SB Nation

Peter Simek | April 8, 2015

When in Roma …

Roma, March 26, 2014 — The room is in Rome’s city hall, located in a Renaissance palace that sits on ancient ruins and overlooks Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio. Statuary lines the walls. The legends gather — Brazilian midfielder Falcao joined by the short and speedy winger, Bruno Conti — names that may mean nothing to you, but who in Rome command almost papal reverence. The television commentators report from a balcony with view clear across the Roman Forum to the Coliseum. “This is such an important day,” one says, his tanned, elongated faced punctuated with an aquiline nose and holding a microphone brandished with the symbol of the Italian soccer club A.S. Roma. “Not only for A.S. Roma, but also for the city of Rome.”

More dignitaries, journalists, and A.S. Roma stars of yesteryear file into the room, and, finally, the drapery is pulled back revealing an architectural model, sleek and perfect. Now, the event’s trumped up sense of historical importance seems to find its context. What is unveiled is nothing short of a new Coliseum for Rome.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The building has a slick, arching façade wrapping three-quarters around an ovular body and a suspended canopy that extends out and over the stands, a thoroughly modern design that in its angles and details reaches back to antiquity. Designed by the Dan Meis, the architect of Los Angeles’ Staples Center, the Stadio Della Roma looks like a 21st century echo of Rome’s ancient and iconic venue.

The unveiling of a new sporting venue is, in and of itself, not terribly out of the ordinary. In fact, there have been numerous new stadium projects proposed for Rome over the years, though none have made it past the mock-up stage. There is a sense on this day, however, that something is different. It is because of the two suited figures sitting at the center of the room, businessmen known throughout Rome simply as gli Americani — the Americans.

The one with peppered gray hair, olive skin, and a head that looks heavy as a stone is James Pallotta, A.S. Roma’s president, a 57-year-old hedge fund billionaire from Boston’s Italian neighborhood, the North End. He was part of a group of American investors who purchased A.S. Roma in 2011 to become the first foreign owners of an Italian soccer team. Next to him sits Italo Zanzi, Pallotta’s shiny then 39-year-old CEO. Zanzi, raised on Long Island, in Setauket, N.Y., is the son of Chilean immigrants. He has slick, jet-black hair, linebacker shoulders, and a toothy, glistening grin that, despite his Latin American complexion, radiates a personality that feels distinctively American: warm and sincere, but mixed with car salesman charm. When Zanzi landed in Rome, he brought executive experience from CONCACAF, the North American soccer federation, and Major League Baseball. He could talk all day about revenue generation, but did not yet speak a lick of Italian.

On paper, Stadio della Roma looks like your typical American stadium project, not just an arena, but, as Zanzi explains to the crowd, “the most family-friendly stadium in the world.” It will boast an office park, a training facility, 300,000 square feet of live entertainment space, and shops branded with the logos of Roma’s new sponsors, like Nike. When it is complete, the owners believe it will be one of the most lucrative entertainment centers in Europe, if not the world, driven by a city brand — Rome — that attracts upwards of 30 million tourists every year.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

However, to realize it that dream, the Americani will have to contend with the day-to-day realities of Italy and Italian soccer. The Italian soccer league’s recent history is marred by match-fixing scandals, financial insolvency, and fan racism and violence. On Sundays, when you turn on the television, most Serie A games are played against the backdrop of empty stands. This season, Parma FC was even forced to postpone a match in February because they couldn’t pay stadium staff, and in March the team was declared bankrupt. Rather than family entertainment venues, Italian soccer stadiums are controlled by the ultras, Italy’s unique brand football fanatic. Rome’s ultras have earned the Eternal City a new moniker, “Stab City,” derived from the Roma ultra’s penchant for sticking knives in the buttocks of opposing fans. No wonder fans stay away.

There are good reasons why other new stadiums proposed for Roma were never built. Building this new one will require significant infrastructure improvements, like an extension to Rome’s metro line, and Pallotta and Zanzi will have to drive the project through Italy’s infamous byzantine bureaucracy. Indeed, within months of the unveiling of Stadio della Roma, a mafia scandal sweeps through Rome’s city government, revealing corruption in its deepest ranks.

And yet, despite all of the conventional wisdom that suggested that Stadio della Roma was an impossible fantasy, these Americans seemed to believe that they had somehow cracked Italy’s code. They paraded in an executive from Goldman Sachs to lay out their financing plan, and a well-connected Italian real estate mogul, Luca Parnasi, to explain the development. “A lot of foreign clients want to invest in Italy and Rome,” he reassured the locals. They marched in the entire Roma squad dressed in matching black suits with black shirts and ties and sat Francesco Totti, the club’s 38-year-old star, in the front row. Totti, they said, would kick off the opening match in the new stadium.

This inspired a tongue-in-cheek question in the mind of every Roman: Just how old will Totti be when he gets to take that first kick?

