Doom and gloom turn to cautious optimism as a new season for facelifted AS Roma begins Sunday
This off season I changed my greeting at my local coffee bar. Every time I walked into Romagnani Caffe across the street from my Rome apartment I greeted the Romanisti coffee jockeys with “FORZA ROMA!” the long-time mantra of every AS Roma fan, meaning “GO ROMA!” They, in turn, greeted me with the simultaneous, seemingly rehearsed, traditional response in chorus: “SEMPRE! (ALWAYS!)”
Since last season ended in May, however, the exchange has been altered. I’d walk in with my morning Corriere dello Sport, chronicling another horrid off-season drama, and before they even handed me my usual cornetto and cappuccino, I’d say, “Siamo fottuti.”
They didn’t even acknowledge my growing command of Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. They were merely slumped in resigned agreement. They handed me my breakfast and listened to me curse at my outdoor table as I read details of what appeared to be the fall of the Roma Empire.
“Roma Empire” is a headline I’ve dreamed about since attaching my heart to this soccer team in 2002. Since retiring here in January 2014 and transforming from sports writer to sports fan, it has been a painful tease. Following AS Roma as a born-again fan is like getting tickled with a feather — one with a dagger on the other end. You feel a tingling sensation then get knifed in the heart.
Roma Empire? How about the Bhutan Empire? In our 92 seasons we’ve won three Serie A Italian league titles, the last in 2001. Our last trophy was the 2008 Italian Cup, a national tournament the league’s upper echelon doesn’t sober up for until the semifinals.
Then came last season, a nine-month colonoscopy with only occasional relief. Club icon Francesco Totti had retired after 2017 and gritty leaders Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman were jettisoned in favor of mostly a bunch of stiffs.
We bombed spectacularly out of the Champions League and Italian Cup, mercifully fired the embattled Eusebio Di Francesco in March and as interim manager, old Rome native Claudio Rainieri couldn’t repeat his magic in leading little Leicester City to the 2016 Premiership title. Roma finished sixth and out of this season’s Champions League, which earned the club 51 million euros last season, a booty Roma desperately needs again while it waits for its pipe dream of a new 1 billion euro stadium. Roma barely qualified for the Europa League, European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.
Then it got worse.
The club gently but unceremoniously pushed out beloved captain Daniele De Rossi, who replaced fellow Rome-native Totti as the face of the franchise but flew off to Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Totti tired of his opinions being ignored as a club director and quit, lambasting the club as he followed out the door his boss, sporting director Monchi, who had already bolted in disgust after his bosses fired Di Francesco.
At one point this off season, Roma had no manager and no sporting director. The best defender, Kostas Manolas, was headed to Napoli; the best striker, Edin Dzeko, was headed to Inter Milan; their best young player, 20-year-old Italian international Nicolo’ Zaniolo, was being dangled in front of rich, salivating suitors; fallen striker star Gonzalo Higuain dissed Roma to stay with Juventus; and the goalkeeper was about my age.
For three months, I thought the headline of this preview would be, “I MAY SOON KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN OREGON STATE FOOTBALL FAN.”
I was going to spend an entire season at my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub and my local Birrotecca Stappo with fellow Romanisti, attracted more to the great pub grub than the weekly drubbings on the big screen.
Then things changed.
With the season opener Sunday night, a series of dealings has put some optimism back in my bark. James Pallotta, the Boston-based owner who occasionally has been the most hated man in Rome since Nero, hired a sharp sporting director in Gianluca Petrachi, who had Torino punching above its weight for the last 10 years.
For manager they hired Paulo Fonseca, whose movie-star good looks won over female fans and his three recent titles with Donetsk Shakhtar, the Juventus of the Ukraine Premier League, won over the male fans. While Manolas did leave for Napoli, Dzeko and Zanioli re-signed, Roma pinched a promising 24-year-old goalkeeper from Real Betis named Pau Lopez, acquired Italian international defender Davide Zappacosta on loan from Chelsea and signed midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola who last season helped lead Atalanta to its first Champions League berth.
They looked better on paper. But if you read on this site how much trash is in Rome you’ll know how much paper is worth in this town. I needed to see them in action.
I saw them win a friendly on the road at Lille, which finished second in the French League last season, then beat a full-strength Real Madrid at home on penalty kicks in the Mabel Green Cup.
Fonseca replaced Italians’ traditionally snoozy, heavy-on-tactics and defense with an aggressive, attacking style that produced a flurry of shots against both clubs. Dzeko had two assists at Lille and scored against Real off a beautiful pass from Cengiz Under, a promising 22-year-old Turk who combined with Zaniolo for 14 goals and 13 assists the last two seasons. Lopez made some highlight-reel saves behind a defense that pressed higher and set up more counter attacks.
