Fiddle while Roma burns!
“Roma have risen from their ruins…The unthinkable unfolds before our eyes…” the iconic lines of Peter Drury on Roma’s unfathomable comeback against Barcelona would aptly encapsulate Roma’s narrative 20 years ago. The only distinction is that it was an Argentine-born in Santa Fe and made in Florence who ascended the 7 hills of Rome and clinched the Scudetto. Roma’s 2000-2001 Scudetto win was rightfully deserved as much as it was an inevitability: their rivals, Lazio, won the Scudetto the season prior forged Roma’s reconquest. If the Scudetto were to be lifted aloft in Rome, it was to be lifted by La Lupa (‘The She-Wolf’) – the true representative of Rome based on a myth that a she-wolf founded the Eternal City.
Lazio’s glory coupled with Roma’s disappointing 6th place finish intensified the need for a rebuild. The then President, Franco Sensi, was not in the mood to fiddle while Roma was burning. In the summer of 2000, forayed into the Mercato to replace Roma’s spine. Signing the hard-boiled centre-half ‘The Wall’ Walter Samuel for over 40 billion Italian Lire (approximately €20 million) from Boca Juniors’ to accompany the Brazilian internationals Cafu and Aldair and French left-back Vincent Candela augmented Roma’s impenetrable fortress. The midfield was buoyed by the signing of Brazil’s ‘Puma’ Emerson from Bayer Leverkusen for 22 million dollars. Even though Roma wasn’t bereft of goals from the trident of L’Aeroplanino (‘The Little Airplane’) Vincenzo Montella, Marco Delvecchio and the homegrown prodigy Francesco Totti, President Sensi and manager Fabio Capello secured their marquee signing up front. The 70 billion Italian Lire (roughly €36.2 million) outlay – then a record price for a player over 30 – to lure the world’s best striker, Gabriel Omar Batistuta or Batigol, from his beloved domicile of Florence indicated Roma’s emphatic statement of intent: claim the Scudetto since 1983.
When in Roma, do as the Romans do?
Alberto Zaccheroni’s 3-4-3 crusade against the pervasive vestiges of Arrigo Sacchi’s 4-4-2 inspired AC Milan’s Scudetto win 2 seasons prior. Yet, the impacts were far-reaching, inspiring Marcello Lippi’s, and subsequently Carlo Ancellotti’s, Juventus to play in a back 3, albeit the former often alternated with a back 4. The miasma of a back 3 soon pervaded the Roman air as Fabio Capello took to the 3-4-1-2, a variant of the 3-4-3, like a duck to water.
The formation change was effectively a 7 + 3 composition (horizontal line). 7 players constituted the defensive unit tasked with winning the ball out wide/through to the advanced wingbacks. This allowed them to transition the ball forwards to the attacking unit. The yellow arrows denote ball circulation, i.e.: how the ball progresses from one’s half to the opposition’s half. 2 modes of circulation underpinned Roma’s style of play:
- Wing play with seamless interplay on the counter. Roma directs their counter-attacks on the wings with width maintained by quick one-twos to beat an onrushing opponent or to unlock spaces ahead.
- Slow-tempo, deep circulation. When in possession, Roma is apt to probe patiently into the opposition’s half with square balls (Samuel -> Zago/Aldair -> Zebina) and short passes (Zanetti/Emerson -> Tomassi or Zanetti -> Emerson -> Tomassi) retaining possession and maintaining positional discipline.