There was a time when there was no better soccer in the world than the stuff played on the Italian peninsula. In the 1980s and early-1990s, stars like Diego Maradona and Paolo Maldini graced its fields and the country’s top league, Serie A, earned the nickname “Hollywood.” But Italian soccer, like the rest of Italy, is full of paradoxes and subterranean contradictions. Teams’ budgets were often propped up by owners’ personal wealth, championship runs were followed by bankruptcy. And then there were the scandals: match-fixing scandals, betting scandals, referee scandals, blackmail scandals, cheating scandals, and doping scandals. Scandals surface so regularly in Italian soccer they stoke a conspiratorial sensibility and a reluctant acceptance that corruption is just a part of the game.

Perhaps more debilitating for the sport, though, are the smaller, day-to-day irritations: decrepit stadiums, counterfeit merchandise, shady financial practices, persistent problems with racism and violence. However, the irony is that for all of the neglect and dysfunction surrounding Italian soccer, there are few things more beloved — or more important to — the people who live in this country. Calcio — Italian for football — is more than a sport, more than a national pastime. In a country where familial and regional allegiances often run counter to conceptions of national identity, a shared love of soccer brings people together.

Perhaps no one understood this better than former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, infamous for surviving his own unending series of scandals, including flagrant sexual misconduct, and still serving three separate terms beginning in 1994. He named his political party “Forza Italia,” or “Go Italy,” and rode a string of A.C. Milan championships to victory at the polls.

He was not the first Italian politician to recognize soccer’s power to unify a nation. Serie A was originally organized by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1929, who saw sport as a powerful avenue for political messaging. In the 1934 World Cup, held in Italy, he demonstrated his power and used his influence to insure an Italian victory.

Into this complicated world walk the two Americans, Pallotta and Zanzi.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

I meet Zanzi for the first time in Dallas this past July, during Roma’s annual summer tour of the United States, at a new soccer-training complex built in an out-of-the-way corner of Dallas, wedged between a flood plain and a tangle of elevated interstate highways. There’s hardly anyone around. No one at the gate checks who is driving into the facility as the entire Roma squad runs drills on an open field.

I walk up and find Zanzi on the sideline. He is sturdy and youthful, his skin gleams, and when he talks he tends to lapse into business speak. Since the Americani took over Roma, he explains, they have been working to raise the team’s profile in the U.S. In 2012, they signed a multi-year partnership with Disney. In 2013, they played in the MLS All-Star Game. On this trip, they are in Dallas for an exhibition against the Spanish giants, Real Madrid.

Zanzi tells me that Roma’s owners believe they have tapped into one of the most undervalued teams in professional sports. Like the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers or Real Madrid, Roma is one of the few teams identified by a city that is instantly recognizable around the globe. They believe that by leveraging American sports business knowhow — from a multi-tiered digital marketing strategy to an enhanced stadium experience — they can build one of the biggest brands in the world.

Listening to the clear and logical way Zanzi lays out the strategy, you almost wonder why it has taken so long for American investors to realize the growth potential of a club like Roma. But implied in what Zanzi is saying isn’t just a reworking of a mismanaged club, it suggests transforming the entire way the Italian soccer league thinks and markets itself as a business organization. So I ask him the obvious question. What about Italy?

“There’s clearly some old school components to Italian football,” Zanzi admits. “But we are really careful not to make it seem like this is an American versus Italian operation. We look at it as best practices. The fact that we are an American group, gives us some background in some areas of sports marking that aren’t as cultivated in Italy.”

While Zanzi talks, I can see Francesco Totti over his shoulder, tapping balls to teammates and, at one point, leaving the ground to catch a volley with his shoelaces, sending the ball careening past the practice goalie.

If all of Italian soccer’s finesse and frustrations could be rolled up in a single character, it would be Totti. He arrived on the international stage with a display of pure skill and stone-cold bravado at the 2000 European Championships, the World Cup-like tournament played every four years between European national teams. During the decisive penalties in the semifinal against the Netherlands, Totti trotted up to the ball and chipped it softly into the dead center of the goal.

The kick — called the cucchiaio, or spoon — became Totti’s signature move and seems to embody all the Roma captain’s wily nonchalance and panache. He’ll charge down the field only to loft the ball over a goalie’s head; he’ll receive the ball and look to pass, then chip it softly into the back of the net. The cucchiaio is brazen precisely because it looks so casual and off-the-cuff, almost indifferent, the ball making a slow, smooth curve on the way to the net, humiliating unsuspecting goalkeepers while delighting Roma’s fans.

By the time Totti scored that famous penalty at the 2000 European Championships, he was already beloved in his hometown. Making his first appearance with A.S. Roma 1993 at the age of 16, he wasn’t just Roma’s best player, he was seen by fans as one of them. Raised in the working-class neighborhood of Porta Metronia, he exudes flamboyance and wit, mixed with a calculating and occasionally tempestuous personality. He makes headlines for on field tantrums and public spats with coaches. He married a showgirl on national television. He published a book of jokes that poke fun of his perceived stupidity as a Roman street kid.

The Romans simply call him “Il Capitano” or more affectionately, “Er Pupone,” Roman dialect for “The big baby.” Totti embraces the nickname. Every time he celebrates a goal, he sticks his thumb in his mouth and sucks it like an infant.

