The funeral of Gabriele Sandri was held today at noon in the parish church where he received his Confirmation, not so many years ago. The church in Piazza Balduina was close to both the family home and the shop which he managed on his parents' behalf. I decided to go. Partly to pay my respects, partly because this whole sad business has left me genuinely upset in many ways. And partly, I suppose, from curiosity.
I caught the 913 bus from the Metro stop at via Lepanto. A chap in his 40s with smart shoes and a tightly furled umbrella got on before me, consulting a small map printed off the internet. I glimpsed it over his shoulder: it showed the route to the church. I hadn't bothered to bring a map before, though I'd never been to this corner of north-western Rome before. I had a feeling that it wouldn't be too hard to find the way.
Already the bus was quite full. Some half a dozen teenagers in Roma caps and scarves were at the back, laughing and joking. Two petite blonde girls, around 20, stood in silence, wearing black bomber jackets with Lazio's sky blue, white and royal blue tricolor on the sleeve and "Irriducibili" embroidered on the front. At each bus stop, more and more people boarded the bus wearing Lazio scarves or else sporting a shaved head and boots look which left little doubt as to their destination. An elderly chap asked one group if they had known Gabriele personally. No, though they knew people who did, came the reply. (As do I, as it happens). A general discussion ensued. The elderly chap said that some things never changed. A chic-looking woman in her 30s with stripy tights said it went to show how you could never trust the police.
We got off the bus and turned into the square in front of the church. It had already begun to drizzle. It was about 11.40am and the place was packed. The steps up to the church were blocked with people, and on all four sides of the piazza crowds were gathering. The majority were young and male, but by no means all. Newspaper estimates suggest that well over 5,000 people were there, maybe more.
Ultras groups from all over the country were represented. I saw groups from Juventus, Taranto, Avellino, Milan, Varese, Genoa, Cremonese and Livorno, as well as scarves I didn't recognise. I made my way over to the railings where close to a huge striscione calling for GIUSTIZIA PER GABRIELE flowers and scarves were piled up. Along with dozens of Lazio scarves and almost as many from Roma were tokens from Udinese, Palermo, Messina, many others. Enormous floral wreaths were sent not only by many of Gabriele's personal friends, but by Antonello Venditti, the celebrated Roma-supporting crooner and creator of Roma's club songs and by ultras groups, from Napoli, Sampdoria, Torino, Milan (the Fossa dei Leoni, dissolved 2 years ago, still sent an imposing mass of scarlet and black blooms).
Meanwhile inside the church - already overflowing with people over an hour before the service began - as well as government representatives and Walter Veltroni were Luciano Spalletti and Francesco Totti (crying, unsurprisingly, as he embraced Sandri's mother) and the whole first, reserve and youth teams of Lazio, along with Delio Rossi.
Those of us stood down in the square could not, of course, see or hear what was going on. The crowd was entirely silent, breaking occasionally into applause for the arrival of the Lazio team and then the family. I found myself standing by the railings in front of the church, next to the capi of the Irriducibili. One of them had ACAB (all cops are bastards) tattooed in kitsch curly letters down the right hand side of his neck, and I moved away a bit. It began to rain a bit harder, and the applause died off as the last mourners entered the church. We stood in silence. A few people here and there were moving through the crowd, seeking out friends. In front of me stood a red-haired woman in her 50s, alone, wearing a lazio scarf over her white cagoul and twisting a handkerchief in her hands.
People behind me spoke with strange, non-Roman accents in hushed voices. The heads of the Banda Noantri arrived and after some quiet discussion with the Irriducibili took advantage of a lull in the rain to put up their huge black plastic standard. Their main capo was prolifically tattooed with crosses, fascist and Lazio symbols. The hour wore on, and more and more people arrived. I tried not to think about the fact that my coat was going to be ruined by the rain (black velvet does not a waterproof garment make) since it seemed a disrespectful and irrelevant thought.
Just after 13h renewed applause tells us that the service is over, and shortly thereafter the coffin emerges from the church. The massed ranks of ultras - black bomber jackets, baseball caps and sunglasses all round - break out into a chant of "Gabriele uno di noi" (one of us). Then a group start singing a tune I don't recognise - la la la, they're clearly doing the instrumental introduction - and it takes me a moment to realise that it is Vola Lazio Vola, their club song. (I've only ever heard it before from inside the Curva Sud, drowned out by the giallorossi around me).
The Lazio fans across the piazza begin to sing, loudly, and the woman in front of me with the ruined handkerchief starts to sing in a wavering voice, and it suddenly comes on to rain very hard. And everyone is holding their scarves over their heads and I find my eyes begin to water and the woman in front of me breaks down sobbing, and the chorus "Lazio sul prato verde vola, Lazio tu non sarai mai sola, Vola un'aquila nel cielo, piu in alto sempre volerà" seems to have been written with a funeral in mind. And I am glad I had the forethought to bring some tissues with me.
After the singing, there are a few more choruses of "Gabriele sempre con noi" and then one or two voices try to start up an anti-police chant. But it lasts only seconds before being hushed and quietly booed, if such a thing is possible, and then someone launches into the national anthem. The Irriducibili and the Banda Noantri next to me all make the Roman salute throughout, predictably, but that's that. No political sloganeering at least.
And then gradually people start to file away, through what is now a downpour. The Lazio players pass in front of me to climb onto their coaches, and then sit in the heavy traffic waiting to move away. They wipe away the condensation on the windows, and stare out at us. Mudingayi (I think) practically presses his face up against the glass. We stare back. A small boy waves and claps. The crowds disperse almost as silently as they came, for the most part. But the group of Lazio ultras, a couple of hundred strong, set off towards the Olimpico. Up to a thousand ultras, apparently, gathered below the Curva Nord there to chant Lazio songs, before dispersing peacefully.
The mentalità ultra is many things, some good, some bad. But one of them is this. It is those ultras who travelled down from Milan, from Turin, from Udine; or up from Naples, Taranto, Palermo; who spent hours of their own time and who knows how much of their own money, to come on a Wednesday afternoon in November, to stand in the pouring rain in silence for nearly two hours, to pay their respects to a man they never knew. And after standing in the rain, and applauding the family and mourners, and chanting the name of a man they'd not even heard of this time last week, they departed peaceably. Now, you might find that barking mad. But it's hard to see that you could find it objectionable or violent.
And here's something I never thought I'd do: