Ciao Capitano: The life and tragic death of Roma legend Ago di Bartolomei

​The 30th of May marks the anniversary of one of Liverpool FC’s most significant achievements: winning their fourth European Cup against Roma in Rome itself. Rarely has the final of Europe’s elite competition been played in front of such a partisan crowd. Rarely has victory seemed more improbable. But win Liverpool did, in a penalty shoot-put, much to the despair of thousands of Romanisti.

Unsurprisingly, whilst that anniversary is celebrated in Liverpool, the opposite is the case in Rome. That European Cup final should have marked the first continental success and most important achievement of what was probably the finest team in the Giallorossi’s history. It should have provided the foundations for the club to continue to build and dominate; to fully emerge from the shadow of Italy’s northern giants.

Instead, defeat marked the beginning of the end. That summer, Roma’s charismatic and inspirational head-coach Nils Liedholm left for AC Milan. A year later, midfield genius Paulo Roberto Falcao decided to return to Brazil and as the team was broken up, the club slowly slid back to mediocrity. Roma had messed up their date with history and no one felt this more than their captain.

Agostino di Bartolomei was more than simply a player for Roma. His talent was apparent from an early age to anyone who bothered to look. Mesmerised by his control and eye for a pass, Milan tried to sign him as a 13 year old but he refused to leave his beloved Rome, despite the fact no side from the capital had shown an interest in him.

It was a risky decision but the choice to reject one of Italy’s giants was an early indicator of another of di Bartolomei’s qualities: the unflinching confidence he had in himself and his opinions.

A year later he was vindicated when Roma promptly offered a deal, set up after their then tecnico, Helenio Herrera, saw him play in a trial match. Four years later, he made his first team debut and, after a season spent at Vicenza to gain experience, he returned to cement his place in Roma’s first team.

By this time, he had evolved from a midfielder to a central defender. There he shone bright for the preciseness of his long-range passes, the ingenuity of his vision and, most of all, the power of his shot that guaranteed a regular flow of goals. It was these qualities that endeared him to the Roma fans, particularly those in the Curva Sud, who idolised him through song.

“Oh Agostino, Ago, Ago, Agostino Gol”, they would bellow.

It was the kind of special relationship that can only exist between a player and the people of his city. And that is what drove di Bartolomei mad at the Champions Cup final defeat. He sensed that they wouldn’t get a similar opportunity again. He felt that those fans would never taste the joy of winning a European Cup.

That frustration boiled over in the aftermath of the game. It is rumoured that in the dressing room he quarrelled fiercely with Falcao who, somewhat inexplicably, wasn’t among the penalty takers.  Some versions go as far to suggest that Di Bartolomei pinned Falcao to the wall, such was his anger at the Brazilian’s defection when his club needed him most.

What actually happened in that dressing room is unlikely to ever be revealed, yet the stories persisted because they fit with what was known of his character.

Di Bartolomei was never one to let things he did not like pass. He always voiced his opinions and never held back his criticism. This forthright approach was the reason why one of the most talented players of his generation never got an Italy cap, and why he consequently missed out on another medal, that of World Cup winner with Italy in 1982. That didn’t bother Di Bartolomei. Or, if it did, he didn’t show it. Anyway, he had his club and his fans.

Soon, however, the first of those was taken away. Sven Goran Eriksson took over from Nils Liedholm as Roma coach and the club decided that they had garnered what they needed from Di Bartolomei. He was told that the club to which he had dedicated so much didn’t require his services anymore. Once again, it was whispered that he was seen as being too outspoken, too much of a troublemaker.

The fans took umbrage to the rejection, protesting against the decision and creating a huge banner with the slogan: ‘Ti Hanno Tolto La Roma Ma Non La Tua Curva’ – ‘They’ve Taken Roma Away From You But Not Your Curva’. But the decision stood.

Di Bartolomei moved to AC Milan, a club then recovering from the Totonero betting scandal that had seen them relegated to the Serie B. There he spent three years and earned the nickname of Sant’ Agostino (Saint Agostino) because of his reluctance to go out and party, despite the city’s famous night spots.

At the time, it seemed that this was a sign of Di Bartolomei’s maturity and realisation that he wouldn’t be able to go on playing if he spent his time in nightclubs. Yet there was more to it.  Di Bartolomei had become subdued and melancholic. In a sense, he was suffering from withdrawals. Roma’s rejection had hurt him deeply. His career fizzled out at Cesena and Salernitana, after which no one seemed to want to know about him. Everywhere he went he found closed doors and rejection. Inside him, the regret grew and began to transform into something much darker. This was until he could stand those thoughts no more.

On the morning of the 30 May 1994 – ten years after the European Cup final – Agostino Di Bartolomei took out his gun, pointed it at his chest and pulled the trigger. Romanisti thus remember this day as an anniversary of profound sorrow, one on which they lost a European final and more importantly, a favourite son and club legend.

No better epitaph can ever be attributed to Ago di Bartolomei than the words written by Italian journalist Gianni Mura upon his poignant death:

“True captains may die and even choose to die but forgetting them is impossible.” 

Words by Paul Grech: @paul_grech

Paul is the author of Il Re Calcio, an e-book featuring ten little-known stories from the history of Italian football.  You can get a copy here.