Later that night in Dallas, however, it is clear that Zanzi and company still have plenty of work marketing Er Pupone and Roma’s particular brand in the United States. The crowd is not here to see Roma. The Cotton Bowl is awash with white Real Madrid jerseys. Totti dampens the mood by scoring the game’s only goal, but if the intention is to showcase Roma to an American audience, it is undercut by the fact that Real Madrid doesn’t even bother to put megastar Christiano Ronaldo on the field. Later on, American fans charge onto the field, outrunning security guards and draping themselves around Real players to pose for selfies, and the game rapidly degenerates. During the mayhem, the Roma squad quietly mills about, waiting for the clock to run down.

Watching Roma that night, surrounded by field-crashing Americans in Real jerseys, something feels lost in translation. If this is what Roma looks like when it is exported to America, what will it look like when you try to import an American-style sports experience into Rome?

When writing about Italy, and Rome in particular, it is easy to descend into cliché. To step into Rome is to be swept up in a current of cobblestone, crooked little alleys and wandering passageways that spill out into piazzas punctuated by baroque facades or ancient ruins. There are the markets, flower sellers, buskers, clowns, clusters of black-habited nuns, fresh-faced young priests, babbling Bernini fountains, clattering church bells. Even the air in Rome, with its particular blend of cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes, exudes a kind of romantic fervor.

To get to A.S. Roma’s training facility at Trigoria, however, you have to leave behind the postcard. The metro runs out through the city’s southern neighborhoods, many developed during the Mussolini-led economic revival of the ‘20s and ‘30s, consisting of plenty of nondescript vertical high-rises and wide, busy boulevards. At Eur, I stand at a bus stop near African street vendors who pile heaps of T-shirts and stacks of cheap plastic toys onto folding tables. Across the road stands a massive Poste Italia facility, a heavy brutalist building that stretches on for blocks and blocks.

“This is a society — and it is not just football — that has stood still for 30 years.” — Paddy Agnew

As the traffic whizzes past, bus drivers park their vehicles and make passengers wait as they stroll across the street to a roadside bar and drink coffee at plastic tables. Look closely, and this scene tells you a lot about what Italy is today: an MC Escher-like tangle of governmental bureaucracy; social tension exacerbated by a relatively recent influx of immigrants; passive resignation to years of high unemployment, virtually no economic growth, and government debt that is now nearly 140 percent of the gross domestic product.

It is the day before the Roma-Lazio Derby in January, a semiannual showdown between the two Rome-based clubs that is considered one of the most contentious, spirited, and often violent rivalries in soccer. On the bus to Trigoria, a middle-aged man in a black sweatshirt and ball cap leans into the ear of a squat man with a gray beard.

“Three-zero, tomorrow, three-zero for Lazio,” he says with a laugh. “No, five-zero!”

The other man doesn’t respond, and when the two step off at the next stop, the teenage boy next to me mutters under his breath, “Go fuck yourself.”

We wind through scraggy little hamlets on outskirts of the city, past low-slung stucco houses surrounded by crumbling concrete walls. Open fields afford views of spindly cypress trees and umbrella pines against the looming silhouette of the Alban Hills, a chain of dormant volcanos. We pass a prostitute off the side of the road, and then two more, each sitting in folding chairs in the brush, wearing their distinctive Fellini-esque smears of makeup, fake eyelashes, and wild, frizzy hair.

“Football is a very simple barometer of a society,” says Paddy Agnew, an Irish Times correspondent and former RAI television commentator who has covered Italian soccer since the 1980s. “And if the red light is flashing in society, the red light is flashing in football. That’s what it is here, they’ve run out of petrol. This is a society — and it is not just football — that has stood still for 30 years.”

You can see many the troubles of Italian life through a lens of Italy’s favorite sport. A struggling economy exerts pressure on the country’s social fabric. High unemployment means plenty of young men living in their parents’ homes with little to do. To cope, many simply dive deeper into their calcio.

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Media coverage of soccer in Italy is thorough, meticulous and constant. The weekend’s games repeat on television endlessly throughout the week. On Mondays, the performance of every player on every team who touches the pitch on a Sunday is graded in detail in the country’s three sports-only tabloids. A popular television show rolls in calcio experts who judge the weekend’s soccer happenings like a court tribunal. The average Italian fan tends to be extraordinarily knowledgeable of the game, its strategies and tactics. “In Italy there are only around 49 million candidates for the national team coach,” Agnew jokes.

But it seems to be more than that. Fandom in Italy transcends mere obsession. Soccer, here, is less a diversion from the realities of everyday life than it is a way the fragmented day-to-day existence can come together and take on some semblance of meaning. It is almost impossible to avoid calcio when in Rome. On the way back to my hotel one night, I ask my cab driver what he thinks of the Americani and their new stadium.

“Boh,” he says, using a slang expression that roughly translates to “I don’t know,” but with a nonplussed overtone that feels closer to “whatever” or “I don’t know, but why would you even think to ask me that?” Like many of the people I speak to, the promise of a new stadium, the hope of building a global brand, or efforts to boost attendance at matches is of little interest.

“In Rome, Roma fans live for Roma — it is a family, a life partner, a body part”— Stefano Piccheri

Where the American’s can help Rome is with their money, he says. If they invest in the team, if Roma can win, then it doesn’t matter what else the Americans want to do with Roma. Winning is everything.

