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ROME – Perhaps more than any city on earth, Rome specializes in carefully choreographed large-scale gatherings of humanity, designed to convey the impression of popular support for something, whether it be a papal initiative (a canonization ceremony, perhaps), a political rally, or events in the worlds of fashion and entertainment.
There’s an entire industry in the city of Rome dedicated to creating crowds and putting on a good show, thereby honoring the fine Italian art of the bella figura.
That background makes what happened in Rome Wednesday and Thursday especially remarkable, as tens of thousands of people turned out spontaneously in various venues across town, all night and into the day, to celebrate a soccer championship. There was no organizing committee, no official theme, no script, just raw, unadulterated exuberance, which couldn’t have been suppressed even if someone had tried.
On Wednesday night in Tirana, Albania, our local soccer club Roma beat the Dutch squad Feyenoord 1-0, thereby claiming the inaugural trophy in the brand-new Conference League. It was Roma’s first international championship since 1961, meaning a solid majority of Roma fans weren’t even alive the last time the giallorossi (the “yellow-reds,” referring to the team colors) hoisted such a trophy.
Thousands of Roma fans made the trek to Albania’s capital city – including, by the way, our next-door neighbor, a real estate agent who can date the birth of his children by which team Roma was playing that week. More than 50,000 fans who couldn’t get to Tirana bought tickets to watch the game on mega-screens at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, and thousands showed up at Fiumicino airport to welcome the team back at 4 a.m. A massive crowd is expected today at the Circo Massimo to fete the conquering heroes.
Thousands more fans spent the night cruising around town, honking horns, waving Roma flags and singing anthems identified with the team, especially Roma Roma Roma by locally born pop icon Antonello Venditti, which has been sung at the beginning of Roma games since 1974. (One famous line goes, “Beautiful Roma, Roma, I painted you myself/yellow like the sun, and red like my own heart.”)
As journalist Fabrizio Roncone put it, much of the joy had to do with the memory of who’s not around anymore to share it since the last time Roma won a similar trophy – the grandma who would chat about last night’s game from the window of her apartment, the mom who taught school near Roma’s former stadium in the Testaccio neighborhood, and the greats of Roma history who would also be in tears if they could be on hand to witness it all.
In a sense, this outpouring of emotion is a bit silly – “excessive, even psychedelic,” as one local commentator put it. Bear in mind that Roma actually had a fairly mediocre season, finishing in sixth place in the Italian competition, which was one point behind the hated crosstown rival squad Lazio. Bear in mind, too, that the Conference League is a new tourney invented largely to give so-so teams in Europe, the ones who couldn’t qualify for the higher competitions, something to play for, not to mention creating an extra revenue stream for European soccer.
In all honesty, last night’s game wasn’t all that compelling either. Roma’s lone goal was impressive, but beyond that it was a largely defensive affair with neither side generating many meaningful chances.
Still, when you haven’t won the Italian cup in more than twenty years, when you have to go back to the pre-Vatican II era to find the last international championship, and when your memories of the team are far more about heartbreak than happiness – the 1984 Champions League final, for instance, when Roma lost to Liverpool in a shootout – then, perhaps, any excuse to celebrate will do.
Of course, as fans of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs in the United States will tell you, pain often has the paradoxical effect of generating deeper passion. Experience suggests that success tastes sweeter when preceded by suffering, and the longer that suffering runs, the greater the catharsis when a breakthrough finally happens.
In truth, sports fans and Catholics (many of whom are, of course, the same people, myself included) tend to have one thing in common: The institutions to which we’re attached, whether a team or a church, can break our hearts year after year, they can turn in mediocre performances and offer up stars who turn out to have feet of clay, they can waste both our money and our time, and we’ll grumble, but despite it all, something keeps calling us back. Something about who we are and our shared history – maybe, in the end, it’s just the triumph of hope over experience – but something keeps us, deep down, longing for a reason to celebrate.
Give a fan, or a Catholic, something to cheer for, and in a heartbeat all that pain and disappointment will be forgotten, and the joy that follows will be a wonder to behold.
That’s the story of the city of Rome today, where, for one tantalizing moment, the coronavirus and the war in Ukraine and economic malaise are all on the sidelines, and instead the streets are alive with people of all ages and social classes spontaneously hugging each other, exchanging high-fives and crying tears of happiness.
Such scenes invite a question church leaders might profitably ask themselves, ahead of what promises to be a long summer full of major papal extravaganzas both at home and on the road: Beyond all the pomp and circumstance, beyond the stage-managed displays and the official rhetoric, what can we give Catholics, right now, to cheer for?
As the lesson of Roma this week proves, it doesn’t have to be much. One hopes that even in the Vatican, where the sounds of honking cars and reveling fans certainly penetrated the usual quiet last night, they were paying attention.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr