This feature is part of A Tale of One City

The balding man with whisps of thinning grey-speckled hair looked oddly familiar. His assuredness and graceful movement seemed at odds with his companions as he drifted at a slightly withdrawn pace like a wily leader – he was almost old enough to be a father to some of the youngsters pacing around him. As I strained my eyes from the Curva Ovest of Ferrara’s Stadio Paolo Mazza, where Denis Law once punched a defender out cold, to make out any distinguishing feature that might confirm my suspicions, a plump, wizened old man in the stands, the sort that instantly command respect, spotted my curiosity. He withdrew his cigarette, and after exhaling a thick plume of smoke, hoarsely croaked; “È lui, è Paolo.”

Here was a 38-year-old Paolo Di Canio leading the line for the now-defunct Cisco Roma against Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor 1907 in what was then known as Serie C2 B in the three-division fifth tier of Italian football. It was hard to know whether to be sad to see such a mercurial, street fighting entertainer winding down his career with little of the pace or energy that made him famous, or to be heartened to see such a passion for the game that he refused to hang up his boots until he could run no more. As it turned out, Di Canio was narrowly cheated out of an Indian Summer with his side missing out on promotion in the playoffs having finished as runners-up that season, and he carried on for another campaign scoring 14 goals as player/manager before being joined by Luigi Di Biagio as a youth coach.

Di Canio had joined Cisco after a second spell at Lazio, the club he began his career with in the 1980s before his journey through northern Italy and the UK. It seemed he just couldn’t find peace away from his native Rome. Famous for his passionate allegiance to his hometown club, he has long been associated with the powerfully fascist values of the ‘Irriducibili’ – Lazio’s ultras group who rose around the time of Di Canio’s debut – which has landed him in hot water throughout his life as a player and a manager.

He vehemently denied these claims when he was appointed manager of Sunderland two years ago, saying he “did not support the ideology of fascism”, which is at odds with the tattoos of an eagle spread across his shoulder blades and of the Roman inscription ‘DVX’, relating to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and the numerous pictures of him striking the right arm salute. It is of little surprise that he shone at Celtic and West Ham, clubs with equally vociferous supporters with whom he could easily identify with; in his five combined seasons with those two clubs he won the SPFA Player of the Year award and West Ham’s Player of the Year. His public war of words with Roma legend Francesco Totti around the time of his homecoming derby endeared him even more to the Lazio faithful, as did his sublime goal and fierce right-arm salute celebration in the 3-1 win for the Biancocelesti.

Aside from his stunning ability, he will be remembered for his affinity for the right-wing beliefs that the fans held; his celebration of the famous victory in 2005 was justified as solidarity with his fellow fans. “I will always salute as I did because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people,” he was reported as saying. “I saluted my people with what for me is a sign of belonging to a group that holds true values, values of civility against the standardisation that this society imposes upon us.”

Standing out, being different and original, is something that goes right back to the roots of his club Lazio, and that symbolises the antagonism between them and their eternal cross-city rivals Roma in the most violent, historical and tightly fought derby in Italy.

In the early years of the 20th century Italy’s northern clubs dominated domestic success. Rome, on the other hand, was represented by eight clubs, and the decision was taken to merge three – Alba, Fortitudo and Roman – to form Associazione Sportiva Roma in an attempt to create a club that could challenge the hegemony and give the capital’s fans a beacon of pride. Within a couple of years the club moved to the central working-class district of Testaccio, where future manager Claudio Ranieri and Di Biagio were born, and garnered a fiercely loyal local following.

It would be a mistake to simply paint them as a club founded on purely socialist ideals; the formation of the club was instigated by Italo Foschi, a secretary of the National Fascist Party, and at the time of their first Serie A title-winning season in 1942 they had played their games in the Stadio del Partito Nazionale Fascista for over a decade. While the Irriducibili Lazio ultras are more infamous, it was the Boys Ultras following Roma who emerged as the first violently right-wing supporters in the 1970s. Unlike most intercity rivalries, the Derby della Capitale is not defined by a clear class divide, but by the perceived relationship of the clubs to the city itself.

Lazio, who were founded at the turn of the century, resisted. Right from the start their relationship was bitter, as in one fell swoop the new club boasted more fans following the merger; it wasn’t just the number of followers that caused the issues, but the identity the clubs portrayed. Four years before Lazio were founded, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, and the club adopted the colour scheme that they wear today – sky blue and white – as homage to the Greek flag and the Olympic ideals.

The outstretched wings of the eagle on their crest is a symbol that screams power, right back to the times of the Roman Empire when it was the insignia of a Roman Legion, and it later became the mark of fascism in Italy when depicted clutching a bundle of fasces, or thin wooden sticks used to instil obedience, from where the term fascism is derived. In stark contrast, Roma’s deep red and gold are the colours of the Comune di Roma, while the crest shows the mythical wolf suckling the child said to have founded the city, Romulus, and his twin Remus.