Stefano Piccheri, who covers Roma for Corriere dello Sport, echoes the cabby’s insight. Piccheri tells me that, for Romans, the Americans will be accepted just as long as they get results on the field. “If they win a championship,” he says. “They will be heroes forever.”

Winning is so important to Romans, Piccheri explains, because Roma is so vitally important to how people in this city identify as Romans.

“In Rome, Roma fans live for Roma — it is a family, a life partner, a body part,” Piccheri says. “There is nowhere else like it. In the city, we talk only of Roma all of the time, with the radio on 24 hours a day.”

It is difficult to put a finger on exactly why winning is so deeply connected to Romans’ experience of their civic pride or sense civic identity. At a trattoria in historic neighborhood of Trestevere the night before the Derby, guests leaving the restaurant call out “Forza Roma” to the kitchen staff. A journalist friend tells me stories of a university linguistic professors who becomes rabid Roma nut every Sunday, and a dentist who won’t let his wife near the television during games because of superstitions about how that might affect the outcome of the match. When you hear words like “glory” and “honor” tossed around with regards to Roma’s success, they resonate with a solemnity, the words sounding different than they might in a college football lockroom.

Here, they echo a history — amplified by life lived amongst the faded ruins of empire. Does victory on Sunday restore that sense of historical significance? Or is victory purely vicarious?  Or does the calcio provide something more, what nothing else in Italy — politically, economically or socially — does? Tangible evidence of Rome’s inherent superiority and unmatched self-regard.

Regardless, this intense identification with a sports team, mixed with a generation of disgruntled and aimless out-of-work young men, creates a potent cocktail. The fringe of Italy’s radical fans are different from their counterparts in other soccer-crazed countries. “For British hooligans, violence is an end,” Jon Foot explains in his book “Calcio.” “For Italian ultras, it is a means.”

Top: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images. Bottom: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Nowhere in Italy is this on display more spectacularly than in the Roma-Lazio Derby, a rivalry rooted in the history of Rome’s social, economic and political divisions. Roma traces its club history to the working-class district of Testaccio and the team is traditionally associated with left-leaning, inner-city fans. Lazio, on the other hand, draws many supporters from the countryside and boasts an inherited Fascism, though there are now powerful fascist ultra groups in Roma’s camp as well. The two teams currently share the Stadio Olimpico, where Lazio will continue to play after Roma vacate for their new facility. Lazio’s Curva Nord, the stadium section directly behind the goal on the northern end of the stadium, is infamous for Nazi salutes, banners featuring swastikas and the chanting of disgusting racial slurs — one told Roma fans “Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses.”

Roma ultras, who occupy the Curva Sud on the opposite side of the stadium, display their own ugliness. In 1979, a Lazio fan was killed by a flare fired from the Roma section of the stadium. In 2004 the ultras demonstrated just how powerful they can be. A rumor spread through the ultra camps that a 14-year-old boy had been killed by police outside the stadium. At the start of the second half, the Roma ultra captains climbed down onto the field and confronted Totti. They demanded the Derby be called-off out of respect. After a tense standoff, Totti returned to the sideline to deliver the news. “If we play on,” he told his coach, “they’ll kill us.” The killing later turned out to be only a rumor, but the ultras succeeded in getting the game suspended.

The Trigoria bus line terminates at the training facility. There is a roadside café, and hanging from its fence posts are four tattered Roma flags snapping in the breeze. I notice the old Roma logo on one of the flags with the interlocking letters “ASR,” which stand for “Associazione Sportiva Roma.” Two years ago, the Americani introduced a new logo. Ownership was concerned the Italian phrase “associazione sportiva,” or “sports association,” wouldn’t translate well with their “updated brand” and “aggressive global growth,” as Zanzi put it at the time.  Although they kept the iconic image of Rome’s foundling founders, Romulus and Remus, suckling at the tits of the she wolf, they replaced ASR with “Roma 1927,” the date of the team’s founding.

Roma fans were incensed. When I spoke with another Roman cabbie one night, the logo change was the first thing he brought up. He found it an affront to his club’s history and tradition. Luckily for Zanzi and Roma’s owners, a 10-game winning streak to start to the 2013-14 season, a league record, helped to quell fans’ anger. In fact, if Pallotta and Zanzi have proven anything during their tenure with the club, it is how important winning is to maintain the momentum for their plans.

As I walk up to the front gate of the Trigoria training facility, between 40 and 50 Roma fans are waiting for players to emerge. I decide to hang around with them for a bit to see what happens, and after 20 minutes or so, the compound gates open. A gray, Audi Q7 slowly creeps out, and through the front windshield, I see someone in thick-rimmed glasses wearing a blond, curly-haired woman’s wig that falls over a stubble-covered face. The crowd presses in on the vehicle.

“Who is that?” a woman asks.

“Totti, Totti,” a man says, impatiently.

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

More than any logo, Totti is still the full embodiment of Roma. The crowd is thick and Totti cannot drive forward. He rolls down his window and begins taking fans’ cellphones, allowing them to lean into his car so he can snap photos with them. As he shoots selfies with fan after fan, a woman emerges from the throng carrying a little girl in a white sweater. She is crying.

