Football: A test of nerve for Lazio and Paolo the barman

Letter From... Rome
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IT WILL be a tough Monday for my favourite barman, a melancholy moustached chap called Paolo who treats cappuccino-making as an art. He's the only Lazio supporter in a cove of AS Roma fans and at the start of the week is subject to a barrage of verbal jibes over his team's performance.

In recent weeks, though, his fellow barmen have been scraping the barrel for jokes and the imperceptible curl of Paolo's lips showed that the balance of power was subtly altering. But for Paolo, like tens of thousands of others who back the biancoazzurri (white and blues), Lazio's loss to Juventus on Saturday was an especially bitter blow.

Following the mortifying loss to arch rivals Roma in the local derby the previous weekend, the defeat by Juventus further eroded Lazio's lead at the top of Serie A and their chances, after a quarter of a century, of winning the championship. Lazio have always been very much the second team of the Italian capital and the title this year would be a handsome reward for the fans' loyalty and patience.

Traditionally there are three stereotype versions of the Lazio fan, the pariolino, the borgataro and the burrino. The pariolino, from the moneyed northern Rome suburb of Parioli, may not have a job as such, but family money means he wears designer clothes and drives a late-reg car.

The borgataro hails from the borgata, the dodgy outer suburbs. He's tougher, either hard-working or aggressively unemployed, and may well have his head shaven.

The burrino, which loosely translates as hay-seed, is from outside Rome, often the castle-clad hills south of the capital, or smaller provincial towns in the Lazio region. He comes close to outdated foreign stereotypes of the Italian man, likes to show off his girlfriend and his muscles, and usually sports a few gold chains.

Beyond the cliches there are thousands of middle class Mr Normals (including my hairdresser, newsagent and doctor), and a growing number of women who actively follow the team.

By contrast the fans of AS Roma, who are much more numerous, are traditionally divided between gritty working-class Romans, who speak in dialect or with a strong local inflexion, and the bourgeoisie. Roma supporters are generally regarded as more fanatical, though there are plenty of dedicated Lazio fans as well. Even though the club has moved into a new training centre about an hour north of Rome, fans still turn up to watch from a nearby hillock or wait patiently outside the iron gates for a photo or an autograph.

Rivalry between the two Rome clubs is fierce. One young woman from a noble Roman family, going against family tradition by supporting Lazio, told me she would rather they had won the derby than the championship.

Lazio have always been considered right-wing and, for those who remember fascism, the eagle on the club's logo is disconcerting. But old political labels are becoming redundant. Rome's handsome left-wing mayor, Francesco Rutelli, supports Lazio and within AS Roma fans, traditionally left-wing, there is a right-wing faction with a taste for swastikas.

Whether Lazio win the title or not, the fact that they are leading the championship at this stage of the season is the result of a determined push for success that began at the start of the 1990s.

While his contribution on the field may have been limited by injury, Paul Gascoigne is still remembered with fondness; his clowning and his spontaneity and the media attention he demanded made Lazio fans feel their loyal support was worth it. Just the other day a taxi driver, on hearing me speak in English, asked for an update on how Gazza was doing.

But the real catalyst was the arrival of the club president, Sergio Cragnotti. His Cirio foods conglomerate is one of the largest in Italy and Cragnotti thinks big.

For the first time Lazio have a club president with top managerial skills, money and attitude. His predecessors were what one sporting journalist dismissed as "presidentini" - little presidents.

Cragnotti has not been afraid to pay for talent. The purchase last year of two world-class strikers, Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas, capped a series of purchases that have paid off.

The man that Cragnotti entrusted with bringing his biggest dream to reality, the coach Sven Goran Eriksson, has in his quiet unflappable way moulded a credible team.

Now all that Lazio have to do is hold their nerve. Until the defeat by Roma, Eriksson's team had gone 17 matches without defeat and the club's supporters were already savouring an historic victory.

They still head the table, but their lead has been eroded and Eriksson will need to restore the team's self-confidence. He was doing his best after Saturday's setback, claiming that luck had not been on Lazio's side. "After the derby I was very worried," he said. "But today, we were only beaten by bad luck."

Frances Kennedy