“This season the objective is to return to the Champions League (by finishing in the top four),” Fonseca said, “but in two or three seasons I’m convinced we can win a title.”
Since I punted my objectivity on Roma nearly 20 years ago, I called a trusty Rome-based soccer journalist. Paddy Agnew (@paddyagnew) has been penning great copy about Roma and the Italian League since 1986 and now writes for World Soccer, my favorite soccer magazine in the world. Jaded and tough from also covering the cesspool that is Italian politics and the Vatican, Agnew backed my cautious optimism — with a caveat.
Who’s the face of Roma? Alessandro Florenzi, the Rome native who inherited De Rossi’s captaincy, was so elated about Dzeko re-signing he offered him his captain’s armband. Dzeko, his mouth not nearly as loud as his deadly legs, turned it down.
“It’s a different year for Roma because it’s the first year for God knows how many years — 25 years — when they haven’t had either Totti or De Rossi around,” Agnew said. “It’s different looking Roma. My question would be, who’s actually the team leader?
“They really don’t have a bad squad. The question is who is the boss man on the pitch? That’s what Fonseca must work out. If he works that out you could have a good year.”
That’s my worry. When De Rossi was injured — and, at 36, he has developed the shelf life of handmade linguini — Roma had no direction. It had no bite. Zaniolo had about as much fire as anybody and he still looks like a kid who eats Orange Slices after games.
The best news, and what convinced me not to torch my AS Roma potholders and beach towel, is Dzeko’s re-signing. Considered the best Bosnian player in history, he has scored 87 goals in 179 games, already fifth in Roma history in only four seasons. If he left for Inter, saremmo fottuti (We’d be fucked.)
The next most is Florenzi with 28 in 262 games.
“The thing about Dzeko is he’s a one-man team up front,” Agnew said. “He can get ahold of it and even though he’s got three defenders hanging onto his shorts, he can hold on to it for a while. For a big man, he has really good feet and is good passing the ball. On top of that he gets into the box and scores goals.”
Problems remain, of course. They’re going to miss Manolas, whose heroic winning goal against Barcelona two seasons ago overshadowed his stripping of Lionel Messi who was driving for a winning goal of his own. Lots of pressure is on Manolas’ replacement, Gianluca Mancini, a 23-year-old who came over from Atalanta. They could use another striker to take some pressure off Dzeko.
With the market window closing Sept. 2, Roma is looking at Nikola Kalinic, 31, a Croat international who sat on Atletico Madrid’s bench most of last season, and defender Daniele Rugani, a 25-year-old who didn’t even make Juventus’ road trip to Parma Saturday and is interested in Roma.
I’m not the only one whose optimism is growing. The club sold fewer than 19,000 season tickets, well under last year’s total of 22,000. However, Friday the club sold 12,000 tickets alone for Sunday’s opener against Genoa.
It’s a nice bump but only 30,000 for a season opener? In Rome? I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe it’s because half of Rome is out of town on their annual August holiday, but there is less buzz about this team than at any time in my memory.
“I know what you mean,” said Agnew, who lives just outside Rome in Trevignano Romano. “In other years there was a bigger buzz that we could do something this year and get back to the heights of competitive days. I don’t get that feeling at the moment.”
I agree with him on what has made so many turn their backs on this team.
“Two things obviously have spoiled the atmosphere at Roma,” he said. “Totti’s press conference in May in which he basically, this great Roma idol, shat on them. He just essentially accused the management of being both incompetent and disloyal and not having made it clear to him what they wanted him to do and then when he did give advice paying no attention to it, indicating with these guys in charge of the club there was going to be problems up ahead. The fans listen to this closely. Then he said, ‘I’m leaving the club’ which is a bigger statement than all of it.
“Then you have the other iconic figure, De Rossi, who wants to stay. If I was the club director, I’d have kept him on for at least another season because of what he could offer in terms of experience and understanding of the entire environment.”
My sportswriting experience has jaded me too much to hope for a title run. I’ll settle for a top four finish. Inter Milan, under new coach Antonio Conte, looks like it has closed the gap on Juventus. I want to see how the pressure to not only win a record ninth-straight title but not lose in the Champions League will affect new Juve coach Maurizio Sarri, whose Europa League title last season wasn’t enough for Chelsea fans to appreciate.
Napoli has established itself as a consistent top three and Manolas strengthens its defense, Atalanta is Italy’s new rising star and Milan still has the country’s best goalkeeper in 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Meanwhile, Lazio still sucks.
(Actually, it doesn’t. I just like my Laziali friends to read that.)
At least now I don’t need to call my sister, an Oregon State grad, and ask how to brace myself for soul-crushing public humiliation every weekend. I know exactly what I’ll say to the boys in Romagnoli Sunday morning in preparation for a new season with surprising promise.