The rich can pour all the money they want into football, but they can never take away the soul of the beautiful game. Our game. Now read this.
There's not much open of a Sunday morning in Carpineto Romano. It's a tiny little hill town about 50 miles from Rome, which sits high above the former malaria-infested marshland that killed Anita Garibaldi and where Mussolini constructed the nightmarish town of Latina, a Fascist township so fucked up it even has a local office for the separatist Lega Nord. Even in my neighbourhood the shutters go down, and stay down, everywhere on Saturday nights, bar supermarkets and the odd breakfast bar, so it was a relief to be able to buy a pack of fags and a couple of bottles of water, especially after the day I'd had. As I walked back down towards the carabinieri barracks the local football team eyed me up from across the street, and as I got to the locked gate Valerio was there, hands outstretched through the bars and waiting for his cigarettes. He needed them too: he'd just been told that a DASPO (Divieto di Accedere alle manifestazioni SPOrtive; a stadium ban, in other words) barring him from going to see his football team, Lodigiani, every weekend, would be arriving at his familial home in the next couple of weeks. In fact, he and every other member of the Ultrà Lodigiani would be banned from going to see any football at all, at any level, for two years. I could see the rest of them behind Valerio's shoulder, at the other end of the driveway, awaiting their individual meetings with the burly officers who'd arrested us; meanwhile my girlfriend and I had been let go with no charge – and no DASPO – on account of our British passports. Tensions were understandably high, and the muffled, incomprehensible, impotent arguing was rumbling on in the background. It's 26 April 2009, and my Italian is still pretty poor, but I knew anger when I heard it: thanks to the vagaries of the Italian justice system, they will now be guilty, in the eyes of the law, of a stadium offence, because the police said so. The offence in question? Failing to provide a carabinieri officer with identification when asked. Two years without football for that, even though they had handed their IDs over shortly afterwards, after clarifying with the officer why he wanted them. In the end it probably wasn't a very good idea to refuse to pay €10 to watch park football (imagine a team in the Isthmian Premier charging £30 a ticket and you get the idea), and then call all the locals a bunch of straw-munching bumpkins. I pass Valerio one of the home-made cupcakes we brought along, from the container the police searched through not half-an-hour earlier. He nods his approval as he scoffs it down. My girlfriend told me that the police were quite surprised to find an ultras cache that contained nothing but tasty baked goods; frankly, I was surprised that they didn't steal them.
The first time I met the Ultrà Lodigiani was in the November of 2008. I'd been in Rome a matter of months, incapacitated by my first sweltering Italian summer and a complete lack of work. The flat I'd moved into with my girlfriend was shared with another (nice) student couple from The Abruzzo region and a Neapolitan chef, who turned into a thieving drug addict before running away a couple of months later. My Italian was basically non-existent and I hadn't yet found many friends of my own to hang around with, and frankly I felt like a fish out of water: just trying to perform rudimentary tasks like going to the market or the post office, or communicating with my flatmates felt like terrifying feats beyond my capability. It was around this time that I'd decided to start getting out there and finding stuff to write about, and during that period I read about a team called AS Lodigiani – Rome's third team – who had been destroyed shortly after merging with another local club, Cisco Calcio. More interestingly for me though, was the fact that a new Lodigiani had started up in the Lazio amateur leagues, and that their ultras group were following them; a great story, I thought, with a whiff of AFC Wimbledon about it. Despite my efforts, it subsequently turned out that no-one agreed, or thought me capable of telling it – until now that is. Which is just as well, as their recent history provides some excellent examples of all that is wrong with Italian football, from unjust stadium bans, to a system that allows promotion to be bought by the highest bidder. At the centre of it is a club with a proud history, and an ultras group that has spent the last seven years being kicked around by that same system.
