Behind the scenes here we recently discussed taking a slightly different tact in the buildup to the new season, as you may have noticed. Whether it was Sams' take on his time in Rome, or Chris' expose on the psyche of a Roma fan, we've tried to put a personal twist on the season previews.
For me, being a Roma fan was an amalgam of chance and ancestral geography, making the fact you're reading this all the more incredible.
Bren in the 20th century hated soccer. This Bren thought it was a game best reserved for proper little English boys, chasing a black and white checkered ball, mop tops blustering in the wind and tiny Umbros leaving little to the imagination. And, good lord, how could you achieve anything on a field that wide?
My nightmare scenario, actually being forced to play this god awful game, came home to roost at least once a year. At the behest of an eager gym teacher, we salt-of-the-Earth American boys were forced to play this European game.
"Why can't we just play basketball? This isn't England" we deplored. To which her standard retort was something along the lines of, "You have no choice, the state makes us do this once a year, so you might as well enjoy it!"
So, off we went. Twenty sullen teenage faces forced against their will to play the world's most popular game, or so we were told. Only in this instance, the black and white checkered orb was swapped out for a tired and worn neon green ball, and the wind swept pitch replaced by the adolescent musk of the junior varsity basketball court. Malaise masquerading as competition.
Soccer wasn't something to be enjoyed, it was endured...begrudgingly.
For me, the world's most popular sport, something which, in time, I would grow to love, was akin to square dancing; a week of non-sense from which the State Board of Education felt all students would benefit.
And that was it, really; soccer was merely a weeklong punishment handed down from a cadre of school administrators. It started and ended there--sure, I grew up in a sports mad family, but not this one. Was this even a sport? Do they not have basketballs over there? Why can't I use my hands? They're my hands for fucks sake! What kind of sport won't let you throw things at people!?
In our Italian household, the names that bounced off the walls at many a cacophonous dinner were those of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto; there was no Giuseppe Meazza, no Francesco Totti...Roberto Baggio? You mean the guy with the rat tail who missed that kick in 1994?
So believe me when I tell you, as one who held a baseball bat as soon as I could hold myself upright, the fact that I am even here, doing this, while managing to pass myself off as even a novice to the game, is a shock in every sense of the word.
By all accounts, I should be your standard, run-of-the-mill Manchester United fan, taking what the Anglo-American media forces down my throat as the standard of football, throwing myself headlong into inebriated debates defending the merits of Wayne Rooney as the world's greatest player, desperately trying to prove I'm not an ignorant, bandwagon Yankee. Although, if I must bare my soul, upstairs right now, tucked away in my closet amidst all my old punk rock t-shirts and poli sci texts is a resplendently red Ruud Van Nistelrooy jersey; crisp as the day she was purchased off ebay. I still love you, Ruud!
(Parenthetically, and as a testament to how far I've come, I can't even utter the word "soccer" anymore, and not in a holier than thou, thick-framed-glasses-I-live-in-Williamsburg-and-hate-everthing-hipster sort of way, it just hits my ears wrong now. Progress.)
So how did I get here? How did a series of chance encounters and a mere 50 miles lead me to being a Roma fan? And how have these influenced my experience following the club? How have they shaped the way I view the global game, and how have they affected my yearly expectations for our beloved Roma?
A Matter of Chance
As anyone who has gone to college and lived in a dorm can attest, you know that, for better or for worse, some of your closest friends were made by proximity, not necessarily shared interests. Oh, that dude down the hall, sure he looks a bit off, he doesn't necessarily shower daily, and, for some reason, he knows an awful lot about botany, but he has a car and he's going to Walmart, and you need Mac ‘N Cheese. Boom! Friended.