“She [the little girl] said she didn’t want to take a photo with that ugly woman,” she tells her husband, referring to Totti in his disguise. The man laughs and takes the toddler in his arms.

“No, no,” he says. “I’ll take her.”

He wedges his way back into the crowd with girl. Just as Totti starts to roll forward again, the father arrives at the window. Totti stops the car and takes the father’s phone. The man pushes the crying child through the window, and Er Pupone flashes his smile, snapping the selfie with the little girl.

“Our team is amongst the most important thing in people’s lives here,” Zanzi says. We are sitting at a round table in his large office on the second floor of the training complex before windows that look out on the trio of fields that nestle up against the lower reaches of the Alban Hills. “When we perform, there is an exhilaration. And when we don’t, there is a real sadness, and in some cases a frustration and an anger.”

Zanzi admits that he didn’t quite grasp what a significant role Roma plays in the life of the city until after Roma lost to Lazio in the 2013 Coppa Italia final. The city seemed to completely shut down emotionally. Months later, when Roma responded to the devastating defeat by opening the 2013-14 season with their 10-game winning streak Zanzi was walking into the Stadio Olimpico before a game and an elderly man came up to him.

“Thank you,” the old man said, grabbed the CEO’s arm. “For restoring our dignity.”

Zanzi believes that one of the problems with Italian soccer is that owners have taken their fans for granted. That’s why Roma is the first team in Serie A with a dedicated customer service team. They also became the first club to offer online ticket sales for the entire season and package-sell Champions League tickets before opponents were announced. Roma now sends pretty girls to the busy Via del Corso in the city center to collect fans’ emails and pass out information about tickets. Ticket sales, he says, have increased 18 percent in the past year.

And in advance of the new stadium, the Americani have addressed aspects of fan experience at the current facility, Stadio Olimpico. They created a family-friendly “Fan Village” outside, and added a VIP club area with premium seating inside. Roma’s owners are particularly bullish on the team’s media potential. Roma came with its own television station, and they have revamped the studios and retooled the programing to produce online content in multiple languages. Roma was the first club in Serie A to join Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

“We look at what we are building as a media content brand company,” James Pallotta explains to me later on the phone, likening it the way the Dallas Cowboys market and package themselves. “But none of this works, to become that whole media brand, to utilize the content and technology, unless you put a great team on the pitch.”

So far, Roma has invested on the pitch. They hired Walter Sabatini as sporting director, who came to the team after successful stints at Lazio and Palermo, to manage the team’s rebuild. He initially proved to be a savvy wheeler and dealer of talent, cutting fat and flipping young prospects for profit. Sabatini was awarded the best director of football award for the 2013-14 season, though he has recently faced criticism during a faltering 2014-15 season that has seen Roma drop out of international tournaments and collapse.

On-field success is vital to Roma for another reason as well. Earning entry into the Champions League provides a hefty paycheck and the kind of international exposure team owners need if they want to build what Pallotta has described as nothing less than “one of the top-five brands in global sports.” That global audience appears to be the all-important end game for Roma’s owners, hence the trips to the U.S. as well as Asia. They hope an improved stadium can begin to funnel some of the 30 million tourists who come to Rome each year to Roma soccer games.

Since the unveiling a year ago, Roma have made some slow progress on the new facility The mafia corruption scandal at city hall played in their favor, neutralizing their opponents on the council and empowering Mayor Ignazio Marino, a surgeon who studied in the United States and whose outsider status in Roman politics kept him clear of the dirty business. Just before Christmas, the council approved the plans, moving it along for approval from the regional government. In early March, Pallotta and Marino assured the ever-cynical press that the stadium was still on track to break ground by the end of the year.

The stadium project is not entirely unprecedented in Italian football. In 2011, Juventus opened Serie A’s first-ever team-built, team-owned stadium. Like Roma’s, it  came complete with an adjacent shopping complex and team museum. I ask Zanzi if he is at all concerned that fans, and particularly the ultras, will lash back at the team if they make too many changes. For example, Pallotta has suggested in the press that smoke bombs, a long staple of the choreographed celebrations in the Curva Sud, will be outlawed in the Stadio della Roma.

Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

“Our goal is to make sure fans are safe and they can enjoy the match,” Zanzi says. “We also recognize that we aren’t law enforcement. What happens outside the stadium, while in the media may get attributed to the club because of the people who get involved, it is really not the domain of the club.”

The most challenging ultra incident of the Pallotta era came in May 2014, when a fan from Naples was killed by notorious Roma ultra Danielle “Gaston” De Santis ahead of the 2014  Coppa Italia final between Naples and the Florence side Fiorentina. The ultras used Roma’s final game of the season against Juventus to voice their support for De Santis, remaining completely silent for the first 30 minutes of each half, and breaking their silence only to recite anti-Napoli and anti-police chants.

“We want to thank the fans who have been with us today,” Pallotta shot back after the game. “Sorry, however, that others have decided not to support the team. Fans should support the team rather than other interests.”

