On Saturday, AS Roma visit Napoli for the season's first edition of the Derby del Sole, or the Derby of the Sun. But this time around, there's a shadow hanging over the fixture. Last May, when Napoli traveled to Rome to meet Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia final, the match itself was overshadowed by events off the pitch. A notorious Roma ultra named Daniele De Santis was accused of shooting three Napoli fans, one of which was a 29-year-old named Ciro Esposito. Esposito died on June 25.
Football fans in Italy do not have the greatest of reputations. Clubs are often docked points due to racist banners or behaviors, or punished by having to play games in front of empty stadiums. The ultras exert tremendous pressure on teams, even stopping matches mid-play or attacking their own squad bus.
Clubs in Italy are also taken to task for what is known as "territorial discrimination", in which fans of northern clubs will sing chants abusing Naples. The north of Italy is generally more affluent than the south, leading some to see the bottom half of the peninsula as a drain on resources and a shame on the rest of the country. But while the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has spoken out against such chants, the offenders were rarely punished -- see Juventus fans chanting "Wash them [Napoli] with fire, Vesuvius wash them with fire!" during their match with Genoa, then having their two-game Curva Sud closure suspended for a year, to be lifted should no further discrimination occur.
Not that it matters now: new FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio -- himself suspended for six months by FIFA after he called African players "banana-eaters" -- declared that territorial discrimination no longer exists. Chants such as "What a smell, even the dogs run away when the Neopolitans arrive. Oh victims of cholera and earthquakes, you never wash yourselves," will no longer be punished.
The Derby del Sole used to be a vibrant affair, with the two sets of fans twinned, united in one purpose: opposing the dominance of the rich northern clubs, particularly Juventus, Inter and Milan. The official twinning was broken in 1987, after Salvatore Bagni celebrated Napoli's equalizer with a "gesto dell'ombrello" under the Roma fans -- more or less giving them the middle finger. By the time of the break, Roma had won the title once, in 1982-83, and Napoli had secured their first scudetto earlier that year.
These days, Napoli tend to maintain good relations with fellow southern clubs, such as Palermo and Catania. Meanwhile, Roma no longer feel the need to send a political statement to the northern clubs -- instead, the likes of Juve and Milan are their rivals on the pitch.
And that's certainly true this season. Roma and Juventus are currently tied for first, while Milan, tied for third, sits six points back. Napoli were meant to be challenging for the title as well, but fell into a bit of a crisis instead. They were eliminated from the Champions League in the playoff round, then went on to pick up just one win in their first four matches. Now they sit seventh, seven points off the pace.
Naples, in shadow once more. A team with fans turning on their own players and an owner handing down ultimatums to Rafa Benítez. Into this steps Roma, a side currently occupying the position where Napoli fans feel they should be. What's more, it's a side that carries the reminder of a tragedy, of the ultra that murdered one of the partenopei faithful.
The potential for an eruption of Vesuvius proportions is great. Steps have been taken to minimize such an event, particularly the closing of the match to away fans. But with tensions already high amidst the Napoli supporters, it's possible that the smallest of incidents, on the pitch or away from it, could set them off.
In an ideal world, this match would mark not a further break in relations, but a journey back to the golden days of the Sun Derby. It's reported that Napoli fans have made a banner honoring the Roma father and son killed in a car crash after the match against Bayern Munich. A Roma supporters' group has created graffiti honoring fans that have lost their lives, including Esposito.
After all, Napoli and Roma have much more in common than they'd like to think. Since the official break in their friendship, each side has lifted the scudetto just once. Meanwhile, Milan have won the trophy eight times, Juventus eight (give or take) and Inter six (again, give or take). Roma's three titles, Lazio's two and Napoli's two remain the only scudetti captured by southern teams. Since the 2000-1 season, one of the Big Three have lifted it each time.
Obviously, teams battling one another for the title aren't going to work together -- not even in the fix-happy land of Italy. But there's no fundamental reason why the fans can't set aside the more extreme animosity, at the same time vowing that tragedies such as the death of Ciro will never happen again. Let the shared hatred of territorial discrimination, the disgust at the way fan behavior holds back the league, the irritation at the continued dominance of the big clubs -- let that unite, instead, the way it did during the glory days of the Derby del Sole.