive absence of cars in a city built on 118 tiny islands. Sipping a spritz, Venice’s signature drink, on a small, quiet canal. Turning a corner onto a narrow, cobblestone pathway to see a fisherman mending his nets. Hearing accordion music while munching cicchetti, Venetian antipasti, as the sun sets on the water.

It’s like living in a science fiction movie where a world has banned the evil automobile and people are falling in love around every corner.

Unfortunately, in Venice the science fiction movie is headed for a tragic ending. Remember “Escape from New York”? Call it “Escape from Venice”: Terrorized inhabitants wildly flee a city before evil invaders sink it under the sea, never to be seen again.

In the height of the Venetian Empire in the 14th century, Venetians fended off Genoa and Hungary. In the 21st century, it’s losing to a new threat, one that has gone from friend to foe.


According to CISET, the International Centre for Studies on Tourism Economics, Venice had 25 million tourists in 2016. That’s nearly 50,000 a day. That’s just under its current population of 54,000, a number that will likely drop even more after you finish reading this blog.

Even small canals are getting crowded with gondolas. Photo by The Beauty of Travel

Even small canals are getting crowded with gondolas. Photo by The Beauty of Travel

In 1931, it had a population of 164,000. When I first visited Venice as a 22-year-old backpacker in 1978, it had 2 million tourists. Marina calls Venice “The city for lovers.” True. But it’s also a city for people with Yankees ball caps, backpacks, selfie sticks and fanny packs, most following tour guides holding little flags. On Sunday and Monday this past Easter weekend, 220,000 tourists poured into Venice.

“Forty years ago there were more tourists of higher quality,” Piani says. “Artists, intellectuals and so on. Now we have tourists who come in the morning, they spend five euros, they dirty the town and go away.”

This year alone, two tourists were arrested swimming in the canal. Two drunks were seen dancing near the hallmark Rialto Bridge. Public urination is common. I can also confirm, so is public drunkenness.

Piani is pissed. He’s not alone. In July, an estimated 2,000 Venetians took to the streets — and lagoon — protesting the uncontrolled tourism, claiming it has destroyed their quality of life. Piani agrees. When he was a child in the 1960s, he played soccer in the streets and rode his bike freely along the narrow pathways. His father swam in the canals.

A lone gondolier paddles up the Grand Canal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A lone gondolier paddles up the Grand Canal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

That was before nine or 10 cruise ships started docking here daily, some with 40,000 passengers.

“The school of my kids, it’s impossible to reach,” Piani says. “We need to wake up very early to arrive on time because the vaporettas (public transport boats) are always full of tourists. Going there on foot is impossible because you have to cross the town, skipping groups of tourists or the cruise ships.”

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, a stylish, independent 56-year-old businessman who also owns Venice’s popular pro basketball team, has come under heavy fire for not fulfilling campaign promises of stemming the problem. He has loudly talked of charging day-trippers and installing turnstiles and barriers to redirect tourists to lesser-visited sites. Locals would carry a Venezia Unica card to move about freely.

A gondolier with Giudecca, the southern most neighborhood in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A gondolier with Giudecca, the southern most neighborhood in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Governments have struggled to pull the trigger on such measures due to the city’s economic dependence on tourism. But Brugnaro sounds like one of the people, telling Corriere della Sera, “The mayor must have power to close the city off on crowded days.” Once a British couple complained to his office after getting charged 500 euros for a seafood dinner near St. Mark’s Square and a Japanese couple was charged 120 euros for lobster pasta. Brugnaro called them, on the record, “cheapskates.”

But the rise in tourism has made Venice one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I learned that first hand after we checked in and I quenched my thirst with a bottle of Peroni in a simple, tiny cafeteria. Peroni is the Budweiser of Italy, a beer you can get for 1.50 euro in working class bars in Rome.

I paid 4.50. Piani says the day before he bought 10 apples for 12.50 euro. But it’s not just the day to day prices that is turning Venice into a theme park. Tourism has made renting more profitable than owning. Piani has another house he had while in college that’s 75 square meters and rents it out for 200 euros a day. I feel I’ve got a bargain paying 150.