Pallotta has been quick to respond to shenanigans by other team owners, as well. In February, the latest mini-scandal in Italian soccer broke when phone calls involving Lazio president Claudio Lotito were leaked. In the conversations, he bragged about the power and influence he holds over Italian soccer’s governing body and trumped-up his role in securing a recent television contract for the league. Pallotta responded frankly, with a touch of dry wit. He said it was the pressure applied by the Americans that helped realize any improved terms in the contract. Then he mocked Lotito, calling the television contract, the “most Italian recent media deal.”

Zanzi says he hopes the Roma leadership can continue to move Italian team owners from a “how do I beat the other person on the other side of the room” attitude to a more “collective mentality.”

After the interview with Zanzi, Catia Augelli, Roma’s director of public relations, pulls me aside in the hallway to emphasize this last point. The reality is, she says, the Americans are no longer alone. In recent years, additional foreign owners have come into the league, including Inter Milan, which is owned by an Indonesian group, and Bologna, which was purchased last October by Joe Tacopina, Alex Rodriguez’s criminal defense attorney. And new management at teams like Juventus show a willingness to reform. The old days, when figures like Berlusconi seemed to wield absolute power, are over. Italians know that calcio, like the country itself, is in trouble. Perhaps, the Americani have arrived at a moment ripe for change.

The morning of the Roman Derby, I set out for the Stadio Olimpico hoping to encounter the denizens of “Stab City.” It is gray and damp. A mist hangs in the air. The tram drops me next to a cracked concrete piazza where street vendors sell Caffe Borghetti, a coffee liquor that comes in tiny plastic canisters that look like shotgun shells. The bridge that spans the Tiber River on the way to the stadium is littered with Borghetti canisters, and on the far side, Roma fans are gathering in a makeshift piazza. A row of bars and pizza stands with their backs to the river and a massive concrete obelisk baring the name “Mussolini” bracket the open expanse of a four-lane divided boulevard.

The monument is a reminder of the dictator’s dream of building a massive “sports city” in this corner of Rome. Opposite, a line of police in full riot gear stand in front of two blue police vans, creating a barricade that spans the length of the road.

Every so often, the quiet murmur of the morning is interrupted by a chest-rattling blast. An explosive goes off in the median just steps from the police, setting off a distant car alarm, and a puff of white smoke rises from the shabby grass. I take a Gazzetta dello Sport from one of the girls who are wandering the crowd handing out free newspapers, shove it in my back pocket, and set off to find the Americani’s “Fan Village.”

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

The Stadio Olimpico is surrounded by huge concrete moats subdivided by massive, interconnected fenced-in pens, all part of an elaborate and impressive organizational system that largely manages to keep tens of thousands of stadium visitors completely separated according to the soccer teams for which they happen to root. I only see two Lazio fans cross into Roma territory, and when Roma fans spot them, they pound the poor blue-and-white scarf-wearers to the ground, setting off a rush of helmeted police who disperse the crowd.

The Fan Village is located on a promenade between two gated entryways, just to the left of the where Carbinieri, Italy’s military police, are setting up in riot gear of their own. The Village is a collection of calcio-based games. You can chip balls over cardboard cutout defenders and practice penalty shots. A quartet of cheerleaders dance around a guy with a mic who jabbers away over blaring rock music.

I feel bad for him. He is trying to stir up enthusiasm, but while there are thousands of fans around the stadium, there are only a handful of people wandering about the Fan Village. Most are young teenage boys who eye the cheerleaders, not quite lasciviously, but almost suspiciously, baffled by the site of young women at a soccer match. Finally, an actual family arrives in the family area, and the man with the mic pounces on them.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Bologna,” the father responds.

By now the explosions have intensified. Most sound like they are coming from the Lazio camp on the far side of the police barricade, which establishes a no man’s land of a few hundred feet between the two camps. I decide to cross over enemy lines, which turns out to be remarkably easy. A jogging path runs along the river, and on this mild Sunday morning, there are plenty of bikers and dog walkers using it, hardly taking notice of the mayhem above them.

At the end of the path, I arrive at a magnificent scene. At the foot of the Milvian Bridge, a swollen throng of blue-and-white shrouded fans — pumping fists, waving flags and singing in unison — fill a triangulated piazza. A fight breaks out, a man stumbling backwards into the middle of the piazza, his pursuer clenching the lapel of his sweatshirt and beating at his head with the bottom of his clenched fist. Seconds later, it’s over, but then I hear the sound of a boot against a car door followed by the shattering of a side view mirror. The Lazio ultras have set up some sort of self-regulated checkpoint in the piazza.

The scene calls to mind a passage from “The Italians,” author Luigi Barzini’s seminal portrait of the Italian people, in which the writer describes the importance of spectacle in Italian life:

The surface of Italian life, often gay and playful, sometimes bleak and tragic, has many of the characteristics of a show,” Barzini writes. “It is, first of all, almost always entertaining, moving, unreservedly picturesque, self-explanatory, animated and engaging, as all good shows are. And secondarily, all its effects are skillfully, if not always consciously, contrived and graduated to convey a certain message to, and arouse particular emotions in, the bystanders.

