A little while ago I read this article, written by a friend of mine. It’s his personal story from the events that unfolded in Rome March 21st 2004. We went to see Lazio – Roma together, Il Derby Della Capitale: one of the biggest derbies in the world. It was going to be a memorable night for everyone involved, but for all the wrong reasons.
The article made me want to share my story. Here it goes:
The calm before the storm
I was fortunate to live in Rome during one of the best Roma periods since the Scudetto in 2001. The 4-0 thrashing of Juventus, the 4-1 against Inter and Cassano’s first hat trick against Siena were among the greatest memories from that time. Now, the Lazio game is obviously a different story. It was going to be my first derby and my first time in Curva Sud.
I met up with people I knew from the AS Roma Addicts forum. This was a time without Facebook and Twitter, so the forum was the place to be for English speaking romanisti. Our group consisted of me, Simon (New Zealand), Samantha (USA) and Lars (Sweden).
We met outside the entrance to the Olimpico several hours before kick-off. I don’t recall picking up any bad vibes from the area, as far as I can remember it was pretty calm, albeit more police than normal. I left my group early to say hello to our rivals, laziali I knew from a different forum. They had arranged a big group tour to see this game…this particular game.
So I´m walking towards Fontana del Globo, the big, white ball of stone outside the stadium. I´m on the phone when I get this weird notion like I’m not supposed to be there. It would seem the bad vibes that I should have felt earlier were now making an appearance. That’s when I saw countless policemen standing in formation right in front of me. Fully equipped with batons and kevlar. They blocked the entrance behind white globe, where I was conveniently going.
And I was one of few people walking on that street when hell erupted.
Some idiot threw a bomb (those noisy ones you often hear on TV during the games) towards the police. And in a blink of an eye the whole police force came storming in my direction. At first I didn´t run, thinking that if I ran they would think I did it. But I changed my mind when a police car came speeding through the area, which seemed excessive – and dangerous.
So I ran to the globe, hoping that the police wouldn´t mind me standing there. They didn´t. But now people were scattered all over the place. I texted the laziali and told them it was not safe to meet like this. I had to get back to my own Roma group and get inside before anyone got hurt. Luckily I found Lars, Sam and Simon without too much trouble.
We got to the entrance to the Curva Sud. The guards were eager to get people inside. That our tickets had a different section printed on them was obviously not a problem. We got inside and were happy to be so. We suspected many people did as we did, so the Curva was crowded. Very crowded. I remember standing at the edge of the entrance with the stairs right behind me. It was going to be a very bad place to be.
Mihjalovic and Totti had shaken hands. The game was on its way. Lazio looked very comfortable in the opening.
Meanwhile… in Curva Sud:
Trying to concentrate on the game is difficult with so much movement right beside you. People running up and down, being guilty or innocent in the chaos outside, which I suspected was getting worse by the minute. I remember one guy in particular, he looked scared as he ran and disappeared in the crowd next to me. I turned around and looked down the stairs only to see one or two canisters being volleyed on to the platform below me (where they sell food and drinks). Gas.
There is no nice way to describe this scene. Imagine having a canister of tear gas a few steps below and you have nowhere to go. It hurts, a lot. You can’t breathe normally. You can’t see normally. And this gas was twice as strong as the tear gas I had been exposed to during an exercise in my compulsory year in the Norwegian military. The difference was I could run away that time. This time we had to endure minutes in tear gas with no escape route. Our only way out was down the stairs and through the thick haze of gas… where the police were waiting. With batons and kevlar mind you.
My teacher at School always warned me against the military police, the Carabinieri. When I talked about going to the Roma games, she said; “Be careful, they are crazy”. This came from her own experience in Genoa, during the G8 in 2001.
So no, I was not going down the stairs.
But yes, there were probably several troublemakers who ran from the fighting outside to hide in Curva Sud. I do not, however, see how several waves of tear gas directed at thousands of innocent people would help in any case. The second wave was the worst. We had endured the first wave unknowingly. Now we knew it was bad.
Panic. In the minutes that followed, people pulled and pushed each other. A few moments earlier, before the panic spread, I saw an elderly woman a few metres below me. I remember thinking “What if she falls? What if anyone falls?”. The Curva was overcrowded. We were thousands of people stuck in a small area trying to escape from the “crowd control measures” used by the police. How could they not see the danger they exposed us to?
Eventually the tear gas calmed down. People calm down. Breathing normally. It feels nice. The Roma scarf looks nasty though. I felt like I had the worst hangover in my entire life and was not ready to endure another wave. I told my friends that we needed to get out from Curva Sud ASAP. I don’t know why Sam and Lars stayed put, perhaps we miscommunicated or they thought it was too dangerous to go outside. So we split up. Simon and I decided to find a way into the Distinti Sud, the section close to the Curva. We went down to the platform with the empty tear gas canisters, and through the pizza shop area. Oh, god. I had forgotten about them. The workers at the shops, I mean. We thought we had it bad, but these people had their workplace bombarded with tear gas. Let’s just say that neither the place nor the people looked good when we walked by.
Outside. No police or Ultras fighting. at least not there. But we move to the other section pretty quickly. Traumatized by the things that just happened, but optimistic that it would get better now – away from the constantly attacked Curva Sud. We felt much safer inside Distinti Sud. But we got increasingly concerned for Samantha and Lars when we saw more smoke and panic from the same area we left. Even from afar the gas stung in our eyes. At some point I think even the players felt it. It was by far the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced. And the first half wasn’t even over.
Simon and I moved to the upper parts of the stadium. As far away from gas and trouble as possible. I think we even tried to enjoy the game at that point. It was still 0-0 and edging closer to the break.
And then things got worse…
“A kid has died”. Suddenly we heard everyone talking about it. Something was not right. The rumor came from Curva Sud. ”A young romanista has been run over by a police car”. I quickly remembered the car that almost hit me. So I bought it. Like everyone else. Despair turned into hate. “Normal” fans started to get aggressive. Rival fans and arch enemies united in hatred against the police.
The poor tourists that sat beside me knew little of the new events. They took pictures during the break like normal people would have done. But a kid had died, so their smiles were not welcomed. After being verbally abused by some idiots, I tried to explain to them why the environment suddenly got hostile. It was surreal.
The second half is about to begin. Carabineri are lining up ringside. Up till this point it was quiet in both camps. No songs. No banners. The only thing tangible was whispers about a dead boy. The whole stadium knew. And then came the loudest shout of the night, aimed at the police:
“Assassini! Assassini! Assassini!” …Murderers
Normally you have one Curva singing one song, and the opposite Curva whistling or singing something different. This time however, the whole stadium erupted in those words. It was not about Lazio against Roma anymore. It was about the Ultras against the police. And unfortunately, when you gas several thousands of people and lock the door (yes, we were actually trapped) you know a lot more people – who normally would not take part in this idiocy – would join the fight. The rumors of a dead boy made it worse.
The speaker gets on. I don’t get what he says, but when I ask someone beside me, he claims he confirmed someone had died. However, the second time I hear the speaker, he says no one is dead. It’s all very confusing. I think even Totti is commanded to speak to the audience. But even Totti is helpless. It’s not about football anymore. It’s a war outside. A boy died, and someone must pay for it.
Members from a far right section of the Curva Sud manage to get onto the pitch. They warn Totti about the consequences of playing the rest of the game. Ultras from both side of the stadium are ready to storm the pitch. Captains of both teams fear the worst.
The game is suspended.
The scandal was a fact. Unfortunately the trouble was far from over.
The gates were open, so Simon and I decided to leave in the same manner we arrived to the stadium. As we walk down the stairs and get outside we see a burning car. Even the pizza shops are set on fire. Right in front of us is a thick fog, covering the whole area with the white globe. It was tear gas. We saw no fog outside the Curva Sud entrance. But we saw fire. Lots of fire. And fights. Police against Ultras. We were trapped. When I turned around I saw a man with his two little boys. I will never forget it. Kids clinging to their father, with tear gas on side and brutal fights on the other. I never felt so helpless in my life. I suspect neither did he.
We go inside. It’s the only safe place to be. The game is over, but thousands of people have nowhere to go. Eventually they open the gates leading down to the pitch. Our only way out is through the tunnel we normally see the players marching in during warm up. A few moments later and I’m standing on the pitch, thinking I would normally enjoy this moment – but not today.
We see a lot of people crying. Some has bruises. Another one seems to have broken his leg. He was carried down to the pitch by two gentlemen wearing jerseys: one Roma, one Lazio. It was one of the few bright moments that night.
We continued through the tunnel. It was calm when we got outside. There were large groups of people walking not as a thunderous herd but rather moving in silence. Somewhere else the riots continued without us.
A few hours later and we’re back at our regular bar. We met our worried friends who had watched it all from the television. They told us that no one had died. TV said the dead kid was a lie from the Ultras to turn everyone against the police.
Eventually Lars and Sam also joined us, they were ok. We stayed up that night and just talked. Talked for hours.
It’s ten years ago, but a memory not easily forgotten.
(It was later claimed that a young boy was put under a white blanket outside the stadium, but he was not dead. He had big breathing problems due to the gas. They used the blanket to protect him from the smoke while he received treatment. Fans watching this from afar only saw a boy under a white carpet and drew their own conclusions)