by Anthony Lopopolo at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome
The stewards could not do anything. These fans were dashing on to the field in hundreds. There were too many. Even little kids jumped over the barriers. They broke down the ads surrounding the pitch. Napoli beat Fiorentina 3-1. They had won the Coppa Italia for the second time in three years. A native son, Lorenzo Insigne, of Naples, scored two of the three goals.
But the players saw the fans coming, and they ran for their own safety, down the tunnel and out of sight. The supporters mobbed poor Jose Callejon before he had a chance to bolt. He looked shellshocked as the fans released him from their grips. They got to Pepe Reina, too, one fan clinging to his legs, almost begging for him to stay.
The Napoli team could not even celebrate. The fans took over the field, claimed the stadium as their own. Some of them ran to the north side, taunting the Fiorentina fans in the stands. Some of them rushed to a camera when it turned on. Then the announcer told them to go back. They scurried away and let their team lift the trophy. The fireworks went off outside. The Stadio Olimpico was a place of celebration, but it was a place of mass confusion and desperation hours before.
The game was delayed almost an hour after a shooting took place a few kilometres away from the stadium. There were various skirmishes between rival fans before the game, even outside the Eternal City and on the way to Rome, some throwing firecrackers at each other in the streets, according to the Guardian.
The police looked ready for something bad to happen.
There were lines of swat teams hours before kick-off. They closed off streets around the stadium. Armoured vehicles cut off the main arteries of Stadio Olimpico. The carabinieri directed fans of Napoli and Fiorentina to either side. The two factions would not mingle. They checked tickets well before the gates. It was intimidating but thorough.
That the game happened at all was a contentious decision. First reports circulated of a murder. It was later thought that the incident was unrelated to the match. Even still, a Neapolitan was shot, as were two other Napoli fans, by a Roma ultra with a previous criminal record. As the police confirmed it, the Napoli supporters did not want the game to go on.
It was dangerous to cancel the game with thousands of fans potentially ready to riot. So Marek Hamsik went to negotiate with Thomas De Gennaro, the head of Napoli ultras—also known as Genny ‘a carogna. He is the son of a Camorra member, a group associated with Neapolitan organized crime.
Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis insisted that the decision to play the game was not left to this ultra, but the fact remains that Hamsik had to consult with a select few fans to assure them that no one had died. Only in Italy can the hardcore fans dictate proceedings. It was unedifying.
I can't imagine a powerful ultra group member would be given tacit approval to run the show in those other leagues.— Soccer Translator (@worldfootballcm) May 3, 2014
And even despite their authority, the ultras pelted the stewards nearby with flares. One exploded in front of a firefighter, who was hauled away. The blast was so thunderous it could have knocked anyone off their feet. The man was clearly stunned.
The stewards then lined up, dozens upon dozens in a long row in front of the Curva Nord, where the Napoli fans sat, as if in defiance, and to show that they would not be intimidated. For large parts of the game, the Napoli fans were quiet, almost statuesque, standing so still, a silent protest. A protest against violence. Anybody's violence but their own.
Even the Italian national anthem did not escape. Almost every Napoli fan whistled. It was like a train screeching on a track, only multiplied many times. It was particularly saddening at the final of the Coppa Italia, with the international media at hand and the world watching.
The bartenders, the cab driver, the 20-somethings on the train said the same thing to me.
It is a great shame, not only the spectacle last night, but the social unrest. Italian soccer goes on and on like this, but so does society. The stands are an outlet for frustration for the disenchanted and disillusioned. Italy has all these ruins, the history, Dante, some said to me, but offers nothing now.
"The thing I hate most about Italians is their sense of self-destruction," said De Laurentiis. "This situation could have really exploded."
Tancredi Palmeri was there pitch-side for beIN Sports. He told me the scenes made for the “most disgusting experience I ever had.”
Internet was spotty in the stadium and cell phone reception was almost non-existent. For those inside, it was a struggle to get any concrete news. La Gazzetta dello Sport were reporting something different than Sky. La Repubblica offering something that Corriere dello Sport wasn’t. Even De Laurentiis said that he and prime minister Matteo Renzi struggled for the right information. Details are still emerging, but a Roman ultra has been arrested for attempted murder according to Sky Sports.
Some outlets were reporting a death. The Police denied that and others refused to follow
Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella had his own worries about the future. It’s not only foreign players who may think otherwise to play in Italy, he said. It's that Italians may not even want to stay here.
He was proud of his team, not the situation. And so were the supporters. The Fiorentina fans just wanted to see what they came for. They were waving their flags, purple and red, and chanting loudest. Even when Fiorentina were losing, the fans were chanting like they were winning. And when they lost the game, they held their scarves aloft, in solidarity.
But there was something for Napoli to celebrate at the end of a long night. Even “journalists” were cheering in the press rows. One went screaming down the stairs, arms held high, when Dries Mertens scored the final goal to seal the game. It was after all a triumph; coach Rafa Benitez had delivered a title in his first season in charge.
The fans had already loved Hamsik. He was the one who stayed, while Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani left for Paris Saint-Germain. He is what De Laurentiis called a true Neapolitan.
When Hamsik left the game with an injury, the Neapolitans all stood and roared. It was one of their loudest moments. He had brokered peace with them; he had assured them that the game could go on. That’s why he was asked by the Italian authorities to convene with the head ultra. No one else could do it.