Roma 2001-2021: Part 1 – The Glory and The Pain (2001-05)

On 24th June 2001 it’s estimated that more than one million people were packed into Rome’s historic Circus Maximus; what had once been ancient Rome’s chariot racing venue was now hosting a Scudetto-winning party like no other. Amidst firework displays, a concert from Antonello Venditti and player presentations, performers were carried onto stage by men in wolf masks paying tribute to the legend of Romulus and Remus, orphaned twin brothers who founded the city of Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf in 753 BC. If the celebrations seemed somewhat extravagant, it’s worth remembering that this is Rome. In good times and bad, it’s not a place that does things by the half measure.

Circus Maximus was the venue that Sunday, but the parties had been in full swing across Rome for seven days, since a Francesco Totti-inspired Roma had defeated Parma at the city’s Stadio Olimpico to secure the club’s third league title. However, the celebrations almost didn’t take place due to an act of Roman self-destruction that would become something of a theme in subsequent years.

A week before the Parma match, 10,000 Roma fans had made the journey south to Naples knowing that a win against Napoli would secure the league title. Geographical, social and sporting context is crucial to understanding the significance of this occasion.  Strictly speaking, Rome is in central Italy, but in football terms Roma and Lazio are very much considered southerners alongside Napoli. Italian football records offer a stark reminder of the country’s divide between the rich, industrialised north and the poorer, agrarian south.

The north’s ‘big three’, Juventus and the two Milan clubs have shared 73 league titles between them. Fellow northern clubs Genoa and Torino have shared a further 16. Before 2001, Roma, Lazio and Napoli had won only six Scudetti between them. In a rare golden era for the Eternal City (in modern times, it should be added, before any historians spit out their coffee) Lazio were the reigning champions, having become the peninsula’s first league winners of the new millennium the previous summer. Nothing would be sweeter for Roma fans than stealing the crown from their bitter rivals.

While times were good in Rome, the same could not be said for Naples. A defeat to Roma would see Napoli relegated to Serie B. The Partenopei’s San Paolo stadium, a hive of noise and passion on any ordinary match day, was not a place for the feint of heart.

As it transpired, a tense 2-2 draw – Napoli equalised in the eighty-fourth minute – meant the two clubs’ respective fates would be decided on the season’s final day.

Seven days on from the draw in Naples, a sun-drenched Stadio Olimpico was at bursting point as Roma led Parma by three goals to one and the fans counted down the minutes to the final whistle. Captain Totti, Vincenzo Montella and record signing Gabriel Batistuta had given Roma a commanding lead before Marco Di Vaio pulled a goal back for the visitors. Finally, the stadium did burst and thousands of Giallorossi supporters, draped in flags and club scarves, streamed onto the pitch to celebrate the historic moment.

Of course, such pitch invasions are not uncommon, particularly in Italy, when there is so much at stake and emotions are stretched to the very limit. Add the notorious passion of the city of Rome and its citizens to the mix and you have the perfect storm. The pitch was now covered with jubilant supporters and players were removed of their jerseys (and some their shorts, too) by fans eager to grab the perfect title-winning memento. One crucial detail seemed to have been forgotten by the celebrating masses: the referee hadn’t blown the final whistle.

Clad only in a pair of briefs and his socks, Parma goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was offered a t-shirt and a giant flag by celebrating Roma fans. Meanwhile, a stunned Totti, who had somehow held onto his number 10 shirt, but not his shorts, sat in the dugout with an empty look in his eyes. It’s most likely the Roma captain was contemplating the nightmare scenario that the match could be abandoned, and Roma would subsequently be punished with a 0-3 defeat, thus handing the league title on a plate to Juventus.

Eventually, following endless cries of ‘uscite, uscite’ (get off, get off) from the fans who remained in the stand and a warpath tour of the pitch from a visibly furious manager Fabio Capello, supporters made their way to the sidelines and back to the stands. With back-up kits arriving from the changing rooms, the last few minutes of the match were played out before the final whistle allowed the party to start for real.

‘We were in symbiosis on everything. We had become one’

While the yellow and red half of the Eternal City was celebrating, Roma’s owners, the Sensi family, were preparing to build on their success by securing the signing of teenage sensation Antonio Cassano from Bari. Cassano had exploded onto the scene and captured the attention of Italy’s biggest clubs with an outstanding solo goal in his home-town team’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan 18 months earlier. The €30 million that Roma paid Bari for the 19-year-old was, at the time, a world record fee for a teenager.

