There was once a brotherhood between Roma and Napoli supporters that was the envy of Italy. It existed as a form of solidarity between the two sets of fans as their respective clubs tried to break the power of the northern clubs, and it gave birth to the Derby del Sole, sometimes known as the Derby del Sud, which hit its heyday during the 1970s and early 1980s. Then, unfortunately, that relationship was fractured and shattered by a series of events, building up to a tragic nadir in 2014. Roma-Napoli now is no longer the true Derby del Sole. For nearly the last 30 years, the fixture has been marred by tensions, clashes and violence on coaches, at train stations, even at police stations, leading up to the death of Ciro Esposito at the hands of Roma ultra Daniele De Santis two years ago. Just this summer, a 20 year old Roman was stabbed and hospitalised in Naples for having a Roma tattoo on his arm on display in the city centre. A deep and mutual mistrust has spread throughout both sets of fans, leading to these violent clashes, and now the game is one of Italy’s most high risk games with away fans often banned from attending. How did it come to this?
Controversy has been a part of this fixture right from the beginning. Roma and Napoli met in the league for the first time back on 10th November, 1929, when both clubs were in their infancy. Roma were 1-0 up when Napoli winger Camillo Fenili received the ball and, from less than 10 yards out, hit an unbelievably fierce shot. Roma keeper Bruno Ballante was motionless as the ball flew past him and the ball seemed to be on target, but it came back off the supports behind the goal and the referee gave a goal kick. Napoli’s players were furious, adamant that the shot had been on target, and in the pandemonium even Roma’s sporting director Vincenzo Biancone said that the ball had gone under the crossbar. The ball had actually gone through the net, and the hole was quickly repaired by one of the ballboys, Balilla Lombardi – who later went on to play for Roma himself. The game itself went on to finish 2-2.
It wasn’t really until the 1950s that the game really started to become the Derby del Sole in its true form, though the ties between the cities of Naples and Rome go back far beyond this. Back in the 19th century, the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (of which the Kingdom of Naples formed a part) stood together to oppose anti-Catholic feelings in Piedmont, where legislative measures were being taken to damage the credibility of papal rule. Later in the 20th century, there was a cultural element to the unity between the southern clubs as well; the south is stereotyped as being crime-ridden, ignorant and scrounging off the hard work of the north (which itself is stereotyped as snobbish and uncultured). To an extent this was felt in sporting terms as well when the link between the clubs became more concrete during the 1970s and 1980s. Roma and Napoli’s supporters found a common bond between them as the 2 southern clubs tried to present an effective opposition to the power of the northern clubs: Juventus, Inter and Milan, who dominated Serie A at the time. For these reasons and more, the bond that connected the two most passionate sets of fans in Italy held a deep and meaningful significance. Whether the Derby del Sole was at the San Paolo or the Olimpico, fans would mix with each other not only in the stands but in the curva of the home side’s ultras, both curve would sing chants in support of the opposition – the Curva Sud would sing “Napoli, Napoli” in response to the Azzurri fans singing “Roma, Roma” – and before every game, 2 portabandiere, one Romanista, one Partenopeo, exchanged flags or paraded round the athletics tracks with their teams’ banners.
On the pitch, the Derby del Sole has always been hard to call, although Napoli managed just 1 away win (1-2, 1933/34) in the 28 years between the clubs’ first meeting and their back to back victories in 1956/57 and 1957/58. Roma took their revenge the following season though with one of the biggest wins in their history. Gunnar Nordahl, the legendary Milan striker, was the Giallorossi coach, and he masterminded an 8-0 victory with goals from Dino Da Costa (3), Arne Selmosson (2), Paolo Pestrin (2) and Severino Lojodice. It is still Napoli’s biggest ever defeat. Over the years the match remained an even contest, though in one barren run Roma failed to score in 10 successive games between 1976 and 1980, and it was the 1980s that saw the pinnacle and then the collapse of the brotherhood between the two sets of fans.
