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.

In a lifetime of sports, A.S. Roma’s historic Champions League win over Barcelona tops them all

Kostas Manolas after his goal in the 82nd minute put Roma ahead 3-0. BBC photo

Kostas Manolas after his goal in the 82nd minute put Roma ahead 3-0. BBC photo


I never saw a sportswriter cry.

I spent 40 years in the business and I never saw one of my brethren break down from the sheer emotion of what he or she was witnessing. I sure as hell never did. If my story sang, if I made deadline, I could’ve covered the public execution of my alma mater’s coach and I’d be unmoved. Sportswriters are the vultures of journalism. We hover over the weak, and we pick at the dead. Our souls are ice. Sympathy, sorrow, do not run through our veins. Only cold blood. We only show emotion if we miss last call.

Yet Tuesday night, in a packed Olympic Stadium of 60,000 screaming souls lost in disbelief, joy and sheer, unadulterated passion, my area in the press tribune flooded with tears. Two journalists next to me embraced and wept on each other’s shoulders. Three more behind me took photos of the scoreboard, trying to keep tears from soaking their cell cameras. Press tables bounced from the pounding fists. It was as if this crusty collection of ink-stained wretches had experienced an epiphany, a vision. Here in Rome, the center of the Catholic world, we’re used to hearing of miracles.

But not like this.

A.S. Roma’s historic, mind-bending 3-0 win over Barcelona provided visual evidence of a miracle no one in the Vatican could make up. Behind by an autostrada after after last week’s self-destructing 4-1 loss in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, Roma shut out the No. 1 team in the world, a team that had lost once in 45 games this season, and advanced (on away goals) to the Champions League semifinal for the first time.

I managed not to cry. I’ve been here only 5 ½ years. I’ve followed A.S. Roma for only 17. Yet I found myself, after 40 years in the business, taking sportswriting’s one given doctrine and shredding it, throwing it to the four winds.

I cheered in the press box.

This win may  have been the biggest in club's 91-year history. Metro photo

This win may have been the biggest in club’s 91-year history. Metro photo


In the U.S., you don’t do that. It’s a one-way ticket out of your seat. Yet rules in Rome are different. My once distaste for Roman journalists cheering during games has turned into a quiet, understanding nod the more I dive into Rome’s culture. Tuesday I screamed. I cringed. I gasped. Hell, I cheered.

I’ve earned that right. One benefit of retiring to Rome is I could leave my journalism’s objectivity at the door and become a fan again. I follow Roma through the prism of that new-found fanatic. I go to watch parties in my favorite pub. I curse players, coaches. Half my wardrobe is red and yellow. I now understand the highs and lows my readers experienced all these years, how a silly game’s outcome could establish your mood for the next 24 hours. Maybe longer.

It’s why Tuesday’s game meant so much. I’ve covered six Olympics, eight Final Fours, three World Series, two Super Bowls, the 2006 soccer World Cup when Italy won it all, countless big games of teams I covered on a daily basis. Yet at 62 years old, Roma’s win was the greatest game I ever witnessed.

In any sport. And I wasn’t the only one.

Edin Dzeko after his goal put Roma up 1-0 in the sixth minute. SI.com photo

Edin Dzeko after his goal put Roma up 1-0 in the sixth minute. SI.com photo


“You cannot imagine, I mean it was incredible, crazy. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Roma forward Edin Dzeko, by far the best player on a field that included soccer saint Lionel Messi and his deadly sidekick, Luis Suarez.

I started Tuesday wondering if I should blow off the inevitable outcome and instead go to Sunday’s bitter Lazio-Roma derby. I haven’t covered fights since I left Las Vegas. Instead, I sat down and mapped out the two difference between the A.S. Roma and F.C. Barcelona. How big is the chasm?

Bigger than the sea between the two cities.

To wit:

Revenues: Barcelona made $688 million last season. That’s the most behind only Manchester United. Roma earned $242 million.

Value: Barcelona is worth $4.5 billion behind only the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Manchester United. Roma is worth $569 million.

Payroll: Barcelona’s average player salary is $8.58 million, highest in the world; Roma’s is $3.38 million, fourth in Italy’s Serie A.

Stadium: Barcelona’s Camp Nou holds 99,354 and averaged 77,984 last season; Rome’s Olympic Stadium holds 60,000 for soccer and averaged 32,638.

Titles: Since 2008, Barcelona has won six domestic La Liga titles, five Copa del Rey domestic cup titles, five Spanish Super Cup titles, three Champions League titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles and three FIFA Club World Championship titles. Roma won the domestic Italian Cup in 2008. It has reached one European final: losing to Liverpool on penalties in the 1984 European Cup, the precursor to the Champions League which was renamed in 1992.

Youth academies: Since 2002, Barcelona’s has been considered the best in the world. The graduates have combined for 4,663 appearances and 773 goals for Barcelona. The AS Roma Youth Sector has won the Under-19 Primavera title eight times.

Lionel Messi was never much of a factor. Cadena SER photo

Lionel Messi was never much of a factor. Cadena SER photo


Star power: Messi has won five Ballon d’Or trophies as the best player in the world and four European Golden Shoe awards for Europe’s top scorer. In 412 games in 14 seasons he has 378 goals. He makes $667,000 a week, according to Forbes. That doesn’t include a $59.6 million bonus when he signed an extension in November or the $30 million annually from endorsements. Daniele De Rossi, Roma’s highest-paid player, makes $185,000 a week. In his 17th season, the midfielder has 42 goals in 437 games. He helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup.

2017-18: Before Tuesday Barcelona had 33 wins, 11 ties and one defeat. Its 24-7-0 mark put it first in La Liga, 11 points ahead of Atletico Madrid. Barca is in the Copa del Rey final. Roma was a combined 22-8-10. At 18-6-7, it precariously clings to fourth place in Serie A’s fourth and final qualifying spot for next season’s Champions League. It had just come off a 2-0 loss at home to Fiorentina.

On a perfect night in the 50s, I sat in my seat in the second row of the press tribune at almost midfield prepared to write about a gap Roma couldn’t possibly overcome. I sat next to one of my favorite soccer writers, a guy I’d been trying to reach for two days. Paddy Agnew has covered soccer in Italy since 1986. He’s Northern Irish. He’s no Roma fan. He follows rapidly ascending Burnley in England’s Premier League. I asked Agnew what hope teams like Roma have of becoming a European power with all the financial gaps between organizations.

“They have to attract more serious investment, and they have to be able to build a stadium,” Agnew said. “Then after that you’ve got to be lucky in how you spend your money when you have it.”

Olympic Stadium, the cavernous monument to the 1960 Olympics on the banks of the Tiber, is in need of replacement. But for one night, this old lady reached a fever pitch I never heard at Denver’s legendary decibel dungeon, Mile High Stadium.

While I’ve always been a glass-is-half-empty guy, those who see every glass half filled with fine Barolo wine saw in last week’s debacle some hope. Barcelona scored twice on Roma own goals when defensive slides by De Rossi and Kostas Manolas went into the net. Roma had the more aggressive attack. Messi wasn’t his usual dominant self. If you look close, Roma could play with these guys.

Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco, a relative unknown until he took over this season, talked optimistically for two days. He called Barcelona “a machine” but told the media, “We must believe until the end and hope to make a miracle or something truly unthinkable.”

Di Francesco made changes. He switched from his usual 4-3-3 formation with four players on defense to a 3-4-3 to add bulk in the midfield and disrupt Barcelona’s legendary ball-keeping skills. Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde made no changes.

What enveloped was what Corriere dello Sport called the next day, “The perfect game.” Roma was on the attack from the outset, putting Barcelona’s defense on its heels and keeping the ball away from Messi and Suarez. Manolas even stripped Messi on a breakaway. The fans got some hope — or maybe, at the time, just entertainment value — in the sixth minute when Dzeko miraculously managed to control a long, high-bouncing pass in the 18-meter box and bounce it past goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Still, Barcelona hadn’t given up three goals since a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 13, a span of 50 games. This was a long way from a miracle. No one at the Vatican was turning on his TVs yet.

But the crowd got into it. The Roman night exploded even on corner kicks. Barcelona defender Gerard Pique barely blocked Aleksander Kolarov’s great goal attempt from close range and Patrik Schick sent a wide-open header just over the bar. Ter Stegen made a great save on a Dzeko header.