Although Cassano only scored five goals in his first season with Roma, he and Totti went on to develop an incredible understanding. The duo provided some of the finest link-up and patterns of play anywhere in the football world. Speaking in the documentary film My Name is Francesco Totti, which charts the Roma legend’s career, Totti says: “We spoke the same language with our feet. We could play with our eyes closed. We were in symbiosis on everything. We had become one. It was like there were no other players on the field.”

The pair’s telepathy was encapsulated in a match against Reggina in 2005. In a move that began at the halfway line, Totti and his protégé exchanged a series of one-two passes – including two delicious flicks from Totti – that almost resulted in what would surely have been one of the greatest goals of all time, had it not been for a last-ditch intervention from an opposition defender. 

One of my personal favourite moments of play came against Inter in 2004. Cassano is running with the ball around 30 yards from the Inter goal – sensing what his teammate is going to do next, Totti opens his legs and lets Cassano nutmeg him as he would an opposition defender. Gathering the ball on the other side, Cassano sizes up his options and then simply stands aside, letting Totti take the ball and continue the move. Perhaps due to a lack of major silverware, the Totti and Cassano partnership is unlikely to be remembered as one of football’s all-time great duos. What cannot be disputed, however, is the sheer beauty of what two very special footballers treated fans to in the first half of the noughties. These memories will be cherished for decades to come.

King of Rome

Roma and Capello did add a trophy to the cabinet with an Italian Super Cup victory over Fiorentina, but the highlight of the 01/02 season was, without question, the second Rome derby of the campaign in March 2002. Save for a Scudetto victory itself, Roma and Lazio fans will tell you that nothing matters more than victory in the Derby della Capitale. Roma had already won the season’s first encounter 2-0, with Totti and Marco Delvecchio finding the net, but the events of this game will be remembered as one of the finest evenings in the club’s history.

The derby was effectively over as a contest by half-time; Vincenzo ‘L’areoplenino’ (the little aeroplane) Montella scored a first half hat-trick, with three predatory strikes, to put Roma 3-0 up at the break. A shell-shocked Lazio pulled a goal back shortly after the restart – a spectacular long-range effort from Serbian Dejan Stankovic – but Montella, undoubtedly one of Roma’s most valuable players at the turn of the Millennium, soon added his, and Roma’s, fourth goal of the evening. Often remembered for his poacher’s instinct (many of Montella’s goals came as a result of rebounds in the penalty area) the little striker showed there was a lot more to his repertoire with a thumping left-footed shot from 25 yards that crashed into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

The very fact that this game is not remembered as Montella’s derby explains how much Francesco Totti means to Roma, and how much the club belongs to its greatest ever player. With 75 minutes on the clock, Totti collected a pass from Montella and, from almost the exact same spot as the striker had just scored his fourth goal, executed an audacious chip over the head of stranded Lazio goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi and into the net for Roma’s fifth and final goal of the evening. The captain sunk to his knees and pulled his jersey over his head to reveal a t-shirt with the message ‘6 unica’, a play-on-words for the watching Illary Blasi, the television showgirl Totti was dating and would go on to marry. At this stage of his life and career, Totti was, undoubtedly, the king of Rome.

A delightful, left-footed ‘cucchiaio’ (a chipped goal – ‘cucchiaio’ is the Italian word for ‘spoon’) from Cassano gave Roma victory away at Torino on the final day of the 01/02 season. However, Juventus’ win over Udinese meant the Giallorossi finished the campaign as runners up behind the Old Lady of Italian football. Second place finishes were to become something of a theme in subsequent years.

Back down to earth

Those who have watched and followed Roma over the last two decades will be all too aware that highs don’t tend to last long, and the lows are alarmingly frequent, and often chaotic. Despite little change in the playing squad from the previous two seasons, 2002/03 was a campaign to forget for the Giallorossi. Defeats to Bologna and Modena in the opening two matches were a sign of things to come as the club stumbled to an eighth-place finish. The season’s only saving grace was a run to the Coppa Italia final, which ended in defeat to AC Milan.

Capitano Futuro

It was around this time that a combative, blond-haired midfielder by the name of Daniele De Rossi began to emerge in Roma’s first team ranks. Son of former Roma player and Primavera coach Alberto De Rossi, Daniele, a Roman to the core, was quickly identified as a future captain of his home-town club.