At that point Lodigiani played at La Borghesiana, a posh sport complex on the outskirts of Rome. It's a weird spot: inside the complex, which frequently hosts club sides preparing to face Roma or Lazio, you feel as though you're in the countryside, but it's actually sandwiched between some of the city's grimmest suburban neighbourhoods, well outside the Grande Raccordo Anulare which rings it. Tor Bella Monaca – an area with an extremely bad reputation – lies directly to the west, and the atmosphere is different, somehow; you just get the feeling that you're not really in Rome any more. Certainly it's not the best place for a 26-year-old Englishman to find himself, especially one who doesn't speak the language, and most definitely not one without a car. I'd had to get the metro down to Anagnina, the end of the 'A' line, where buses take you to and from Ciampino airport and the Lazio countryside (but not to La Borghesiana, it turned out). North and West African immigrants mill around one area of the depot, towards the ash grey overpass that dominates the horizon, hoping that the passing tourists will buy their knock-off goods, and taxis hang around for the same people, knowing that plenty will miss their bus and have to shell out, rather than risk missing their flight. I ended up having to take a cab down there, having found myself entirely unable to ask if there was a bus to the complex, driven by a die-hard Romanista who wanted to tell me all about his most terrifying away trips (and who fleeced me rotten: I hadn't then worked out just how cynical Roman cab drivers are); Galatasaray, I was led to understand via the international-understood finger pinching gesture, made his arsehole twitch.
On match days you'd usually find the group chatting in the car park, or on the grassy verge nearby designing that week's banners, but I was late (although not as late as the previous week, when I went to see them at Garbatella. I arrived, assuming that their match would kick off at 3pm, to find an under-14s game being played; Lodigiani had kicked off some four hours earlier.), and as I made my way through the entrance I could hear a feint drumbeat floating around in the distance. I came over the crest of a hill, past a series of pitches hosting kids and their screaming parents, and the source of the sound became apparent: eight young men standing on a temporary, sparsely populated four-row iron stand, banners attached to the metal fencing separating them from the pitch. As I came down the sloping pathway to approach them the chants grow closer and louder, and in the small pockets of time when they're not singing the silence is deafening; the ball thuds around the pitch as I thought about maybe going a bit near them, scribbling some cursory notes about my surroundings. I was already beginning to regret coming out here, and thinking about turning around and going home. Only they'd already long-since clocked me – the notepad and my height, as well as the pallor of my skin give the game away somewhat – and beckoned me over, handing me a scarf and instructing me to clap along, as well as tentatively attempting to speak to me in English. I hadn't felt as readily accepted anywhere else in Rome up to that point, although I subsequently found out that they were taking advantage of my insecure tendency to nod in response every question by asking me if my girlfriend was cheating on me. And being asked 'What do you think about Irish question?' was equal parts amusing and discomforting.
(I'd like to take this moment, if I may, to point out just how satisfying, in a really basic, primal way, lighting a flare is. It's hard to explain exactly what it is about striking the flame and watching smoke and sparks come billowing out that's so enjoyable; it's such a simple thing, and goes well beyond showing pride in your team. You know that no matter what's going on, everyone present is looking at you, and what you've created. It's satisfying to the ego, somehow – it just feels right.)
Up until 2004 AS Lodigiani had been a fixture in the lower levels of professional league football, as well as being the stomping ground for future Italian greats like Francesco Totti and Luca Toni (and famous for its youth system: people from as far afield as Japan and Australia had come to study the 'Lodigiani Model'); the team and ultras did their thing at the city's Flaminio Stadium, where these days the national rugby team lumber around. But that all changed that year, when Cisco Calcio bought out Lodigiani. The following is fairly complicated and long-winded, but it highlights exactly the kind of crookedness that lies at the heart of Italian football, and which the ultrà community finds itself fighting against: in June 2004 the Ultrà Lodigiani started protesting against the new directors of Lodigiani – who were in Serie C2 at the time – when they, as owners of Cisco Calcio – then in Serie D and a separate entity – had bought Lodigiani and subsequently left their other club to die. They had decided to change the name to Cisco Lodigiani Calcio, as a pretext to changing the name again the following season (2005/06), this time to Cisco Roma, which would hardly have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Cisco group: their involvement in football began in 1998, when the construction company of the same name bought Nuova Tor Sapienza Calcio, and turned it into Cisco Tor Sapienza. In the 2001/02 season the Cisco group dumped that club, moving on to buy G.S. Collatino, which had played in the populous working class district of Centocelle since 1968, changing its name first to Cisco Collatino, then Cisco Calcio. Then in 2003 the same group bought Lodigiani... can you see a pattern emerging?
