Doom and gloom turn to cautious optimism as a new season for facelifted AS Roma begins Sunday

New Roma manager Paulo Fonseca led Ukraine power Donetsk Shakhtar to the last three league titles. Gazzetta del Sud photo


This off season I changed my greeting at my local coffee bar. Every time I walked into Romagnani Caffe across the street from my Rome apartment I greeted the Romanisti coffee jockeys with “FORZA ROMA!” the long-time mantra of every AS Roma fan, meaning “GO ROMA!” They, in turn, greeted me with the simultaneous, seemingly rehearsed, traditional response in chorus: “SEMPRE! (ALWAYS!)”

Since last season ended in May, however, the exchange has been altered. I’d walk in with my morning Corriere dello Sport, chronicling another horrid off-season drama, and before they even handed me my usual cornetto and cappuccino, I’d say, “Siamo fottuti.”

(“We’re fucked.”)

They didn’t even acknowledge my growing command of Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. They were merely slumped in resigned agreement. They handed me my breakfast and listened to me curse at my outdoor table as I read details of what appeared to be the fall of the Roma Empire.

“Roma Empire” is a headline I’ve dreamed about since attaching my heart to this soccer team in 2002. Since retiring here in January 2014 and transforming from sports writer to sports fan, it has been a painful tease. Following AS Roma as a born-again fan is like getting tickled with a feather — one with a dagger on the other end. You feel a tingling sensation then get knifed in the heart.

Roma Empire? How about the Bhutan Empire? In our 92 seasons we’ve won three Serie A Italian league titles, the last in 2001. Our last trophy was the 2008 Italian Cup, a national tournament the league’s upper echelon doesn’t sober up for until the semifinals.

The leadership of Roma icon Francesco Totti has been missing since he retired to the front office after the 2017 season. Virgilio Sport photo


Then came last season, a nine-month colonoscopy with only occasional relief. Club icon Francesco Totti had retired after 2017 and gritty leaders Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman were jettisoned in favor of mostly a bunch of stiffs.

We bombed spectacularly out of the Champions League and Italian Cup, mercifully fired the embattled Eusebio Di Francesco in March and as interim manager, old Rome native Claudio Rainieri couldn’t repeat his magic in leading little Leicester City to the 2016 Premiership title. Roma finished sixth and out of this season’s Champions League, which earned the club 51 million euros last season, a booty Roma desperately needs again while it waits for its pipe dream of a new 1 billion euro stadium. Roma barely qualified for the Europa League, European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.

Losing 7-1 to Fiorentina in the Italian Cup was the beginning of the end for Eusebio Di Francesco. Il Messaggero photo


Then it got worse.

The club gently but unceremoniously pushed out beloved captain Daniele De Rossi, who replaced fellow Rome-native Totti as the face of the franchise but flew off to Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Totti tired of his opinions being ignored as a club director and quit, lambasting the club as he followed out the door his boss, sporting director Monchi, who had already bolted in disgust after his bosses fired Di Francesco.

At one point this off season, Roma had no manager and no sporting director. The best defender, Kostas Manolas, was headed to Napoli; the best striker, Edin Dzeko, was headed to Inter Milan; their best young player, 20-year-old Italian international Nicolo’ Zaniolo, was being dangled in front of rich, salivating suitors; fallen striker star Gonzalo Higuain dissed Roma to stay with Juventus; and the goalkeeper was about my age.

For three months, I thought the headline of this preview would be, “I MAY SOON KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN OREGON STATE FOOTBALL FAN.”

I was going to spend an entire season at my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub and my local Birrotecca Stappo with fellow Romanisti, attracted more to the great pub grub than the weekly drubbings on the big screen.

Then things changed.

New sporting director Gianluca Petrachi led Torino to Serie A promotion in 2011 and two Europa League bids. Tottoasroma photo


With the season opener Sunday night, a series of dealings has put some optimism back in my bark. James Pallotta, the Boston-based owner who occasionally has been the most hated man in Rome since Nero, hired a sharp sporting director in Gianluca Petrachi, who had Torino punching above its weight for the last 10 years.

For manager they hired Paulo Fonseca, whose movie-star good looks won over female fans and his three recent titles with Donetsk Shakhtar, the Juventus of the Ukraine Premier League, won over the male fans. While Manolas did leave for Napoli, Dzeko and Zanioli re-signed, Roma pinched a promising 24-year-old goalkeeper from Real Betis named Pau Lopez, acquired Italian international defender Davide Zappacosta on loan from Chelsea and signed midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola who last season helped lead Atalanta to its first Champions League berth.

They looked better on paper. But if you read on this site how much trash is in Rome you’ll know how much paper is worth in this town. I needed to see them in action.

I saw them win a friendly on the road at Lille, which finished second in the French League last season, then beat a full-strength Real Madrid at home on penalty kicks in the Mabel Green Cup.