The canny, obdurate, and domineering 3-man defence of Samuel on the left, Antônio Carlos Zago or Aldair in the middle and Johnathan Zebina on the right achieved defensive superiority. With the 2 man-markers blunting the 2 opposing strikers in a 4-4-2, the spare man, often Aldair, was a deeper centre-back who covered behind. The added insurance at the back allowed Cafu and Vincent Candela, who were previously fullbacks playing as wingbacks, to advance and overlap, effectively providing width to what was a very narrow team. Cafu’s attacking disposition, crossing technique and stamina was offset by Candela’s versatility and tireless endeavour to drop deep and keep the defensive shape compact, tuck inwards to support the midfield and disrupt the oppositions’ passing lanes out wide. Despite his defensive discipline, Cafu was known affectionately as ll Pendolino (‘The Express Train’). As the moniker suggests, Cafu’s advanced starting position meant he would have to cover the whole right flank effortlessly. Cafu’s blistering pace overwhelmed his opponents who were either pinned back or overstretched on the flank.
Roma’s backline would become a 4-man defence: the right centre back, usually Zebina, would defend narrower to consolidate the centre and Candela would retreat naturally into the traditional left-back position. In the event Candela was beaten on the left, Samuel would defend the vacated wide areas, Zago and Zebina would function as regular centre-backs, and Cafu would forsake his attacking impulses to play as a right-back. The fact Roma only conceded 33 goals that season was a testament to their reliability and doggedness.
With Emerson missing the first half of the season due to a cruciate ligament injury, the double pivot of Cristiano Zanetti and Damiano Tommasi buttressed the defence with their all-encompassing and all-conquering presence. While Emerson’s authority and mobility to progress the ball from midfield and play penetrating passes drew plaudits from fans around the world, Tomassi was brutally underrated. Although nicknamed La Anima Candida (‘The Pure Soul’) for his nobility and unassuming demeanour, Tommasi was a gusty warrior. Known for his endurance and metronomic qualities, Tommasi dutifully regained and recycled possession with a penchant for the spectacular.
Il Sergente di Ferro (‘The Iron Sergeant’) Capello’s wilful pragmatism to play a back 3 was as much retaining balance and discipline as it was fostering a winning mentality in an emotionally charged atmosphere. Players were encouraged to take the initiative and control the ball, liberating the creatively devastating frontline. Deploying ‘Il Capitano’ Francesco Totti in the trequartista role, or as the central attacking midfielder, was instrumental in Roma’s third Scudetti win. Whereas Totti was absolved of any defensive responsibilities, he was assigned with goalscoring responsibilities. The proclaimed ‘King of Rome’ flaunted his royalty on the pitch, inducing a frisson of excitement. He would drop into space to collect the ball from out wide or deep before linking with Batistuta (a complete forward) and Vincenzo Montella (an out and out poacher) or Marco Devevvichio (a defensive forward through his disguised balls or his deft movement into space. Montella and Devevvichio would drop deep and roam out wide to create overloads or vacate spaces behind for Totti to occupy or to allow late midfield runs into the box. Batistuta was a “cold-blooded killer”. Positioned on the shoulder of the last man, he lent on his physicality to hold the ball and play Totti in. It was, however, his finishing and presence that rendered him truly formidable. His crisp timed runs and gains from second balls positioned him auspiciously as a great goal scorer and a scorer of great goals. In a nutshell, Roma was an irresistible force insofar as belying Capello’s functional outlook.
Roma wasn’t built in a day
Everything seemed to click for Roma. From an assured 2-0 win against Bologna to having scored 4 goals past Lecce, Brescia, and Verona in the space of 2 months, Roma immediately emerged as Serie A leaders. Batistuta’s partnership with Totti was already bearing fruit, with the former scoring in the first 11 games including a bittersweet coup de grace against his former club Fiorentina. Il ‘Capitano’ inserted himself into the goalscoring fray with some inspired performances, including a spectacular left-foot volley in a crucial 2-1 home win over Udinese. Fast forward to January and, after another spellbinding show of display by Totti in a comprehensive 3-0 rout over Napoli in the Derby del Sole, the Giallorossi (The Yellow and Reds) had lost only to the Milanese clubs. Having beaten Parma, Lazio featuring Cafu’s hat-trick Sombreros over Nedved and drawn to perennial elite club Juventus, Roma’s intentions were being known: they were in contention for the Scudetto.