Despite the crowds, it's easy to find quiet, narrow canals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Despite the crowds, it’s easy to find quiet, narrow canals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Many Venetians have left their family home to less expensive places in Cannaregio, near the Jewish Ghetto and the train station, or Mestre, the last town on the mainland before the four-kilometer bridge takes you to Venice.

“Young people nowadays, or as it happened to me, they inherited a palace,” he says. “Otherwise, what do they do? Where do they go? In Mestre you can buy a flat with 120,000 euros and can sell a 50-, 60-square-meter house in Venice at 500,000-600,000 euros.

“I have a friend who lives in Sicily now. He owns a palace, a really beautiful palace at Rialto (Bridge). His daughter doesn’t want to deal with that house any longer. She lives in Mestre in a modern flat of 80 square meters and she never goes to Venice.”

However, there is a reason 25 million tourists come here a year. Venice is drop-dead gorgeous, still. If you know where to go, as Marina and I do, you can have a tranquil, romantic weekend without dining next to some accountant from L.A. As I’ve written before, the key to visiting Venice is get away from the Grand Canal. Its inlets are logjammed with gondolas. Its sidewalks are cheek to cheek tourists. The vaporettas bouncing back and forth at the stops are big and crowded.

Marina and I celebrating our three-year anniversary outside Al Timon wine bar.

Marina and I celebrating our three-year anniversary outside Al Timon wine bar.

Walk two minutes and you’ll find a quiet canal. We ventured to one of my favorite neighborhoods: Cannaregio, in the north end and home to the Jewish Ghetto and some of the most authentic local food in Venice. We hung out at two lovely, quaint wine bars on the Rio di San Girolamo. Al Timon and Vino Vera have nice picnic tables on the narrow canal with a little bridge that had a fraction of the foot traffic of the one outside our room. We sipped spritz, a Venetian invention made with bittersweet Aperol, Prosecco and soda water, and Pinot Grigio, one of the hallmark wines of Venice’s Veneto region. We munched on cicchetti of goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on bread, and prosciutto, brie and bell peppers on bread.

The forecast rain never came and we watched Venetians floating home on quiet motorboats as the sun set behind the bridge. Hey, can 25 million tourists be wrong?

Cannaregio is a quiet neighborhood near the train station and home to the Jewish Ghetto.

Cannaregio is a quiet neighborhood near the train station and home to the Jewish Ghetto.

The next night we dined at Osteria da Alberto. It’s in Cannaregio on that iffy edge where the crowds from Rialto stretch inland. Rialto is a mess, a pedestrian traffic jam, the Fifth Avenue of Venice. So many selfie sticks hover over the bridge it looks like it’s covered with miniature TV antennas. But we weaved through the maze of alleys and souvenir shops to a small bridge no more than 10 feet long. We looked down a tiny canal lined with centuries-old buildings of yellow, red and orange.

Next door at Alberto’s, old pots hung from the ceiling and local knick-knacks and black and white photos of old Venice, the Venice before cruise ships, hung on the walls. Soft jazz played on the loudspeaker. Marina noticed everyone around us spoke Venetian. I had a nice orata, or sea bream, which came out as a whole fish and Marina skillfully filleted.

At Sepa, they don't pour you a glass of wine. They pour you a bottle. Photo by Marina Pascucci

At Sepa, they don’t pour you a glass of wine. They pour you a bottle. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Working our way back to the Grand Canal, we found the darkest of Venetian bars. Sepa, Venetian for cuttlefish, is a tiny hole in the wall with two huge wine barrels serving as tables next to a whole display case of cicchetti — sardines, meatballs, little ravioli. Around the corner, a waiter filled a half-liter bottle with Pinot Bianco which he poured from a spigot in the wall. Marina and I stood in a dark alley listening to Venetian we couldn’t comprehend while she patiently waited until I finished the wine.

Every trip to Venice is a new discovery. You get that with 118 islands. Marina and I went to one of the bigger ones for one of the most tranquil experiences we’ve had here. Lido was once a magnet for the European rich and famous in the 19th century. Walking the quiet streets you can still see the massive villas they bought all now sporting pointy, iron fuck-you fences.

