‘There’s blood on the bridge’: fans on edge as Roma host Liverpool in Champions League second leg
Manchester United fans know all too well about the violent Rome ultras, having made several trips to the Italian capital in the past
“There’s blood on the bridge. Don’t go there,” was the warning from a fellow Manchester United fan as I stepped off a packed bus outside Rome’s Stadio Olimpico before a Champions League game in December 2007. The blue flashing lights of police riot vans added further chill to the cold night air as did robocops in riot gear sweeping between the traffic, their batons poised for action.
An incident had just happened between the Tiber River and the beautiful cypress trees which surround the stadium.
Another fan repeated the message about going to the bridge, a notorious ambush point of Roma’s violent ultras. You don’t expect football violence to be played out amid the granite statues, boulevards and rich mosaics at the foot of Monte Mario.
Soon after, my mobile hummed with texts. “Reports that five United stabbed,” says one. Four United fans were also jailed and accused of a role in the fracas. When the teams met again in March 2008 for the third time in a year, a banner was held up fro Roma fans declaring: “FREE THE ROMA 4.”
Rome is a beautiful city, but travelling there as an English football fan, as Liverpool fans will do this week for a Champions League semi-final second leg, is not without risks.
The overwhelming majority of Roma fans are friendly and can help create one of the best atmospheres in world football, but a minority have long been bent on trouble.
I’ve travelled there 10 times to see English teams, Spanish teams and the enthralling spectacle that is the Rome derby.
I’ve stood with ultras, in away ends, the main stand and sat in press boxes. I’ve even pretended to be a Spanish tourist and sat with my wife in the home end because being outed as an Englishman wouldn’t have been wise.
On a bus back to Termini station, a Roma fan who’d heard me speak quietly slowly put his fingers on his lips to suggest I keep quiet. When the bus reached its destination, he said: “It is not safe for you here. Please stay with us.”
We did and they looked after us.
There had been serious disorder during United’s first trip to Rome in April 2007. United had an active mob of hooligans in the 70s and 80s and it resurfaced again in the late 90s and into the early noughties. Each time, the police made inroads and banning orders prevented fans from going to games. Some of the former United hooligans now live abroad, while the last time United’s mob came together was in Rome that spring.
Before that, fans of several English clubs had been bullied in Rome, while the English and Italian police – who used little restraint when policing English football fans – were so keen that United fans didn’t go to the notorious Ponte Duca D’Aosta where Roma ultras met that they produced a warning leaflet with a map on it.
That was a mistake because, using the map, 300 United hooligans marched to the bridge and attacked Roma’s hooligans. Fierce and sustained fighting followed. One United fan had a set of ladders thrown at him, another was approached by men in bicycle helmets swinging chains.
United, with a big angry mob, kept charging back at the Romans. Several were congratulated – mid-fight – for their balls in taking the fight to them.
Those hooligans there said it was the best confrontation they’d ever experienced. Fighting was their buzz and they’d found the perfect one.
Many United lads retired that night, realising that it was ridiculous to be a grown man and a football hooligan, while others waited for Roma to come to Old Trafford for the home leg and took their own revenge. Innocent travelling Roma fans suffered for the actions of a few of their hooligan minority. Then they saw their team beaten 7-1.
A vicious group of Roma fans also caused trouble behind Liverpool’s Kop stand last week, men in their 20s in identikit uniforms of white trainers, jeans and black hooded jackets which helped partially obscure their faces. Carrying belts and even a hammer, rather than going for the older Liverpool hooligans who were drinking in pubs nearby, they attacked ordinary fans.
One of those, Irishman Sean Cox, lies in a critical condition in hospital, with the clubs and police on a high alert ahead of Wednesday’s game in Italy.
Reports from the Roman police that Liverpool are taking 1,000 hooligans from the 5,000 travelling to Rome are inaccurate. They claim reliable intelligence, yet Liverpool, like United, no longer have an active hooligan mob.
Effective policing and banning orders which prevent fans from attending games or even travelling to games have taken their toll – the risk of prison is not worth it to many who would be otherwise tempted by the prospect of violence.
The 1984 European Cup final: Roma v Liverpool
Liverpool fans are going for a good time in the hope of seeing their team reach a first European Cup final since 2007. They’ve had a good season and a trip to Rome in the semi-final of the Champions League, with a 5-2 advantage, is enough for them to feel elated, yet they have negative history with Roma from the 1984 European Cup final, when, against the odds, they won the game on penalties in the Italian capital.
Liverpool fans, like those of Middlesbrough, United and Tottenham, have been attacked in Rome before, usually around the bars in the historic centre.
There are Roma hooligans who will not care that they don’t want a fight, and be looking for stragglers or people who’ve found themselves in the wrong place.
There will be some Liverpool fans who, while not hooligans, will not shirk if attacked.
The mood is tense, the focus on what happens off the pitch as much as what happens off it. After the events on Walton Breck Road last Tuesday, the authorities charged with keeping the peace have no excuse not to do so with every means at their disposal.