“Il Verona graffia, la Roma lo travolge” (“Verona scratches, Roma sweeps up”) came the headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport. With 10 games the 2000/01 Serie A season remaining, Roma were on the cusp of sweeping up the Scudetto. A 3-1 victory over Verona opened a 9-point chasm between themselves and Juventus. After a loss and draw, Roma went back to winning ways with a 3-1 win against Udinese. With Totti absent, Tommasi took on the mantle of captain. Rising to the occasion, Tommasi scored a memorable 4th goal. Unleashing an exquisite left-footed strike on the half volley, the ball rocketed in via the inside of the post.
Following the win in Udine was the Derby della Capitale (The Rome Derby). Half time beckoned with no goals and the caginess continued into the second half until Roma scored 2 quick goals in succession from Delvecchio and Batistuta. After what looked like another win for the Lupi (plural of Lupa), Nedved avenged Cafu’s Sombrero with a brace to regain some of his dignity. With Lazio drinking in the last chance saloon, Lucas Castroman scored a long-range, low driven shot at the 94th minute. From delight to disbelief, Roma relinquished 2 precious points to invite Juventus 6 points closer to the summit.
Roma had little time to lament as they played away to Juventus at the Stadio Delle Alpi in a potential title decider. From the onset, it seemed that Juventus understood the context. Goals from Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane risked consigning an out of sorts Roma out of the title picture. Anxiously, Capello turned to his bench and summoned Hidetoshi Nakata into the fray. The Japanese midfielder’s entry influenced the game. First, he fired a sumptuous 30-yard piledriver past Edwin Van der Sar. Foraging for more goals, Nakata audaciously took another shot from a similar range only for Van Der Sar to parry the ball in Montella’s path. Who would have thought Montella scoring both the easiest and most unglamorous of his 13 goals that season would send the 5000 Roma supporters into delirium and leave Juventus crestfallen? The irony was that the Little Airplane’s late equaliser traumatised Juventus like a vertiginous passenger reeling from an abrupt crash-landing. Although Roma retained pole position, the true winners were their perennial rivals, Lazio, who moved into second taking over Juventus by a point. With 6 games to go and Roma’s 5-point cushion at the top, the title race was anything but over.
After an insipid draw to AC Milan, Rome desperately needed to return to winning ways in Naples to extend their lead at the top. Like in Turin, Roma’s slow start gave them the unenviable task to overturn the deficit. Batistuta reciprocated to Nicola Amoruso’s opener before the break. Roma continued to gain momentum with Totti chest control and volley bringing the Lupi ahead. Again, Roma found themselves in the same (in)auspicious situation against Napoli as they did in The Rome Derby. Again, Roma capitulated only this time it was Fabio Pecchia’s innocuous free-kick somehow confounding Antonioli. Honours even at the Sao Paolo, now aptly renamed as the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Roma’s 3rd draw in 5 games, coupled with Juventus and Lazio’s emphatic wins against Vicenza and Fiorentina, respectively, separated the top 3 by 3 points.
The table as it was heading into the final matchday:
- Roma: 72
- Juventus: 70
- Lazio: 69
For the third consecutive year, the champions of Italy were to be determined on the final day. All Roma had to do was win against Parma and they would become champions!
With Parma already securing 4th place, thus a place into next season’s Champions League, one would be remiss to consider the game as a foregone conclusion. Concurrently, Juventus faced Atlanta who was already safe while Lazio played against Lecce who was fighting for survival.