Capello’s team was packed with midfield talent; the flair of Brazilian Emerson was complemented perfectly by the energy and drive of Damiano Tomassi. Frenchman Olivier Dacourt had arrived from Leeds United and another Roman, Alberto Aquilani, was graduating from the youth team. Four Serie A appearances in season 02/03 were followed by 17 for De Rossi in 03/04. His ferocity, range of passing and excellent positional sense were coming to the fore and De Rossi would soon become the Roma midfield’s focal point – a position he would hold, and excel in, for more than a decade.    

Resumption of bridesmaid duties

Season 2003/04 was Fabio Capello’s last as Roma manager and he almost signed off with another Scudetto. Before the season began, the club said goodbye to Brazilian defender Aldair – who had been a rock at the centre of Roma’s backline since 1990 – as he moved to Genoa. Such was Aldair’s impact at Roma, the club retired his number six jersey (however, the retirement was not permanent as the number six was assigned to Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman (with Aldair’s blessing) in 2013.)

Highly rated Romanian defender Cristian Chivu arrived from Ajax to join seasoned campaigners Christian Panucci, Vincent Candela and Walter Samuel in Roma’s back four. Behind the defence, Scudetto-winning goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli had moved on, with Ivan Pelizzoli assuming the role of club number one. 

In attack, Gabriel Batistuta had moved on, but his departure mattered little as, by this time, the Totti-Cassano partnership was reaching its zenith. Brazilian winger Amantino Mancini had been signed from Venezia and made an immediate impact with his flair, dynamism, and goal threat. However, it was the telepathic two still grabbing the headlines. In the space of four weeks between February and March 2004, Juventus and Inter Milan both visited the Olimpico and were torn apart. Juventus were blitzed 4-0 and a 4-1 mauling of Inter followed. On both occasions, Totti and Cassano played like two kids in a playground simply too good for their peers, though Mancini did a good job of keeping up.

The above victories bookended a 6-0 home win over Siena and a fine 4-1 triumph at Parma. However, Roma had only managed a 0-0 draw with Ancona in the intervening period. The week prior to the Juventus game, the Giallorossi had fallen to defeat at Brescia and the Inter game was followed by a stalemate at Reggina and a home loss to Bologna. Brescia, Bologna and Reggina all finished the season in the bottom half of the table while Ancona were relegated. Perhaps these eight games perfectly encapsulated Roma’s season. Despite scoring the most and conceding the fewest goals in Serie A, the Giallorossi ended the campaign in second place behind a terrific Milan side, who beat Roma twice in the league, knocked them out of the Coppa Italia and boasted Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko, Andrea Pirlo and former Roma defender Cafu in their ranks.

Of Roma’s many second-placed finishes in subsequent years, this was one of the most disappointing. Of Milan’s worthiness as champions there can be no argument, but with the group of players at Fabio Capello’s disposal during his five years as Roma manager, and some of the outstanding performances during this period, you can’t help but feel a fourth Scudetto was well within the club’s capabilities.

Juve got to be kidding?

Another all too common theme in the past two decades for AS Roma has been the departure of top players to Serie A rivals. Capello may have delivered Roma a Scudetto but club President Franco Sensi had allowed him to spend big to do so; over €80 million had been spent on bringing Batistuta, Samuel, Emerson, and French defender Jonathan Zebina to the Eternal City. The Sensi family (by this time Franco’s daughter Rosella was taking on a more prominent role in the running of the club after her father fell ill) needed to balance the books.

The departure of Samuel to Real Madrid for €25 million was a difficult, but realistic, transfer for the Giallorossi fans to stomach, however Capello’s decision to leave Roma for Juventus (a move he had also made as a player) and take Emerson and Zebina with him sparked fury in the capital.

The tension was partially lifted with the arrival of French defender Philippe Mexes from Auxerre, but this transfer would have serious recriminations for Roma further down the line. The highly rated Matteo Ferrari was brought in from Parma and expected to partner Mexes in the centre of defence.

The prospect of an exciting new defensive partnership and the ever-growing impact of Daniele De Rossi somewhat quelled Roma fans’ anger. However, it would only prove to be the relative calm before a storm of epic proportions.

Roma’s worst season ever?

The record books may show that Roma finished eighth in Serie A in season 04/05, but the league table doesn’t even begin to tell the story of one of the most difficult campaigns in the club’s history.