Fonseca replaced Italians’ traditionally snoozy, heavy-on-tactics and defense with an aggressive, attacking style that produced a flurry of shots against both clubs. Dzeko had two assists at Lille and scored against Real off a beautiful pass from Cengiz Under, a promising 22-year-old Turk who combined with Zaniolo for 14 goals and 13 assists the last two seasons. Lopez made some highlight-reel saves behind a defense that pressed higher and set up more counter attacks.

“This season the objective is to return to the Champions League (by finishing in the top four),” Fonseca said, “but in two or three seasons I’m convinced we can win a title.”

Since I punted my objectivity on Roma nearly 20 years ago, I called a trusty Rome-based soccer journalist. Paddy Agnew (@paddyagnew) has been penning great copy about Roma and the Italian League since 1986 and now writes for World Soccer, my favorite soccer magazine in the world. Jaded and tough from also covering the cesspool that is Italian politics and the Vatican, Agnew backed my cautious optimism — with a caveat.

Who’s the face of Roma? Alessandro Florenzi, the Rome native who inherited De Rossi’s captaincy, was so elated about Dzeko re-signing he offered him his captain’s armband. Dzeko, his mouth not nearly as loud as his deadly legs, turned it down.

“It’s a different year for Roma because it’s the first year for God knows how many years — 25 years — when they haven’t had either Totti or De Rossi around,” Agnew said. “It’s different looking Roma. My question would be, who’s actually the team leader?

“They really don’t have a bad squad. The question is who is the boss man on the pitch? That’s what Fonseca must work out. If he works that out you could have a good year.”

That’s my worry. When De Rossi was injured — and, at 36, he has developed the shelf life of handmade linguini — Roma had no direction. It had no bite. Zaniolo had about as much fire as anybody and he still looks like a kid who eats Orange Slices after games.

Edin Dzeko’s 87 goals in 179 games are already fifth on Roma’s all-time list. Goal.com photo


The best news, and what convinced me not to torch my AS Roma potholders and beach towel, is Dzeko’s re-signing. Considered the best Bosnian player in history, he has scored 87 goals in 179 games, already fifth in Roma history in only four seasons. If he left for Inter, saremmo fottuti (We’d be fucked.)

The next most is Florenzi with 28 in 262 games.

“The thing about Dzeko is he’s a one-man team up front,” Agnew said. “He can get ahold of it and even though he’s got three defenders hanging onto his shorts, he can hold on to it for a while. For a big man, he has really good feet and is good passing the ball. On top of that he gets into the box and scores goals.”

Problems remain, of course. They’re going to miss Manolas, whose heroic winning goal against Barcelona two seasons ago overshadowed his stripping of Lionel Messi who was driving for a winning goal of his own. Lots of pressure is on Manolas’ replacement, Gianluca Mancini, a 23-year-old who came over from Atalanta. They could use another striker to take some pressure off Dzeko.

With the market window closing Sept. 2, Roma is looking at Nikola Kalinic, 31, a Croat international who sat on Atletico Madrid’s bench most of last season, and defender Daniele Rugani, a 25-year-old who didn’t even make Juventus’ road trip to Parma Saturday and is interested in Roma.

I’m not the only one whose optimism is growing. The club sold fewer than 19,000 season tickets, well under last year’s total of 22,000. However, Friday the club sold 12,000 tickets alone for Sunday’s opener against Genoa.

It’s a nice bump but only 30,000 for a season opener? In Rome? I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe it’s because half of Rome is out of town on their annual August holiday, but there is less buzz about this team than at any time in my memory.

“I know what you mean,” said Agnew, who lives just outside Rome in Trevignano Romano. “In other years there was a bigger buzz that we could do something this year and get back to the heights of competitive days. I don’t get that feeling at the moment.”

I agree with him on what has made so many turn their backs on this team.

“Two things obviously have spoiled the atmosphere at Roma,” he said. “Totti’s press conference in May in which he basically, this great Roma idol, shat on them. He just essentially accused the management of being both incompetent and disloyal and not having made it clear to him what they wanted him to do and then when he did give advice paying no attention to it, indicating with these guys in charge of the club there was going to be problems up ahead. The fans listen to this closely. Then he said, ‘I’m leaving the club’ which is a bigger statement than all of it.

Daniele De Rossi joined Boca Juniors after 19 years with his hometown Roma. Il Post photo


“Then you have the other iconic figure, De Rossi, who wants to stay. If I was the club director, I’d have kept him on for at least another season because of what he could offer in terms of experience and understanding of the entire environment.”

My sportswriting experience has jaded me too much to hope for a title run. I’ll settle for a top four finish. Inter Milan, under new coach Antonio Conte, looks like it has closed the gap on Juventus. I want to see how the pressure to not only win a record ninth-straight title but not lose in the Champions League will affect new Juve coach Maurizio Sarri, whose Europa League title last season wasn’t enough for Chelsea fans to appreciate.