Roma was on the ascendancy from the beginning. 19 minutes into the game and Totti fires past the powerless Gianluigi Buffon to put the home side in front. It only took 20 minutes later for Roma to double their lead. Buffon saved Batistua’s strike only for an ever-present Montella to slot the ball into an unguarded net. Despite a brief resurgence from Parma’s Marco di Vaio, the final member of Roma’s attacking triumvirate, Batistuta, guaranteed Roma the vital 3 points. Despite a premature invasion by fans suspending the game for 10 minutes, the match finished 3-1. Irrespective of results elsewhere (Juventus won and Lazio lost), at 16.52, on June 17, 2001, Roma ‘swept up’ the Scudetto. Fans celebrated with deafening elation that it risked erupting Monti Sabatini or Colli Albani. Where fans who swarmed onto the pitch chanted “Grazie Roma, Grazie Roma”, players, such as Batistuta and Totti were overwhelmed by the unrestrained fervour of the Curva Sud! Indeed, Roma wasn’t built in a day; it was (re)built in season.
Season summary: bumpy chart, smooth sailing
The bumpy chart above illustrates the three contenders’ progression in Serie A throughout the season. From afar, the title race looked like a one-horse race with Roma being the league leaders for weeks 2 and 3 and then from week 6 onwards. Whereas Roma progression was linear — they never went below 3rd — Lazio and Juventus’ journey was anything but smooth. Both teams fluctuated in the top half of the table, yet Lazio had the ‘bumpier’ ride, finding themselves as low as 9th. By week 15, Lazio and Juventus were vying for 2nd place overlapping each other in weeks 17, 28 and 32 despite being in contention for the Scudetto. Nonetheless, the title race was decided on the last day.
Legacy: here today and gone tomorrow but Totti remains
Roma’s Scudetto win was historically significant: for the first time in Serie A’s history, the Scudetto remains in Rome for 2 consecutive years. Yet, basking in the afterglow of success and its excess (a Supercoppa Italiana title shortly after), little did they know that this was the beginning of the end. A typical case of here today and gone tomorrow: as soon as Roma was rebuilt, its Empire began to dwindle. Samuel, Cafu, Emerson and Batistuta and, eventually, Capello moved to pastures new. Roma valiantly fought on all fronts but failed to get over the line and build on their 3rd Scudetti. In 6 of the next 9 seasons, Roma finished second, often behind Mancini’s and then Mourinho’s Triplete Inter Milan.
A noteworthy remnant of their 3rd Scudetti was Totti. He was the captain who did not abandon Roma’s sinking ship for sunnier uplands. The gladiator of his beleaguered city who resisted desertion for relief from their bellicose, intransigent, and rapacious oppressors…I mean, owners! His unwavering fidelity to his boyhood club endured through Roma’s malaise and the unrivalled success of his contemporaries. While the Scudetto was arguably Totti’s crowning achievement, he reaffirmed his allegiance to Roma. In dedicating his whole career to the Giallorossi, Totti became the embodiment of Roma’s present and glorious past who solaced fans while venturing them into the post-Scudetto era.
Prospective: The Roman Emperor has no clothes…
Roma has a new Emperor. José Mourinho will replace the outgoing Paulo Fonseca as Roma’s manager next season in what will be a rebuilding job like Fabio Capello’s. With a narrow defensive base, an assured midfield, overlapping wingbacks, intelligent and creative wingers and a clinical and ageing striker, the current squad does bear an uncanny tactical resemblance to the one 20 years ago. Likewise, this team are best suited to play in a 3-4-3 formation, with Fonseca deploying a 3-4-2-1 formation with mixed success. Whereas recent stints in England suggest Mourinho has tactically become anachronistic and a spent force, his reputation in Italy has remained intact. Fondly remembered as the charismatic and devilishly pragmatic ‘Special One’ by Italian media and fans, Mourinho’s appointment has already improved Roma’s standing and morale. Nonetheless, there are 2 outcomes from what could be a pivot juncture in both Roma’s history and Mourinho’s career. At best, Mourinho’s Roman conquest ushers in a new era, relaunching “the club, the city and Italian football”. Or, at its likely path-dependent worst, the chastening realisation has dawned upon Roma, and Calcio at large, that the Roman Emperor has no clothes!
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