Last May, hours before Serie A's Italian Cup Final, Daniele De Santis, a 48-year-old postal worker and former AS Roma ultra, pulled out a gun and fired shots during violent clashes with Napoli fans just kilometers away from Rome's Olympic Stadium, where later that evening Napoli were set to take on Fiorentina. He shot three people, including Ciro Esposito, a 30-year-old car washer from Naples' notoriously crime-ridden Scampia neighborhood, who died of his injuries some weeks later.
The shooting, and subsequent death, sparked a moral panic that handily filled the gap between the end of the Serie A season and the start of the World Cup, and ramped up tensions in an already fraught rivalry between Roma and Napoli fans, one of the most keenly felt in Italian soccer. In the following months Esposito would be portrayed as a saint, "a good lad, a normal fan never involved in any fighting," as Il Messaggero uncritically reported his mother Antonella Leardi saying. Meanwhile, De Santis would go on to become a sort of bogey-ultra, an unrepentant fascist thug hellbent on extreme violence. "To tell the story of Daniellino […] is to only tell half the story," gushed La Repubblica four days after the shooting. "Before being an ultra, he is a fascist, a committed activist. One of the hard-core, who would go on punitive expeditions."
The investigation into the shooting has been making headlines for months, and with the start of the trial expected to come soon, De Santis, who admits to shooting Esposito, is preparing to argue that the shooting was an act of self-defense. And as the case is already being tried in the media, De Santis decided to tell his is story in an exclusive, macabre interview with a weekly current events magazine called Panorama.
"If I hadn't pulled the trigger," he insists, "I would be dead."
I was at the ground covering the match, and I was expecting an entertaining evening; Napoli and Fiorentina were two expansive, attacking sides. The game was broadcast around the world, and it was supposed to be a showcase for the flagging Italian league. Unfortunately for Serie A's marketing men, the match itself was to be little more than a diverting sideshow—the main event was the shooting. When I came up the press box steps inside the stadium, I saw the usually ferocious Napoli ultras assembled in their section. They were standing in uncharacteristic silence. Their banners had been taken down and no explosives were being set off. Rumors spread that one of the three fans had been killed, but no official news of any deaths had come through. Kick-off was delayed as match organizers argued amongst themselves on the pitch, while an incredulous public howled its disapproval.
When the organizers eventually tried to approach the Napoli fans to tell them that no one had died—yet—they were pelted with a small arsenal of flares and smoke bombs. It wasn't until team captain Marek Hamsik walked over to explain the situation to now infamous ultra leader Gennaro De Tommaso (nickname: Genny the Swine) that things calmed down. The match kicked off 45 minutes late, and Napoli won a spectacular contest 3-1; fans poured onto the pitch after the final whistle, charging over to goad their noticeably passive Tuscan counterparts. A weird night got weirder still when Napoli chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis claimed that he had seen a "great display of civility." Indignant Italian fans bemoaned yet another figura di merda—another embarrassing display.
As the days passed and the flare smoke cleared, a narrative emerged. A small group of Roma ultras led by the now famous De Santis had tried to ambush hated Napoli fans by charging them from the Boreale sports centre, which hosts children's soccer matches and is less than two kilometers from the stadium (and where De Santis lived in a shack), but the assault failed, and a swarm of Napoli fans charged them back. De Santis pulled out his gun and fired, striking Esposito and two others, but he was swamped by livid enemy ultras, beaten badly, stabbed a number of times, and left for dead. De Santis, however, rubbishes this version of events and maintains that he fired his pistol after being attacked. And according to reporters following the investigation, RACIS, the scientific investigative unit of the Carabinieri (Italy's national police force), agree.
"It was like the end of the world out there," De Santis says. "I went to see what was going on, because young kids were playing football at the centre. The only mistake I made was picking up a flare and throwing it at a bus that was blocking the road…"
From there, he claims, at least 30 people came at him. He was clubbed and stabbed, and while trying to close the gate that separated the sports centre from the street, got his leg trapped underneath it, almost ripping the limb from his body. It stayed attached "only thanks to a few shreds of muscle and skin."
"I was convinced that I was living the final moments of my life," he says, so he pulled out his gun.
While De Santis recovered, Esposito's health became headline news, and his mother became a celebrity figure in a ghoulish will-he-die-won't-he-die media frenzy. Photos emerged of De Santis posing in front of neo-fascist flags and posters and begging Francesco Totti to stop the 2004 Rome derby following (false) rumours of a child being killed by a police vehicle, while a smiling Esposito was pictured at the beach with his attractive, bikini-clad girlfriend.
Ever since their gemellaggio (literally "twinning," but meaning friendship) broke down in the late 1980s, the two sets of fans have been deadly rivals: when Napoli delayed Roma's title triumph by a week in 2001, the 10,000 travelling Roma fans went on the rampage. This astonishing video is of Napoli fans arriving late for a match at Roma, after occupying a train to get there. The week after the Cup Final, Roma fans hoisted banners in support of De Santis during their match against Juventus, while 'Ciro Boom!' and 'Free Daniele' appeared on the walls of the capital's apartment buildings. Later in the summer, Roma ultras poured further fuel on the fire with a clumsy press release in which they expressed their refusal "to turn their backs on one of their brothers."
Less than two months after the shooting, on June 25, Esposito died, and his family released a statement in which they called him "a hero of the people." His funeral took place two days later in Scampia, and it was mobbed by Napoli ultras, who carried his soccer scarf-covered coffin and wore caps and t-shirts with the message 'Ciro the Hero.' A local square was named in his honor, while others christened him "The Angel of Scampia." When Roma travelled to Napoli in November, fans displayed banners threatening reprisals: 'Every word in is vain: if the opportunity presents itself, there will be no mercy.'
"They [the media] have put an entire city, including its most dangerous elements, against me," says De Santis, who paints himself as a former Italian karate champion who understands the values of "integrity, self-control, respect for your opponent, and considering the use of weapons as a loss of dignity.
"Those who know me know that I've never used any weapon, let alone a gun, in my life," he says, seemingly forgetting his admitted shooting of Esposito.
Even leaving aside that glaring contradiction, De Santis never explains why he even had a gun at the scene ("that's for him to explain," read a helpful statement from his legal team). You have to think he'll need a better excuse than the one proffered by old acquaintance Mario Corsi, a notorious former far-right terrorist and fellow ex-Roma ultra who is now a local radio personality.
"He had that gun," explains Corsi, "to defend the kids at the sports centre from gypsies."