Napoli has established itself as a consistent top three and Manolas strengthens its defense, Atalanta is Italy’s new rising star and Milan still has the country’s best goalkeeper in 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Meanwhile, Lazio still sucks.

A crowd of only about 30,000 is expected Sunday. AS Roma photo


(Actually, it doesn’t. I just like my Laziali friends to read that.)

At least now I don’t need to call my sister, an Oregon State grad, and ask how to brace myself for soul-crushing public humiliation every weekend. I know exactly what I’ll say to the boys in Romagnoli Sunday morning in preparation for a new season with surprising promise.

“FORZA ROMA!”

Nephew’s visit to Roma-Juventus adds perspective to U.S. soccer woes

Me and my nephew, Spencer Treffry, the Oregon High School Soccer Player of the Year in 2008, at Sunday’s Roma-Juventus match in Olympic Stadium.


My nephew from California and his girlfriend are staying at my place in Rome for a week, mixing in some wine, pasta and art with his passion for soccer. His first European soccer match was Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals May 1 and then the couple joined Marina and me for Roma’s 2-0 win over evil Juventus Sunday night. He has nearly worn out his cell video of Lionel Messi’s epic free kick goal. I think he may have slept Sunday night wearing his new AS Roma scarf.

We both quasi represent the world’s two biggest soccer disappointments. Neither the United States nor Italy qualified for last year’s World Cup, ending a string of 21 combined straight appearances. However, Italy has won four World Cups. Last year’s pratfall is considered a blip on its historical radar.

But the U.S. remains a sport-wide mystery. Despite 325 million people, a rich federation, a successful pro league and a sport that has exploded at the youth level since the 1970s, the U.S. has only gone as far as the World Cup quarterfinals once. Last year, it didn’t even qualify despite playing in CONCACAF, world soccer’s equivalent to a sunset stroll.

My nephew, Spencer Treffry, has qualified insight into the problem. At 28, he was a product of the U.S.’ elite Olympic Development Program and saw first hand the problems the U.S. has had and why it hasn’t caught up with Europe’s elite. He started playing in kindergarten, made traveling teams when he became old enough and developed into the Oregon State Player of the Year in 2008, leading Eugene’s Churchill High to the state title. Deemed too thin (he was a wispy 5-foot-10, 120 pounds) for a college scholarship, he continued playing club ball at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and continues playing city league soccer today around their home in Pismo Beach, California.

As he grew up, I tweaked his interest in world soccer by sending him jerseys during my various travels, from the Brazil national team to Zenit of St. Petersburg, Russia. He even has one from Togo, bought in Munich when I covered the 2006 World Cup. His Palermo jersey was always one of his most popular, due to its pink color and his security in his own manhood.

The U.S.’ biggest problem, he says, isn’t at the national level where it is on its fourth coach in three years. It’s at the youth level where he saw first hand the differences between the American and European approaches.

“I was lucky to have some good coaches growing up, but most people don’t,” he said. “Most youth coaches in the U.S. are just dads. They played baseball, football, basketball and their second grader needs a soccer coach. So they’re out there running kids around and making sure everyone’s having fun, but they have no idea how to play the game.”

Growing up in Eugene, his first club coaches were English, he had another from Germany and one American who played professionally in Costa Rica. They knew what they were doing and did more than just roll out the balls. The American introduced them to futsal, soccer played on a miniature field, forcing you to develop skills in tighter spaces. It’s very popular in South America.

“He brought little goals out on the tennis court, brought speakers out and played samba music,” he said. “Bounce to the rhythm and go have fun. You see it in the way Barcelona plays, the way they ping the ball. It’s very natural, very flowy.”

I don’t agree that the problem is too much competition from other sports. The U.S. has the population. When I worked in suburban Seattle I wrote a story about how youth soccer numbers had passed baseball’s in the state of Washington. I quoted officials saying it shows the U.S. would someday be the world’s greatest soccer power.

I wrote that story in 1979.

Even today, 2.5 million boys play youth soccer in the U.S., almost as many as the 3 million who play youth baseball. Croatia made last year’s World Cup finals and its entire population is only 4.1 million. The problem is just because American youths like to play soccer, they don’t necessarily like to watch it.

Spencer didn’t start watching soccer until he reached college.

“I started watching it and my game immediately elevated, absolutely,” he said. “When we were in Florence we were talking to the guy who owned our B&B who’s an artist. He was talking about you immerse yourself in this art community that is Florence and go look at and watch what the masters did and then you go back and try to apply that in your apartment. I always draw these metaphors back to soccer. It’s the same thing. You watch somebody do something and get a spark of an idea and then you go back and apply it.”

