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 three 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 fusbol, 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.

My transition from sportswriter to sports fan becomes a half-empty glass as I dread start of soccer season

This painting of A.S. Roma's wolf can be seen from much of my Testaccio neighborhood where the club was born in 1927.

This painting of A.S. Roma’s wolf can be seen from much of my Testaccio neighborhood where the club was born in 1927.


A college basketball coach once told me something that best explains the relationship fans have with their sports teams. He said, “Some of these fans want us to win even more than we do.” For 40 years, I catered to those fans. As a sportswriter in suburban Seattle, Las Vegas and Denver, I worked day after day, month after month, year after year, to print every tidbit of information about whatever team I covered. I uncovered the truth, I criticized, I praised. The fans were often vitriolic, either wanting me or the entire coaching staff publicly executed.

Now I’m one of them.

My transformation from sportswriter to sports fan began shortly after I retired and moved to Rome in January 2014. I reattached myself to the fortunes of A.S. Roma, a legendary soccer club that lured me into its cultural kaleidoscope when I lived here the first time from 2001-03. This time it’s different. My Italian is better and I read the national sports dailies. This website gets me into Olympic Stadium’s press tribune for games. I found a fan club around the corner from my apartment in Testaccio, the neighborhood where A.S. Roma was formed in 1927. I found a pub in Centro Storico that shows every game on Roma’s schedule.

I bought enough A.S. Roma paraphernalia to outfit a souvenir store. I have A.S. Roma T-shirts, sweatshirts, warm-up top, slippers, bathrobe, watch, pennant, scarf, wallet, bookmark, photo album. I have a giant A.S. Roma flag in my bedroom. My girlfriend, Marina, often surprised me on dates by giving me new A.S. Roma underwear. I have become a full-fledged romanista.

The transformation never became so apparent than after games. In the U.S., I scrambled out of my press seat to interview the players while forming in my brain a halfway decent opening paragraph I’d turn into a story in less time than most people take to write to-do lists. In Rome, after a game ends, I order another beer or head to the closest wine bar to the stadium. However, as a fan there is one colossal downside.

Sometimes I don’t feel like drinking.

After 40 years of objectivity choking me of all subjectiveness, I now comprehend the fans’ anxiety, their depression, their anger. It hasn’t been easy being an A.S. Roma fan since I’ve arrived. Roma is a perennial second-tier club in Serie A, Italy’s top league. I take little solace knowing that only one club is first tier. Juventus’ six straight league titles, known as scudettos, kill my optimism by Halloween when Juve starts pulling away from the pack. Of the four major European soccer leagues — England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Serie A — no other club has ever won six straight league titles. In France, Lyon won seven straight Ligue 1 crowns from 2001-08. Juventus is favored to match that this season.

I don’t hate Juve like most Roma fans. I love its city, Turin, too much. However, I’ve learned to distrust Juve fans. All over Italy are Juve fans who hop on the bandwagon because they’re too boring to ride a wagon without company. Rooting for Juventus is like rooting for Goldman Sachs. After every conversation with a Juve fan, I check my wallet.

The new Serie A season starts Saturday with Roma opening Sunday in Bergamo against Atalanta, last year’s upstart. My blood is beginning to race. I’m devouring every word about Roma in Corriere Dello Sport. I can already taste the Nastro Azzurro at Abbey Theatre pub. I also have a feeling in my gut that so many of my readers had throughout my career. It’s a gnawing, an intuition that you tell everyone around you is true.

We could really suck the great big green one.

A reader once wrote me that about a story I wrote carving up Colorado’s football program. I have no idea what it meant but it sounded pretty negative. It seems particularly appropriate here. Also, take this with a grain of salt. There are people who see the glass is half empty and people who see the glass is half full. I see a glass so barren it has formed cobwebs. Combine that with my journalist’s ingrained pessimism, and you have a Roma fan who may watch the season with my fingers covering my eyes.

Keep in mind European soccer is different than American pro sports. Europe has no amateur draft. Bad teams in Europe are like moldy cheese. They can’t get good in a hurry. In the last 15 years, Major League Baseball has had 10 different World Series champions. Serie A has had three. La Liga has had four, Bundesliga and Premiership five. In Scotland, no one but Glasgow-rivals Celtic and Rangers has won the title since 1985. There is a bigger discrepancy of wealth in European soccer than on the island of Manhattan.

European teams are fueled by ticket sales and TV money and unlike in the U.S., TV money is not equally distributed. In Italy, the rich get filthy richer. Serie A signed a three-year, 2.82-billion euro deal that runs through this season. However, only 40 percent of the money is distributed equally. Another 30 percent is distributed based on club appeal. Plus, Serie A gets 300 million euros from overseas rights in continental competitions. Only 40 percent of that is divided equally. The rest goes to participating teams. So two seasons ago, Juventus received 122.8 million euros from TV. Carpi received 25.2 million. Needless to say, Carpi, a town of 70,000 where the 5,000-seat stadium was so small it had to play in nearby Modena, dropped to Serie B the next season.

Equality in ticket sales is a geographic impossibility. In Serie A, stadiums range from Milan’s 80,000-seat San Siro to Spal’s 12,348-seat Stadio Paolo Mazza in Ferrara. Juventus’ Allianz Stadium seats a relatively modest 41,570 but there’s one difference.

Juventus owns the stadium. It’s one of only three clubs in the 20-team league that reaps all stadium profits.

A.S. Roma's proposed 1.5 billion euro stadium.

A.S. Roma’s proposed 1.5 billion euro stadium.


Which brings us to Roma’s dilemma and my angst. Its Boston-based owner, James Pallotta, is trying to build a $1.5 billion stadium about five miles southwest of me in an open, green area called Tor di Valle. Since the club formalized a construction agreement in 2012, the stadium has been one of the biggest hot potatoes for a city hall already bereft with problems ranging from disastrous public services to mafia corruption. City officials have mocked the original blueprint, told Pallotta to find another space and rejected the proposal before finally approving it in February. Meanwhile, the trash still never gets picked up.

Next month they’ll start a new planning process. In the meantime, the club signed a new lease with Olympic Stadium until 2020. Considering it takes that long to get a newsstand built in Rome, I’m not optimistic that Pallotta will get the stadium before I start babbling incoherently in a rocking chair about creeping fascism.

Luciano Spalletti

Luciano Spalletti


Neither does Luciano Spalletti. He’s the manager who led Roma to second place last season, its third runner-up in four years. So pessimistic of the club’s future, Spalletti is the only soccer manager I know who turned down a lucrative extension to go elsewhere. He’s now coaching Inter Milan which finished seventh last season. He left based on Inter’s new Chinese ownership which promised big investments but takes over a club deep in debt.

He left a club furiously paddling to keep afloat for another drowning in red ink. What does that tell you?

Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah

Wojciech Szczesny

Wojciech Szczesny

Antonio Rudiger

Antonio Rudiger

Leandro Parades

Leandro Parades


Following Roma in the off season was like watching Michelangelo’s Madonna crumble in the middle of St. Peter’s. First, striker Francesco Totti retired to the front office after 25 years as Roma’s icon. Then Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player, went to Liverpool; Wojciech Szczesny, arguably Serie A’s best goalkeeper last season, left for Juventus where he’ll take over for icon Gianluigi Buffon next season; Antonio Rudiger, their best defender, went to Chelsea; and Leandro Parades, a serviceable midfielder, escaped to Russia and Zenit-St. Petersburg.
Eusebio Di Francesco

Eusebio Di Francesco


In Spalletti’s place is one Eusebio di Francesco, whose claim to fame is taking Sassuolo from Serie B to Serie A in 2013. He got fired the next year, then came back a few months later and led them to sixth place last season and qualification for the Europa League, the continent’s second biggest club tournament. Di Francesco, who played on Roma’s last scudetto-winning team in 2001, may be a fine manager. But excuse me if I’m not excited about a team of Roma’s caliber taking its coach from a club that sounds like a porn film.
Hector Moreno

