The rumour spread swiftly. By half-time it had reached enough people for a chant to start: "Murderers," cried supporters, and the word spread like contagion, across both ends of Rome's Stadio Olimpico, the sky-blue and the red-and-orange. The accusation was directed at the riot police around the pitch.
Shortly after half-time, a small group of fans then hurdled the small wall separating the seats from the playing area. None of the police prevented these intruders, the so-called capo-tifosi, from walking briskly on to the pitch to talk to Roma captain Francesco Totti. Even five years later, the precise details of the exchange between the captain and the ultras are a little mysterious. But they had a dramatic outcome.
Totti immediately spoke to his head coach, Fabio Capello, and related to him that the fans had told Totti a child had died outside the stadium, run over by police, and that he, Totti, had to stop the Rome derby. Totti told Capello: "If we carry on, they'll kill us." Thus was one of the more famous Rome derbies of the 21st century, the Roma-Lazio meeting of March 2004, abandoned after 47 minutes, because the fans spoke to the team's captains about a rumour that was utterly untrue. No child had been hit by a police car, although in fighting outside the stadium, 153 police and 21 fans were later injured. Among those arrested were the capo-tifosi who approached Totti. The Rome chief of police, Achille Serra, later talked of a planned conspiracy, and the decision to abandon the game was widely condemned by police and the government.
Each season since, Totti has been reminded of the bizarre events of that evening and what it said not just about the unruliness of ultras around these fixtures, the first of which this season takes place today, but about the strange bond that exists between Roma fans and their iconic captain, Totti. It was to him the conspirators directed themselves that night, in him they put the authority to call off a game. It was Totti who recognised the grave threat in their tone. He may be a superstar, but something in Totti remains intimately familiar to hundreds of thousands of Romans.
Totti, 33, is part of a rarer and rarer breed: a one-club loyalist, more than half of whose life has now been spent in the first-team squad of his hometown club. He is what Paolo Maldini was to Milan, Raul is to Real Madrid, what Steven Gerrard may become to Liverpool. But Totti is more than all these in that, by most reckoning, Roma have never had a better footballer than him. "He is unique," said Claudio Ranieri, the latest of the 13 coaches in charge of Roma in the 16 years since Totti made his senior debut for the club. "I call him our magic box, and I would be reluctant to compare him to any other players I have worked with, and I have worked with many champions."
Totti's statistics tell a little of the story. In 428 games for Roma, he has 187 goals. For a natural trequartista, not a centre- forward, that is remarkable. For a No 9, it would be astonishing given the standards of Serie A through his career. "He is fantastic and to this club, he is as important as the Coliseum is to Rome", added his coach. Ranieri, a Roman, appreciates that especially, and though the totem of the playing staff and the head coach have had their differences of opinion, they speak the same language- quite literally, as Totti joked recently. "Because Ranieri is a Roman, we understand the same insults," he said.
There will be a few those echoing from the stands at the Olimpico tonight. "Lazio are angry," warned Ranieri of opponents looking for a first win in 11 matches. Lazio will be worried, too, and cursing their timing. Totti was out nursing his troublesome knee for a month until the last week of November. He celebrated his comeback with a hat-trick that took him to the top of the goalscoring charts. He added another goal to his tally in the Europa League in midweek.
Totti also discovered, to his mild alarm, that his website had been infiltrated by hackers last Wednesday. The educated guess is Lazio fans were involved. At least in cyberspace the pitch invasions are not so vividly frightening as they were the night the derby just stopped. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Roma v Lazio, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1