The situation in the U.S. is changing. The MLS’ average attendance last year of 21,876 is nearly on a par with Serie A’s 24,767. It has expanded to 24 teams and each club must now have its own youth academy. Even the national team has gone 3 wins, 1 tie and no losses in friendlies under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

NBC has the English Premier League contract but even in Spencer’s soccer-crazed area of California’s Central Coast, he couldn’t find the Real Madrid-Barcelona game on TV at noon California time.

Unfortunately, he did find last year’s United States-Trinidad & Tobago match in which the U.S. only had to tie in a half-empty Caribbean stadium where a good portion of the fans were American. They lost, 2-1, and combined with Honduras’ win over Mexico, the U.S. was sent home as well as coach Bruce Arena.

“Totally uninspired, uncreative soccer,” Spencer said. “I am optimistic now that we’ve basically had a change of guard. This last World Cup with that result basically said bye-bye to the players entrenched for the last 10 years. We’re not going to see (Michael) Bradley in the starting lineup anymore. (Jozy) Altidore is probably out the door. (Tim) Howard. (Clint) Dempsey, all these guys who were good players when they were young.

“The U.S. wasn’t terrible on the world stage. They just didn’t turn over any new talent for 10 years. It’s always hard for me to watch the U.S. men’s soccer team and believe those are the 11 best players in the country.

Spencer is a growing romanista in California.


***

He was about to see the best player in the world and arguably in history. After seeing Messi light up Liverpool (before, of course, Barcelona folded like a lawn chair in the second leg), Spencer was going to see Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Every country in the world has sports bars debating whether Messi or Ronaldo deserve the crown and then they throw in Pele and Maradona in the GOAT argument.

Marina is a third-generation Roman who has plied me with AS Roma gifts for four years. She is a romanista but too much of a fashionista to wear anything with a logo depicting a nursing she-wolf. I bought her a generic AS Roma ballcap for the game.

“John,” she said as she reluctantly put it on for the walk to the stadium, “this is love.”

The game had plenty of drama. With three games left, sixth-place Roma stood four points behind Inter Milan, which won Saturday, for next season’s fourth and final Champions League spot and three behind AC Milan. After Sunday, two games remain in the season although Milan has three.

Considering the mess Roma has been in, it’s a remarkable achievement. It fired its coach after getting bounced from this season’s Champions League and the current one is caretaker and Rome’s native son Claudio Ranieri. The sporting director quit in protest of the firing, and the goalie got benched. The best player the last month has probably been new goalkeeper Antonio Mirante who’s about my age.

Olympic Stadium was packed with 50,000 people to watch Roma try and save its season against a Juventus team that clinched its unprecedented eighth straight Serie A title by about Easter. I was hoping Juventus showed up wearing little pointy party hats or Ronaldo hung over. Nope. He doesn’t drink.

Juventus played its top lineup and previewed its next season’s uniform, a sharp black-and-white checked number that Juve fans have destroyed on social media. Juve played loose and free and was gunning from all angles. Mirante made a brilliant save in the sixth minute on a one-on-one encounter and then stopped Ronaldo 10 minutes later.

I’ve watched enough soccer to know the biggest gap between the U.S. and the soccer powers is the creativity in shot making. U.S. players don’t play on the streets or beaches. You don’t see the shots you see in Europe, or even the first 16 minutes Sunday night.

Spencer agreed.

Before the game, from left, Marina Pascucci, me, Kelsey Weber, Spencer.


“It’s the touch before the shot,” he said. “Give yourself an opportunity to take a controlled shot, to curl a ball into the far post or put it inside the near post. You’re not reaching for it. You’re not stretching or off balance.

“(These guys) land on their feet after they take a shot. You watch a lot of American players and they’re just swinging for a ball and they fall over afterwards because they’re off balance.”

It’s 0-0 at halftime and the second half the Roma ultras in Curva Sud are in full throttle as they greet an injured Juventus player with, “DEVI MORIRE! DEVI MORIRE!” (YOU MUST DIE! YOU MUST DIE!).

Ronaldo piqued Spencer’s dream as he scored on a beautiful one on one breakaway but was called offsides. Both teams were pretty sloppy until Alessandro Florenzi, the Roma captain who grew up in the heart of Centro Storico, looped a ball over ex-Roma goalie Wojciech Szczesny for a 1-0 lead in the 80th minute. Edin Dzeko, Roma’s up-and-down star striker, scored on a 3-on-1 in stoppage time for a desperately needed 2-0 win.

Marina screamed like a season ticket holder. We all high fived. We stuck around to listen to the 50,000 fans sway together singing “Grazie, Roma.” After a long walk to the subway and post-game beer, I asked Spencer what he, an American soccer fanatic who knows the game, thought of the atmosphere in Europe.