Hector Moreno


With limited funds, Roma brought in players who didn’t light up Rome chat rooms or it
Gregoire Defrel

Gregoire Defrel

Cengiz Under

Cengiz Under

s 24-hour A.S. Roma radio station. They brought in two defenders from Holland in Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord), who’s out until October with knee surgery, and Hector Moreno (PSV Eindhoven) who isn’t a shadow of Rudiger at center back. A third defender, Aleksandar Kolarov, played seven seasons for Manchester City, winning two titles, and earned 68 caps for Serbia where he was Serbian Player of the Year in 2011. Gregoire Defrel came from Sassuolo to take some scoring pressure from Edin Dzeko, whose 29 goals led Serie A last season, but Defrel hasn’t shown much in preseason. Cengiz Under, a young Turk (Literally, he’s from Turkey and its national team) may be the most promising new offensive player and looks young enough to be their academy ball boy. Allison, Brazil’s national goalkeeper but who lost the starting job to Szczesny last season, is elevated to starter.
Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez


They tried getting a marquis name in Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian star who led Leicester City to the shocking Premiership title two seasons ago and was named Premiership Player of the Year. But Leicester wanted 40 million euro and Roma wouldn’t go past 35 million. Roma has never spent more than 30 million on a player in its history.

They had a respectable showing in their U.S. summer tour. They lost to Paris-St. Germain and Juve in shootouts and beat Tottenham Hotspurs. They lost at Seville in a friendly only 2-1, all of which I followed in the papers. Sunday night my soccer withdrawal became too much and I made an early pilgrimage to Abbey. Its bacon cheeseburger and beer were a lot better than Roma at middling Celta Vigo, which finished 13th in La Liga last season. In their last tuneup before the season began, De Francesco started a squad that included only three starters. What, this is the NFL and he was afraid they’d get hurt? This is a team in transition, on its sixth manager in six years and in their last tune up he starts the B team.

My second beer hadn’t arrived before Roma trailed 2-0 after 22 minutes. Defender Federico Fazio, captain by default, nearly poleaxed an opponent in the penalty for the first Vigo goal and the fourth goal scored when he watched a cross go by like a little kid looking at a running puppy. They trailed 3-0 after 27 minutes and 4-0 at halftime.

At halftime, De Francesco reportedly exploded like a shaken bottle of fine Prosecco. He put in eight starters who held serve before losing 4-1. As Roma fans turned off their TVs at various points of the public execution, evil cross-town rival Lazio was stunning Juventus in Olympic Stadium, 3-2, to win the Italian Super Cup.

Juventus’ loss is a red flag for the rest of Serie A but from what I’ve seen and read Roma does not have the capabilities to fill the gap. We’re picked third or fourth, depending on the poll, with steady Napoli having the best shot at dethroning Juve and winning its first scudetto since Maradona led it to the 1990 title.

The season hasn’t even started and my descending hopes are already halfway to the gutter. Soon, they’ll join a thousand cigarette butts and maybe some shredded sports pages. I don’t have my objectivity to protect me. I don’t have deadlines to occupy me. I just have faith ingrained in the city and neighborhood I love, a faith that is more painful than joyful.

This is my fifth season in Rome. I’m wondering how fans do this for generations. I’ve never been to Buffalo. However, I now know what it’s like to live there. I’m discovering that the life of the fan isn’t all burgers and beer, high fives and cheers in the night. It’s anger. It’s frustration. It’s sadness. It’s resignation. Maybe fans were right.

Maybe I did have the perfect job.

Hello? Is everyone home? Soccer attendance in Italy is fading fast from fan protests, TV, economy

The crowd at one of last season's Lazio-Roma games at Olympic Stadium. Roma crowds have dropped from 64,271 in 2000-01 to 29,391 this season.