The club denied the fans' allegations at the time, saying that if they wanted to change their name to Cisco Roma they'd have done it straight away, but as the ultras rightly pointed out, they would save themselves money and aggravation this way, by circumventing a federal rule regarding the changing of names. (Essentially, they wouldn't have been allowed to change the club's name outright upon buying it, but by amalgamating the two club's names for one season, it would allow them then to change the name again the following season, as the two entities were now one, and it was their choice to favour one side of the partnership. It should be noted that we're using partnership in the loosest possible way: after the purchase none of the original Lodigiani directors were left on the club's board.) At the end of the September 2004, knowing full well what was going to happen (having repeatedly asked for assurances that 'Lodigiani' would never be removed from the club's title, they were never given, one time being told that the directors were 'too busy' to do such a thing), and in the knowledge that the new directors had effectively bought a Serie C place for their team, scrubbing Lodigiani from existence in the process, the group decided that it would end its support for the club, in the hope that someone would relaunch it at a lower level. (Here is the key difference between Lodigiani and AFC Wimbledon: there was never any chance of a fan-owned enterprise taking off, as the part of the fan base that decided to end its support wasn't big enough, or rich enough to finance the cost of even an amateur side.) As predicted, at the start of the following season the name of the club was changed to Cisco Roma, and there was a final spit in the face for the fans: as well as claiming Lodigiani's history as their own, they stole their foundation date – 1972 – and put it on their crest.
During this period some frankly bizarre things happened: not only did a new group – Brigata Cisco Lodigiani – spring up from nowhere, but the club also tried to persuade the fans just how great the Cisco project was going to be, often in the oddest of ways. On 1 September 2004, during half time of Lodigiani's Coppa Italia match in the small Sardinian town of Olbia, a young chap appeared in the midst the Ultrà Lodigiani, apparently a local employee of Cisco Village. He begins to talk up the Cisco project, exclaiming what great work the directors are doing, that green would be a great colour for a football team, and that the group, as well as the individuals within in, would receive only 'advantages' from supporting them. 'One day you might even become somebody', explained the mystery man, before offering to take all seven of them out for dinner. As the group note in their account of the incident, 'if this person wasn't sent by someone (from the club), then he clearly deserves a promotion for his immense sense of dedication to the business'. Then on 25 September, the group decided to distribute 450 free fanzines outside the ground, which explained the reasons why they were protesting, in the hope that others would join their cause. The police promptly sequestered them all, and took the details of the three members taking care of the 'offensive' banner they had hung inside the stadium; it read 'today you are Cisco Roma'. One of the directors of the club even tried to bundle two of them – including a young woman – into his car, before attempting to rip the fanzines out of their hands. At the same time the famed Brigata Cisco Lodigiani made their appearance, 50-60 of them all kitted out in shirts, caps, and even a banner, courtesy of the club, making their way into the Ultrà Lodigiani's section as though they never existed. Then, to top it all off, as the group sung their songs outside the ground, around 30 policemen were sent to get rid of them.
None of this agitation came to anything, as we all now know, and by the I time found myself getting more involved in the life of the group, going on away trips and attending weekly meetings, the group had settled into life in the Prima Categoria – the eighth level of the Italian football pyramid – with a new Lodigiani side (at that point officially called Stilecasa Calcio for administrative reasons I'm about to explain) given new life in part by the same man who had started up the original side over three decades ago: Giuseppe Malvicini. La Nuova Lodigiani was relaunched in 2005 at La Borghesiana, at first only as an academy for youth level football, at which it once again excelled. During the 2006/07 season the Cisco group's affiliation with the name AS Lodigiani was rendered inactive by the Lazio branch of FIGC (Federazione Italiana Gioca Calcio, otherwise known as Federcalcio – the Italian FA, in other words), and at the end of the 2007/08 season La Nuova Lodigiani became A.S.D. Lodigiani. Eventually they amalgamated with Stilecasa Calcio, after its president – one Cristian Federici, once a Lodigiani youth player himself, and someone we will be revisiting a little bit later – decided that he wanted his club to play at La Borghesiana, an arrangement that saw him reacquaint himself with the Lodigiani hierarchy, who were looking at ways of bringing their senior side back to life. Eventually they came to an agreement that would see Lodigiani have a first team for the first time in four years, giving the Ultrà Lodigiani a team to watch. For a few months at least.
