In club football, some games just mean more than others; Regardless of the strength of the respective teams, or their positions in the league table, some games really push people to scream even louder at their televisions, pay hundreds to watch the game in person and generate memories that will never be forgotten. These games are the derbies. Whether it’s due to geography, like the Manchester derby, or politics, like El Clasico, derbies are often games that even the most casual of fans look forward to eagerly.
This story isn’t just about a derby. It’s the story of the most important and memorable derby games in the history of AS Roma and SS Lazio, well regarded as one of the most bitter and hate-fuelled games in world football. In a country where football is more of a religion than a sport, a derby is more than just local bragging rights. It signifies who is fit to represent that particular city or region - a famous example being the world-renowned Milanese derby. Whilst Inter and AC Milan’s meetings often were important for deciding who would be ahead in the title race, the Rome derby was simply a game that established which team was stronger in the eternal city.
Known in Italy as the Derby della Capitale, it’s also one of the most violent rivalries in the world. In 1979, Lazio supporter Vincenzo Paparelli was killed inside the stadium after a flare launched by a Roma fan from the opposite side of the stadium hit him in the eye. The death was the first in Italian football due to violence, and it wouldn’t be the last. In 2004, the game was abandoned early in the second half due to a riot in the stand, stemming from rumours that the Italian police had killed a young boy outside the stadium. After the match was postponed, there was chaos in the streets of the surrounding area, with over 170 members of the police being injured as angry fans clashed with each other and the authorities. Stabbings are also commonplace at the derby, with at least six fans being stabbed ahead of the meeting in April 2013 and two more fans were stabbed prior to the game in May 2015. These incidents are only two cases of such violence, with there being many more incidents over the years.
Meetings between these two teams were, are and always will be, more than just football.
The date is the 26th May 2013. As the warm spring sun rose over Rome, the city held its breath. Even the non-football fans in the city knew what was scheduled for the evening. The tension was palpable. As the hours ticked by, the electric atmosphere only grew more and more powerful, with streets and bars suddenly appearing more like scenes from a medieval war than from the 21st century. Fans dressed in yellow and red or blue and white stayed separate, as any physical contact between them would inevitably result in violence and if not that, then words that would cause your mother to burst into tears. As the evening drew closer, all eyes were suddenly glued to the Stadio Olimpico, whether in person or through a television.
The stadium itself was a hotbed of emotion. Inside there was anger, passion, love, fear and excitement, with thousands and thousands ready for one of the most important 90 minutes of their lives. Unfortunately, the Italian FA thought this was the best opportunity to capitalise on the incredibly short-lived popularity of South Korean pop star PSY. His performance of the now-infamous song ‘Gangnam Style’ was mercilessly booed, and the organisers decided that the best course of action was to simply turn the volume of the speakers up, only winding up the already tense fans further. PSY also didn’t forget this moment and later cancelled his tour of Italy as a result.
The game itself reflected the atmosphere in the stands. Tense, niggly and bitter. After a first half that did nothing to calm either set of fans down, the second half kicked off with increased urgency. Clearly none of the players fancied a penalty shootout, but who can blame them? Finally, after 71 taxing minutes, Lazio broke the deadlock. Then 27-year-old Bosnian midfielder Senad Lulić, who had only netted twice prior that season, poked home the most important goal of his career to the dismay of the Giallorossi faithful.
Lulić was reportedly close to being sent away from the Italian capital by the club in the summer, but after that goal, it was obvious that the Biancocelesti had a new legend - one who now couldn’t be quietly shuttled off. The Bosnian even launched a clothesline called Settantuno (seventy-one in Italian) to both capitalise off the moment (and to tease the Roma fans).
The win also spawned a now iconic phrase that’s still often used by Lazio fans to upset and anger their Roma counterparts. “La coppa in faccia”, which directly translates to ‘the cup in face’, is a quick and easy way to remind a Giallorossi supporter of the infamous game. These four words can be seen in graffiti around the city, on the front of t-shirts and as the name of books.
For Roma fans, it was not a loss that could be dealt with through violence, as is often the case in this derby. Whilst small scale clashes almost certainly occurred, there were no large-scale Roman battles. Instead, the Giallorossi faithful generally choked back tears, lowered their heads and began waiting for the day for the wound to become a scar. And a scar it became, especially considering that Roma haven’t won the cup for over a decade now, whereas Lazio won last season’s competition.
None felt the loss harder than Roma icon Francesco Totti. The Italian forward, who has scored a joint record eleven times against the Biancocelesti in his career, was seen famously crying on the sidelines of the pitch after the loss, creating even more heartbreak amongst the club’s fans. Totti later described the final loss in his book ‘Un Capitano’ as “incredibly painful”.
Despite the defeat, over the following years, Roma would become the dominant team in the city, winning eight games compared to Lazio’s three, since that fateful evening. The Giallorossi even reached the Champions League semi-finals in the 2017/18 season, an achievement that the Biancocelesti have never matched.
And yet, that cup final is still one of the most memorable moments in the history of the rivalry. No matter the achievements of Roma, escaping the shame of the defeat will be a tough hill to overcome, and a league title or Champions League trophy may be the only way to truly have a comeback when a Lazio fan utters that famous phrase.