“It’s awesome for me to get to watch professional soccer at this level,” he said. “To have a fan section that really knows the game, watching. Even the people in front of us: father, son, younger son, all leaning forward watching the game.

“We need that kind of passion and education.”

A trip to Rome’s Olympic Stadium is worth the hassle when Roma wins

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma  over Porto.

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma over Porto.


Did you know a comb could be a weapon?

And it’s not even a big comb, one of those knife-length jobs you slip in your back pocket, the kind James Bond may have used to cut a Russian spy’s throat. It’s a little round collapsible comb that pops out when you lift the lid and push up from underneath. For years I carried it in my left front pocket, not knowing I had a concealed weapon in my possession.

In Rome’s Olympic Stadium, it is.

Security guards confiscated it Tuesday night when I went through the gate. I asked the female guard what possible harm could I do with this, thinking maybe her tip would be handy if I ever meet a Trump supporter. She made a throwing motion as if hurling a fastball, showing pretty good velocity.

So they don’t want me throwing it on the field or at opposing fans. They were searching everybody everywhere. Pockets. Purses. Backpacks. Limbs. I thought I saw a proctologist on call nearby.

Welcome to the soccer game experience, Italian style.

I’ve seen nearly every AS Roma game this season but this was my first trip to see one live. I eschewed my normal mid-field press tribune seat for a 50-euro ticket with my fellow American expat/Romanista, Loren, an English teacher from Long Island who left Rome last June for Zurich. Two things she misses about Rome are the food and football.

We tried to get a group together but it wasn’t easy. Some begged out because it was a work night and a 9 p.m. start; others didn’t want to hassle with going to the stadium.

And it is a hassle. Even getting there is a problem. Rome is the only capital I know in Europe that does not have a train going to its stadium. One must rely on Europe’s worst public transportation system, Atac, only slightly more reliable than hitchhiking and not much safer. Unlike Rome’s buses, at least cars driven by psycho loners with butcher knives don’t inexplicably burst into flames. If you drive, you must park at least a kilometer away per the absurd security precautions. You never know when a suicide bomber frustrated with Roma’s coaching staff runs his explosives-laden Fiat into a panino stand.

Once at the stadium, the security is something akin to that at a North Korean nuclear facility. You show your ticket plus a photo ID to get through the first gate. The ticket MUST have your name on it to foil scalpers. I’ve seen some in Italy hover outside gates selling discount tickets to unwitting, casual tourists who are then denied entry but learn their first Italian word: ladro (thief).

Then you walk 50 meters and go through an electronic turnstile where you press the ticket’s barcode against a machine’s blinding light, unlocking the gate you walk through. Greeting you is a squadron of security guards who pat you down, feel your pockets and view grooming products as hand grenades.

At the same time you’re arguing the relative merits of combs, a monitor is photographing your face to match up in case a camera inside the stadium catches you hurling a javelin at the opposing goalie.

Still, coming to an AS Roma game as a fan is an experience I can’t get at my midfield seat with the video monitor in front of me and access to press room pizza. It’s definitely more exhilarating than sitting in the cramped upper room of my soccer pub with the other Romanisti eating fish ‘n chips and breaking down Brexit.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.


And Tuesday night was special: AS Roma-Porto, the Champions League knockout stage. It’s the perfect time to write an update on my favorite sports team. It’s the one liferaft of fandom I’ve grasped after 40 years as a crusty (“WHERE ARE THE STATS???!!!”), emotionally bankrupt (“When’s last call?”), cynical (see above graphs) sportswriter.

It has taken a while this season to hop aboard. The offseason was painful. Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, the Spanish sporting director known as “Monchi” brought over from Sevilla two years ago after directing it to 11 trophies, headed a purge of Roma’s guts. Gone went Alisson Becker, 25, in the discussion as the world’s best goalkeeper, to Liverpool. Midfielder Radja Nainggolan, 30, the heavily tattooed fan favorite and on-field enforcer, rejoined former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti at Inter Milan. Midfielder Kevin Strootman, 28, a major locker room leader, rejoined Rudy Garcia, another ex-Roma coach, in Marseille. In Alisson (a goalkeeper-record 62.5 million euros), Nainggolan (38 million) and Strootman (25 million) the club got 130.5 million euros in transfer fees.

With that they went out and bought a bunch of kids. Arriving from Dutch power Ajax came Justin Kluivert, 19, son of the former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, for 17.25 million. Patrik Schick, a 22-year-old striker from Czech Republic, came from Sampdoria for 9 million and attacking midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, 18, came aboard from Inter for only 4.5 million. The biggest acquisitions were Sevilla midfielder Steven Nzonzi, 29, fresh off helping France to the World Cup title, for 26.56 million; Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Javier Pastore, 29, for 24.7 million; and goalkeeper Robin Olsen, 28, from FC Copenhagen and who blanked Italy twice to send Sweden to the World Cup, for 8.5 million.

