I’ve seen enough soccer in other countries to know that going to a match isn’t quite what I initially thought it would be. I used to think I would awake to a town abuzz with anticipation of the upcoming match. There would be old men in cafes wearing team scarves and hotly debating the starting lineup. Near the stadium would be pubs full of people singing team songs, drinking liquor with the potency of jet fuel, and eating food that an American would only eat to win the express pass on “The Amazing Race” (haggis, tripe, pickeled herring, etc.). A victory would ignite the biggest celebration since VE Day (or in Germany: since David Hasselhoff’s last album dropped). A loss would bring about histrionics and accusations — someone would be burned as a witch.
In reality, the game-day experience is pretty similar to the experience in the United States. For starters, many people — people with lives, specifically — couldn’t care less. Italians are busy — they have tiny cups of coffee to drink, scooters to maintain and businesses to open for three hours a day. Soccer is only one part of life. At the stadium — as in the U.S. — everything is corporate-sponsored. Fans wear their Kappa-made jerseys with “Wind” across the front and drink Pepsi products until they’re on a sugar high, sponsored by Royal Caribbean.
Still, going to AS Roma’s season-ending match against Napoli was different from a D.C. United match in several notable ways (for example: the home team won). Here are some of the main differences:
At a Roma match: You buy tickets through a multinational conglomerate that tells you to pick up the tickets from some dude at a restaurant. At which point you think “I’d be willing to pay for some convenience here.” To my surprise, it worked; I show up at the restaurant on match day to find Mario — my ticket-dispensation professional — hanging out at the bar eating a bruschetta. Ticketmaster should offer this option: $6 for mail delivery, $4 for e-ticket, $2 to pick up from some random dude in a Mossimo T-shirt.
At a United match: The crowd contains all types of people.
At a Roma match: The crowd contains dudes. Seriously: You could have a Star Trek convention on Fire Island and draw more women than were at this match. My wife attracted the same level of interest as a flank steak at a dog kennel. I got back from the bathroom and there was a crowd around her so large that I thought maybe she was performing street magic.
At a Roma match: The stadium is adjacent to ruins.
At a United match: The stadium IS a ruin.
At a United match: Rivalries goes back to the Clinton administration.
At a Roma match: Rivalries go back to the Mussolini administration. I should mention that the match I attended came a week before Roma faced city rival Lazio in the Çoppa Italia final (Lazio won, 1-0). Lazio was Mussolini’s favorite team; and which team you supported used to be an indication of your political views (some say it still is). The roots of American sports rivalries simply don’t run that deep; most Washingtonians hate the Cowboys, but Jerry Jones usually doesn’t come up when discussing history’s greatest monsters.
At a Roma match: The crest evokes 3,000 years of history and arguably the greatest civilization of all time. Roma’s crest shows Rome’s origin story: Brothers Romulus and Remus — founders of the city — are nursed by a she wolf (because being nursed by a male wolf would be weird). I love this crest. Compare that to Lazio’s eerily militaristic crest; that thing makes me want to hide in the Swiss Alps.
At a United match: Visiting supporters are separated from home fans by a couple of sections.
At a Roma match: Visiting supporters are separated from home fans by about 100 meters, three plexiglas barriers, and several dozen police. This in a country in which the police presence is not-at-all oppressive. Want to urinate on a Michelangelo? You might get away with it. Want to mix it up with the Napoli fans? You’ll have to face down more polizia than Michael Caine in The Italian Job. This is why soccer riots in Europe are now oddities instead of rites of passage.
My take on the match is the same as my take on Italy in general: It was as good as advertised. The atmosphere was great, the play was top-notch, and the insults Roma fans yelled at the distant Napoli supporters were as zesty and robust as the best Italian food. It’s not the quaint expression of local color that a younger me would have expected, but it’s the raucus, rough-edged cousin of what we do in D.C.