At dawn the layer of smog glows orange in my rear-view mirror. Los Angeles, in its infinite sprawl of overpasses and skyscrapers fades, and soon I am worming my way through Orange County’s Wednesday work commute. When I finally arrive in San Clemente, Lukowski is there waiting, surfboard tucked under one arm, a backpack at his feet. He wears a knockoff Totti jersey under a biker’s vest with the names of punk bands scattered along the denim.
Longtime Roma fans, we both have never been to any games, nor seen any Roma players in the flesh, thus this trip becomes an unspoken rite of passage. Despite it only being a preseason friendly, the match will undoubtedly fill a certain gap in our hearts for a team we’ve followed closely for over a decade. Yet, another mistress of ours battles for attention as we drive along the coast to San Diego, watching a surging swell detonate on the pacific shores.
For southern Californian surfers summertime means south swells and warm water, and it is for this reason we decide to skip out on AS Roma’s morning training session at University California San Diego. Besides, there’s always tomorrow’s morning session, right?
We meet up with a friend at Ocean Beach where waves travel underneath a fishing pier. For surfers, waves are measured by our bodies, and as we prepare to paddle out, overhead waves surge, clipping the bottom of the pier and sending mist onto the spectators above. It looks promising. Lukowski is first out, and he catches several waves, swiftly carving through the faces.
However, the break turns out to be atrocious. It is a slow, unpredictable left (wave direction goes either right or left) and it soon becomes apparent that we have made the wrong choice. As I bob on my board in the lineup (the outside where one waits for waves), I think about Daniele De Rossi, Strootman, Florenzi, and the many others who I have longed to see. I should be there, touching the crest at my breast, shouting, “Daje”!
By the time we leave the beach the training session is long over. We are hungry and our friend suggests a sandwich shop, which coincidentally turns out to be in Little Italy. Passerby wear the deep Roma red and Italian flags flutter in the coastal breeze. “Forza Roma,” I yell out the car. My spirits begin to rise and the guilt over having skipped the training subsides. At the deli, we observe posters of the 2006 Italian team. Totti grins at us.
After lunch we travel to our classy accommodation in East San Diego, a mere two miles away from SDCCU stadium. Lukowski has already ripped through the box of Pacificos, chugging from the can and inciting, “you wouldn’t want to be the guy who has to tell me where I can or cannot drink... that wouldn’t go well for you.”
The Rodeway Inn is a beige structure bereft of trees, just off the 8 freeway. It’s the kind of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to find a used condom under your bed. We quickly check in, pack ice into a cooler of beers, and head to the pool. Another friend of ours arrives. Coach, a former CSUDH goalkeeper and big-time Barcelona fan, enters the pool and I quickly berate him for Barca’s snaky steal of Malcom. However, it’s his birthday and I don’t dig into him too much. Besides, he’s a Barca fan, and that’s filthy enough.
It’s hot and the beers go down like water, and soon we are heading to the stadium where more drinking will ensue. Two hours before kickoff and the parking lot is a ghost town. Formally Qualcomm stadium and the home of NFL’s San Diego Chargers, the SDCCU looms large and archaic. I start to wonder about the logistics behind scheduling the game here. Looking for a spot, we do, however, pass a large gathering of Spurs fans who Lukowski curses at as we pass.
We post up and Coach retrieves a bottle of Jameson which we pass around, sipping here and there as we kick around a beach ball. Soon we begin volleying the ball fiercely at Lukowski. I channel my inner Totti with a bending left-foot shot that drills him in the neck. It becomes a game, which poor Lukowski has no say in. The beer in his hand is often spilled down the front of his shirt.
As kickoff nears, we down our drinks and Lukowski allows us to marker his body. I embolden No Totti No Party on his chest, and another friend of ours, of course, draws a large, gorging phallus across his back.
Thanks to SDCCU’s intelligent gate opening procedure, long lines congest the few entrances into the stadium and even with 30 minutes before kick-off we enter just as the ref blows the whistle. Dread and anxiousness consume me as we scramble around, trying to find our seat section. Who knew getting into a stadium could be so difficult? We find a seat map, which is behind a five-foot barricade. Squinting even with 20-20 vision, I can’t make out the seat numbers. I give up and we hastily enter first ramp we see. The sight of Diego Perotti, embarrassing neck tattoo and all, fills me with relief as he dribbles into a wall of three defenders. There they are, AS Roma, right before me, and I can’t take my eyes off them, despite the quick realization that we are on the completely wrong side of the stadium.
Across the field, I see our seats above the goal Roma is attacking. No problem, we just watch as we walk around. Lukowski is rampant, eyeing several spectators wearing Juventus jerseys and properly giving them their due. “Eat shit,” he yells at them. Who the hell wears a Juventus jersey to a Roma game?
The wolves are on an early attack when I am stopped short by stadium staff.
“Can’t pass through here,” the woman states. “VIP only.”
“We aren’t planning on sitting here, we just need to walk around to our seats on the other side,” I explain.
