The AS Roma Hall of Fame inducted its first ever class on Sunday, a full team of 11 former players selected through the combined votes of the team’s fans and a panel of experts. As the likes of Franco Tancredi, Falcao and Bruno Conti walked out onto the pitch at Stadio Olimpico shortly before the team’s game against Atalanta, some of the club’s older supporters were moved to tears.
To be eligible for consideration, players must have been retired for at least two years, but it is safe to assume that at least two members of the present squad will eventually return as inductees. For Francesco Totti, the only question is whether he will ever actually be persuaded to hang up his boots. After more than a decade of distinguished service, Daniele De Rossi must also be considered a shoo-in.
De Rossi’s immediate future, on the other hand, suddenly feels less certain. Not two months have passed since the midfielder reaffirmed his commitment to the club, having turned down a move to Manchester City. But that was before the events of the last 10 days. Before the man known to many fans as ‘Capitan Futuro’— Roma’s Future Captain—came up against their Current Manager.
As the Stadio Olimpico welcomed back old friends on Sunday, De Rossi was digesting some unwelcome news. Just a few minutes before warm-ups began, Zdenek Zeman informed him that he had not been included in the starting XI to face Atalanta. New rules this season allowing Serie A teams to include all unused members of their first-team squad as substitutes meant that the manager had no need to share his line-up with the players any sooner.
De Rossi was not the only high-profile player to find himself unexpectedly marginalized—he was joined on the substitutes’ bench by Pablo Osvaldo and Nicolás Burdisso. But the context of his omission was rather different. Zeman actively praised Burdisso, saying that he wished the rest of his players could boast a similar work ethic, suggesting only that the defender was not comfortable with his preferred high defensive line.
The other two were each accused of insufficient application in training, with Zeman insisting that, “For me the hierarchy is established not by surnames but by hard work”. But even here there was a critical difference. Osvaldo had enjoyed a broadly positive relationship to this point with the manager, who had described him as second only to Totti at Roma for sheer talent. Zeman’s feelings on De Rossi have never been so clear. Nor have the midfielder’s towards his manager.
“I was hoping [Vincenzo] Montella would get the job,” De Rossi had said shortly after Zeman’s appointment was confirmed in the summer, though he would subsequently claim to have been won over by the latter. “I thought he was a miser, but instead I discovered a brilliant man, full of verve and good humour”.
Zeman, for his part, did his talking in the transfer market, signing two players—Michael Bradley and Panagiotis Tachtsidis—with experience playing in De Rossi’s role at the heart of midfield. From the outside it looked like straightforward succession planning. Roma were understood to have accepted a bid for De Rossi from City, before the player himself said no.
Even after having decided to stay, however, De Rossi found himself seemingly nudged down the pecking order, forced to play on the right of a midfield three instead of in his usual role at the heart of it. That position instead went to Tachtsidis, with Zeman unflinching in his support for the new arrival despite a series of cumbersome performances. Pressed on the matter, the manager insisted that, “For me a regista needs to have other characteristics”.
De Rossi publically accepted his role, noting that he had filled a similar one for Italy during the European Championships, but he continued to harbour reservations about Zeman’s gung-ho tactical approach. After a 4-1 mauling by Juventus, those tensions spilled over, with the player railing that Roma had been too predictable. “They knew all of our weaknesses,” he said.
More provocative still were his words on Roma’s title chances. “We are not a Scudetto-worthy team, and anyone who suggests otherwise is damaging Roma,” said De Rossi. That was perhaps a fair assessment, but also one that directly contradicted the words of his manager just hours earlier.
The pair were subsequently said to have become engaged in a heated argument in the changing rooms. Although the club has refused to comment on the matter, Sky Sport 24 reported that among the barbs exchanged was one from De Rossi criticising Zeman for having allowed his own long-standing battles with Juventus to overshadow his team’s preparations. “It was just a match, not a crusade,” De Rossi is purported to have said.
If relationships had been frayed by this point, then further reports soon emerged that De Rossi had approached Zeman on the Tuesday after the game to express concerns—apparently shared by several team-mates—about the severity of his training regime and the insistence on double sessions each day. According to La Repubblica, Zeman responded with an even more brutal routine than usual, dominated by sit-ups and his infamous “gradoni” – a series of explosive exercises working off the terrace steps.
It was against this backdrop, then, that De Rossi found himself dropped on Sunday. If there was an element of opportune timing for Zeman as Bradley returned from an injury which had kept him out for the start of the season, then it was hard not to read the move on some level as a managerial statement.
Luis Enrique had dropped De Rossi once last season too (by coincidence also against Atalanta), but in that case the player was being punished for a single and clear misdeed: having shown up late for a team meeting. That, though, was a one-off, each man continuing to hold the other in high esteem, with De Rossi describing the manager as having been “fundamental” in his decision to sign a new deal.
The other major difference between then and now was that Zeman’s team still won. Where Enrique’s side had been humiliated in De Rossi’s absence, losing 4-1, this time Roma were able to record their first home victory of the season. A 2-0 scoreline was certainly flattering (the visitors wasted four good chances to take the lead in the first 20 minutes alone) but in a results-driven business it was also all that really mattered.
It was an outcome which helped ensure that supporters rallied around their manager, rather than the player. A poll conducted by the newspaper Il Messaggero found that 77% of readers thought that Zeman had been right to drop De Rossi. A similar response was obtained by Corriere dello Sport after they published one online post supporting each side of the debate.
As unthinkable as it should be for a player so loved by the home support, and who had so recently declared his intention to see out his career with the club, events have already given rise to fresh speculation that De Rossi could be sold in January. With Roma reporting losses of close to €60m for the last financial year, his potential transfer fee and high wages certainly make it an appealing move to the club’s directors.
The conspiracy theorists, indeed, have suggested that this was always the plan when Zeman arrived, hence the signings in midfield, and that by gradually marginalizing De Rossi the manager is simply doing his part to convince the player that it is time to move on. That is a significant leap to make, of course, when the truth is that much of the information about their recent falling out is based on a mix of third-party reports and hearsay.
What we do know for now is that De Rossi, like Osvaldo, will have time to reflect on recent events while away on international duty with Italy, where he has already made it clear that he is in no rush to speak to the press. More than any words, it is his actions, along with those of Zeman, upon his return that will be critical in deciding what happens next.