ROME—I went to the stadium anyway.

My own Pearl Harbor moment came hours before the start of the Roma-Real Madrid match. I was walking through the Jewish Ghetto of Rome on Tuesday, getting pumped up to watch the biggest soccer game of my life, when I saw a crowd gathered outside a small eatery.

I figured the food there must be worth waiting for. But this wasn’t about better pizza. I got to the window in time to watch one of the World Trade Center towers collapse on a TV that hung from the ceiling of the restaurant.

The people watching with me, all apparently Romans, acted as I have recently when I’ve seen TV images of a Palestinian tyke carved up by machine guns, or read about an Israeli student crucified by a nail bomb. After a shudder and a sigh and a shrug, they went about their business.

And on this day, soccer was high on many Romans’ to-do list. And when in Rome…

European soccer was a late-in-life discovery for me, but I’ve used recent vacations trying to make up for lost time. I’ve seen many of the most moneyed, revered clubs in the world in the past few years: Juventus of Turin, AS Monaco, Inter Milan, the Glasgow Rangers, and SS Lazio of Rome.

This trip, with the tolerance of my wife, I had built around a chance to see Lazio’s crosstown rival, AS Roma, for the first time. Roma would be hosting Spanish powerhouse Real in the opening round of the Champions League, the biggest annual club tournament in the world, in front of a sold-out crowd of about 80,000 at Stadio Olimpico.

Soccer has long been much more than a game in many parts of the globe. El Salvador and Honduras, whose fans showed their colors at RFK Stadium two weeks ago, went to war after a World Cup qualifying match turned ugly in 1969. And so it is in Rome’s capital, as is made plain by the Lazio-Roma rivalry. Over the last two seasons, as each squad has won Il Scudetto, the national championship, the feud has reached fever pitch.

Lazio is, very likely, the most detested team in all of Europe. Not for its players—who have included national and international heroes such as Veron, Nedved, Crespo, Simeone, and Salas. Or for its style of play, which is fluid, attack-oriented and, even to a soccer layman such as me, absolutely thrilling to behold.

But its fans, many of whom claim membership in Italy’s fascist party and hail from all across the country, are utterly loathsome. At home games, they have hissed whenever African players touched the ball, chanted anti-Semitic slogans, and, hard as it is to believe, even carried banners that featured swastikas and expressed pro-Auschwitz leanings. The league put in special rules, including banning signs at all games and allowing referees to award forfeits if they hear racist chants from the stands, just to tame Lazio.

Things were so bad that Sergio Cragnotti, the Lazio president, boycotted his own team’s home games during the 1999-2000 season, while his side was on its way to capturing only the second title in its 100-year existence. Cragnotti tried to apologize to the world for his fans’ behavior by sponsoring an African squad and inviting an Israeli team to Rome earlier this month for the Shalom Cup, a mini-tournament.

The soccer gods dealt Lazio fans the most severe punishment imaginable last year, however, by allowing Roma to win Il Scudetto. Roma, like Lazio, is loaded with world-class players, including Batistuta, Totti, and the peerless Brazilian, Cafu, and it too favors an offense-minded game. But its fans have long been the good cops to Lazio’s bad. Many of its boosters count themselves among Rome’s political left, and its president, Francisco Sensi, has been among the harshest critics of soccer’s right-wing element. The Jewish Ghetto is viewed as a Roma stronghold, and placards denoting the recent Italian championship, which earned the team its invitation to the 2001-2002 Champions League tournament, are all over the neighborhood.

And as bad as the news coming from my part of the globe was, Roma fans weren’t going to miss Tuesday’s match with Real. So neither did I. A few minutes before game time, the public address announcer at Stadio Olimpico read a statement expressing sadness about the “tragici avvenimenti negli Stati Uniti del pomeriggio” —”the tragic events in the United States this afternoon.” The words incited an odd, incredibly uniform round of applause.

Within 30 seconds, the polite clapping stopped and the shouting for the home team started. The Roma fans were still shouting in the second half, when I realized I had gone to the game wearing very recognizably American clothing—a Guided By Voices T-shirt and a “West Wing” ball cap. But that was OK. I wanted people to know I was an American on Tuesday.

Play was still going on when I left the stadium. —Dave McKenna