Few things have helped me understand how this country works like spending time in the company of the group, from simple social interaction to football culture and politics: it's a window into the world of working class Italy, a place of high rents, low wages and few job prospects. It's a world where who you know will get you further than being useful ever could, where highly educated, well-trained people are forced to live with their parents while scraping by on €600 a month, where the public sector serves its political masters rather than the public, and the private sector does less. No-one is punished for incompetence, corruption riddles the system and nests are feathered into huge countryside mansions, all with the say-so of those at the top, who wring their hands and take their slice – the largest salaries of any political class Europe. It's a world where a man proved in a court of law to have been deeply involved with the Mafia (and against whom one can also make a very good case to have been involved in political assassinations – many refuse to accept that Giulio Andreotti wasn't involved in at least two separate cases of murder.) can be made senator for life, and where the Prime Minister can be blackmailed by a pimp. In this world, the state cannot be trusted, and cynicism is the default position. Tourists come here and are amazed by the architecture and the food, convinced that Italy is the land of romance, a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle and the world's finest cuisine, but the beauty of the surface and the reality for the country's poorest do not have much in common. Go to Tor Bella Monaca, or Cor Viale – you won't find La Dolce Vita there.
It was this world that I briefly found myself touched by, being driven around the Lazio countryside, waking myself up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning to watch park football in a series of drab hill towns. Back when Lodigiani were a professional outfit the group found itself in some dicey situations away from home – Stefano, one of the group's founder members recently recounted an away trip to Juve Stabia, where the locals approached them on scooters, knives out – but during my time we barely ever saw opposing fans who weren't the players' friends and family, let alone any other ultras. After the DASPO was handed out, things went from bad to worse: the group, starved of their team, found itself stuck in a endless, circular debate about what to do next; there was talk of defying the ban by going to home games, and aways where we knew there would be no trouble with the police, but that was shot down as not being ultrà. This left us all in something of a quandary, as everyone tried to figure out a way of tempering their desire to go and see their team with the consistency required of an ultras group. (The original compromise was soon ruled as out of the question, something that as an Englishman I personally found incomprehensible: complete consistency with a code is undoubtedly admirable, but under the circumstances I couldn't help but think that some group activity at matches would have been better than none. I struggle to imagine any British fan base making decisions that would harm their ability to go and watch their team.) Every week for nearly six months it seemed like someone was saying 'shall we finish it, then?', as we went round and round arguing the same points, and coming to the same conclusions. Meanwhile trying to find appropriate and inexpensive representation to have the banning orders removed in the courts meant that there was a heavy air surrounding the group, and with solutions hard to come by some daft things were suggested; there was even the idea that my girlfriend and I could lead some new recruits through the season. New recruits that soon disappeared, leaving them with the farcical prospect of having an English couple – one of whom could still only understand 50-60 per cent of what was being said to him – touring the Roman hinterlands, doing their tifo.