The crowd at one of last season’s Lazio-Roma games at Olympic Stadium. Roma crowds have dropped from 64,271 in 2000-01 to 29,391 this season.


A.S. Roma had its highest attendance of the season Monday. And why not? Monday’s clash had all the trappings of a game for the ages. A.S. Roma versus A.C. Milan. Old rivals since the 1920s. Tied for second place. Fighting to be the top challenger of evil Juventus, the five-time defending champ which stood seven points in front of them. Italy’s two biggest cities buzzed with anticipation. National sports dailies spilled over with coverage. A boisterous crowd of 41,841 came to Olympic Stadium. It was the loudest it had been all season. Only one problem.

There were more than 30,000 empty seats.

Soccer attendance in Rome, and all over Italy, is dropping faster than Italy’s government. Nearly every team is playing in front of a half-empty stadium. League officials have termed it “embarrassing.” Players are meeting with fan groups to settle qualms.

Curva Sud before last season's protest.

Curva Sud before last season’s protest.


I’m what you call around here, a romanista, a major A.S. Roma fan. It’s just as disheartening for me. My first Roma game since moving here was in January 2002. I was one of 53,422 fans to see Roma play Piacenza. Where the hell is Piacenza? It didn’t matter. Roma fans came to see their heroes who the season before won their third Serie A, or Italian league, title since their inception in 1927.

It’s 15 years later and it didn’t take me long to learn soccer in Italy is no longer what the world has read about for so many years. It only took me as long to walk through the Olympic Stadium gate one game in late October. For one, I was actually walking through the gate. I wasn’t standing in line. I was in no mob shoving to enter. I was walking through the gate for Curva Sud, the once notorious den of A.S. Roma’s vicious ultras who spent two hours every game screaming, singing insulting songs and throwing smoke bombs. In other words, they made Olympic Stadium one of the most intimidating venues in Europe. I covered the Denver Broncos for three years in old Mile High Stadium. When 65,000 fans fill Olympic Stadium, Roma’s crowd is louder. I never saw anyone at Mile High sing for four quarters.

But on this pleasant evening in Rome, Curva Sud was as mild as Sunday service. It was almost as empty, too. In a section that once filled every seat three hours before kickoff, I had empty seats to my left. I had empty seats in front of me. I saw entire sections of empty seats throughout the stadium. Only 16,478 fans rattled around the 72,698-seat stadium to watch Roma tie Austria Vienna, 3-3, in the Europa League. The Europa League is a bit like European soccer’s equivalent of college basketball’s National Invitation Tournament except it involves the entire continent. Advancing through the Europa League means a lot of money, decent prestige and a very valuable trophy to the winner. Roma was in first place in its group. But in Curva Sud, I smelled more marijuana than passion.

This season’s attendance numbers are startling. A.S. Roma’s attendance has dropped from an average of 64,271 in 2000-01 to 40,148 two seasons ago to 29,391 this season. Roma is in second place, only four points behind Juventus. Lazio, Roma’s bitter cross-town rival, is averaging only 19,625 a game, down from 47,492 in 2000-01. It’s in fifth place, eight points behind Juventus.

It’s not just in Rome. Italy’s league, Serie A, is averaging only 21,612, down from 26,519 15 years ago. The MLS (21,692) even outdrew Serie A. On the American sports radar, the MLS may be a distant fifth. In Italy, Serie A is Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4.

One of the barriers the city installed to help curb fan violence.

One of the barriers the city installed to help curb fan violence.


The reasons range from an economic crisis to the rise of TV to stadiums nearly as old as the Colosseum. But in Rome, the biggest reason is a piece of Plexiglas about seven feet high and an inch wide.

In arguably the dumbest move the city of Rome has made since allowing Caligula to become emperor, it placed two barriers along the length of Curva Sud and Curva Nord, home of the ultras for Lazio which shares the stadium. The barriers’ purpose is allegedly to control rowdy crowds. What it really did was displace 1,000 season ticket holders and alienate two clubs’ fan bases to where they have spent the last season and a half sitting at home in protest. Never mind that the barriers don’t stop ultras from singing songs and hurling smoke bombs or that there weren’t any fights in the stands anyway. Ultras don’t fight each other. They fight other teams’ fans who have been cordoned off in their own corner of the stadium for years.

The end result is a match atmosphere that has less electricity than an EA Sports video game. I usually sit in the press tribune, a big section of tabled seats straddling midfield halfway up the stands. Olympic Stadium is so quiet I can hear coaches yelling at players. The songs are weak, like a drunk fraternity trying to serenade a sorority over Christmas.

The club had nothing to do with the decision and has met with city officials trying to find a solution. Last month, Roma stars and Rome natives Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi, who between them have 46 years with the club, met with an ultras group of about 500. Both the ultras and city will not budge. The ultras won’t return until the barriers come down; the barriers won’t come down until the ultras show they’ll behave.

Then on Nov. 20, 2,000 ultras traveled to Bergamo north of Milan (Roma’s ultras do still travel well), threw firecrackers from the stands and fought with police outside the stadium. Three cops were injured and the league fined the club 55,000 euros. The barriers stay.

In other words, the fans blew it.

“This is not an initiative against fans,” Serie A president Maurizio Beretta said. “Dividing sectors was based on the need to guarantee greater security and that in case of incidents, only offenders are punished and not everyone else. We are very sorry for the empty areas.”

The ones who eventually lose, literally, is the club. Players say the Olympic Stadium crowd is worth about a goal a game. Considering their margin of error trying to displace the Goliath that is Juventus is as thin as that Plexiglas, the city and fans can debate who might cost Roma its fourth title in its history. Totti, 40, was on the club that won its last title in 2001. For a week the city partied in Circus Maximus, site of the ancient chariot races, and my local Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice near where the team was born almost 90 years ago.

Totti, in his 25th season with Roma, wants one more title before he retires. He can’t do it without the fans.

“We want them back, like old times,” he said. “We need them to reach our objectives.”

Daniele De Rossi

Daniele De Rossi


Said De Rossi: “Everything has changed. The relationship with fans is different now. There are lots of barriers between us and them and the spirit is somewhat lost.”

It’s not just fans with, literally, rocket arms, who are furious. The rest of the fan base is frothing, too. The city won’t allow fans to park within two kilometers of the stadium. Why? Terrorism. You never know when one of those cars approaching the stadium will be loaded with dynamite. Rome may be the only capital city in the western world without a train line to its soccer stadium. The packed buses I take look like the last choppers out of Saigon.

Also, a new satellite system facial identifies every person entering the stadium and can link a name with anyone found committing a violation. Considering stadium security nearly conducts body cavity searches as you enter, it’s no wonder fans feel more violated.

And it’s no wonder more fans feel more comfortable sitting at home watching on TV. Subscriptions to Sky TV, which paid 600 million euros for a three-year contract, part of Serie A’s 1.1 billion TV rights, are at 4.76 million. I know. I’m one of them. Every game in Serie A is on TV. I usually watch Roma games at Abbey Theatre, Rome’s best Irish pub/sports bar where we Roma fans have our own room upstairs and waitresses wait on us hand and foot, serving us Guinness and the best fish n’ chips I’ve had outside of Liverpool.

The 16,478 crowd for Roma-Austria Vienna.

The 16,478-plus crowd for Roma-Austria Vienna.


I discussed this with my best friend, Alessandro Castellani, a Rome native, lifelong Roma fan and sportswriter for ANSA, the Italian wire service. We talked at Campo Vittorio Bachelet, the home of ASD Trastevere, Rome’s fourth-division soccer team whose attendance has doubled this season to 400 a game. It’s not just because the club’s in first place and the quaint, leafy field puts fans atop the players. Many in Rome are fed up with the political climate and hassles of 56-year-old Olympic Stadium.

“There is too much soccer on TV,” Castellani told me. “In England they don’t show all the games. They should do the same here. They should only show it in Rome if it’s sold out. If they know they can’t see it on TV, people will go.”

My Sky subscription costs 22 euros a month. The average price of an AS Roma ticket is about 40. You do the math. I’m retired. Imagine a Roman family going to a game during Italy’s biggest economic recession since World War II.

“And don’t forget how strong Sky TV is,” said Turin native Massimo Franchi of the national sports newspaper, Tuttosport, and a sportswriter in Italy for 38 years. “It’s better than going to the stadium. You go to the stadium it’s 5 degrees (celsius). At night it’s 1 to 3. An hour and a half before the match, you drink a coffee, a whiskey, a Coca-Cola. You can look at your idols in the dressing room and see an interview with (Juve goalie Gianluigi) Buffon or (A.C. Milan owner Silvio) Berlusconi about the match. You can see the match in 90 minutes then for one hour they’re in the studio.”

On Dec. 4 came the derby, the rivalry between Rome and Lazio, which the media billed as one of the biggest games in their savage 90-year history. Roma (9 wins, 2 ties, 3 defeats) was in second place with 29 points; Lazio (8-4-2) was fourth with 28. Roma’s 33 goals were the third most in Europe behind only Monaco (44) and Real Madrid (36). Only Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani, both with 19, had more goals than Roma’s Edin Dzeko’s 17. Lazio was one of only five teams in Europe unbeaten in its last nine games and was off to its best start since 2003-04. This is Roma’s most potent offense since 1934-35.

The crowd was 41,841. Lazio’s ultras returned for the game; Roma’s did not. Roma won, 2-0. Roma beat Milan, 1-0. Roma plays at Juventus Saturday night. Meanwhile, the club and city continue their fight over a projected 1.5 billion euro, 52,500-seat stadium on the southwest edge of Rome.

No word on whether it will have barriers.

Retired in Rome Journal: Juventus-Roma soccer match tops NFL in noise, passion

Rome's Olympic Stadium moments before kickoff of Juventus-Roma.

Rome’s Olympic Stadium moments before kickoff of Juventus-Roma.

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 22

So the Denver Broncos are in the Super Bowl, huh? Tuesday night here in Rome I experienced a sports event that’s even bigger. At least, the local press thought so. I don’t think my old Denver Post will devote 18 pages to the Super Bowl on game day. I doubt it will give 12 pages the day after, either.

The Corriere dello Sport did. This wasn’t the World Cup. This wasn’t for the scudetto, the Italian term for the Serie A, or Italian League, championship. This was for the Italian Cup quarterfinal.

A quarterfinal.

Not that the coverage was over the top but one picture and caption covered a player’s girlfriend. The fact that the player’s marriage was falling apart because of said girlfriend was the hook. Nevertheless, it shows the Italian press doesn’t miss, pardon the expression, any angle.

Soccer as a religion is ancient news in Italy. There are archives of pictures of plump popes in full robes playfully booting a soccer ball over the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square. But how an Italian Cup quarterfinal captivated this city of 3.5 million is another example of how soccer in Italy can’t be described. It must be experienced.

Keep in mind that of all the trophies available to Italian soccer, the Italian Cup would not crack the top five. Played every year since 1937, it’s technically the national championship. It’s “technically” because it involves 78 pro clubs in the country, starting with Serie C teams who play in mud bogs next to vineyards and a few rows of bleachers. The knockout tournament doesn’t include Serie A’s top eight clubs until the fourth round. The winner’s prize is a berth in the UEFA Europa League, a continental tournament involving the second-tier clubs in every country.

It’s European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.

Since Italy’s top teams almost always qualify for the Champions League, involving the top clubs in Europe and considered the second biggest prize in world soccer, the Italian Cup is viewed as a necessary nuisance.

Except last night. Except in Rome.

A little background: Picture the New York Yankees in the 1920s and ’30s and you have what Juventus has been to Italian soccer in the last half century. It has won 29 scudettos and is fourth in Europe for the most overall trophies won. It is 18-1-1 this season and leads Serie A by eight points. That equals two wins and two ties just over halfway through the season.

Roma is in second at 14-1-5. Just 17 days ago, Roma went up to Turin, where Juventus plays, and got creamed, 3-0. Revenge is big in Rome. (Read what they did in the Colosseum to prisoners of war.) Add the nugget that Roma lost last year’s Italian Cup final to Lazio, a cross-town arch-rival so vile Roma fans spit up linguini when they see Lazio’s sky blue colors, and this Italian Cup has meaning.

It didn’t get the TV ratings the Super Bowl will but no way did Sports Authority Field’s noise meter Sunday reach the heights Rome’s Olympic Stadium did Tuesday. I covered the Broncos at old Mile High Stadium, Germany’s opening World Cup match in Munich and football games all over the SEC.

Nothing I have heard reached the noise output in Olympic Stadium. Nothing.

It was only 56,557 fans but they crammed every seat in the old yard. Built for the 1960 Olympics, it still drips with glory from the statues that line the walk into the stadium to trademark round roof. The only empty seats were one vacant section. That sliver of seats, along with a high fence and armored cops lining every row, separated the 3,000 Juventus fans from the vicious fan base in Curva Nord, the cheap seats behind the goal.

Roma hates Juventus. It has what Roma wants: world glory. Roma hasn’t won a scudetto since 2001 and has only nipped at Juventus’ heels ever since. The venom spewed forth the minute Juventus’ goalies went out to warm up. The whistles and taunts and boos rolled down the stands like runaway boulders. When the rest of the Juventus roster came out, the famous chant began.

“JUVE! JUVE! VAFFANCULO! JUVE! JUVE! VAFFANCULO!” (JUVE! JUVE! GO FUCK YOURSELF! JUVE! JUVE! GO FUCK YOURSELF!)

This was 45 minutes before kickoff.

As game time approached, Curva Sud, the more savage of the two end zone fan bases, set off flairs and smoke bombs, all barely hiding the hundreds of giant flags that made Curva Sud look like one giant pulsating muscle. Cannon shots went off every 60 seconds or so. Songs were screamed, a couple of them actually clean.

Meanwhile, Juventus treated the game like an amusing yawn. It held out five starters, including Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian national team captain, the hero of the 2006 World Cup victory and still considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Juventus hasn’t won the Italian Cup since 1995 and playing Roma didn’t inspire much more incentive.

If this is a rivalry, Juventus is Nebraska football to Roma’s Colorado in the late ’80s and ’90s.

Roma dominated from the very beginning. It peppered backup goalkeeper Marco Storari, a 37-year-old journeyman, with shots throughout the first half even though many were airmailed into the night. Juventus spent some of the first half just passing it among defenders, giving fuel to every American critic who calls soccer kickball.

Things intensified in the second. Rudi Garcia, Roma’s new French coach who has become more popular in Rome than Marcus Aurelius and pasta carbonara, put in Miralem Pjanic, a Serbian noted for an unusually large head and unusually great speed. The strategy paid off. In the 74th minute, Pjanic sped down the left flank and dribbled a soft pass toward the end line to Strootman. He stopped and kicked backward to a charging Gervinho, Roma’s explosive Ivory Coast striker who leaped and used his heel to ricochet the ball right under Storari’s arm into the net.

You could watch a season’s worth of MLS games and not see a goal that pretty. You could watch a decade and not hear a roar like I did.

The score held up. More than 56,000 fans stayed afterward, swaying back and forth in a long, heart-felt rendition of “Grazie Roma.” Roma’s players clasped hands and ran to Curva Nord and Curva Sud to, well, thank Rome.

Afterward in the press conference, Juventus coach Antonio Conte talked about how the loss only hurt their momentum in Serie A. There was nothing crestfallen about his face. In fact, I think I saw him glance at his watch a couple times.

Roma must wait for its next opponent. If Lazio beats Napoli Wednesday, the two hated rivals play the two-legged semifinals wrapped around a scheduled Serie A game.

Against each other.