AS Roma: The return of Roman icon gives my club a special season after The Special One falls

Rome loves heroes. Sure, all cities do. Every place has its icons. But few measure up to Rome’s. Caesar Augustus and Julius Caesar. Michelangelo and Bernini. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani.

Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi.

OK, it’s a stretch. I just compared two soccer players with people who built the Roman Empire and produced art and movies that will be famous for an eternity.

Then again, how many times did 67,000 people show up to watch Bernini carve marble?

That many showed up at Olympic Stadium Sunday night to watch De Rossi, along with Totti their favorite native son and World Cup heroes, continue my beloved AS Roma’s drive up to Italian and European glory. 

Roma has gone 9-2–2 under Daniele De Rossi since his hiring Jan. 16. LiveScore photo

Roma on way up

The U.S. is going through its annual March Madness. In Rome, this is March Madness: Since De Rossi took over for fallen icon Jose Mourinho on Jan. 16, Roma (15-6-8) has gone 9-2-2 with its only losses to this season’s behemoth, Inter Milan (24-4-1), and 1-0 Thursday at Brighton where Roma was merely trying to protect its 4-0 lead from the first leg in the Europa League.

We have gone from ninth place, eight points behind the coveted fourth and final Champions League place for next season, to fifth place, only three points behind surprising Bologna. Under De Rossi we’re averaging 2.2 goals a game. Under Mourinho we averaged only 1.5.

“Obviously I’d hoped for a start like this, not just in terms of results but also in terms of the feeling we’ve created,” De Rossi said in a press conference. “Not just in a human way, either, but with our football, too. I think that they really believe in what I’m trying to instill in them.”

My transition from sportswriter to sports fan has taken more hits than last year’s soccer ball. I can thank Roma for that. We have won three Italian Serie A titles in our 97 years of existence, the last in 2001. In my first eight years since retiring to Rome in January 2014, we have finished twice three times, third twice, then sixth, fifth and seventh. We haven’t competed in the Champions League, the toughest tournament in the world, since the 2018-19 season.

As my apartment and wardrobe became more dominated by the colors of red and yellow, I slumped into my couch knowing I’m way too emotionally and financially invested in what will forever be a second-tier club.

Friedkin ownership

Then American Dan Friedkin bought Roma in 2020. Friedkin is a mutant. He has yet to give an interview. Never mind that the 67,000 fans who showed up Sunday and keep his club afloat would like to know what he thinks. 

Dan Friedkin bought Roma in 2020.

However, he’s a good owner. He hired Jose Mourinho, who had won titles in four countries and the Champions League twice. He hired Tiago Pinto, an equally sharp club builder who, along with Mourinho, signed two of the biggest names in my decade here. Romelu Lukaku and Paulo Dybala gave us some international cachet, not to mention a lot of goals.

Two years ago, Mourinho led us to the inaugural Conference League title, our first European trophy (Sorry. I don’t count the Mickey Mouse, long-defunct Inter-City Fairs Cup in 1961) and to the Europa League final last year.

But Mourinho never got us above sixth place in Serie A in his two full seasons, missing the Champions League he vowed he’d achieve. After all, he was “The Special One.” When he wasn’t grousing about referees, whether on the field or in a stadium parking lot, he was whining about the lack of quality on the roster. Friedkin should’ve reminded him that he built the third-largest payroll in Serie A.

Instead, he fired him Jan. 16, marking his fourth straight “big haircut.”

De Rossi hired

They turned to De Rossi whose best thing on his resume was his name. His only managerial experience was last season at SPAL, a Serie B club in the beautiful medieval town of Ferrara. Signed in October to save it from relegation, he was fired after only three wins in four months as they sank to Serie C.

De Rossi played 459 games with Roma over 18 years.

His name trumped it all. 

The midfielder’s 459 games over 18 years are second all time in Roma history next to Totti’s 619. De Rossi played 117 games for Italy, teaming with Totti to win the 2006 World Cup.

“I simply asked the Friedkins to treat me like a coach,” De Rossi said, “not like an ex-footballer or a legend.”

Maybe De Rossi, 40, was born to manage. He grew up in Ostia, Rome’s beach neighborhood. His father, Alberto, was Roma’s youth manager for 24 years. Daniele was on Italy’s staff that won the 2021 European Championship.

He arrived and immediately changed the narrative. Instead of Mourinho telling fans the Champions League may be out of reach for this roster, De Rossi said, “I was still playing when Roma last played in the Champions League. It feels like 20 years ago. It’s unacceptable.” 

Paolo Dybala has scored eight goals in eight games under De Rossi. SNAI Sportnews photo

Dybala, Pellegrini shine

Two players have thrived under De Rossi. Dybala, Serie A’s MVP in 2019-20 with Juventus and who scored in Argentina’s shootout win over France in the 2022 World Cup final, scored eight goals in eight games, including a hat trick against Torino. The comparisons to Totti have become common. It’s funny, really. While Totti, square jawed and chiseled, looked like he just walked out of the Colosseum skewering Christians, the cherubic Dybala, at 30, looks like he walked off a youth game and is looking for Orange Slices.