The view from the back of the five-star Hotel Excelsior in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view from the back of the five-star Hotel Excelsior in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the last stop on the vaporetto line is well worth the trip, especially in May. It’s before the long, white-sand beaches get busy in June and the Venice Film Festival begins in September. With the beachwear shops, the mansions and the lovely tree-lined boulevards, it felt like Newport, Rhode Island, before the crowds come. A short bus ride to the north end put us in the Aurora Beach Bar where we sipped spritzes and watched a black immigrant putting lanterns in the Israel olive trees shading us for the disco pub later that night. Alice Merton’s “I’ve Got No Roots” played on a loudspeaker. Only two other people lounged on the beach chairs as the sun splashed off the Adriatic Sea just beyond.

A short walk away is the Palazzo del Cinema where Hollywood’s elite gather to preview the next year’s top films. Unfortunately, the experience of being on the same steps as Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Dustin Hoffman evaporates in light of a building that looks like a fascist airport. It’s a long chalk white, two-story monstrosity void of decoration. Its lack of imagination belies the imagination it shows inside.

A quiet piazza in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A quiet piazza in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lido’s highlight, instead, is Malamocco. Called “The Little Venice,” it’s a neighborhood on the east end that’s a series of narrow canals. On this Saturday, it was deathly quiet. Not a soul in sight. We walked past a piazza with mineral water in buckets and a wedding inside a church. Down the alley we sat down at a great trattoria that’s a local watering hole. Al Ponte di Borgo is a crude pink building with a green awning and so dark inside I almost needed a flashlight to find the bar. It’s self service where I pointed to the octopus salad behind a display case. Two overweight, loud men behind the bar pulled out two big unlabeled jugs of red wine from a cooler. No menus. No English. Not even any Italian.

This was real Venice, unvarnished and unabashed.

Octopus salad at Al Ponte di Borgo.

Octopus salad at Al Ponte di Borgo.

Marina had a heaping fried fish platter and my octopus salad was a gnarly mess of tentacles. And very fresh. How fresh? The octopus still had shit in it. Yes, you read that right. It was real shit. And I did try it. It tasted like … well, shit. But the the rest of the meal was great and we chatted with the table of Venetians who talked about how Roberto Salvini, the leader of the fascist, racist La Lega political party that’s gaining a foothold in government, will lead Italy from its abyss.

We left Venice the next night vowing to return, undeterred by the crowds, the prices, the hassles. Venice is one of the most unique cities in the world, the most romantic city in the world. I’ll never tire of returning. But I haven’t lived here 54 years. I never played soccer in the streets or swam in the canal. Piani has. He also has a plan.

We will always return to Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We will always return to Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

He’s moving to Sicily.

A man remains in a coma as Champions League semi shines another spotlight on AS Roma’s vicious soccer fans

A hammer-wielding Roma fan approaches Liverpool fans April 24 in Liverpool. An attack left Liverpool fan Sean Cox in a coma. Times of London photo

A hammer-wielding Roma fan approaches Liverpool fans April 24 in Liverpool. An attack left Liverpool fan Sean Cox in a coma. Times of London photo

Peter Mooney is one of those European soccer fans who could tell you the best pubs all over Europe. He has followed his beloved Liverpool to Madrid, Barcelona, Dortmund. This week he found himself in Rome where he packed a little lighter. What did he leave back home in England?

Anything red.

I met him Tuesday night in the best pub in Rome, my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub in Centro Storico. He sat at the end of the bar wearing shorts and a nondescript shirt. He nursed a beer with his son and brother-in-law, also Liverpool fans and also wearing earth tones. They didn’t think it was a matter of packing. This week it was a matter of survival.

“We haven’t told anyone we’re Liverpool fans,” Mooney said. “We haven’t worn our tops. We’ve come here sort of incognito.”

Sport’s value to society is it unites the masses. It’s where a seven-figure stockbroker can sit in a dive bar in Queens with an unemployed iron worker and high five after a touchdown. At Abbey Theatre, art historians sit with coffee jockeys and scream at the flat screens.