The summer of 2004 had not gone well for Francesco Totti; Italy’s number 10 was sent off in the country’s opening match of the European Championships for spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen and banned for three matches. Italy only played a further two games at the tournament after Sweden and Denmark’s 2-2 draw (many Italians will argue this was an engineered ‘biscotto’ result between the two sides) eliminated the Azzurri at the group stage.

On the domestic front – and with Totti still in the ranks after having turned down an offer to join Real Madrid, which would have seen him become one of the world’s most highly paid players – Roma were preparing for the new campaign with a new coach, Cesare Prandelli. Prandelli had led Parma to a fifth place finish the previous season. However, on the eve of the campaign, Prandelli resigned to spend time with his wife, who had fallen ill (she would sadly die three years later).

Rudi Völler, who had enjoyed a distinguished playing career with Roma in the late 80s and early 90s and had resigned as coach of the German national team following a poor display at Euro 2004, stepped into the dugout. Völler and Roma triumphed over Fiorentina in the opening day of the campaign thanks to a second half goal from Vincenzo Montella. However, Antonio Cassano’s red card for violent conduct provided a clear warning of stormy waters ahead. A chaotic 4-3 defeat away to Messina – a game Roma had led 3-2 courtesy of a hat-trick from the in-form Montella – was followed by a home draw with Lecce and a desperate 3-1 defeat at Bologna, who played almost 40 minutes of the match with nine men.

After only four league games in charge, the pressure took its toll on Völler. Having rowed with Cassano following the striker’s ill-discipline against Fiorentina, and seemingly unable to assert control over the squad, the German resigned from his post.

Luigi Delneri – who had performed miracles with Chievo, achieving the Veronese club’s first-ever promotion to Serie A, before an ill-fated spell with Portuguese heavyweights Porto, who sacked him before he had taken charge of a competitive game – was next to try and arrest Roma’s alarming slide.

Champions League chaos

If Serie A was providing a multitude of problems for Roma, the club’s Champions League campaign offered little respite. The opening match of the group stage, which saw Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev visit the Olimpico, couldn’t even be completed due to another act of Roman self-destruction. As the players left the field at half-time – with Kiev leading 1-0 – Swedish referee Anders Frisk, who had just sent off Philippe Mexes for violent conduct, was struck in the head by a missile, which was apparently thrown from the Olimpico’s VIP section. The match was abandoned, Kiev were subsequently awarded a 3-0 victory, and Roma were ordered to play their remaining two home games – against Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid – behind closed doors.

Roma could only muster a single point from their remaining five games, earned in a 1-1 home draw with Leverkusen. Ill-discipline continued to haunt the Italians: Christian Panucci and Daniele De Rossi saw red in a 3-1 defeat away to Leverkusen while defender Giuseppe Scurto received his marching orders as the Giallorossi fell to a 2-0 defeat in Kiev. A 3-0 reverse to Real Madrid at an empty Olimpico brought the curtain down on an embarrassing European campaign. The Spaniards (suitors of Francesco Totti and boasting Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Raul and former Roman Walter Samuel in their squad) had defeated Roma 4-2 on matchday two.

‘Cassanate’ take over

As Roma’s Champions League and Serie A campaigns unravelled, so too did Antonio Cassano’s relationship with the club. Although the discipline of Fabio Capello had largely kept Cassano’s notoriously explosive temperament in check, the pair still had their flashpoints. The striker’s frequent outbursts were termed ‘Cassanate’ by his coach. The ‘Cassanate’ moments increased following Capello’s departure and disputes between Cassano, his teammates and management were becoming a regular occurrence. During his time in charge, Delneri temporarily omitted Cassano from the Roma squad and ordered the striker to train on his own.

Despite his unpredictability and disobedience, Cassano’s sublime talent and moments of genius with a ball at his feet could never be questioned. Indeed, Roma would have the ‘little jewel’ of Bari to thank later in the season for scoring the most important goal of the club’s sorry campaign.

Ill-discipline & ignominy

Luigi Delneri’s five months in charge were the longest spell for any Roma manager in season 2004/05. His first few matches in the dugout offered signs of relative stability: a sequence of games that included draws against both Milan clubs and a 5-1 win over Cagliari. However, back-to-back defeats to Udinese and Reggina in November, coupled with the disastrous Champions League campaign, brought dark clouds back over Olimpico skies. Totti and Cassano both scored braces in a 5-1 victory over Parma in the final game before Christmas, but it wasn’t to be a happy new year for Delneri and Roma.