Roma fans have always ridiculed Lazio’s choice of colours, or rather their choice not to adopt the city’s colours, despite being formed over a quarter of a century earlier. It is seen as the ultimate insult. By insinuating that their hated enemies are ‘burini’ (peasants) – a derogatory term for agricultural folk not even from the capital itself, but from the villages and countryside in the outskirts – they are attempting to impose a sense of shame in turning their backs on the honour of publicly representing the city. There are loose parallels to this antagonism in other rivalries around the world, such Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, the latter being from the nearby port of Piraeus eight miles from Athens city centre. When Manchester City signed Carlos Tevez from bitter rivals United, they famously commissioned a billboard saying ‘Welcome to Manchester’, a sly dig at Old Trafford’s location outside the city in neighbouring Salford.

The significance of representing the city is much more piqued in Rome, however. Roma’s foundation itself is one obvious reason, but a relative lack of material success might well be another. The two clubs, despite their enormous influence on the game in Italy, have only won five league totals combined, with one major European trophy apiece, and both clubs have a disproportionately low number of fans from outside their city and region, despite Roma claiming to have the fifth highest number of followers amongst Italians. The Lupi (Wolves) have won the Coppa Italia a joint-record nine times, but the more telling statistic is that they have been runners-up in the truest test – the league – an astonishing 12 times.

In fact, only ten national titles have been won by teams south of Bologna, with 74 championships alone shared between the cities of Turin and Milan. To understand the reasons behind the northern domination of the game one must go back to the end of the 19th century, when the game was first introduced to the peninsula by Edoardo Bosio on his return from England on business.

The employees at his Turin-based company played what was one of, if not the, first recorded game in Italy in 1887, and throughout that decade British sailors introduced the game to the major ports such as Genoa, Livorno and Naples. The sport bloomed in the industrial centres of the north, as it did in many countries, due to its appeal to the working class. Many clubs were formed as cricket and football societies, so expatriate influences were strong, but in the capital the organisation of the game lagged behind the north. “With remarkable precision, the map of soccer retraces the map of capital on the peninsula,” said Antonio Papa.

In the early part of the 20th century Piedmont-based Pro Vercelli were the most successful club, claiming all seven of their national titles between 1908 and 1921 with a style of play that combined athleticism and modern tactics. They were formed from a club that was best known for gymnastics, the only sport that had until that stage become popular nationally, but due to the apathy towards this middle-class pursuit, many of the gymnastics societies wanted to push a nationalization of football as a way of providing a more common sport to unite the population. Angelo Mosso was the preeminent physiologist at Turin University at the time, and after his pioneering of the first neuro-imaging techniques measuring blood flow to the brain, he declared that football was a more worthwhile physical activity to encourage a robust physical condition.

Unlike the powerful British-founded clubs such as the Genoa Cricket and Football Club and the Milan Cricket and Football Club, Pro Vercelli were made up exclusively of Italians. When the Federaziona Italiana di Football – notice, however, the English word ‘football’ – decided to ban foreigners, the major clubs threatened to boycott the competition until the FIF compromised with a quota system, but not before Milan’s members quarrelled over this ruling, with a splinter group forming Internazionale Milano.

In the capital, with no direct port, less industry and therefore fewer foreigners involved in athletic societies, the drive and ambition of Roman football clubs was less than that of the power brokers in the north. Roma were first from the capital to break the spell and claim the 1941-42 title 15 years after they had been formed in a justification of the decision to create a club capable of challenging the stranglehold on domestic success of their industrialised rivals.

They were unable to build on the momentum of this historic title triumph; after the Second World War ended they struggled in the lower reaches of Serie A before suffering the ignominy of their only relegation in their history at the end of the 1950-51 season. An instant return followed under former Lazio player, and future Italy manager, Giuseppe Viani, before both sides moved into the newly renovated Stadio Centomila, renamed the Stadio Olimpico in time for the 1960 Olympic Games. The clubs have shared this home ground for over 60 years, although the new Stadio di Roma, purposefully modelled on the Colosseum in another nod to the city’s identity, is due to open in 2017. Englishman Jesse Carver guided I Giallorossi to a second place finish in 1955, but the following decade saw a string of average league finishes, punctuated by a 1961 Inter City Fairs Cup win and a Coppa Italia trophy in 1963.

In fact, they failed to repeat their league success until the Falcão-inspired side in 1983. Fundraisers and a new president saved the club from bankruptcy in the 1964-65 season when it was said the club were days from going out of business. A lack of serious managerial continuity, or at least enough to build a dynasty, is one serious black mark on Roma’s record ever since their creation; they have had an incredible 64 managers in 88 years of existence (including those who returned to the hot seat), with the longest reign being Fabio Capello’s five years in charge at the turn of the millennium, which coincided with the last Serie A title.

Lazio, meanwhile, have gone through 77 managers in their 115-year history, and have suffered a myriad of disasters that could have threatened to put them out of business altogether. Relegations to Serie B in 1961 and ‘71 preceded one of the most surprising campaigns in their history, as they missed out on the title on the last day of the season, before going one better in 1974, inspired by Giorgio Chinaglia’s goals. Two more relegations to the second tier in 1980 and 1985 followed after Chinaglia’s departure to the fledgling NASL and the New York Cosmos, but for very different reasons.

