At last, the cardiologists of Rome can rest easy. “The heart is designed to palpitate,” said Daniele De Rossi when asked in November how much longer he planned to keep Roma’s fans waiting to discover if he would sign a new contract with the club. On Sunday, those tense tickers got relief when it was confirmed that the midfielder signed a new five-year deal that ties him to the Giallorossi through to 2017.
Some contract it was too—€5.5m per year in guaranteed salary, plus further bonuses that will in reality take it to at least €6m. That would be enough to make him the joint-best paid Italian player in Serie A, alongside Juventus’s Gigi Buffon. According to Gazzetta dello Sport’s numbers, it also represents about one tenth of the club’s total turnover. Of greater importance to the fans however was that, despite initial reports to the contrary, the deal did not include any release clauses.
De Rossi could hardly be blamed for taking his time to make what was a very significant decision. This would likely be, he noted, the last major contract of his career, and the alternatives were not inconsiderable. Among his suitors were clubs as storied as Real Madrid and as rich as Manchester City. Both De Rossi and Roma’s general manager Franco Baldini acknowledged that he had been offered “silly money” to play elsewhere.
What was noteworthy, though, was the explanation he gave for his decision to stay. De Rossi said money was a factor – while noting that he could have had much more elsewhere – as was his love for the club he supported as a boy. But also important was his desire to continue working with a man who had at one point stood accused of undermining the club’s Roman values: the manager Luis Enrique.
“He was fundamental. He has relit that flame which all footballers need,” said De Rossi of Enrique, the Asturian tactician appointed by the club’s new American owners during the summer. “He is the best manager I have ever worked with.”
That is high praise from a player who has been coached by Fabio Capello, Luciano Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri at club level, as well as Marcello Lippi and Cesare Prandelli with the national side (indeed, the latter had also worked with him during an extremely brief tenure at Roma in 2004). Enrique has only been working as a coach for three-and-a-half years, and his only previous post was with the Barcelona B team.
The truth is that De Rossi was taken with Enrique from day one, and was heard departing his first meeting with the new manager in July saying, “This challenge really excites me too, with you we will do great things”. Il Giornale’s report of that meeting cited sources at Roma’s Trigoria training ground saying they had never seen the player appear more motivated.
To some, De Rossi’s warm welcome for the new manager came as a surprise. The club’s other great homegrown hero, the captain Francesco Totti, had made plain his scepticism over the new regime – heralded as it was by statements from Baldini on his pleasure at finding a manager “uncontaminated” by the Italian game. To Totti’s mind, and to those of many supporters, Enrique’s appointment was an unwelcome attempt to impose foreign values on a team and a city that takes great pride in its heritage.
“Above all I hope that he who is born a Romanista, and who has given much to this club, will always be granted the respect they deserve,” wrote Totti in a column for Corriere dello Sport on the day of Enrique’s unveiling. Within weeks, newspapers were thick with reports of a rift between the forward and his new manager, a situation exacerbated when the player was left out of the starting XI for a the first leg of a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava, and substituted in the second.
It would be a mistake however to assume that De Rossi would share Totti’s outlook. Yes, they are both Romans and both have spent their entire careers representing the club they adore, but that is where the similarities end. Where Totti was a “predestinato”—one whose natural gifts meant he was destined to reach football’s highest stage—De Rossi was at the other end of the spectrum, an unremarkable young player who, as James Horncastle noted in a recent piece for Fox Soccer, achieved success on the back of hard work and desire.
Likewise, while Totti is always outspoken, De Rossi is more withdrawn. “We have different characters,” said the latter in November. “Francesco is the classic Roman, he seems to come from a different era. He is cocksure, confident in himself, he has a big personality … And he can also be a bit touchy.”
Of course, it is also true that each has been treated very differently by the new regime. Totti suffered the ignominy of being left out in favour of the 22-year-old Stefano Okaka, the 18-year-old Gianluca Caprari and the newly-signed 21-year-old Bojan Krkic for that first game against Bratislava; while De Rossi was told from day one that he was integral to the new coach’s plans.
True to his word, Enrique installed De Rossi immediately in the heart of his new system, deploying him as a deep-lying ball-winner and play-maker, a role in which the midfielder, after two indifferent seasons under Claudio Ranieri and Vincenzo Montella, has thrived. De Rossi comfortably leads the team in both passes attempted (a staggering 71.3 per game) and opposition passes intercepted (3.8 per game). Indeed, he ranks second and third in the league respectively in those two categories.
And there is no doubting that De Rossi is most content when he is made to feel indispensable. “[Enrique] values me, he gives me lots of responsibility,” said De Rossi after signing his new contract. “Doing little tasks is not for me: I like to be at the heart of the manoeuvres, to be the cause of victories and at time defeats.”
One other area in which he differs from Totti, however, is in the number of titles won, having made his first-team debut in October 2001, a few months after Roma’s last Scudetto. Although De Rossi, like Totti, became a world champion with Italy in 2006, domestically he has never won anything greater than the Coppa Italia. In agreeing to stay, he also made it clear that he believes that can change. “At Roma you can be great without Scudetti or medals,” he said. “But I have a great desire to put something in the cabinet.”
“[James] Pallotta made a good impression on me,” added De Rossi of the club’s new majority shareholder, who threw himself clothed into a swimming pool at the club’s training ground last month in order to ram home a point to his team about playing without fear. “He wants to win without losing any time.”
In other words, he wants to get those hearts palpitating once again, but this time because of what happens on the pitch rather than off it.