The second half of the season kicked-off in explosive style with a Rome derby, which Lazio won convincingly. Three years on from Totti’s chip and delirious Roma celebrations, it was now the turn of Lazio bandiera Paolo Di Canio to celebrate in front of the Biancocelesti’s Curva Nord following a 3-1 victory; Di Canio scored Lazio’s opening goal of the evening with a splendid volley.

Delneri lasted another two months in charge before consecutive defeats against Palermo and Juventus were followed by a dismal 3-0 loss at Cagliari – in which De Rossi saw red – which left his position untenable.

After Delneri’s departure and the Rudi Völler gamble earlier in the season, former player and club legend Bruno Conti was tasked with rescuing the Giallorossi’s campaign and avoiding a potential relegation fight.

Ill-discipline didn’t help Conti in his first league game in charge as senior players Totti and Panucci were sent off in a 2-0 loss to AC Milan. A fourth consecutive league defeat left Roma in seventh place in the table but only nine points above the relegation zone.

A 3-3 draw at Udinese was followed by a home defeat to Reggina. Incidentally, it was during the Reggina match that Totti and Cassano almost scored their aforementioned ‘dream goal’, courtesy of their ridiculously good series of one-two passes. Another home defeat, this time Siena took the spoils from the Olimpico, and another red card for Totti meant a previously unthinkable slide towards Serie B was becoming a very real possibility for Roma. 

Almost a silver lining

Despite a woeful league campaign wreaked by ill-discipline, infighting, embarrassing defeats, and an alarming managerial turnover, some much needed relief came in the form of Roma’s run to the final of the Coppa Italia.

Conti’s first game in charge was a quarter-final first leg defeat of Fiorentina. However, La Viola triumphed in the return leg and, following 30 minutes of extra-time, Roma needed a 7-6 penalty shoot-out victory to book a place in the semi-finals against Udinese. By way of atonement for his suspension in Serie A (the red cards against Milan and Siena resulted in a five-match ban), Totti was the hero for Roma – his late goal in the second leg earning the Giallorossi a 3-2 aggregate victory.

The lifting of the mood didn’t last; a 3-0 aggregate defeat to Inter in the final offered Roma a prophetic foreshadowing of the next five years in domestic football.

Cassano saves the day

A deafening chorus of boos rained down from the Stadio Olimpico curve as the referee’s whistle brought to and end the second Rome derby of the season on 15 May. With three games of the season remaining, and both sides perilously close to the relegation zone, Roma and Lazio had seemingly gambled their respective survival hopes on earning enough points from their final two matches. The 0-0 draw, in which neither side ever looked like scoring, was greeted with derision from the tifosi. Lazio went on to draw their final two games and finished the season in thirteenth place, only two points above the relegation spots.

Roma’s penultimate game of the season brought a trip to Bergamo to face an Atalanta side clinging on to their own survival hopes (they would ultimately finish the campaign at the bottom of the table). Missing the suspended Totti, Roma looked to Cassano for inspiration; with 70 minutes on the clock and the game goalless, Cassano gathered an Amantino Mancini cross and cheekily toe-poked the ball into the net from 12 yards.

The relief among the Roma players and in the dugout was palpable as the Giallorossi held on for what was, remarkably, Bruno Conti’s only league victory as manager. It was enough, just. The three points in Bergamo and a last day stalemate at home to Chievo lifted Roma to an unlikely eight position in the table.

The final league standings were incredibly tight; only three points separated Roma from eighteenth-placed Bologna, who dropped to Serie B after a relegation play-off defeat against Parma.

An almighty Mexes

Although Serie A status was secured, Roma’s season from hell was to suffer a final sting in the tail. Roma and Auxerre had been in dispute since Philippe Mexes’ arrival in the Eternal City from the French club in the summer of 2004. Mexes had still been under contract at Auxerre but claimed he could move for €4 million, according to a clause in his contract. The claim was disputed by Auxerre and led to months of legal wrangling.

In the summer of 2005, a year on from the transfer, FIFA found Roma to be in ‘inducement to breach of contract’ and banned the club from transfer activity for 12 months.

Whoever was to lead Roma from the mess of the previous season, and attempt to bring the club back to the upper echelons of Serie A, had an almighty task on his hands.

Words by: Martin Dunlop. @dunlop85