The scale of their problems was highlighted by manner of those demotions. Along with AC Milan, they were found to have been involved in illegal betting on their own matches, and were sent down to Serie B where they stayed for three miserable seasons. After finally gaining promotion back to the top flight, they accumulated their lowest ever points total of 15 and returned two years later. Worse was to come, however; another betting scandal saw them hit with a nine-point deduction, a huge penalty in the days of two points for a win, and a relegation playoff was needed to save them from Serie C.

During this period, derby matches were less frequent but no less passionate and violent. Lazio managed one win against Roma between 1980 and 1993, but one tragic event the year before this run brought the clubs’ issues into perspective. Lazio fan Vincenzo Paparelli was hit in the eye by a flare from the opposition supporters and died from his injuries. The stands were swarming with segregated fans throwing a multitude of missiles despite the pleas of the players, but somehow the damaging article had been launched 250 metres from the Curva Sud.

The 1990s saw a slight reversal of fortunes for the capital clubs. As Lazio were struggling to survive relegation in 1984, Bruce Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs were distracting Francesco Graziani as he took his penalty in the European Cup final in the Stadio Olimpico. The following decade, however, saw Roma claim a single major trophy – the Coppa Italia in 1991 – as huge investment boosted Lazio from strugglers to challengers.

From the derby’s mammoth combined roll call of 141 managers, one man stands out from the rest despite never winning a major honour, bridging the gap between the immortal enemies: Zdeněk Zeman. In truth, the enigmatic Czech had earned his reputation before arriving in the capital, gaining promotion playing a wildly entertaining brand of energetic football with unfancied southerners of Foggia, but he became the first man to manage both Roman giants virtually back to back in the 1990s.

While at Foggia, he brought through young talent such as Beppe Signori and Francesco Baiano, the former who would go on to become Lazio’s all-time second top goalscorer in just five years at the club, three of them under Zeman. His faith in youth and his daring brand of play garnered a cult following, but his insistence on a high risk, high-octane style of play meant the only honours he earned as a coach were the Serie C2 title with Licata, and the Serie B title with Foggia and Pescara, where Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne contributed to an incredible 90 goals. Despite guiding Lazio to second and third place finishes, then Roma to fourth and fifth, the directors of both clubs replaced him after tiring of near misses, and when Roma brought him back for a second spell in 2012, the fans were reluctant to accept him, and he only lasted eight months.

Zeman’s singular mind and outspoken views contributed as much to his failure to hold down a position for long. His permanent successor at Lazio could not have offered a greater contrast, with a calm exterior and a practical, very English approach to preparing teams: Sven-Göran Eriksson. Having achieved instant success at Benfica in his first foray outside his homeland, winning the Portuguese league twice, followed by Coppa Italia victories at Roma and Sampdoria, it was hoped that some cool-headed stability would bring greater success than the bohemian Zeman, and Eriksson didn’t disappoint.

With one of the legendary squads in modern Italian football history, boasting names such as Nesta, Mancini, Nedvěd, Bokšić and later Simeone, Salas, Verón and Mihajlović, Lazio won the Coppa Italia in the Swede’s first season, the last ever European Cup Winners’ Cup the year after, and the first scudetto of the new millennium.

In recent times, Lazio have suffered serious financial trouble, which has contributed towards the lack of material success on the pitch. Along with Roma, they are one of only three Italian clubs to be floated on the Italian stock exchange – the Borsa Italiana – with Juventus the third. After billionaire Sergio Cragnotti took over the club in 1992, his lavish spending led to a glorious period of world-record signings, but when parent company Cirio were unable to repay investors €150 million worth of bonds a decade later, the dream collapsed as caretaker managers sold off the galaxy of superstars. In 2004 Claudio Lotito acquired a majority stake in the club which he holds to this day, and a period of inconsistency, interrupted by a points deduction in the infamous Calciopoli betting scandal in 2006, ensued.

One consistent element of the rivalry has been the supporters, both positively and negatively. Fans worldwide now imitate the tifos and banners that Italian spectators are famous for, and these are most evident in the Derby Della Capitale. This season sees their sides occupy the top three places, while the Milan clubs struggle further down the table for a change, giving the derby a renewed boost of significance – not that the supporters needed any extra motivation.

Wave upon wave of banners, flags, flares and colour make the scenes truly remarkable, but sometimes the line can be crossed. In the 1998-99 season, a Roma banner taunted Lazio as a “team of sheep followed by shepherds” – Le Aquile fans responded with a 50-foot banner labelling Roma as a “team of blacks followed by Jews”. The 2004 derby was abandoned after riots broke following false rumours that a boy had been killed by a police van, with 170 police seriously injured.

These extreme groups of ultras are only one section of the clubs’ following, but such is their influence and power that it is hard to see how authorities are able to stamp out the abhorrent racism and violence that occasionally permeates the hottest derby in Italy. That warm September day when Paolo Di Canio strolled around the lower league pitch in Ferrara seemed like a world away from the burning intensity of the Eternal Derby, but you can bet the passion he shares with his people will never die out.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint