Type “Paolo Negro” into the search bar on Facebook and you’ll discover the page Autogol di Paolo Negro (Paolo Negro’s own goal). The profile picture is a mocked up image of Negro wearing a Diadora-branded Roma shirt, the one they used at the turn of the millennium, with the orange collar and the stylized wolf profile on both sleeves.
The last post on the page dates back to 16 April 2014, the day Negro celebrates his birthday. It reads: “Buon compleanno bomber” (“happy birthday, goalscorer”). Apart from this, there is nothing more than a couple of posts from 2009 reminding the three thousand followers that the “past is unforgettable”, as well as some photos of the scoreboard after the 2013 Coppa Italia final, which were uploaded by Lazio fans as a riposte to Roma fans, who continue to mock them about Negro’s own goal.
This rivalry pervades every wrinkle of Rome’s social fabric. It is lived by the inhabitants of the city all year long – a rivalry comprised of jokes, mockery, murals, songs and much more. Poor Paolo Negro became one of the favorite subjects of this dialectic battle. His status as satirical icon among Roma supporters is still strong today. And yet, before this infamy, he was just one of the many footballers who arrived in the capital from afar.
Negro was born 44 years ago, in Arzignano, a town near Vicenza in northern Italy. He started playing as a forward, but his feet were what they were, and his first coach at Brescia decided to turn him into a defender. He moved to Bologna in 1990, only to return to Brescia two years later. In the summer of 1993, when Lazio decided to buy him, Negro was a solid defender. He was physically explosive, good in the air and already had 10 caps for the Italy under-21 team. As everyone said at the time, it was a good deal for all involved.
His years at Lazio went as fast as the wind. He was there when they won the Scudetto and Coppa Italia in the 1999-2000 season, and he was there when they lifted the 1999 Uefa Super Cup. Negro played in one of the strongest Lazio sides of all time, alongside legends such as Juan Sebastián Verón, Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved, Dejan Stankovic and Roberto Mancini.
Being in the squad from a young age, Negro’s love for the shirt was genuine, despite not being a son of Rome. He was the kind of footballer every great team cannot do without: a utility player, an obedient and functional cog in the machine. He was not a historymaker, or the kind of player who would appear on the Corriere dello Sport’s front page on a Monday morning, and he had never thought that, on a cold December evening, he would secure his place in the hall of derby heroes. Although, unfortunately for Negro, he did not enter through the main door, but instead found himself pushed in through the side entrance.
At the end of September 2000, the euphoria surrounding their second ever Scudetto had mostly dissipated and Lazio were ready to face another tough campaign. The season started unusually late due to Euro 2000, World Cup qualification rounds and the Sydney Olympic Games. But right from the start, it was clear that Lazio’s main opponents were inside the city walls. With the purchases of Emerson, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Batistuta, Roma were among the teams to beat.
The first turning point of the season came on 17 December in the Derby della Capitale. Roma were first in the table and Lazio were fourth; with Juventus and Atalanta between them. The Stadio Olimpico was a sell-out, with just over 80, 000 spectators brimming with anticipation. But it soon became clear that this would not be a classic. There was a palpable tension in the air and though the players demonstrated plenty of physical exuberance, little happened of note – except for Cafu’s famous series of sombreros over Nedvěd’s head.
But on 70 minutes, the almost bored public were suddenly shaken from their numbness. Cafu crossed the ball into the box from the right flank for Cristiano Zanetti to head toward goal. Lazio goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi parried the ball into the path of Nesta, who instinctively tried to sweep it away with his right foot. Unfortunately for him and his teammate, he directed the ball towards Negro instead, who was standing less than a meter away from Nesta.
In that very instant, time stopped. A blink of an eye seemed to last 10 minutes as Negro realized he was a few nanoseconds away from becoming a legendary figure. The worst kind of legendary figure. When time started ticking again, it was already too late. The poor defender could do nothing but feel the ball hitting his body and then entering the unprotected net, which was directly in front of him. The moment sparked jubilance among Roma supporters.
As they started to celebrate uncontrollably, the whole world seemed to be falling in on Negro: he was now a symbol of Giallorossi joy. At that point, he was already aware that he would remain so for many years to come, probably for his entire life.
In the 20 minutes remaining, Lazio tried everything to spare their teammate the unbearable dishonor of having granted their city rivals victory in a crucial derby. But the result remained until the final whistle, which signaled an opening of the gates of hell for Paolo Negro.
From that day on, nothing was the same in Rome. That surname is etched into the memory of every Romanista. It is one of the most common reference points when they write banners or sing stadium chants, and every year the anniversary of that derby is celebrated with new and more hilarious slogans, not to mention all the wishes Negro keeps on receiving from Roma supporters every time it’s his birthday. He is genuinely lauded as though he were a player who scored a hat-trick in the derby. Perhaps more.
Negro moved to Siena in 2005 and retired in 2007. After three years out of the game, he changed his mind and played for one year at Cerveteri, in the seventh tier of the Italian football system, before starting his coaching career. He will never dissociate his name from that episode, not in a million years. Romanisti will never cease to find banners such as “Nesta, mark Negro closely!” funny, nor will they stop calling Negro “one of us” and thanking him for that unexpected gift.
This is the Derby della Capitale: the match every true Roman is waiting for, the moment when the whole city stops. This game can turn mortals into immortals – even if some are turned against their will.