Financially they came out ahead but how much farther ahead on the field would they get banking on the future? And who is this Zaniolo kid? If he looked any younger his mom would hand him Orange Slices after games.

Juventus, the 500-pound carnivore and seven-time Serie A defending champion, added world icon Cristiano Ronaldo and was basically handed the trophy before the first whistle blew in August.

Roma started with 1 win, 2 ties and 2 losses and later lost to 14th-place SPAL at home, 2-0. Olsen was a serviceable replacement for Becker but the defense was terrible and Dzeko, who led Roma last year with 24 goals, was hurt and ineffective. The young kids were still getting comfortable. With veteran captain Daniele De Rossi out with a knee injury, the leadership was nil. In mid-December, Roma stood at 5-6-4 and Roma’s famously impatient and vicious fans had had enough.

On Dec. 16, before a home game against Genoa, the Roma Ultras organized a protest. Thousands didn’t enter until 11 minutes had passed in the game. Those already in the stands turned their backs on the field during player introductions and whistled loudly at the announcement of every player’s name but De Rossi and Zaniolo.

Roma won three of its next four, losing only at Juventus 1-0, to enter the winter break 8-6-5 but it hit rock bottom when it returned. On Jan. 27, it blew a 3-0 lead at Atalanta and tied 3-3 then three days later at Fiorentina got filleted in 7-1 in the Italian Cup, the national tournament not held in high regard except when it’s an excuse to fire the coach.

Eusebio Di Francesco, who arrived last season from Sassuolo and led Roma to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A, couldn’t have been on a hotter seat if the broiler was set on nuclear. James Pallotta, the embattled American owner, said he’d leave the decision to Monchi who steadfastly supported Di Francesco.

Di Francesco, a midfielder on Roma’s last Serie A championship team in 2000-01, has spent all season one step ahead of the executioner’s axe. Roma looked solid in a 1-1 tie against Milan then Dzeko, who awoke from his Serie A coma to score two goals at Atalanta, scored another in a 3-0 win at Chievo. The fact that Chievo is in last place was lost on the 51,000 fans who nearly sold out Olympic Stadium Tuesday hoping Roma could continue its Champions League magic.

Roma finished second behind Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage in which Dzeko had five goals in six games, giving him 15 in the competition for Roma all time, only two behind leader Francesco Totti, Roma’s living god. Roma is rising in Serie A as well, standing 10-8-5 in a three-way tie for fifth place, one point behind Milan for the fourth and final Champions League spot for next season.

Loren and I, being Americans, had to start our evening with a beer. Drinking in Olympic Stadium is an odd experience for an American. There’s never a line, especially weird since the 4-euro price is about half the price of beer in your average American stadium. Romans drink beer like Brits drink tea: slowly and sparingly. I’ve seen so few fans drink beer in the stadium I thought it wasn’t even sold, not because they want to curb rowdiness but because it flat out wouldn’t sell. Olympic Stadium is as sober as St. Peter’s.

We took our seat in the fourth row on one corner of the north end. It’s about as close to the field as you’ll get but with the eight-lane track still left from the 1960 Olympics, the distance from the end lines doesn’t make up for the low vantage point. However, we did get good views of the 3,500 Porto fans who came from Portugal to jam pack one section of the north end, cordoned off from the Roma fans by a tall Plexiglas fence, an empty section and an army of security guards, lined up like sentries on every step.

At 8:10 p.m., a good 50 minutes before the game, the Porto fans lit a fuse under a Rome fan base that only needs a cold shoulder to eat Plexiglas. They started hurling objects that looked like food and fluids over the Plexiglas into the Roma section. Roma fans responded with outstretched arms, the Roman hand gesture for “I mortacci tua” (May your entire family die.) Porto fans then waved the red cape by holding up a “FORZA LAZIO” banner and a jersey of Paolo Di Canio, the former Lazio player known for his fascism.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.


Not to be outdone, some Ultras in Curva Sud held up a banner reading “BASTARDO KOLAROV,” a biting cut to Aleksandar Kolarov, the veteran Serbian defender who has become the fans’ paddling boy for Roma’s defensive deficiencies. The banner was quickly removed.

Olsen was still nursing a calf injury and Roma started at goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, a 35-year-old journeyman making the biggest start of his career but I’d seen him make the second best save all season at Chievo and wasn’t worried.

However, Porto is no Chievo. It is the New York Yankees of Portuguese soccer — except Porto is still winning. It has won 28 Primeira Liga titles, second only to Benfica’s 36, but 10 of the last 16, including last year’s. It was in first place when it took the field on a clear 40-degree night Tuesday with clear memories of eliminating Roma two years ago.

