Gabriel Batistuta scored a lot of goals during his career but non were sweeter for this Lazio hating Roma fan than his swansong in the Derby della Capitale.
The date is 27th October 2002, the occasion my first Rome derby. With Roma the away team, finding a ticket itself was something. That it was sourced by a cute Roman girl who thought I was far more interesting than cute Roman girls usually did added to the occasion.
Roma’s inconsistency that season suggested the scudetto-winning squad of last year was approaching the hill, if not already over it. After a long pursuit, time was finally catching Candela and Cafu while Gabriel Batistuta’s gladiatorial eye for a goal was no longer as sharp as it had been. In reality, the job was already done. Batigol had come to Rome and delivered the title, as promised. But the crowd’s adulation was silenced by the body clock ticking loudly inside his head as daily rumours connected him with a move abroad to start collecting a well-earned pension. More astonishing were rumours that coach Fabio Capello would play the equally ageing Marco Delvecchio alongside Batigol, ahead of Vincenzo Montella and Antonio Cassano, purely on the superstition/evidence that Delvecchio always scored in the derby. With fledgling Lazio coach Roberto Mancini having seen his team steadily improve the omens weren’t good for Roma. The fixture was as unpredictable ever, but this time the eagles were in the ascendancy and the wolves seemed lambs to the slaughter.
Getting into the game was total disorganised chaos. The Stadio Olimpico was already filled beyond the brim. With an hour and half to go we were cutting it fine to get in before kick off, even with a ticket. With both ends in full voice, whistles howled as the respective teams were announced. The curva sud (Roma’s ultras) reserved special attention for Siniša Mihajlović, the ex-Roma player whose arrogant strutting had endeared him to few outside of Lazio circles. Maybe it was the tension or the battles between rival fans in the crowd, but the first half wasn’t pretty. The second couldn’t have contrasted more, as the teams rather than fans traded blows. It was what a derby was all about, what I’d been told it would be and what I’d hoped it might be. A return to the calcio all’Italiano (Italian style), as it used to be and is no more.
The curva shook and Bati lay prostrate on the running track below, awaiting a ritual burial beneath his teammates.
Mihajlović terrorised Roma with four consecutive, vicious, in swinging corners, to which Roma fans responded with a barrage of bottles and abuse. A close friend of Arkan, the wanted Serbian war criminal at the time, Mihajlović and his family were barracked as ‘gypsies’. Politically correct is wasn’t. My sympathies went out to any ethnic Roma fan present who would have had good reason to take offence at the unpleasant association. Lazio took the lead. Cue firecrackers, flares and a smoky sea of blue and white rolling and pitching in the ecstasy of the moment. And it was just that. A moment. Six minutes later Vincenzo Montella forced a save at full stretch from portly Peruzzi. Unbelievably, following up there was the lumbering Derby della Capitale deity Marco Delvecchio. He sniffs out goals against Lazio like Berlusconi sniffs out pretty girls in cocktail dresses.
Roma were rampant and minutes later the ageing cock of the roost Batistuta found the legs of a spring chicken to burst through the Lazio defence. Peruzzi used his bulk to block him, Bati-gol shimmied then stumbled, and somebody hit the game’s super slow-mo button…with the goal at his mercy and the lead begging to be taken Bati was bloody stumbling, the few remaining sands of time streaming from the hour glass of his career as he tried to stay upright. Normal speed resumed, the ball thumped into the back of the net and all hell broke lose. The curva shook and Bati lay prostrate on the running track below, awaiting a ritual burial beneath his teammates.
Nothing of true beauty makes complete sense in any immediate context of history but, strangely, Lazio’s equaliser made Batistuta’s last Roman hurrah all the more memorable. Seeking the knockout blow, the two prize fighters slugged it out to the death and, rest assured, if there was an execution to be done Mihajlović would be volunteering at the front of the queue. Four minutes from time he stepped up to take a penalty that could have won Lazio the match and five months boasting rights in the capital. Having rashly publicised his T-shirt prepared for an expected goal, Antonioli’s wonderful save was celebrated as furiously as Sinisa’s subsequent boot into the advertising hoardings.
75,000 left the Olimpico happy-sad, to quote Tim Buckley, but, as the Corriere dello Sport confirmed, it had been one of the best derbies in memory. A glorious miss by Mihajlović made Gabriel Batistuta’s finale at the top all the more memorable. It was downhill from there. Within a year he was in Qatar. Batigol was Bati-gone, but not forgotten.
'Sport Italia' by Simon Martin, published in July 2011 by IB Tauris, narrates the history of modern Italy through the national passion of sport.
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