But De Rossi gave him the Totti treatment and he responded.

“In 20 years playing together, no one told Francesco what to do,” De Rossi said. “All we had to do was get our heads down when he had the ball. We’ve got a player like that in Dybala and have to make the most of it.”

The other player responding is Lorenzo Pellegrini, from Tuscolana, a middle-class neighborhood on the southeast end of Rome. In 13 games under De Rossi, he has six goals and three assists. 

“Maybe they are rejecting that system now, like a body with a new organ,” De Rossi said.

My trip to Olympic Stadium

I had to watch this team in person and capture the electric atmosphere of Olympic Stadium. Mourinho’s arrival helped launch two years of continuous sellouts. They drew 3 million fans in 55 games, earning Friedkin €100 million in ticket sales alone.

What’s shocking is some secret offices in the Vatican are easier to reach than Olympic Stadium. Rome is believed to be the only European capital not to have train access to its soccer stadium. Meaning I must squeeze into a packed city bus like cattle being led to slaughter for the miserable 30-minute, four-mile ride from my home.

With the Rome Marathon Sunday, half the bus routes had closed. I paid €20 for a cab and arrived three hours before gametime. By kickoff, I didn’t see one empty seat. Curva Sud, the hostile area where the ultras hold strong, waved so many flags I could barely see people. The pre-game ritual singing of Roma Roma (see video above) seemed especially throaty.

Keep in mind, Roma was playing Sassuolo. No, that’s not the name of a B-grade Italian porn film. It’s a small town of 40,000 in Emilia-Romagna that’s 19th in the 20-team Serie A and had just changed managers March 1.

Lorenzo Pellegrini celebrates after scoring against Sassuolo Sunday. Primapress photo

Two scribes weigh in

In the press tribune I saw Roberto Maida. He has covered Roma for Corriere Dello Sport for 13 years and somehow manages to write two-three stories a day with hardly any quotes. Italian media has more access to the pope than Serie A soccer players. None talks after games. I don’t think they let players talk after games in North Korea’s league, either.

It means Maida must dig deeper than the average reporter to find what makes this team tick. I asked him what De Rossi did to get out of Roma what a legend like Mourinho couldn’t.

“He changed their mentality,” he said. “They were shot after a long spell with Mourinho. Maybe after two years and a half, the relationships began – I  don’t know if it was part of the dressing room – but most of the important players were rejecting his style. Not just on the pitch but the communication.”

I asked about De Rossi’s more offensive approach. Mourinho played with four defenders and had a counter attack approach. De Rossi plays with only three defenders and encourages a constant attack.

“The style of play helps the players enjoy,” Maida said. “But his quality is understanding better the heads of the players. He’s still a little bit of a player in his mind. He was a captain of this dressing room. A lot of players played with him and helped him to restore the quality. Mourinho thought this roster had a lack of quality. De Rossi said the opposite and thinks the opposite. He thinks this roster can be competitive for the fourth spot.”

Said Paddy Agnew, my good Rome-based contact with World Soccer magazine: “He was a terrific player. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s a good coach. The biggest thing in football is getting into a player’s head. Restoring self-confidence. He was such a great battler, players immediately respect him and want to do things for him.”

Roma 1, Sassuolo 0

Sunday night, however, Roma channeled dreary seasons past. Painfully dull, both teams had only one shot in the first 22 minutes. Roma, with Dybala resting a sore thigh, made bad, impotent crosses. It lost dribbles. Playing against a 19th-place team missing three starters, Roma didn’t have a shot on goal until the 43rd minute. Lukaku missed badly on two headers.

At halftime, it was 0-0 and Sassuolo had hope.

It wasn’t much better to start the second half. Roma looked lost against Sassuolo’s stubborn defense. Then in the 50th minute, Pellegrini dribbled along the top of the box, saw a brief opening and rifled a shot, perfectly aimed into the right corner of the goal.

Roma survived a near own goal when the ball hit the goalpost and salvaged a precarious 1-0 win. Afterward in the press conference, De Rossi said, “The people can put up the banners and sing my name but it’s not always so simple for me in this role. In certain periods, I was an eye in the cyclone.”

European soccer has an international break with Pellegrini joining Italy against Venezuela in Fort Lauderdale Thursday and against Ecuador in Harrison, N.J., Sunday. They return April 1 at 13th-place Lecce and on April 11 start their Europa League quarterfinal with AC Milan.

Meanwhile, Friedkin must decide what to do with De Rossi who said, in very un-Mourinho style, “Nobody will want to face Roma in the quarterfinals.” Friedkin gave him only a four-month contract. Maybe he’s been researching other managers more experienced; maybe he threw out all the other resumes. Maybe he should just talk to the players.

Said Pellegrini last week, “I think he’ll remain here for a long time.”