It was also during the 1980s that the ultras phenomenon is said to have gone through its golden age, and the ultras are key figures in understanding the relationship between Napoli and Roma. Roma’s Curva Sud and its ultras were a model which many groups of supporters sought to emulate, but when it came to Napoli the emulation became excessive. Partenopei supporters copied almost all of their chants from Roma fans (that, in fact, is according to a Napoli fan), and Gennaro Montuori – a leading Napoli ultra – borrowed the name of CUCS (Commando Ultrà Curva Sud, a famous group of Roma ultras) and adapted it for his Azzurri ultras, who became known as CUCB (Commando Ultrà Curva B). When Roma visited the San Paolo, the CUCS banners were displayed next to the CUCB banners for at least 3 seasons from 1981/82 to 1983/84, and the Roma ultras shared the Curva B with the Napoli ultras, including one memorable game on 10th October, 1982. Thousands of Romanisti and Partenopei stood alongside each other to watch Nils Liedholm’s side win 3-1, and at full time the Azzurri fans were enraged. The tensions carried over from the previous season spilled over into a blind fury as parts of the stands were torn apart and smashed, and there were fears that this anger would be unleashed on the Roma ultras as well. Incredibly though, they were allowed to continue celebrating and singing without being harmed. The following year, when Roma were reigning champions, Napoli had an even worse side and were beaten 5-1 at the Olimpico, but nonetheless the ultras sang “Roma, Roma” even as they tore down their own side’s banners in frustration. So strong was the feeling between the two sets of fans that some groups of Roma fans even went to join the Blue Lions in the Curva A for at least 2 Napoli-Lazio matches as well; in 1984 Napoli fans put up a banner saying, “Laziali, a race of bastards”, and the next year a CUCS banner was on display during Napoli’s 4-0 win over the Biancocelesti.
But in the mid-1980s, things started to change. Following the signing of Diego Maradona in 1984, Napoli began to emerge as a team able to compete for the scudetto themselves. Roma were no longer the only side from the south able to challenge the north. Not only that, previously thousands of tickets had been available for Roma in the San Paolo, but the stadium was a sell-out with Maradona’s arrival and Roma were reduced to a few hundred tickets. Because of the packed ground, Roma’s ultras were forced to move from the Curva B to a worse position in the lower tier. That move caused confusion and embarrassment in 1985/86 when, after the pre-match lap around the pitch, the heads of the Roma ultras went to their usual places. The new Napoli fans in that sector knew nothing about the relationship between the two groups of ultras and fights started to break out, only for members of the CUCB to intervene and take the Roma ultras to the upper tier of the Curva B.
It was Napoli’s capture of Bruno Giordano from Lazio in 1985 that Romanisti really took exception to though, and their feelings towards the forward were most clearly felt on 26th October, 1986 when Napoli travelled to the Olimpico. Before the match, the stadium was the usual sea of colour, and the exchange of banners and flags took place as usual. The Partenopei then went 1-0 up with a goal from Maradona, which was set up by Giordano. While Romanisti were still friendly with the Neapolitans at this stage, their hatred of Giordano outweighed this friendliness, and a section of fans started singing an abusive chant towards the former Lazio player. Some of the Partenopei’s Fedayn ultras responded in kind, singing the same offensive chant back at the Roma supporters about Bruno Conti. That was as far as it went, but it was the first time in years that something had spoiled the goodwill in the Derby del Sole.
The following year, almost to the day, the brotherhood between the clubs came to a complete and irreparabe end. It was 25th October, 1987, and the two sides met at the Olimpico once more. This time though Napoli were league champions and it was Roma who were the inferior of the two sides. The pre-game exchange of banners was scheduled to take place as normal. The two fans carrying the flags first went towards the Curva Nord, where the Napoli fans were, and were received by the Azzurri’s usual chorus of “Roma, Roma”. They continued round towards the Curva Sud, but this time there was no swapping of flags, no chorus of “Napoli, Napoli”. Instead the Romanista gestured towards the curva, and fans began yelling insults and throwing bottles at the Partenopeo. The supporter made his way back to the Napoli fans, who hadn’t realised what had happened and were still singing. Their tune soon changed as the portabandiera reached the stand, and “Roma, Roma” became “Roma merda, Roma merda”. When the game started, Roma were immediately on the back foot but Napoli wasted chance after chance. After half time, Roma punished their profligacy with a goal from Roberto Pruzzo (the only goal he scored all season), and Napoli began to lose their heads as both Careca and Alessandro Renica were sent off, leaving them with 9 men. “The Curva Nord was boiling over now, the opposition weren’t brothers to us any more,” says Francesco Albanese, a Napoli fan who was at the game. “No Neapolitans were smiling now, the curva was home to much baser instincts.” Even so, they still managed to find a way through when Maradona took a corner and Giovanni Francini headed past Franco Tancredi to equalise. The goal resulted in more trouble in the stands between the two sets of fans, not helped by provocation from some players on the pitch, and then came the definitive moment at full time. As Maradona and most of the Napoli players went to the Curva Nord to throw their shirts into the sea of Azzurri fans, Salvatore Bagni headed to the Curva Sud and made his infamous gesto dell’ombrello. It was the point of no return, the final act that shattered the brotherhood between the fans. Some years later, Bagni admitted, “It’s my fault that there’s no friendship any more. I regret doing it.” A couple of hours after the game, Errico Novi, another Napoli fan who was at the Olimpico, went to take the train at Termini, Rome’s main train station, where he found small groups of Roma ultras armed with clubs patrolling the piazza in front of the station. They were singing the chant, “Colera e terremoto / è sempre troppo poco / dai, Vesuvio / lavali col fuoco” – “Cholera and earthquakes / are never enough / come on, Vesuvius / wash them with fire”.