Roma was dominating. Barcelona tried playing ball possession to the extreme, a conservative tactic for a team this talented. Messi was just another body. His lone chances were a couple of free kicks that went way high. The half ended with Roma up 1-0.

I didn’t feel hopeful. But I felt proud. That was enough.

Valverde made no changes in the second half. He did not put in more defense. Then something happened. Hope. Optimism. Belief. And one helluva lot of noise. The skies didn’t open, but a miracle was starting to creep over Olympic Stadium’s circular roof.

On another Roma attack, Pique yanked Dzeko down by the shirt for a penalty kick. In the only time all night the stadium was silent, De Rossi drilled a bullet into the right corner for a 2-0 lead. In the 58 years of the stadium’s life, including an Olympics and a Serie A-clinching win in 2001, maybe never has it been as loud as that moment.

Thirty-two minutes remained. Suddenly, a lot of TVs turned on in the Vatican.

Barcelona was getting nervous. Messi got a yellow card for roughing Kolarov. Suarez rolled around for three minutes as if hit by a sniper, the most active he’d been all night. Ter Stegen stalled on free kicks like he was waiting for a cab. But he was the best player on Barca’s night and he made great diving stops on Dzeko and substitute Stephan El Shaarawy.

Time clicked down. Eight minutes remained plus stoppage time. But reality, Roma’s habitual enemy, refused to step in. The noise level rose. Roma’s Cengiz Under lined up for a corner kick. That day I read that the average Serie A team scores on set pieces, such as corner kicks, once every 10 chances. Roma scores once every 74. They had a better chance knocking it in with a pool cue.

Under sent a line drive curving short of the near post. Manolas, the best player in Greece, sprinted in front of the entire Barcelona team. His head flicked it sideways just past ter Stegen inside the far post for arguably the biggest goal in club history. Manolas ran through the field, chased by hysterical teammates, with his eyes and mouth as wide as if he’d seen an asteroid destroy a large planet.

In a way, he had.

Screw Zeus. Kostas Manolas is the true Greek god.

The press box rocked with heaving bodies. In a nearly out-of-body experience, I noticed myself yelling, “OH, MY GOD! OH, MY GOD!! OH, MY GOD!” The shock as a sportswriter had caught up with my joy as a fan. I felt 50 percent raw joy and 50 percent journalistic disbelief. Could this be happening? Where’s the pope?

The din made the stadium sound like the inside of a jet engine. Agnew couldn’t hear my comments yelled a foot away from him. Then 60,000 gasped when a ball bounced through the 18-meter box into Messi’s path. However, he couldn’t control the high bounces and Allison Becker grabbed it with ease. Manolas blocked two more shots. A Barcelona corner kick went out of bounds. Becker stopped one last cross.

As his final goalie kick floated to earth and the buzzer sounded, he dropped to the ground. Kolarov sprinted to him and slid on his knees into his arms. A handsome Brazilian goalkeeper and a heavily tattooed Serbian embraced like long-lost lovers. I tried hugging the journalists next to me but they wouldn’t break from their clutch, their sobs audible as they rocked back and forth.

Me and ANSA's Alessandro Castellani after the game. Note the final score in the background.

Me and ANSA’s Alessandro Castellani after the game. Note the final score in the background.


Agnew was the one stoic journalist left. I asked him if he’d ever seen anything like this.

“It’s two-leg football,” Agnew said calmly. “It’s 180 minutes. The 4-1 result from the first leg was a completely false result. Barcelona was not even the better team. Roma should’ve had a penalty and they scored the first two Barcelona goals for them. Roma happens to have a very good team. But if this is the best side in Spanish football then Spanish football is very overrated.”

I went into the mixed zone where Roma players in their traditional black suits hugged every official greeting them. Midfielder Alessandro Florenzi, who grew up in Rome’s Centro Storico, raced up the tunnel still hooting and hollering. Holding court was James Pallotta, the American owner who has spent every waking hour trying to build a $1.5 billion stadium in a city where building a lawn chair gets buried in red tape.

I asked him what the win says about the perceived gap between the two organizations.

“Over an intermediate or longer period of time there’s probably some gaps between the Bayerns and the Romas and the Barcelonas,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a function of having three or four times more revenues than we do. They have a lot more flexibility. It gets tiring every day when people say we’re a super market.

