Other than Lazio, Juventus are in all likelihood the most virulently hated team among Roma fans. Some of the younger supporters grew up during the age of Inter’s hegemony and may find black-and-blue to be a more distasteful colour code, and there are of course Romanisti with their own preferred pet hates. Still, above all among most people old enough to remember Roma before Francesco Totti, the Bianconeri top the list.
There are three main reasons for this, and they are all as silly or as axiomatic as anything in football. The first is the mere fact of Juve’s success, which is historically so great one might as well call it measureless, and which inevitably draws upon itself all forms of envy and resentment.
The second has to do with the Bianconeri’s supposed links to corruption and match-fixing. These may often be hyped up to mythical proportions, so much so that Italian kids playing Subbuteo have been known to invent Juve-bonuses to make matches more ‘realistic’. Fair or not, these tropes remain an indelible part of the Italian football story, and are no less ancient than Juventus’ success.
Finally, and more particularly, there is a hazy feeling among Romans that Juventus are impostors, who dispossessed the Eternal City of the laurels to which she was entitled. Why is it that great capitals like London, Paris and Madrid should represent havens of football in their respective countries, while Rome counts a mere three Scudetti in 90 years? How can a team that isn’t even named after an Italian city take home so many of the domestic titles – and in whose name?
There are rational, historical answers to these questions, including the fact that great capitals aren’t always home to the most powerful teams (to wit: Bayern Munich). But this doesn’t change the gut feeling. In a country where everyone feels robbed, be it by the government, by taxation, by foreigners, or by their neighbours, it is a custom enthusiastically adopted by the Romans to feel robbed by Juventus, both physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, a match with the Bianconeri is punctually followed by controversy – strictly in Roman dialect – regarding the referee’s decisions. Totti himself often partook in the tradition, from that first time in 2005 (“We were 11, they were 14”) to those comments just two years ago (“They should get a separate championship”). Somehow, this remains the case even when said decisions are in Roma’s favour – although in fairness, that hasn’t happened very often.
Here is an anecdote that perhaps best encapsulates the Roman attitude. In 2006, after the Calciopoli scandal came to light and it was rumoured that Juventus would be demoted, my neighbours in Rome announced a barbecue party in the square at the end of our street.
When the sentence came in and the Old Lady tumbled to Serie B, the party was cancelled – “because they were supposed to fall to C2!” (C2 was the equivalent, back then, of Lega Pro – the lowest league in professional football). The arch-enemies got penalized, but not enough. One way or the other, the Romanisti felt robbed.
The outfit from Turin have successfully replaced Inter over the last few years as the undisputed apex predator of Serie A. They managed to soften some of the animosity against them by building a strong team of young Azzurri, only to squander it by gutting their direct rivals on the market (including Roma, who lost Miralem Pjanic). They’ll find no friendship in Rome, this year no less than in the past.
The fact that it took a market operation to nullify a threat that, in the eyes of many, would have given Juventus a run for the Scudetto, is sometimes described as sly or dirty play. This is a matter of perspective, one which fans of a big club like Roma would do best not to abuse. And yet it is significant because it reveals what the game actually means for the Lupi.
Playing Juventus doesn’t represent a game against the strongest, but a game against the biggest. The success of the team in black and white is a measure of the aggregate of their resources: financial, logistical, cultural. They are by far the richest club in Italy, the one that built themselves a stadium, and the team with the most supporters. They play at home almost anywhere they go in the country, except in the largest cities like Rome, Milan and Naples.
This way of interpreting the match lends its outcome a particular moral weight. Roma aren’t a small team by any stretch of the imagination, but beating the holding champions still feels like watching the little man take down the giant. It’s that magical moment when Peter Parker first beats Flash Thompson, or even better: it’s when young Clark Kent realizes he’s Superman.
The limitations in Roma’s squad, exacerbated by their relentless injury crisis, make a victory highly unlikely. And even then, with only one point dividing the two teams, these same factors mean a Scudetto race seems frankly implausible. But the spectacle would still be worth the price of the ticket. There’s something to play for even when there’s nothing to play for, and there’s not a soul in Rome that doesn’t know that.
The Bianconeri are the proverbial Dream Crushers this season, reminding both Atalanta and Torino of where they belong. Cornered and wounded, the wolf is still going to put up a fight this Saturday. That’s because they’ve got the prettiest dream of all to defend: who never wanted to be Superman?