They eat football, sleep football, and buy their gear at Curva. Italian football fans of all nationalities are flocking to a humble shop in Streatham. Chris Maume meets its passionate proprietors
IT'S ALL too easy to say that in Italy, football is a religion. To misappropriate a famous line, it's more important than that. I remember the hilarity of the Romans I was staying with when Pope Paul died: "Eh! Il Papa! Al Capone!" - the Pope is no better than a gangster, they mocked. The real acts of Sunday worship take place in the nation's football stadia, and Curva, tucked away in a Streatham mews, is a small but perfectly formed outpost of this holy Roman empire, a shrine for connoisseurs of Italian football style, with Ciro Iacomino and Marco Morrone the missionaries.

The name Curva comes from the area at either end of Italian grounds, equivalent to the English Kop, where diehard fans camp out, and the business began last summer as an extension of the pair's devotion. "We couldn't find anything we wanted over here," Iacomino, a Napoli fan, says. "With all the big retailers, it had all got a bit supermarket. And we just love Italian football, so we thought it was the ideal thing to have - a small, very specialised shop that dealt in everything to do with Italian football." They started up by their own financial devices - "our bank manager loves us" - and are happy for the company's name to spread by word of mouth. The Cable and Wireless ad campaign that began last Monday uses gear supplied by the boys.

In the shop is a dazzling array of shirts, tracksuits, coats, exquisite Apta boots, even the new Panini stickers catalogue - "the only one in the country," Iacomino says. The selling point is singularity. "We've got Juventus merchandise that nobody else has over here, for example." And the spirit spreads, partly by dint of their fanzine, UltraLondra (Ultras are an Italian club's most fanatical supporters): "Over the next year or so we want to pull in all the various fan clubs, so we have a network."

The exclusivity angle is a strong selling point, and Iacomino sees other possibilities: "There could be a Brazilian football shop, or a German shop," he muses. "The idea is to have a shop dealing in something very specific, so that if you want a Brazilian shirt, that's where you'd go for it - you wouldn't try and look for it in the Sainsbury's of sportswear.

"It's been a process of education," he says of the last year. "People come to us because they know they can get something there's only three of in the country, like Napoli's third strip, for example." And, admirably, they don't want to expand. "We want to stay as we are, and just expand the range. We want to stay very private. It's all about the real fan, who might want a book about Juventus in the Thirties, say." But word gets around. "You get a fan in here and they're hooked."

Iacomino is second-generation Italian. His parents come from near Naples, but he was born and bred over here - "south London all the way." After school came art studies at Chelsea and Middlesex. "I hated college," he says. "They were too narrow-minded." While Morrone was learning his trade as a mechanic, Iacomino spent a few years working with children in various capacities, then resumed painting, working within the Light And Space conceptualist tradition executed most notably by James Turrell and Robert Irwin. "I look at making places more interesting to be in," he says. That remains his vocation: "I see myself as a painter. I do this" - he looks round at the racks of shirts and shelf of boots and trainers - "because I love football."

He has a complex relationship with his Italian genes: "I find that, as I'm getting older, I'm getting more and more Italian, which is frightening." It's to do with rebellion, he says, "and then coming back and becoming your father." He loves his trips to Italy, but they are not without problems: "When you go back, it's `Oh, you're not married?' It doesn't ever change."

The men of Curva are not merely armchair apostles, and they run a Sunday team. "Marco's the captain," Iacomino says. "We have our regular Sunday morning arguments." They call themselves Ital FC, after the fashion house, and play in the Southern Area Sunday League. "We were going to join the Anglo-Italian League," Iacomino, "but you have to field seven Italian players, and ironically we couldn't. But we've played a couple of friendlies with them, and they just argue. What's the point of that?" Every Sunday is a nod to their collective past. "Most of our players are old schoolmates. Although we've taken different paths, we meet up on a Sunday morning and for an hour and a half we're what we were 15 years ago."

Off the pitch, Iacomino has carved out a nice number for himself, making two or three shopping raids a year to Italy to accumulate stock. "I'm off in April to a wedding, which is perfect," he says. "Take in a game as well. Go to the wedding on Saturday, the game on Sunday and shopping for the rest of the week. I mean, it's heaven."

Curva: 3A Gleneagles Mews, London SW16. Telephone: 0181 769 0693