“The Roma fans really — all of you — have to help us with the stadium. Because when we build that stadium — and it should get approved soon and if it doesn’t you really should go crazy — and we have that entertainment complex then our revenues go up as much or more than anybody else in Serie A. Then we start looking at revenues that put us, certainly in the (world’s) top 10 and maybe in the top five or six or seven teams. Then you can consistently play against everybody else.”

By the time I left the stadium, it was 12:10 a.m., 90 minutes after the final buzzer. A flag-waving mob refusing to leave surrounded Florenzi’s car yelling Roma songs. I stopped by a late-night snack stand across the street from the stadium and cars made a continual loop up and down the street honking horns.

The bus dropped me at Piazza del Risorgimento next to the Vatican. Horns rocked into the night. At 1:15 a.m. I arrived in my neighborhood, Testaccio, where A.S. Roma was signed into existence in a small building not far from my home in 1927. Youths in Francesco Totti jerseys walked by me waving flags. We exchanged clenched fists and “FORZA ROMA!”

Meanwhile, Pallotta was jumping in the fountain in Piazza del Popolo and the streets filled with impromptu parades and flags and songs and hugs. I called my girlfriend. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is a casual romanista. Even she watched the game and remained in shock. Later she wrote me, “La Roma e’ fatta cosi … fa schifo e e’ stupenda.. Come la citta!” (A.S. Roma does this. It sucks and is fabulous, like the city!)

With Wednesday's Il Corriere dello Sport at  my local newsstand.

With Wednesday’s Il Corriere dello Sport at my local newsstand.


Five years ago, I would’ve reacted with a nightcap and a good book. This time I walked in my door at 1:45 a.m. and couldn’t even remove my clothes. What did I just experience? This wasn’t just an historical event that awoke the sports world. I just experienced a high, the ultimate fan’s high. It’s when your heart grows into your throat. You’re short of breath. You rub your eyes to see if it’s all real.

My connection with this wonderful team has become entwined with this beautiful city. After years of pounding keyboards and catching flights, of chronicling teams’ successes and failures with the disattached observance of a prison guard, at 62 my transformation to fandom is complete.

This vulture has turned into a dove.

AS Roma bringing joy to this once doomsday fan as it shocks Champions League

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.


No cheering in the press box.

It’s what I learned as a young sportswriter. Even before I learned my ABCs and first cliche, I learned the importance of objectivity. You do not cheer for the team you cover. You cheer for your story. You cheer for your accuracy. You cheer for your scoops. And you make damn sure you do it all on deadline. That laptop — or 1929 Royal typewriter as was the case when I began in the mid ‘70s — is the barrier between the team in front of you and your heart.

My Samsung computer has dropped its screen. My heart is in my fingers, the ones typing away about the new team I love. After retiring to Rome nearly four years ago, ending my 40-year career as a sportswriter, my transition from sportswriter to sports fan has hit nearly every fan’s octave, both high and low: Disgust when AS Roma lost to Spezia, a second division outfit from Liguria, in the Italian Cup. Joy when we defeated evil Lazio, 4-1. Embarrassment when I stormed out of a bar before the end of a 6-1 thrashing at Barcelona. Confusion when coach Luciano Spalletti jilted us for Inter Milan after leading us to second place in Serie A last season.

Today, as the season finishes its first trimester, I am experiencing something new. It’s something all fans seek and few sportswriters can fully comprehend until they experience it themselves.

Pride.

I now understand what drives fans to paint their faces in school colors, wear team jerseys when they’re 50 years old and write angry emails to sportswriters. My AS Roma is, as the cliche goes, surprising everyone but itself. It has turned everyone’s doomsday prediction, including my August blog, into so much shredded newsprint. It has done it all season but after Tuesday night all of Europe now bows its head, as legions of conquered citizens once did to the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. (OK, I just compared my soccer team to the most powerful civilization in man’s history. That’s the beauty I’ve discovered about fandom. One is allowed hyperbole.)

