In the Italian capital, Roma and Lazio are defined solely by the derby
"The Rome derby never ends," the legendary former Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia mused. "It's infinite. You start talking about it a month beforehand and continue thinking about it for weeks afterwards."
The Eternal City sees and hears nothing else. Switch on the radio and tens of different stations are babbling about it 24/7. Go down to the local bar for some refreshment and you can bet the derby is the cause of animated conversation over coffee. Hail a cab and the taxi driver wants to know who you're rooting for and why this or that player isn't starting.
Escaping it isn't easy. Giorgio Morini, a midfielder who played for Roma in the 1970s, tells a story about taking his wife out to the zoo with the intention of getting away from it all for an afternoon. "It sounds incredible," Morini said, "but even in a place usually visited by kids all you heard was people talking about the derby." He left thinking the animals would be too if only they had the power of speech.
It has a pressure-cooker effect. The tension builds and builds until the steam bursts out with an ear-piercing whistle.
"Thank goodness there are only two derbies a season," Lazio's talismanic former centre-half Alessandro Nesta consoled himself. "I think I'd die if there were 10. Nothing is more stressful than the derby."
Spare a thought for the players' families at times like this. "I wish this blessed derby would never come because my husband is obviously more agitated than usual," complained Simonetta Cordova, the wife of ex-Roma captain Franco Cordova. "When I pop into the butchers or go shopping I always get given the same advice to pass on: 'Signora, tell your husband on Sunday we have to win.'"
At times it can feel like nothing else matters. On the eve of a derby in 1999, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the last Lazio coach to deliver the Scudetto, was asked for his impressions of the rivalry. "Today I bumped into a fan who said to me: 'Mister, I couldn't give a toss about the title, we have got to win the derby and that's it.' Naturally I am of a different opinion, but this gives an idea of how this game is felt in the city."
Ever since the derby appeared on the fixture list in December 1929, it has invariably been the measure of whether a season is a success or failure. "Historically speaking, this game has not often had the importance of a top-of-the-table clash," explained the former Roma coach Fabio Capello, "and so for fans it's almost always the key game of the season. Supporters talk all year about the result in the derby."
When Capello led Roma to glory in 2001, the team was motivated in no small measure by the desire to get even with Eriksson's Lazio and put an end to how unbearable it was to have their "cousins" lording being champions of Italy over the city's Romanisti all year. The sooner they did it, the better, and the satisfaction of winning the league was made double simply on account of them replacing Lazio as the No. 1 club in the country. The same can be said of the one and only Coppa Italia final to feature a Rome derby back in 2013. Lazio's victory tasted all the sweeter, come as it did at Roma's expense.
To some, this is indicative of a small-town, provincial mentality that has held Rome's clubs back. The idea of Roma Caput Mundi -- Rome the capital of the world -- has perhaps contributed to a mindset believing that anything outside the Aurelian walls is irrelevant.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini, who played in Lazio's Scudetto-winning side at the turn of the millennium, understood where fans were coming from but couldn't help thinking that considering it the be-all and end-all only narrowed their focus. "I'd like to remind everyone we won the Scudetto at Samp in the year we lost the derby. If you want to win something that really matters, you need to get away from looking at things this way."
Some managers have set out to achieve that by treating the derby as if it were just another game. Your standard Sunday fare. "It's no different from all the other games," claimed Zdenek Zeman, a member of an exclusive club of managers who have stood on both sides of the divide. That was a big mistake. One that Simone Inzaghi and Eusebio di Francesco would never make. Having played in it themselves, Lazio and Roma's current coaches know what this rivalry is all about. It's an advantage principally because it allows them to relate to their players and what they are going through at the moment.
The derby is always a chance for someone to become a hero, and boy have there been some unlikely ones over the years. Paolo Franzoni was a no-name player who had just joined Lazio from second-division side Brindisi in 1973. "I'd only just set foot in Rome." The next thing he knew, he was coming on for an injured teammate and within 55 seconds he'd scored. "My head was spinning." Needless to say, goals in this game have a higher currency than others. Just as a Scudetto in Rome is worth 10 in Milan or Turin, "two goals in the derby are better than eight in the league," former Roma midfielder Massimiliano Cappioli used to say.
But there's always a flip side, namely that mistakes on which derby games turn are impossible to live down. They stay with you for years. "I didn't sleep a wink, I was up all night, tossing and turning, trying to find a reason why. I was in pieces," a distraught Marco Lanna recalled after giving away a last-minute penalty in 1996 for handball. Sure enough, Beppe Signori stepped up to the spot and in trademark no-run-up style, buried it to seal a 1-0 win for Lazio.
These are the emotions the Rome derby provokes. It has led Lazio managers to dive into fountains, Francesco Totti to take a selfie under the Curva -- not to mention dedicate his spare time to thinking about what taunt he'd like to print on a t-shirt that he'd reveal in the event he scored. It has produced some of the best fan choreographies in world football. The film Gladiator frankly has nothing on it.
"Initially when I walked out on the pitch, my legs would be trembling," the former Roma striker Andrea Carnevale reminisced, "then once the smoke from the flares evaporated, that's when I went on the assault."
So as Senad Lulic and Daniele De Rossi lead their teams out on Saturday, one in the midst of a four-game winning streak, the other sincerely hoping a 4-0 win against Frosinone kick-starts their season, remember they are walking into a maelstrom of emotion that neither you nor I can comprehend, where the distance between euphoria and despair is as thin as the line they are about to cross. This is the Rome derby.