But in Europe, soccer can also divide the masses. In Rome, soccer has become a lightning rod for the kind of violence that transcends world news. Over the last week, it struck hard here again. Before AS Roma’s first leg of its Champions League semifinal at Liverpool last week, a brawl between the two fan bases erupted outside the stadium. Sean Cox, a 53-year-old married father of two, who comes to Liverpool from his native Ireland for games, was left in a coma. Two Roma fans are charged with beating him half to death with belts wielding metal buckles. Filippo Lombardi, 21, and Daniele Sciusco, 29, two members of Roma’s vicious ultras fan group, remain in custody in Liverpool. Their charge of attempted murder has been reduced to the seemingly tame violent disorder and wounding/inflicting grievous bodily harm.

Meanwhile, Cox remains in a coma with his wife by his side. Officials are mulling an attempt to take him out of his induced coma but his condition hasn’t changed since the attack nine days ago.

I remember watching video of the brawl that night. It reminded me of the street fights that made English soccer the most feared grounds in the world in the 1980s. A pack of half dozen fans threw wild haymakers at a single individual who flailed away with his head down, trying to avoid the punches. I don’t know if it was Cox. Bodies moved in waves and fists all over the street. Later I saw a prone body, Cox, under two concerned fans as others scattered.

England has heroically cleaned up its hooligan act. The English government has used video to arrest violent fans and pull their passports. I remember covering England’s 2006 World Cup opener in Frankfurt against Uruguay, and the English were as respectful as the Royal Family. However, Mooney is used to violence.

He’s a retired cop.

He just never expected he’d have to relive bad memories in Rome.

“In those three (other) cities, they’ve embraced us,” Mooney said. “In fact, they’ve invited us into their bars: ‘Come drink with us.’ They’re football fans! It’s a game of football! And unfortunately, we’ve come here and it’s a little worrying, yes.”

Liverpool gave their 5,000 fans coming to Rome a litany of instructions to remain safe. It designated two areas in the city to congregate: Centro Storico and a bar near the Colosseum. Don’t go anywhere near Ponte Milvio, the historic bridge that’s a massive Roma stronghold near Olympic Stadium. To get to the game, they were all gathering in Villa Borghese, Rome’s huge park, and pile into buses. After the game, they were to remain seated for two hours until Roma fans left before police escorted the English back onto the buses.

Said one Liverpool fan I met, “The media has told us we’re going into a war zone.”

This isn’t just about worries of retaliation. This is about Roma history. After four years here and 5 ½ over two stints, I’m slowly learning my beloved club has developed one of the most violent reputations in the world. And they’re particularly active against English clubs. According to media reports:

* In 1984 after Liverpool defeated Roma in a shootout for the European Cup (predecessor to the Champions League) at Olympic Stadium, “dozens were slashed by knife-wielding hooligans.”

* In 2001, before Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Roma in the UEFA Cup, Roma fans stabbed six Liverpool fans and police had to fire tear gas. During the game, Roma fans threw coins, golf balls and rocks at the 4,000 Liverpool fans in their designated corner of the stadium. Other Roma fans invaded the neutral section between fan groups, broke away seats and hurled them over the Plexiglas fence into Liverpool’s section.

* In 2006, three Middlesbrough fans were stabbed and 10 others treated for injuries.

* In 2007, five Manchester United fans were stabbed in their behinds — yes, their asses — before their Champions League game in Rome.

* In 2009, an Arsenal fan was stabbed by fans who stormed the Arsenal fans’ bus.

* On Oct. 31, Chelsea fans were attacked outside a pub.

This doesn’t include the 2014 Italian Cup final between Napoli and Fiorentina when Napoli fan Ciro Esposito died from a gunshot to the chest. He was 29. Roma ultra Daniele De Santis was sentenced to 26 years in prison, later reduced to 16 on appeal. Roma wasn’t even playing. Two years later, Napoli built a monument honoring Esposito. Roma fans desecrated it.

It’s not the only time Roma was linked to violence without its team showing up. Before the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans and a fence collapsed, killing 39 people, mostly Italians, and injuring 600. The lasting theory in England is if Roma hadn’t attacked Liverpool fans the year before, the Heysel Stadium disaster never would’ve happened.