On a frigid Tuesday night in old Olympic Stadium, AS Roma defeated Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan and finished first in Group C of the Champions League. It’s the toughest club competition in the world and maybe the toughest tournament, even more than the World Cup. We finished ahead of Chelsea, an international soccer blueblood, and Atletico Madrid, Champions League runner-up in 2014 and ‘16. This is like my University of Oregon Ducks winning the Pac-12 Conference football title three straight times after they won all of 11 games during my four years in college. The Ducks actually did win the title three times. However, journalism washed away my subjectivity long ago, like a windshield wiper brushing away tears. My hometown college team became just another name in a headline.

This is different. AS Roma has reached my bloodstream. The club was born in 1927 in my Testaccio neighborhood, in a small office down the street from my apartment. It’s now a sports betting parlor but the yellow and red Roma logo remains on the wall, however faded from a century of rain and disappointment, from obscene graffiti left by evil fans of cross-town vermin Lazio.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.


I watched games in that office when I lived in Rome from 2001-03. Today, I am a regular at Abbey Theatre, an Irish pub near Piazza Navona where I have frighteningly found myself on a first-name basis with every waiter and manager. I no longer quote Dante. I quote Mike, the hilarious manager from Dublin who’s as Irish as a pint a Guinness on a hurling pitch. During one of my many spiels about how much I love the Italian people, I asked him what he thought. “The Italians I like,” he said. “It’s the Irish I can’t stand.”

Abbey Theatre has two rooms upstairs reserved for Roma fans, we romanisti, who eat the best pub food outside London and scream at every shot, goal and cagey pass. Each score, each victory, the room explodes like anything I saw in America’s high-tech sports bars. I’ve hugged more Italian strangers than Silvio Berlusconi. I’ve expanded my vocabulary of Romanaccio profanity.

That wasn’t supposed to happen this season. We were all prepared for a fall. From the old man in the Roma scarf on the park bench in my piazza to the local newspapers in my newstand, everyone saw AS Roma plummet. We were going to drop in the Serie A standings like the Italian economy. Spalletti fled from what he thought, not entirely unjustified, was a club that is destined to be a second-tier Italian power. Also fleeing were Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player who left for Liverpool, Antonio Rudiger, likely Roma’s best defender, for Chelsea and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who became national icon Gianluigi Buffon’s understudy for a season at Juventus before taking the reins next year. Francesco Totti, Roma’s best player in history, retired after 25 years with his hometown club.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.


In their place came guys who would only excite their WAGS, (the European acronym for “wives and girlfriends.”) In came midfielder Aleksander Kolarov, a Serbian midfielder from Manchester City; Gregoire Defrel, a forward from Sassuolo; defender Hector Moreno from PSV in Holland and a young Turkish kid named Cengiz Under. Allison Becker, last year’s Brazilian backup, stepped in for Szczesny. Replacing Spalletti came Eusebio Di Francesco, also from Sassuolo, a mid-table Italian club in Emiglia-Romagna which made me smirk every time I heard the name.

Millions of euros went into AC Milan’s lineup. Napoli kept its team intact. Juventus has won six straight titles. We were doomed. At least Abbey’s fish n’ chips were good.

Then something clicked. We started to win. A new defense sparked by Becker and the gritty, tattooed Kolarov only allowed three goals over an 11-game stretch. Only a 3-3 tie to mighty Chelsea, a victory in itself, cracked the great Roman wall. Edin Dzeko, Serie A’s top scorer last year, scored seven goals by October. Depth off the bench has been fabulous. Di Francesco screamed and cajoled, urged and massaged. He never let up on the pedal. Stunningly, Roma has 11 wins, a tie and two losses, good for 34 points and fourth place, five points behind first-place Inter. And Roma has played one less game.

Juventus has already lost twice. AC Milan didn’t meet the expectations mass cash infusion brings and fired its coach. Roma, seriously, has a shot at its fourth title, called the scudetto, in its history and the first since 2000-01.

Roma's 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.

Roma’s 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.


In the Champions League it opened with a 0-0 tie against Atletico then Chelsea came to Rome and Roma beat it like a bowl of eggs, 3-0. Roma was on the verge of advancing to the Champions League knockout stage from one of the hardest groups in the tournament. I started wearing my AS Roma watch every day. I’d walk down the street with my AS Roma sweatshirt and hear “FORZA ROMA!” cries from passing cars. I had inner joy I couldn’t get from writing a good story. In sportswriting, you’re only as good as your last byline. As a fan, one win and joy lasts all week.