The first half wouldn’t win over my old farm boy sports editor who called soccer “kickball.” Through 23 minutes, no team had a shot on goal. I looked at this glass as half filled and chalked up the 0-0 halftime score to a great defensive game, one I’d settle for after watching the bludgeoning at Fiorentina from an angry pub.

But Roma started pressing the action in the second half with Stephen El-Shaarawy skying an open shot in the 55th minute and Rome native Alessandro Florenzi hitting a bullet saved by craggie goalkeeper Iker Castillas, who led Spain to the 2010 World Cup title.

Finally, in the 70th minute, Dzeko outraced all of Portugal down the field and fed a perfect ball to a charging Zaniolo who slotted in the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Zaniolo did it again, taking a Dzeko shot that ricocheted off the pole into the corner to make it 2-0.

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline "A FAIRY TALE."

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline “A FAIRY TALE.”


Yes, Roma finally has a young star and Zaniolo is finally a bigger star than his mom whose selfies have gone viral. Yes, Francesca Costa’s shots of herself on the beach in bikinis and posing in miniskirts in front of the mirror is the mother of Roma’s baby-faced sniper. From whence came this 19-year-old who has five goals in 22 games and made his Roma debut at — gulp! — Real Madrid in the Champions League Sept. 19.

Born in the Tuscany beach town of Massa, the son of a former Serie B and C player came up through Fiorentina’s youth system but was released in 2016. He hooked on with Serie B Virtus Entella two years ago and in July 2017 signed with Inter where he became its developmental team’s top scorer with 13 goals. Last summer, Inter shipped him and Davide Santon to Roma for Nainggolan, one of Monchi’s many moves that made many of the more polite fans go, “Che CAZZO! (What the fuck?)”

Zaniolo was hailed long after a Porto goal in the 76th minute made it a 2-1 final. The goal made Roma’s return leg in Portugal March 6 a little more frightening (teams advance on accumulative score with away goals serving as the first tie-breaker) but considering our season, the 2-1 victory seemed like a stay of execution.

The crowd was remarkably subdued at the final whistle. The rollicking “Grazie Roma” sung by fans arm in arm didn’t have the usual verve. In an up and down year, polite team songs sometimes take a back seat to more symbolic post-game looks like the one right near me.

A young man in a gray hoodie facing the Porto section with two middle fingers waving in the air.

Christmas gifts for 2018: The list to all those naughty and truly evil


Italians don’t give many Christmas gifts. They have this weird concept of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas, of family, religion and a lot of food thrown in. A lot of food. They don’t need Santas parading through pizzerias or Christmas lights on the Colosseum.

However, I’m still an American. Even living in Rome I still love American generosity, if not commercialism, of showering people with presents, of enjoying shopping malls and public markets. I Christmas shop all year, even when I travel. I bought my family gifts from four different countries. Italy doesn’t make a car big enough to haul all my presents to Marina’s Monday.

And being the generous capitalist that I am, I now give gifts to newsmakers around the world, both near and far. I’m a little different than Santa. I give gifts mostly to those who’ve been bad instead of good. It’s why my biggest box is headed to Washington, to the Dehydrated Orange Peel denigrating the world every day from the White House. Not that the box will get there on time. That’s another gift I’m giving in Rome.

So look at this annual edition of Dog-Eared Passport not as a blog but as a satirical, tongue-in-cheek gift bag to the evil and incompetent. Which leads us to the first gift I’m delivering …

Business Insider photo

Business Insider photo


To the Cowardly Lyin’. A cage. It only seems fair. If Donald Trump put immigrant children in cages, shouldn’t we give a cage to the most petulant child who ever served as president?

To Italian TV. HBO. The only country in the world with more boring TV is maybe — maybe — North Korea. Italian television is made up of panel discussions with people screaming at each other in studio, bad American TV shows such as the new “Hawaii Five-O” and old Italian films not made by Federico Fellini. Even if I was fluent this would be torture.

To Monteverde — A song. So many great songs have been written about places in Italy. Someone should write one about my new neighborhood. It’s the one on the hill, the one with trees always providing shade in the summer and corner cafes providing warmth in the winter. This is a special place in a special city. I have found a new home within a home.

Daily Express photo

Daily Express photo


To Atac. Fire extinguishers. Not that Rome’s buses are old, but they are developing a nasty habit of suddenly bursting into flames. At least the ones who actually show up do.

To Scandinavia — Beer loans. After visiting Norway, Sweden and Iceland over the past two years, I spent more money on beer than maybe on rent. Every bar up there should have a banker at the door offering attractive terms on 13-euro beers, including the “special” $37 craft beer I saw in the Scotsman pub in Oslo.

To Moneydiaper McStupid — A cellmate named Honey Buns. After Robert Mueller finishes with him, Trump will face so many charges ranging from illegal payments during a campaign to treason, he’ll land in jail before he’ll ever pick up another sand wedge.