What have I got myself into? My transformation from sports writer to sports fan has apparently landed me in the middle of a new Roman Empire in which Romans attack fans instead of countries. Half my wardrobe is red and yellow. I’ve made a point never to wear Roma gear in other European cities.

One major factor that attracted me to AS Roma way back in 2001 is it wasn’t Lazio. Our bitter cross-town rival has a fascist reputation in which its history of racist incidents is too long to print. The Internet has only so much cyberspace. Yet the history of shame my own fan base is writing makes me leave the laziali alone. After all, who the hell am I to talk?

Who are these people? I’ve been to Olympic Stadium numerous times and never even seen a shoving match. I’ve watched games on TVs filled with romanisti in public places all over Rome and never once encountered the type of savage thug I’ve read about. I even encountered a huge table full of Roma ultras in La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo, a designated Roma trattoria, and they welcomed me with open arms. All I had to do was flash my AS Roma keychain. Through traveling to 101 countries, I’ve said Romans are the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Yet somewhere deep in the bowels of this rabid fan base is a soft underbelly of violence that bely Rome’s worldwide reputation as a place of beauty, art and love. It’s like you open up your cabinet of expensive china and a rat leaps out.

I’m a student of history. I learn from it. That’s why I ventured out Tuesday night figuring I’d encounter 5,000 bloodthirsty Liverpool fans bent on revenge. It didn’t happen. Campo dei’ Fiori was nearly empty when I stopped for a beer at The Drunken Ship, one of Rome’s wildest bars, at about 6 p.m.

Abbey Theatre was packed. Yet I saw no one in red. Liverpool fans were pounding the beers but no one was drunk. No one was angry. Everyone was happy. In fact, during Liverpool’s Champions League charge through Hoffenheim, Germany; Moscow; Maribor, Slovenia; Seville, Spain; Porto, Portugal; and Manchester, England, not one Liverpool fan has been arrested.

They came to Rome with a surprisingly level-headed perspective. Mooney indicated the “riot” in Liverpool wasn’t as widespread as the video indicated.

“There was one piece of trouble,” said Mooney who attended the game. “Some Roma fans essentially, when everybody went into the grounds, at the very last minute went around to another part of the stadium at the home end and picked on a small group of middle-aged men who were about to get into the stadium. It wasn’t a big crowd.”

It also helps that English hooligan has become nearly extinct, not only thanks to the government but basic economics.

“If you look at the demographics of Premiership fans nowadays, it’s still working class but we’re sort of middle class,” Mooney said. “Because it’s so expensive to go to a game now that you haven’t got the same sort of people going to soccer.”

Underneath the jacket of Christian Dalley, a Liverpool fan living in London, was a white T-shirt with a red outstretched hand, indicating the five Champions League titles Liverpool has won.

“I’m going subtle,” he said. “My friend and I flew over from London Monday and our Facebook has been blown away. We had 120 hits, everyone saying, ‘Be safe. Be safe.’ We’re going to a football match! This is ridiculous! We’re not going to Syria.”

Added his friend, Ali Farwana, a Lebanese-American, “Anybody came to look for revenge is complete bullshit. We came to support Liverpool.”

At the end of the evening, I returned to Campo dei’ Fiori where the red army finally arrived. Only, of course, they weren’t wearing red. About 200 Liverpool fans had gathered outside I Gigante della Notte bar hysterically singing Liverpool’s famed theme song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

A huge police paddy wagon was off to the side. Some police stood behind, looking bored. Feigning naivety, I asked one fan why no one was wearing red.

“The Roma fans are very violent and we’re trying to avoid being attacked,” said Joe Cocorachio of Bournemouth, England.

I asked if they’ve met any Romans who found out they’re Liverpool fans.

“Not so far,” Cocorachio said, “but the night is young.”

With this atmosphere as a backdrop, Wednesday’s game became almost an afterthought. Then again, when Roma lost 5-2 in Liverpool in the first of the two legs, the dream of advancing to its first European final since that ‘84 game had been pretty well crushed for a week. Yes, Roma stunned Barcelona 3-0 in the second leg of the quarterfinals to advance on away goals but Roma played well despite losing 4-1 at Barcelona. In Liverpool it was awful. Terrible mistakes in the midfield caused Roma’s defenders to get overrun by Liverpool’s cheetah-fast forwards. Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian superstar Roma sold last year and preceded to become Premier League Player of the Year, had two goals and an assist and a pyramid named after him.