I think of Bazini while watching the orchestrations of the crowd at the bridge, wondering how a bystander observing this scene could not feel both awe and terror. But the real show still awaits inside the stadium. Just before kickoff, Lazio fans in the Curva Nord unfurl a massive banner that stretches over the entirety of the section and depicts a strange image: a hooded man in a small wooden skiff looking out over a naked woman who is slumped over in the bow of the boat, her arm dangling into the choppy sea. The boatman is Charon, the mythical ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx and into the underworld.

Not to be outdone, the entirety of Roma’s Curva Sud, as well as the adjacent sections, raise their matching red scarves in unison during the playing of the team’s anthem, while massive pendants are unfurled, revealing portraits of every captain in team history. Totti’s face is at the center of it all, as white smoke spews out from the Curva Sud and settles over the pitch.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

I remember the first Roma fans I saw on this trip, as I was boarding the plane at JFK. Four American college students in Armani and Pink sweats looked like they were heading off to a study abroad program. Then I overheard them chatting about the Derby. “I can’t wait until we take a picture of us together with our Roma scarves,” said the blonde in glasses. “And then update our Facebook cover photos.”

I wonder if those four Americans are here, somehow learning the proper choreography of the moment. That American fans could find all of this appealing is undeniable — the scene is spectacularly intoxicating and exhilarating, like nothing I have ever experienced in a sports arena in the U.S. Perhaps this is what Pallotta and company intuitively understand about their investment. Rome exudes a seductive attraction, its alluring danger, what Barzini calls Italy’s “fatal charm.” The show of Italy, and all of its complicated systems of mannerisms, protocols and customs, its color and fervency — it is all part of the brand the Americani hope to package and sell. What is for Romans a deeply felt form of self-expression, Americans view as a kind of sideshow entertainment, a vicarious experience to collect. The question is whether the two can — or even should — coexist.

The first half of the Derby could not go any worse for Roma. They are disorganized. Lazio plays high on the pitch, forcing turnovers at midfield and succeeding at getting the ball in behind the defense. By halftime, it is 2-0 Lazio. On the way from the press box to the press bar, I make a wrong turn and end up in the new VIP section. Here are the families and businessmen. A barista pulls expressos, and Dixie cups with Coca-Cola and white wine line a bar. The men huddle around televisions to watch replays from the first half, critiquing Roma’s play. I’m hardly through a glass of wine before the second half is about to begin. I wonder how this will all work in Roma’s new stadium. Unlike most of the sports popular in America, soccer hardly affords enough stoppage time for milling about in fancy amenities, like VIP rooms and luxury suites. And Romans in particular are so invested in their game, they can’t take their eyes off the pitch, especially during the Derby.

Three minutes into the second half, Totti receives a cross in the box and pounds it in from close range. There’s a glimmer of hope for Roma. Then, in 64th minute, a ball is lofted gently over the Lazio defense toward the far goal post in a desperate attempt to create something out of nothing. But he is there. The 38-year-old body leaves the earth, spins sideways in the air, flipping heels over hips, boot greeting ball as striker and keeper go crashing to the turf together. The ball floats past the goalie and into the back of the net.

Ties frustrate many American sports fans; the lack of a definitive resolution seems to render the competition meaningless. But to say Totti scored the Derby’s final, tying goal, would be to miss the enormity of the moment. This was Totti inventing a way to save Roma from the worst humiliation, understanding the true stakes of the Derby, the inner emotional mechanics involved, and conjuring magic to lift his team.

He charges toward the Curva Sud as his teammates chase him down, throwing their bodies over their captain as he places his thumb in his lips and points to the sky. The stadium is in absolute hysterics. The banner displaying the face of Il Capitano is unfurled again, and the PA announcer simply shouts “Francesco” three times, and tens of thousands of people reply in a unified, earth-trembling, masculine baritone “Totti!” “Totti!” Totti!” As he walks back from the Curva, Totti motions to his personal trainer, who passes him his cellphone. Totti lifts the phone in the air, raises his thumb, and snaps a selfie.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

I will see this image a hundred times in the next few days. The selfie goes viral and appears in near constant rotation on Italian television, on both Italian and English language websites, and in Twitter feeds and on Facebook pages. I see it in cafes on cellphones pushed in front of the faces of Roman fans.

Totti’s selfie is instantly enshrined in the annals of Derby lore. A Roma fan tattoos the image to his calf. A Lazio fan, perturbed by the blatant display of cocksure bravado from the Roma captain, tattoos Lazio’s own captain to his calf with the phrase “My captain is different.”

The gesture is pure Totti: audacious, impudent, and slightly ironic, simultaneously a chest pump in front of the Curva Sud and a middle finger to Lazio. But Totti’s selfie seems to be something more than just a successful social media meme. When a sports team dominates your life, affects your language, assumes the role of family, and offers a means through which you can make sense of where you belong in this world, everything that has to do with that team absorbs the weight of meaning. Totti has won his team a championship, hoisted the World Cup, and taken home individual goal-scoring honors. But what makes Totti truly great, unique in the game, is this particular brand of bravado that seems to use soccer as a means to express something about his Roma and its fans.