It just so happened, that, in the corner of my dormitory, there was several soccer players. Having realized that the life of a Division III athlete wasn't as glamorous as they'd hoped, these fellas quit the team and took their acts to the school's rec. leagues, seeking to dominate their classmates and obtain that elusive intramural champions t-shirt. But they were short one piece, and, as fate would have it, that piece was a goalkeeper. In addition to being a failed baseball player, I was a relatively decent goalie (the Canadian kind), so I was conscripted into service and got my first taste of a (somewhat) real match.
I made a few saves, some relatively long goal kicks, and even a tackle or two, but eventually we lost. In the finals. On penalties. But, as the years progressed, I gradually moved from keeper to fullback, and even made a few spot appearances in midfield. Gradually, I realized the sport I shunned so indiscriminately was far faster, much more intense, and immensely more fun than I ever imagined. I instantly regretted ignoring my gym teacher's pleas of taking up the sport sooner. Life. Regrets. What might have been. That old yarn.
But playing for fun and following, truly understanding the beauty and the idiosyncrasies of the game, of a league, and of a team like Roma are entirely different things.
So that was my introduction to playing the game. I was a decent hockey goalie, pressed into service by some new found friends, and suddenly I became enraptured with the sport.
But yet, something was missing. I still didn't really know what made Player A better than Player B, and I didn't really understand why these new friends of mine would watch grainy footage of English matches at 7 am on a Sunday (again, we're in college, we didn't even know 7 am existed, especially not on a weekend) on a 19" TV.
That mystery would be solved by another chance encounter, but not in a dorm, but rather an airport...an airport on the other end of the Earth.
Although it cost me an arm and a leg, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester in Australia. While I met many great people, saw some cool things, held a Koala and ate a Kangaroo, it was my new found passion for football that left the greatest mark.
After a flight that can only be described as interminable, I had the briefest of layovers in Sydney and a chance encounter with someone who would become a dear friend and one who would forever change my views on the sport.
It was an early July morning, and I had been on that plane since roughly late April, so when I finally touched solid ground, I was bereft of any bearings of time and space. I was on the other end of the world, it was suddenly winter, the airport seemed oddly dark and shockingly silent, and, although they were speaking English, my jet lagged brain couldn't comprehend a word they uttered.
How Ya Going? It's cold out, have you got a jumper?
I'm going to Melbourne....Like, jumper cables for a car?
Was I in Australia or Middle Earth? What the hell was this guy asking me?
So, exhausted beyond belief and completely flummoxed by Australian English, I made my way through the dark corridor, festooned with Quantas Ads and life sized cut-outs of Steve Irwin (R.I.P.), still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of the International Date Line, while rubbing the sleep that never came out of my eyes (never get a middle seat on an international flight, trust me), and as the glint from the taxiing airplanes made its way through the morning haze, I spotted a kid roughly my age. He was sporting the same world weary look, the one that only a 20+ hour flight can coax out of an otherwise healthy human, as I was. We were both desperately seeking a gate that somehow seemed non-existent, despite the glut of airport standard black and yellow signage assuring us that we wouldn't have to hire a cab to our next destination.
The chance encounter was that, in addition to looking as haggard as I, we both had the same ‘meh, he's probably an American' look about us, with the only real common thread being that we were both heading to Melbourne for the next several months. So the polite chatter soon ensued, surface similarities were discovered and a friendship was forged. Again, much like my life back in America, this friendship was forged purely out of happenstance and proximal geography.
But it was this young man, who looked enough like my more familiar friends, that would school me on football...actual football. On Ronaldhino, on Ronaldo, on Figo, on FIFA (the game, not the loose moraled governing body), on Van Nistelrooy, on Kluivert, on Zidane, on Beckham, and how a child's game can unite people from the most disparate of backgrounds, if only for an hour-and-a-half.
Seeing someone so passionate about a sport I previously found so droll was, as it turns out, literally a life changing experience (well, that might be a bit hyperbolic--I mean, I like it here, but it's not putting food in my dog's dish). He was an unabashed fan of the aesthetically pleasing teams of the day, Barca and Arsenal, and while I grew to admire and eventually emulate his love of the beautiful game, I didn't have that same provincial pride he seemed to share with the Catalonians, or the same cosmic connection with Arsene Wegner he enjoyed.