The atmosphere in Olympic Stadium before the game was very family oriented.

The atmosphere in Olympic Stadium before the game was very family oriented.

When I reached Olympic Stadium, the crowd at River Cafe across the street spilled up and down the road. Yellow smoke obscured some of the patrons roaring songs and chants, believing Roma still had a chance. Inside the gates I found almost a carnival atmosphere. Children played foosball with their fathers. Kids posed with life-size cutouts of the Roma roster. An MC yelled out contest giveaways on a polished stage. I walked into the press entrance and the ever-present orchestra playing classical music didn’t present much of a violent image.

Entering the stadium, however, you felt the atmosphere that has often been compared to the Roman Colosseum, circa 100 AD. The jam-packed crowd of 63,000 was roaring before any player even took the field. So many red and yellow flags flew in the ultras’ Curva Sud, that end of the stadium looked like a giant quilt.

Also, no fans in the world boo like Roma fans. Philadelphia’s? It’s the College of Cardinals in comparison. Liverpool’s goalkeepers came out to warm up and the whistles sounded like 60,000 really pissed off bees. It got even louder every time Salah kicked the ball — in warmups.

Three rows of security guards were between the Liverpool section and Curva Nord. I thought I saw two red shirts.

The cauldron cooled in nine minutes. That’s how long it took for Radja Nainggolan, my favorite player and one of the best midfielders in Europe, to make a weak back pass to defender Federico Fazio who was leaning back at the time. Roberto Firmino intercepted it, passed it to Sadio Mane’ who found himself one on one with goalkeeper Alisson Becker. It was no contest. Liverpool was up 1-0 and 6-2 on aggregate. Roma had to score four times and Liverpool hadn’t give up four goals since a 4-1 loss at Tottenham Oct 22, a span of 37 games.

Nainggolan buried his head in hands and looked like the only place he wanted to be was anywhere in the world but the middle of Olympic Stadium.

Liverpool celebrates after advancing to the Champions League final. Evening Standard photo

Liverpool celebrates after advancing to the Champions League final. Evening Standard photo

Roma won 4-2 to lose only 7-6 on aggregate, but it wasn’t that close. Roma tied it when Liverpool’s clearing kick hit James Milner in the head and into the goal and Georginio Wijnaldum headed in a deflected corner kick that the entire Roma defense whiffed on. Roma scored two more in the final three minutes, the last from Nainggolan’s penalty kick on the last play of the game.

The officiating was awful. Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Loris Karius, who has read all season how his club is eyeing Becker in the off season, nearly tackled Edin Dzeko in a race to the ball. Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly hand batted Stephan El Shaarawy’s shot inside the 18-meter box. Neither received a penalty kick, causing Corriere dello Sport to scream in the next day’s headline, in a rare case of homerism, “INGIUSTIZIA! (INJUSTICE!)”

I didn’t go to the mixed zone to talk to players who are reluctant to talk even after the biggest of wins. I joined the mob out the exits. Bankers, barristas, cobblers, waiters, car salesmen and one pseudo journalist walking in more quiet resignation than anger. We could still hear “You Will Never Walk Alone” from the marooned Liverpool fans as we poured into the packed streets.

Some hope remains. Roma has three games left in its season and is tied for third with Lazio, four points ahead of Inter Milan for one of the four guaranteed spots in next season’s Champions League. The team is aging. It’s underfunded. Its proposed new $1.5 billion stadium is more dream than reality.

What appears more real is its fans’ reputation as one of the most vicious in Europe. I am part of that fan base. Two thugs’ apparent actions in Liverpool brushed us all with a stroke of a brush that’s painting a very ugly picture of us. Again. Hell, I’m a retired sportswriter from Oregon. I’ve been called vicious with my words but not my knives.

Roma installed video cameras at all stadium entrances before the 2015-16 season and the intrusion became part of the ultras’ protest that lasted more than a season. Yet, unlike in England, the system isn’t working. Sean Cox remains in a coma.

And the rats remain in the china cabinet.