It’s like love without the phone calls.

On the last night of group competition, I needed a closer look. I put on my reporter’s fedora and went to the stadium. The only AS Roma gear I wore were underwear, a gift from my girlfriend, Marina, a third-generation romanista herself. Roma stood in second place in Group C with eight points, two behind Chelsea which hosted Atletico, sitting third with six. All Roma had to do was beat Qarabag, dead last with two, or hope Atletico doesn’t beat Chelsea, and Roma advances as one of the two top teams regardless if it wins, loses or ties.

The old gray lady that is Olympic Stadium was subdued. Curva Sud was filled with ultras again after an agonizing two-year fan protest but the 35,000 didn’t have its usual cutthroat roar. Maybe it was the 41-degree weather at kickoff. Maybe they’re already spoiled by success and viewed Qarabag, missing four starters due to injury and suspension, as a mere speed bump to the inevitable destination.

As it turns out, Roma shared in the crowd’s lethargy. We’re not sharp. We’re passing out of bounds. We’re skying shots over the goal like football punts. Dzeko is continuing a late slump. I want to scream at the team, “FAI SCHIFO!” (YOU SUCK!). But, as there’s no cheering in the press box, there’s no profanity, either. Qarabag (car-ah-BAHG), the four-time defending Azerbaijani champion, isn’t laying down. It’s obvious it didn’t come to Rome to shop. At halftime, it’s 0-0. In London, Atletico and Chelsea are 0-0.

I’m getting nervous. Last month I watched Italy choke like gagging, rabid dogs in World Cup qualifying. I have no affiliation with this country. I have developed very close ties to this city. Blowing a Champions League knockout berth and the 20 million euros that comes with it would not sit well on a long, freezing post-midnight walk home along the Tiber.

Radja Nainggolan is soul of Roma.

Radja Nainggolan is the soul of Roma.


But in the second half, our relentless pressure finally pays off in the 53rd minute. Radja Nainggolan, our Belgian bulldog of a midfielder, sends a back-heeled feed to Dzeko whose shot is blocked by brilliant goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic. The ball pops in the air and Diego Perotti heads it into an empty net. The woman reporter next to me stands up and cheers. The memo obviously didn’t reach Rome. I limit myself to a quiet, long exhale.

Moments later, Atletico scores to lead 1-0. Roma must win if Atletico does. My nerves return. My foot starts tapping and not because of the cold that has dropped to 38 degrees. But Qarabag can’t muster much of an attack and Chelsea ties it in London. The scores stand. When the bell sounds, Roma had claimed first place over Chelsea due to head to head results. In Rome this is huge. While Roma has advanced to the knockout stage eight of its last 10 Champions League competitions, it has only finished atop its group once, in 2008-09. It means an easier opponent in the knockout stages that will be announced Monday.

Keep in mind Roma has never won a European tournament. It finished runner-up in the 1983-84 European Cup, the predecessor of the Champions League, and runner-up in the 1990-91 UEFA Cup, European soccer’s version of the NIT.

“It’s a result nobody dared hope for when the draw was made,” said Daniele De Rossi, a Rome native who replaced Totti as the club’s face. “I am particularly glad as Roma had some real embarrassments in Europe over the years so this has cleaned up the image in Europe in a way.”

I ventured down to the mixed zone, oft times a futile gesture as few players talk after games. Perotti even walked by without a word. I managed to chat with Nainggolan, a Belgian-Indonesian whose entire body is a tattoo canvas. He wears his hair in a mohawk of different colors, depending on the day. He looks like he eats raw cattle. In a bench-clearing brawl, I’ll take Nainggolan and Kolarov and you can have the rest of Europe.

I asked him about the differences made by Di Francesco. The former Roma player had never coached in the Champions League and his glasses and beard make him look like a waiter.

“Every player on the team knows what he has to do,” Nainggolan said. “When we change, four or five players, three players, the important thing is every player knows he’s important.”

As I was leaving, I saw Di Francesco prance past the mixed zone. He was smiling like the kids who hold players’ hands as they march onto the field. What’s Italian for “I told you so”?

“I’m satisfied because nobody believed we could qualify at all,” he said. “They assumed we’d be eliminated. Now it can all happen. I say why not?”