“You can’t to that.”
The anxiousness is back as the woman looks over her shoulder to her supervisor who gives me the same lame explanation. It is as this is happening that I see at a distance, from my periphery, Patrik Schick score in front of our empty seats.
We have to walk the long way around the stadium and by the time we get there Llorente has already leveled the game.
The match ensues and I take in the atmosphere. It is quiet. Ridiculously quiet. So quiet that our raucous, alcohol-fueled exclamations seem to travel across the pitch. “Take off your purse,” I yell when a Spurs player flops. The crowd around us glares. Lukowski makes some inappropriate comment about certain body parts about certain ladies he passed by on a bathroom run. Again, more glares.
The stadium which holds about the same capacity as the Stadio Olimpico (approx. 70,000) is desolate. The 18,000 or so in attendance hardly make a peep as pitiful attempts at waves peter. It’s sad, really, and a highly uncomfortable atmosphere for a die hard fan.
Meanwhile, Luca Pellegrini is being exploited and utterly torn apart. Each time he gets the ball he seems to quaver in fear, making bad touches and poor decisions. It gets to the point where every time the ball comes his way, I utter, “Oh god, god no, oh god.” Sure this is a tad unfair to the teenager, but man, he is getting worked.
Spurs rack up the scoreline with Lucas Moura ravishing our defense. Remember when he is a Roma target? And how the hell does he win a header against anyone? Moreover, with every goal, this stupid song erupts:
Chelsea Dagger becomes the looping track of my nightmares, and then it is half-time. From the ghostly stadium, to the inept staff, to the tiny, pixelated video displays, I begin to hate this place. It’s no wonder the San Diego Chargers packed up and moved to LA. While I fantasize about the stadium being bulldozed, Lukowski and another friend head to concessions to purchase large Micheladas.
I use the fifteen minute break to highlight what went well with Roma—Under taking risks, cutting the defense and making acrobatic shots, Pastore checking in deep with composure, Schick’s goal. I convince myself to remember that this is just a friendly as I get texts from friends making jokes at Roma’s performance. The second half begins and Lukowski shows up in the 50th minute with miniature cans of Heineken light. “It’s all they had left,” he shrugs. God, I hate this place.
At some point in the second half Justin Kluivert is subbed on and immediately makes an impact. A dude wearing a Roma jersey in front of us exclaims, “What? Roma signed Kluviert?”
“Yeah, weeks ago,” I say without trying to sound pretentious but probably failing.
“Oh, man, I signed him in FIFA 18 and he’s really good.”
It takes a lot to submerge my loathing for this comment. In fact, I see the dude’s girlfriend roll her eyes and that makes me feel better. No wonder Europeans ridicule Americans’ knowledge of the sport. I make a mental note to spill my pitiful beer on this guy’s head if Roma score.
The game goes on and Roma makes a line-change of players, one of which is DDR. For someone who has never seen Roma play in person, I immediately realize his enormous worth on the field. His movement is impeccable, and the way he controls the game and distributes the ball is a treat to witness. It just goes to show how bad Gonolans played.
There are moments, plays, and much that happens, but it ends 4-1 and then its over. Perhaps its the intoxication, or the awareness of a fleeting moment, but a sadness brought on by uncertainty overcomes me. When will I ever see Roma play agian? Should I have done more to see this game, drank less, arrived earlier? A self-loathing arises.
The next day we awake in the darkness of our dingy room at the Rodeway Inn. Parched and hazy, I put together the pieces of the night before. We left the stadium—went to a dive bar—drank Jameson on the rocks—sang karaoke—ate 7/11 cardboard pizza—took an Uber home. I vaguely remember chatting with a guy with a tongue ring who kept referring to Dzeko as Dez-ecko. Also, bits and pieces of Lukowski’s perfomance of Macy Gray’s “I Try” come to mind.
We leave the Rodeway Inn after a somewhat surprisingly good continental breakfast. Lukowski is hungover and a certain fogginess hangs over me. Coach leaves and we say our goodbyes. There is time to catch Roma’s morning training at UCSD and that brings joy to an otherwise daunting morning. Concentrating on the road I type the school into my navigation system. We arrive at 10:30am which gives us a good hour to watch the training. However, as we drive around the campus, admiring the Spanish-renaissance architecture, it quickly dawns on me that we are at the wrong school. We have found ourselves at University San Diego... not University of California San Diego.
We jam to UCSD, hoping to catch the tail-end of the training, and maybe get a sight of Totti, or if were lucky, some signatures or selfies. Practically skidding into the parking lot that overlooks the field, I am stricken at what I see: an empty field surrounded by Roma banners and sponsors. There is no morning training and the fear and slef-loathing returns, seemingly gripping both Lukowski and myself. I gaze over the field, imagine the players running their drills, and see a ghostly figure, an older man leaning over a barrier, smiling wryly. I imagine him turning to me and waving. I wave to him. I wave to no one. And then we are in the car, silent, leaving San Diego and the day before behind us.