But our time Down Under was over. So, now what?
I returned home and fully immersed myself back into the world of my more familiar pastimes, focusing on my studies, ruminating about Michael Jordan the Washington Wizard, having my innocence jeopardized even further by the Chicago Cubs, while tangentially keeping track of Van Nistelrooy, Figo, Ronaldo, and Zidane.
Even though I didn't know what they achieved, where they were from, or the most intimate details of their careers, I loved these players. So, to express that love, I bought jerseys, played FIFA and sifted through countless websites looking for the perfect football wallpapers to adorn my Compaq. The game was working its way into my brain, if not my soul.
And while these names ended in vowels, they weren't my vowels. They didn't look like me, my family, or anyone in my neighborhood. They probably didn't appreciate the simply joy of a Sunday spent simmering porkchops, meatballs and sausage in a vat of sauce, perfected through the generations and imported from the motherland.
What am I getting at? They weren't like me. They weren't like my family. They weren't Italian. Great players one and all, great leagues and great stories, but there was no emotional connection. No thinking that, ‘hey if we didn't leave 100 years ago, I might have grown up worshipping these guys instead of David Robinson, Mario Lemieux or Ken Griffey Jr.' They were just names on a screen and poorly pixilated images on a shitty TV. It was just something fun to follow, the pressing need to keep abreast of a single city, a single club, or a single player hadn't manifested itself yet.
It might simply be an American thing, or more broadly, a Western Hemispheric thing, but eventually most people have a yearning to reconnect with their ancestral roots, some desire to obtain the slightest insight about the place that, for centuries, your family called home; one which, were it not for economics, blight, or even the occasional volcanic eruption, might have been the setting for your first steps, your first kiss, for your successes, and for your failures.
For me, that was Italy. Specifically, Abruzzo.
As I began my familial research, with one eye on figuring out why we left (still searching for that one), and the other fixed on finding a football team, I immediately felt the pangs of disappointment. As it turns out, attempting to understand the specifics of what led your family to the New World is a bit hard when they may or may not have used Argentina as a clandestine channel to America.
When it came down to finding a caclio team (I also learned that word around the same time), the search was just as fruitless. As luck would have it, there was no Serie A team in all of Abruzzo, these were, of course, in the pre-heady days of Zeman, Verratti and Insigne-the top flight was a pipe dream at best.
So what to do? Well, much like when your favorite restaurant is booked, or the store only has the orange juice with pulp, you take the next closest alternative.
So, for a generationally removed Abruzzesse, that next closest alternative was a short trip eastward on the A-24, to an historic hamlet known as Roma.
Honestly, it was that simple, that stupid, and, as it turns out, that fortuitous. There was no curva sud imploring me to join them, no Grazie, Roma luring me with its siren song, and no club icon to which I aspired. It was pure chance. I simply thought it would be more genuine if I had some sort of connection with my chosen Italian club. And while we weren't Roman, we were close enough. So, Roma it was.
Oh, and it wasn't even because of Totti, how could I forget that! In that same dorm, downstairs in the dining hall, there was a young man quite fond of wearing this red jersey emblazoned with Mazda on the front. I knew this name, my sister drove one. But the back? What was this strangely stenciled name above the number 18? Cassano? Who was that? I wonder if he's any good? I wonder if he has an ego?
That was my first introduction to anyone or anything Roma related, the irony isn't lost on me now, believe me.
I really cannot emphasize this enough, and it might damage my credibility, but me being a Roma fan was really that haphazard. There was no preordainment, no premeditation, and no clue what I was getting myself into.
"It's Rome," I thought "Everyone's heard of it. It's, like, the most famous city in all of Italy, it's the capital, after all. I'm sure they're the most powerful team in the league. How could they not be!?"