To Eusebio Di Francesco — A timeshare on the Amalfi. The embattled coach of my beloved AS Roma has been about one loss away from losing his job the entire month. The papers say the owner wants him out; the sporting director wants him to stay. Roma is in seventh place, not high enough to even qualify for any continental tournament next season. Roma plays tonight at Juventus which seemingly hasn’t lost a league game in four years. The decision seems inevitable. Here’s hoping the man who led us to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A last season has a soft landing.

To Bar Marcucci. A Michelin star. I have developed an unhealthy addiction to its homemade conchiglias. That’s “seashell” in Italian and the seashell-shaped pastry filled with chocolate and dusted with hard sugar, along with its killer cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) is the perfect way to start a day in Italy.

To Willie Taggart — A bowl game against Oregon. After he ditched my Ducks after one year, he led Florida State to its worst football season in 43 years. Under first-year coach Mario Cristobal, Oregon went 8-4 and has the fifth-ranked recruiting class in America. Bring blindfolds, Seminole fans.

To PosteItaliane — A stamp showing a post office employee shrugging. That’s exactly the response I get every time I ask why a package wasn’t delivered. This year’s problem occurred when I mailed my box of Christmas presents to California on Nov. 20. On Dec. 4 I received a notice saying they couldn’t deliver it because I wrote “Regali (Gifts)” on the customs form instead of itemizing each present. I asked the drone why did they wait two weeks to notify me? He shrugged. Too bad I couldn’t translate into Italian, “Shrug this.”

ASRoma.com photo

ASRoma.com photo


To AS Roma fans — A deep Champions League run. I’m inspired by the passion of my fellow Romanisti in the face of a disappointing season. They still fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud — except in an organized protest — and travel passionately to away games. They now show their frustration through whistles, not empty seats, the way it should be.

To Brett Kavanaugh. Impotence. He made himself out to be a victim during a sexual assault hearing while the woman who accused him had to quit her job and has been on the run from redneck Trump supporters ever since. A man with 83 ethics complaints against him is now serving on the highest court in the U.S.

Observer photo

Observer photo


To Ama. Cats. Lots of them. You’ll need them for the army of rats that will soon be crawling around the piles of garbage gathering on Rome streets. Lunar eclipses come around more than Ama, Rome’s sanitation service, picks up garbage. Part of the street in front of my building looks like an alley in rural India.

Matteo Salvini. A Donald Trump statue. Why not? He’s following in his racist footsteps over immigration. Italy’s deputy prime minister backed a program in the Northern Italian city of Lodi, ordered by mayor and fellow League party member Sara Casanova, in which immigrant parents must show proof of financial hardship from their native countries in order for their children to eat in the school lunch program. Otherwise they pay 5 euros, not to mention 210 for the school bus every quarter. Salvini, however, to his credit, heard the cries of 300 children and dropped his support.

To Juventus. A match-fixing scandal. It seems that’s the only thing that has ever stopped it from winning the Serie A title. It’s a record seven straight scudettos and counting and it has already almost lapped the field. It has 15 wins, 1 draw, 0 defeats. It’s eight points up on Napoli, 14 on Inter Milan. Italian soccer has gotten as boring as the Scottish League.

To the Man of Steal. Mandarin lessons. Trump needs to communicate with the Chinese, not threaten them. His mangling of the trade talks with China has been a huge contributor to the market losing 15 percent this year, mostly in the last 2 ½ months. It’s why I’m wondering if my fifth floor apartment balcony is high enough to do the job if it gets much worse.

Crux Now photo

Crux Now photo


Genoa. A bridge. In fact, Mayor Marco Bucci promised a new bridge by Christmas 2019 after the Morandi bridge collapsed in August, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

Italian public transportation. Engineers. That way they won’t build bridges that collapse, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

To Silvio Berlusconi. A seat in the European Parliament. Yes, he’s thinking about running for office again, at age 82. Why not? Compared to Salvini and Fuckface von Clownstick, Berlusconi looks like Caesar Augustus.

To the National Rifle Association. A scoreboard. That way, it can keep a yearly tally of all the people in America who die in mass shootings. The 2018 tally, according to the Gun Violence Archive, is 334 mass shootings (defined by four people shot or killed in the same incident) with 14,080 dead and 27,119 wounded. That’s one mass shooting nearly every day. Take a bow, NRA.

To Marina Pascucci. Vatican sainthood. For having the Job-like patience with my lousy comprehension of her crazy language, for her understanding of the oft-difficult life of the American expat, for her putting up with my anti-Trump rages. May I fly to every corner of the earth with you. May I share every bottle of wine with you. May you continue to bend my passport. Ti amo, dea.

Buon natale, everyone. Try not to get shot, torched or go broke.

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.