In 1994, the Boys Roma claimed responsibility for ending the brotherhood by making sure flags weren’t swapped before the game, though since many Giallorossi fans immediately accepted the end of the friendship quite who was responsible and who instigated it is unclear. What is true is that Roma ultras had internal divisions (as did Napoli’s ultras), which were further exacerbated in 1987/88 when the Giallorossi signed Lionello Manfredonia, a former Lazio (and Juventus) defender. The CUCS divided into two, the CUCS-GAM (where GAM stood for the Gruppo Anti Manfredonia) and the Vecchio CUCS. The two factions divided the Curva Sud, with banners and flags split between them, and even within the Olimpico it was like they were watching and experiencing the games separately from one another. Within the Roma support, other groups like the Boys Roma were trying to throw their weight around. While Roma had the most admired and imitated support in Italy, inside the support itself it was chaos as each group tried to further itself and establish primacy, and that contributed to the issue of the relationship between Romanisti and Partenopei.
There’s no question that 1987 was the breaking point though; what used to be a friendly relationship between two passionate sets of fans became an increasingly hostile and violent fued. The Derby del Sole of 17th November, 1991 saw Gennaro Montuori (the same ultra who appropriated CUCS’ name) make one last ditch attempt at a détente. A few minutes after kick off, he and his group of ultras from the CUCB took out a banner saying “Honour to Antonio De Falchi”, in memory of the 18 year old Roma fan killed by Milan ultras, and sang his name. Many of the other 7,000 Napoli fans, seeing the banner and hearing the chants, whistled and jeered, drowning the chants out. Montuori was furious and yelled at the instigators to stop, but by that time Roma supporters had already started singing ‘Vesuvius wash them with fire’ and there was no recovering the situation.
Since then, the Derby del Sole has lost much of what made it into one of the great spectacles of calcio. For instance, when Roma went to the San Paolo in 2001, their fans were fearless, hoping to go to Naples and be able to celebrate the scudetto victory, but they were subjected to all sorts of things being thrown at them and being spat on and worse. Even after a Coppa Italia game in 2005, the aftermath was more like a battleground: 31 policemen were injured, 15 Napoli ultras were arrested, and the San Paolo police station was assaulted. In May 2008, 17 Napoli fans were arrested in the province of Siena for assaulting a coach of 50 Romanisti heading for Genoa. 3 months later, Napoli supporters were accused of trashing a train that was taking them to Termini. They were exonerated. Not so the 7 fans (including supporters of both Roma and Napoli) who were involved in the stabbing of a Napoli supporter on the same occasion.
In 2014, Rudi Garcia’s team had to be met by a police escort upon landing at Capodichino airport and transferred to their hotel, the location of which had to be kept secret. The main reason for this was the tragic events of some months earlier. Roma weren’t even involved in the game itself, which was a Coppa Italia final between Napoli and Fiorentina, but the match was taking place at the Stadio Olimpico. A group of Napoli fans were heading towards the ground before the game when they passed Daniele De Santis, a Roma ultra, working at his stall in Tor di Quinto. Clashes between De Santis and the Napoli fans broke out, during which Ciro Esposito was shot in the back. Esposito was in hospital for 53 days before passing away, and 2 years after the incident De Santis was sentenced to 26 years in prison. The 2 Napoli fans who were with Esposito, Alfonso Esposito (no relation to Ciro) and Gennaro Fioretti, were sentenced to 8 months each. The violence of recent times, culminating with the tragic death of Esposito, goes beyond football, beyond sport. It is more a facet of the life of some ultras, so unhappy with their own lives – real life – that they have no option other than to take out their own dissatisfaction and frustrations by using violence. That can only be a defeat for football.
Roma-Napoli is a tie that always gives cause to remember memories of games past, but not always for the right reasons. Appeals by politicians, councillors, security forces, and the clubs themselves have gone unheard: Roma-Napoli is now a high-risk match. No tickets at all have been sold in the Lazio region to avoid Romanisti from getting into this Saturday’s game at the San Paolo. Of course, football was different at the time when the Derby del Sole was at its peak, more romantic and simple, less tied to the power of television, sponsorships, and riches of the modern game, and there’s nothing that will change that. Certainly a rivalry is healthy, but the enmity and violence between the two sets of fans has taken away the choreography, the colours, the passion that used to characterise this famous fixture.