Oh, assumptions, how would we learn anything without you?
Ironically, I think it's precisely because of Roma's status as the second citizens of Serie A that I'm still here. Not being gifted title after title, not having the luxury of purchasing whomever you wish, makes you focus on what you do have, what makes you special. Your appreciation for the team wasn't born of balance sheets, your admiration for its players and its history cares little about legacy, valuing instead loyalty and love. It's a connection with something real and something earned, it doesn't ebb and flow with TV ratings, international appeal and jersey sales.
With this team, you feel like you're in on something, like there isn't a wall between the team and tifosi. If the people in Rome stopped caring, the club can't simply ship in fans from China, from India or from New York (well, not yet, I guess). It's almost like discovering an unsigned band, or a restaurant off the beaten path, or stumbling into the love of your life while buying rutabagas. You can't explain why the nature of your encounter matters, you just know that it does, and if the circumstances that brought you together were altered, even one iota, your love wouldn't be as unique, as inexplicable, or as lasting.
For me, it was a chance encounter that has created an inseparable bond with this club; a club that, to date, I haven't even seen in person. For you, Roma may have been your grandpa's boyhood team, or perhaps some sage aunt bought you a Totti jersey for your birthday, or maybe it was that semester you spent in the City of Seven Hills.
Whatever road led you to Rome, we're all here. And since you've stood by her side, your fondness is real. You care little for championships, and though you'd obviously want one, the lack thereof won't send you rushing towards the latest purchase of an oil oligarch, seeking solace among new money.
So while we've all taken different paths to our shared place, we're fortunate enough to have either stumbled upon, been born into, or chosen a team that, while not a minnow, has never been the shark of the Serie A Sea. And that's really the cruelest part of being a Roma fan, they're big enough to make you dream, yet, for a variety of reasons, those dreams remain just that.
As Roma fans, we never fear relegation, but we live with perpetual pessimism, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But they're not a small club; it's not as if Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi have remained blessedly and inexplicably loyal to Torino or Palermo. They have talent and enough resources to always remain in the conversation, but that conversation is usually curt, passive aggressive, and frustrating.
Truth be told, the chasm between Roma and the northern clubs probably isn't as wide as we imagine. Yet for the Roma fan, we remain as incredulous as the Valedictorian who got a 99 instead of a 100, ceaselessly banging our heads and wrapping our knuckles screaming "It's not fair, how come Inter gets all the calls!?"
So what are my expectations this time every year? I expect Roma to be close, I expect their margin of error to be infinitesimal, I expect them to surge in the winter and falter in the spring. I expect Kevin Strootman to be the final piece of the puzzle, for which this club has lusted after so desperately the past several years. I expect there to be claims of cheating in the San Siro, I expect an upset against Juventus, I expect headaches from Chievo and Catania, and I expect Rudi to look resplendent in his assortment of mock neck sweaters.
I expect, as always, that this team will tantalize the league with its talent. I expect Francesco Totti to make me think, "Fuck, is this guy ever going to slow down?", I expect I'll spent an inordinate amount of time imagining DDR as a mountain recluse after his playing days are done, I expect I'll continue to have delusions of grandeur, hoping that Erik Lamela will obtain the same level of stardom as Messi or Ronaldo.
I expect this club, despite the assemblage of skill and salaries on the pitch, will frustrate us with its inconsistencies. I expect the Europa and Champions League to be equidistant come mid-April. I expect cursing, I expect cheering, I expect sorrow, and I expect elation.
And I expect that none of this will matter. I expect that, like me, this club has changed the way you view football, the way you view sports in general. I expect that this club simultaneously makes you long for the past and yearn for the future. I expect that, whether you've been a fan for a day or a decade, you've already succumb to this.
This was your choice. This was your birthright. This was your twist of fate. This is your Roma.
This cannot be discussed, only loved.