Temples of The Cult: The Stadio Olimpico In Rome

Feature Photo: http://www.coni.it

When we think of Rome, the first things that come to mind are the Colosseum, the Roman ruins, the Trevi Fountain and the thousands of vestiges that from the Roman Empire to the present day have been showcased by the capital of Italy.

However, when any football fan thinks of Rome, her mind goes to the other coliseum, the stage where one of the fiercest Italian derbies is staged: The Stadio Olimpico.

The Italian Capital stadium is traditionally home to the two famous local clubs, Roma and Lazio, but its history is not as closely linked to the teams it hosts – as is the case with other mythical teams and their playing grounds.

The first plan for the construction was made in 1927. The idea was named Stadio dei Cipressi (“Cypress Stadium”) and was part of a project to create a complex within a sports city called Foro Mussolini. Its construction was completed in 1932 and, after World War II ended, the name was changed to Foro Italico. In 1950, it was decided to increase the potential capacity of the stadium to 100000 spectators. That led to its demolition and the construction of a new ground appropriately named Stadio dei Centomila (“Stadium of the One-Hundred Thousand”).

When Rome was designated to host the 1960 Olympics, times were ready for a new name change, and the complex became known as the Stadio Olimpico – a name still in use nowadays. The facility underwent much more remodeling in the subsequent 50 years, including a massive restyling in the occasion of the 1990 World Cup. Ironically, the name is basically the only thing that has not changed any more since then.

An image of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome during the '50s. The stadium was almost rebuilt from scratch in the years leading up to the Olympic Games hosted by the Italian Capital in 1960
An image of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome during the ’50s. The stadium was almost rebuilt from scratch in the years leading up to the Olympic Games hosted by the Italian Capital in 1960

Out of the two major Roman clubs, Roma saw its birth relatively late – in 1927 – and their creation was in part due to the influence of the National Fascist Party apparatus. The party didn’t see with favor that clubs from the North of Italy were so predominant over those from the rest of the country, so intended to create a “super team” from the Capital able to rival with the already-established Milan and Turin sides.

With this idea in mind, NFP executive Italo Foschi lobbied for the merger of three minor teams – Fortitudo Pro Roma, Roman, and Alba Audace. Thus, in 1927, Associazione Sportiva Roma were born. The new club adopted the famous image of a she-wolf suckling mythical brother Romulus and Remus (the city emblem) as a logo and chose yellow and red as their colors in honor of the legions of the Roman Empire.

Lazio, on the other hand, had been founded in 1900 already. Far from being only a soccer team, Lazio was created as a Polisportiva – a multi-purpose sports society inspired by Olympism and its values (Lazio’s white and blue colors are indeed a homage to the flag of Greece).

In the mind of the fascist intelligentsia, the Biancocelesti were also supposed to be part of the merger that originated Roma. The club however refused, not necessary because of political reasons – as Lazio President Giorgio Vaccaro was a fascist general himself – but rather due to a matter of pride. Lazio believed they had already enough experience and history not to depend on anyone else. That was the beginning of the rivalry between the two teams.

There were also some social factors that made the merger impracticable and that would mark a clear separation between the two clubs over time: Lazio’s founders, as well as most of their supporters, came from an upper-middle-class environment. The playing field the Biancocelesti used was in the bourgeois neighborhood of Flaminio. Roma, on the other hand, played in the rustic area of Testaccio, a popular neighborhood in the city center, and their followers mostly came from the working-class districts of the Capital.

Such divergences in ideologies, backgrounds, and ways of seeing football still mark the rivalry today. As the names suggest, Roma have the most followers within the city proper, whereas Lazio (whose name echoes the Region that the Italian Capital is in) draw more supporters in the suburbs and the other cities of the region.

The interior of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome as it appears today in a typical Serie A match (Photo by Liam McKay on Unsplash)
The interior of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome as it appears today in a typical Serie A match (Photo by Liam McKay on Unsplash)

Since their creation, the Giallorossi of Roma played in multiple stadiums across the city until, in 1929, they established their base at Campo Testaccio. They stayed there until 1940 when they returned to one of their initial headquarters – the National Fascist Party Stadium, eventually renamed Stadio Torino in honor of the Grande Torino side victim of the Superga Air Tragedy.

The fate of their Biancocelesti rivals with playing grounds was no less tumultuous, as they wandered from their founding until almost 1914. Legend has it that, during a match at Villa Borghese in 1913, historic Lazio forward Francesco Cecé Saraceni accidentally hit a woman in the face with the ball. The woman happened to be the Prefect of Rome’s wife and, from the following day – voilá! – Lazio no longer had the authorization to play at the Prato dei Daini (“Deer Meadow”) field they had been using for eight years, forcing President Fortunato Ballerini to settle his club at the Stadio della Rondinella (“Swallow Stadium”).

It is in 1953 that both teams finally began to play at and share the current Stadio Olimpico. Since then, we have been witnessing some of the best, most exciting, sentimental and seasoned derbies in Italian football – the Derby della Capitale. The numbers in direct meetings give a predominance to Roma, who have been more regular historically. On the other hand, Lazio have won more titles at an international level.

The derby has not been always nice and peaceful, unfortunately. The rivalry between Roma and Lazio is extremely bitter and has resulted in multiple clashes between the rival factions – culminating in 1979 with the tragic death of Lazio supporter Vincenzo Paparelli. He was killed right on the stands of the Olimpico by a nautical flare fired from the opposing Roma fans stands.

In recent times, the Stadio Olimpico in Rome has also become the official venue for the Italian national rubgy union team's Six Nations games
In recent times, the Stadio Olimpico in Rome has also become the official venue for the Italian national rubgy union team’s Six Nations games

Among the mythical players who have worn the Lazio jersey in this stadium, we can count recent world champions Alessandro Nesta, Massimo Oddo, Angelo Peruzzi, as well as Azzurri hitman Christian Vieri (who was an active player and, at the same time, part of the administration and shareholder commission).

Roma world champions, on the other hand, include two among the most significant names the Serie A prided itself on in the last decades – Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, who both chose to play their entire career at Roma, except for De Rossi’s short-lived stint at Boca Juniors at the end of his experience.

Two World Cups, the Olympic Games, two European Cup, and four Champions League finals, as well as countless Azzurri matches, have been hosted by this field during its history. However, if we had to choose one match to see, that would always be the Derby della Capitale – when the two rival clubs meet and share the stadium, Lazio fans sitting in the Curva Nord (the North Stands) and Roma tifosi positioning themselves in the Curva Sud (the South Stands).

Despite the derby being at times tainted by violence and clashes between the two supporter factions, seeing a tide of people from both teams, arriving at the Stadium by crossing the Duca d’Aosta bridge on the Tiber river, singing, waving their scarves, with flares of their yellow-and-red or white-and-blue colors, is a unique sensation.

The fact that a football game can carve out such a niche in a city full of history like Rome can perhaps help understand why we think we are not exaggerating when talking about the importance of this game and its stadium in the popular culture of Rome. On the contrary, perhaps we are even falling short.


Click Below to Visit Some More Temples of The Football Cult:

The San Paolo Stadium in Napoli
The Luigi Ferraris aka Marassi

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