THE Azzurri will always be Leonardo Aresi's first love in football. Yet it is the blue of Rangers rather than that of the Italian national team that has shaped his life.

The summer of 2006 saw Marcello Lippi's side crowned as World Champions and a generation of supporters adopt new heroes as the names and the games became enshrined in the folklore of a country that had kicked every ball until that final penalty was scored in Berlin.

By that time, Aresi had already become engrossed. Like thousands of his peers in his home city of Rome and across the nation, his introduction came as he watched the action on Sky Sports and immersed himself in a virtual existence by playing the Fifa console games.

Aresi's passion was different, though. His idols were not Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero, it was not the Stadio Olimpico or San Siro that he wished to visit to pay homage to sporting greats.

His love was Rangers. Ibrox captured his imagination, the club stirred his soul, and the bonds formed then have only been strengthened over the last 16 seasons as he has watched from afar and visited when he can.

The team guided by Paul Le Guen was the first that he saw in person as Rangers rewrote the Scottish record books by winning a European tie in Italy. Since then, Aresi - the founder of the maiden Rangers Supporters Club in his homeland - has followed his boyhood club near and far.

"Italian Gers was born in 2008 as a blog," Aresi told Herald and Times Sport. "I was 13 years old, so very young, and I started following Rangers in 2006.

"In that season, some months before the World Cup took place in Germany, my passion for football started. Then Italy won the World Cup and my passion grew.

"I had started following Rangers some months before because Sky Italy used to show the games. I was watching the games and playing Fifa and played as Rangers.

"In October 2006, Livorno played Rangers. My dad used to know the chairman of Livorno so we sat in the main stand and had fabulous tickets. We had the chance to meet some directors and we went to the hospitality at Livorno.

"We met Ian McGuinness, the former medical chief, and Ian Durrant. They were hanging out before the game. At that time my English wasn’t the best.

"My dad used to get in touch with Ian McGuinness and we became very close. He came over to Rome with his family and we became good friends."

Those trips were soon reversed. Four successive summers saw Aresi travel to Glasgow and pull on his boots at the Rangers Soccer School sessions and two journeys were made each season to watch matches at Ibrox.

From the age of 15, he travelled alone. After leaving school, he would head straight to the airport, catch a Ryanair flight and be on his way to cheer on the club that he had taken to his heart.

His love of Rangers has long been shared with close friend and fellow Italian Gers member Francesco Carlesi, a professor and historian. Their knowledge of Rangers - helped by repeatedly playing a DVD quiz about the club more than a decade ago - is as deep as their love for the Light Blues.

This weekend, they will share that affection with others as natives, expats and visitors gather in Soliera Apuana, in the province of Massa-Carrara, to celebrate 150 years of the club and watch Giovanni van Bronckhorst's side in action against Ross County.

"It is the first Rangers festival in Italy," Aresi said. "It is a goal for us. We wanted to organise a meeting for Italian Rangers fans.

"Throughout the years, I have got the chance to know many people from Italy who love Rangers in some way.

"I started following Rangers because of the jersey. I love the blue colour so it was always Rangers for me.

"I got the chance to meet a lot of people who follow Rangers. I have made many friends in Scotland.

"For me it is Rangers first and foremost and that is the same for Cesco and other Italian Gers. People here support their Italian team and have soft spots for foreign teams and so many people like Rangers."

After meeting for a social event on Friday evening, supporters will eat and drink either side of the 90 minutes of Premiership action. On Saturday night, an Oasis tribute band will entertain the group of more than 50 fans and other attendees from the surrounding areas.

Anecdotes will be shared and stories passed around. The feelings for Rangers are common amongst those who will gather alongside the Solierini locals.

"It will be a convention, a connection between Rangers Football Club and the passion for the club and Italian culture with food, wines," Aresi said.

"On Sunday, Marco Negri will join us for a Q&A and we will have lunch. We are Italian so lunch and dinner and drinks are very important! Typical, authentic Italian food from the region.

"It is something particular which has never taken place in Italy. Two days celebration for Rangers. We wanted desperately to do it in this year because of the 150th anniversary so it is symbolic, and people who don’t know about Rangers will learn about the club."

It is only those with a true connection to Rangers that really understand and embrace what it means but the history - both in terms of the names and the glories - leave a mark on anyone who experiences the institution.

The shirt was an initial draw for Aresi. His home from home now has an emotional pull of its own.

"I think Ibrox is a big part of the attraction for people," Aresi said. "People say to me that Ibrox, the Ibrox roar, is something unique.

"I tell them to come and experience it. From TV, you can understand that it is something special but you can only truly grasp the real essence of that roar and atmosphere when you are there and you live it.

"You feel it on your skin and in your body. Ibrox and the passion from the fans is the drive, it is wonderful."

It was after one memorable trip to Govan that Aresi and Carlesi met Derek Martin. The day and the circumstances - plus the goal that was a moment of fate - remains vivid for Aresi, a writer for an online magazine and sports journalist in Rome.

A pastime that started with a blog is now a profession. It was those early internet posts that resulted in a connection that has stood the test of the last 12 years.

"We were over for the only Old Firm I have had the chance to live and it was Mo Edu’s late winner," Aresi said. "Afterwards, we went to the city centre, we were walking in exciting times, shouting in Italian with our Rangers scarves. Nobody could understand what was going on!

"We went into a Rangers shop, so it was us and this guy who had sneaked out from work on Buchanan Street. Rangers had won and he wanted to celebrate by buying a top for his nephew.

"If Rangers hadn’t have won with that late goal, we could never have met. The fact the game ended that way pushed us to the same place at the same time that day.

"He came across and told us ‘you are Leonardo and Francesco from Italian Gers’. I looked at Cesco and said ‘mama mia, this is incredible’ and lifted him liked the World Cup.

"We exchanged emails and from that day our friendship was born. The passion that we have for Rangers, Scotland and British culture, he has the same for Italy and Roma."

The friendships formed and memories made will last a lifetime for Aresi. Rangers sparked an interest, now it burns as a way of life for the Italian.

He will depart Rome this week and make the journey north as his dream becomes a reality and another remarkable aspect of the story plays out while the festival draws to a close with a five-a-side tournament on Sunday.

The opposition will come from a Soliera side kitted out in red, white and blue. A band of British - including one that Aresi knows as Fred from Northern Ireland - have done their own bit to spread the famous name of Rangers across the continent.

"There is a major issue with people leaving the towns and going to the cities," Aresi said. "In this town, these guys want to invert the trend.

"They wanted to stay there so they thought it was a good idea to recreate the team of the town. At some point it disappeared.

"They brought back the team and because of the connection with the British expats, they thought it was a good idea to rename the team Rangers Soliera. They play in the lower Italian leagues with a Rangers top on. It is unique.

"These guys are fantastic. I knew them two years ago in Soliera when they invited me because they knew I was the founder of the first Italian Rangers Supporters Club.

"We became good friends. So it was a no brainer to make Soliera the first meeting place."