The grinning face of the Er Pupone, thumb pointed in the air, pixel-flattened against the brotherhood of the Curva Sud: Totti’s selfie is an image caught up in the complicated semiology through which Italian football speaks to itself. It is a hieroglyph, impossible to translate. James Pallotta later calls it “the biggest selfie in football,” but that seems to sell it short. Perhaps it is simply something that only be understood by someone who grew up Roma. It cannot be packaged, it cannot be exported.

Last month, a year after the unveiling of the stadium plans, Pallotta and Mark Pannes, Roma’s previous CEO who is overseeing the stadium construction from an office in Texas, meet again with Rome’s Mayor Ignatio Mario in the palazzo overlooking the Piazza del Campidoglio. It has been three months since Rome’s city council initially approved the stadium plans, but this meeting seems intended to quell concerns that the project is not moving along quickly enough.

Roma officials assure the mayor that ground will be broken in 2015. The mayor tells the press that he is confident there will be no delays and Rome will realize the 1.5 billion euros of new investment the Americani have promised. In June, Roma leadership has promised to release even more detailed stadium plans.

Still, suspicion swirls around the city. Everyone is skeptical. The project will not only require an extension of the metro, but also a pedestrian bridge across the Tiber to a new train station, and more connective road infrastructure at the isolated site, which is nestled against a flood-prone elbow bend in the Tiber on the outskirts of Rome. “[Roma leadership] has put on the table the usual good will,” writes Andrea Di Carlo, a columnist for the radio station ReteSport. “But the facts that affect the city were left, once again, in Texas.”

Regardless of how the stadium proceeds, by the time the Americans return with their schematics in June, they will already know a much more crucial fate, that is, whether or not they have secured a spot in next year’s Champions League, the all-important lynchpin for the Americans’ plans. Not only will a Champion’s League spot bring a hefty paycheck and an international marketing platform, only by claiming a spot in the Champion’s League will fans believe that ownership is serious about building a Roma that can win, and not just a brand they can sell.

Yet since the Derby, Roma has collapsed, winning only four of their last 15 games, crashing out of both the Champions League and the Europa League. And while they were contending with Juventus for the top spot in the Italian championship earlier in the year, they have now fallen far behind the northern giants and are now just one point ahead of Lazio in the standings, clinging to the final Champions League birth.

Now that the tide has turned on the season, however, Rome is tense. The cab drivers debate whether Coach Rudi Garcia or Sporting Director Walter Sabatini should be fired. Rumors link Roma’s young Bosnian star Miralem Pjanić to a summer transfer to the English Premiership and Spain. In the dwindling weeks of the season, Ultras frustrated with the faltering season created their own headlines. When Napoli returned to the Stadio Olimpico on April 4, ultras unfurled banners that mocked the mother of the Napoli fan killed by Daniele De Santis last May. The league responded by handing down a one-game closure of the Curva Sud. Pallotta was incensed, questioning the league’s decision to punish all fans for the actions of what he described as “a small group of idiots.”

Totti’s selfie is starting to look like a less-than-satisfying high point to a thoroughly forgettable year.

The low point undoubtedly came on March 19. Playing the second leg of a Europa League tie against Florence’s Fiorentina, Roma fell apart, allowing three goals in the first 22 minutes of play. It was ugly, but no one was watching the field. Rather, all eyes in the Stadio Olimpico were fixed on the Curva Sud.

The ultras were silent. They slowly filed out of the stadium, leaving behind two banners, one of which read “Mercenaries change your jobs.” For most of the second half, Totti and his teammates played against the blue backdrop of an empty Curva Sud.

Filipo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

The game suddenly lost its spark. It looked like a friendly, players in red jerseys aimlessly kicking a white ball around a verdant field. There was some cheering, some groaning, and sporadic applause from the fans who remained at their seats. They sang, “We are only fans of the shirt.” But without the Curva Sud, the whole thing felt little different than that exhibition game played against Real Madrid in Texas.

With 10 minutes left, the ultras returned, but only to punctuate their protest by yelling insults at players and team staff. After the game, Totti and two of Roma’s other stars, Danielle De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi, approached the Curva Sud with their heads hung low and listened to the ultras’ complaints. They had made their point.

The Americani may build Roma their new stadium, they may manage to push reform of the Italian league, curb fan violence, expand their marketing reach, and lure millions of tourists to watch Roma each Sunday. But if they have any chance of really succeeding at breaking the peculiar quagmire that is Italian soccer, they will need to heed the lesson from the Curva Sud. When the ultras walked out of the Stadio Olimpico, the Curva Sud did not just demonstrate that they would not support a team that does not win. Rather, they showed Roma’s American owners that they cannot be taken for granted. They are not merely a “fan base.” They are not a “target audience” or “core ticket buyers.” They are not untapped consumer demand lying in wait for better marketing, an international brand, or a more packaged game day experience.

By walking out, the Curva Sud showed that they are not customers. For better or worse, they are Roma. And without them, the Americani have nothing.

About the Author

Peter Simek is arts editor with D Magazine in Dallas, TX where he writes about a broad range of topics, from film and visual art to sports and urbanism. He has contributed to Salon, Film Threat, and other publications. Follow him at @psimek.