While all these problems threatened to put an end to the group, both Lodigiani and Cisco Roma found themselves in varying degrees of trouble. After being promoted to the Lega Pro Prima Divisione (the third level of Italian football, Serie C1 in old money) in 2010, Cisco Roma ceased to exist. Owners Mario and Davide Ciaccia (who had arrived at the start of that season) changed the club's name – after putting prospective replacement prefixes on their website for players and fans to choose from – to Atletico Roma, and their colours to blue and white. A new vanity project was born, although this one too kept '1972' on their crest. This meant that Cisco's ultrà group, the amusingly named 'Bad Side' (a group so 'bad' that they were once forced to clean graffiti – that they hadn't even written – that accused Paolo Di Canio of being a communist, after he and his brother threatened them) had to do the same. Atletico Roma proved themselves to be even less popular than their Cisco equivalents however, drawing in crowds that numbered in the double figures, despite their good performance on the pitch: they only narrowly missed out on promotion to Serie B after losing to Juve Stabia in the play-off final, but that was their last hoorah; all through the summer they looked at moving the club to new locales, from industrial Roman township Pomezia to way up in Rieti, 38 miles away from the Stadio Flaminio. Even if they had succeeded in finding a new town to exploit it still would have meant that Rome would have been without a third team for the start of this season, but they didn't, and soon after they folded. This could have left a gap for Lodigiani to step into, but they too found themselves being exploited yet again by the money men, this time by people who were interested only in the youth team, or who wanted to move them to Ciampino, a dormitory town outside the city limits (one Cristian Federici – remember him? He came to meet with us to discuss the move to Ciampino, which we were against. He came with a couple of handy-looking blokes at his side, and basically told us that the team was moving to Ciampino, and would play at the Stadio Comunale, where Polisportiva Ciampino already played. He effectively told us that it was happening with or without us, so really I have no idea why he bothered trying to convince us.), thereby leaving Rome without a third team etc. etc.; you get the idea by now. As the end of the banning orders approached, last season ended and the summer dragged on, it became increasingly clear that there would be no first team come September, and that the newly-named Borghesiana Soccer Academy, under the new direction of the Longarinis (another two-bob group of local entrepreneurs) was taking its place. There was decent press coverage of the club's demise, with the regional Corriere Laziale putting the story on their 6 July front page and even the 12 July edition of the Corriere dello Sport running it as a page lead, but it came to nothing: there was no rally from the public, and Lodigiani quietly disappeared into the ether, kept alive as a concept only by the few fans who still gave a toss.
The weight of all this fruitless struggle was firmly on everyone's shoulders on 16 May, when Lodigiani took to the field at Poggio Nativo. It was the final game of last season, and the first that the group could attend for over two years. Despite my being in the UK (and thereby reducing the pool of potential participants by 10 per cent) there was a good turnout, a good racket made, and a good time had by all. Lodigiani even had the decency to win 1-0, and at the end of the game the players came over to salute the support, throwing their shirts into the crowd, one of which is now in my cupboard (in fact, I might wear it to five-a-side this evening). One of the group had just been released from his three-month stretch at Rebibbia prison the same day (the natural result of a long, long story of parental and systemic neglect, alcoholism and drug addiction, far too depressing to go into here); he came out of nick to find his mates – who had a flat and a scooter already arranged for him – waiting to take him to the football. His friends found him cleaner than he had been in a very long time – evidently prison had taken better care of him than the grubby streets of Rome's periphery – and ready to go on another away day. After the match they all went to a local place for a celebratory Sunday lunch together, a bitter-sweet farewell to two years of arguing and stress, with the hope that the group could start again next season; at that point there was talk of taking the team back to the San Basilio neighbourhood, the club's historic home, for the following season, and the hope was that with a new, fixed HQ in Rome proper the group could attract some new recruits. Like all good things with Lodigiani however, they came to a quick end: our friend soon got behind on his rent and lost his job, and ended up in hospital after trying to shoot up a pre-prison dosage of heroin, and the team... well you know all about that by now. So if this isn't the end, what is it?
We're now working with Supporters Direct, and in process the of trying to set up a Trust for the club, hoping to keep its name – and identity as the city's third team – alive and in the hands of the fans, and in the meantime we're also organising an exhibition dedicated to the club and the ultras, which will run from 5-16 November at the Fondazione Gabriele Sandri at Piazza della Libertà. In the small space, which is named after the Lazio fan shot dead by police in November 2007, there will be videos of both the team and the fans in action, as well as scarves, banners, and other reminders of an ultrà group that has spent the last seven years fighting a losing battle with calcio moderno. If you happen to be in town, come along; I'll be there, as will others, paying their respects. Hopefully it needn't be their epitaph.
RIP AS Lodigiani 1972-2004, 2005-2011
Terry Daley is currently, with the help of his partner, the historian Vanda Wilcox (AKA @SpanglyPrincess), in the preliminary stages of researching a book on the history of the Italian ultrà movement. If anyone would like to offer them and advance you can find him at @T_Daley on Twitter.