Losing the Coppa Italia final to Lazio this past May might have been the best thing that could happen to Roma. It probably did not feel that way to the club’s fans, as they suffered through a summer of intense baiting from their city rivals who organised everything from a fake funeral right through to planes trailing messages over the capital. But already the boot is on the other foot; six months later, Roma are top of the league, while Lazio struggle down in seventh.
That is no accident. The impact of Rudi Garcia has been phenomenal, the new Roma manager getting the best from key individuals while also helping the Giallorossi to achieve the sort of tactical cohesion that we had not seen from them in many years. But he has also been aided by the fact that his team are not involved in continental competition – as they would have been if they had beaten Lazio in May.
More importantly, he has been able to count on the presence of Daniele De Rossi. The midfielder was close to leaving the club this summer, telling Sky Italia that this was the first time in his career that he had given serious thought to the idea of playing for another team and in another city. “I told the club that I wanted to hear any offers we received,” said De Rossi. “I felt like this might be the right year to make a change, to try something different.”
It was not a decision he had come to lightly. De Rossi’s form for Roma had been in decline, the player falling out of favour almost immediately with the newly appointed Zdenek Zeman last summer. Accused of slacking during in training, he was dropped for a game against Atalanta in October and thereafter frequently deployed out of position on the right of midfield. Zeman was sacked in February, but De Rossi continued to struggle through the rest of the campaign.
He had not become a bad player overnight. To the contrary, his performances for Italy were as good as they had ever been. But both the media and many supporters in Rome had turned against him. Some even chastised him for turning down a transfer to Manchester City in the summer of 2012 on the grounds that his sale might have brought in valuable funds for the club to reinvest elsewhere.
For De Rossi, it was almost too much to bear. He was not some jaded mercenary but a supporter himself, one who had dreamed of playing for this club as he grew up chasing a ball around the beach in Ostia where his aunt and grandmother worked. “To be a Roma player but not make the fans happy, not make Rome happy…that was a pretty overwhelming weight for me,” he reflected last month.
Nor could he shrug these things off like some others might have done. Francesco Totti, too, has endured periods of criticism in Rome, but he has always been a more cocksure individual. The forward understood from a young age that he was a special talent, and has never doubted his own ability. De Rossi has never been quite so assured.
“There are kids who appear at 10 or 11 years old juggling oranges on YouTube; I was not one of those,” said De Rossi in a 2011 interview. “I was a kid who loved football from the day I was born, but I did not have that conviction. I was not sure that I was good enough to reach certain levels.”
He claims not to have even believed that he was going to make a lasting career as a professional until after he turned 19 – despite making his senior debut for Roma a year earlier. Even after excelling during his first prolonged run in the team, towards the end of 2003, he was the first to bat down journalists’ talk of a call-up to the national team.
Often considered alongside Totti as one of the two great homegrown symbols of this team, the truth is that De Rossi is cut from a very different cloth. The midfielder has described his team-mate as the “classic Roman”–outgoing and outspoken. De Rossi himself is much more of an introvert, someone who chooses his words carefully and would prefer to stay silent than express a half-formed opinion.
He is certainly the deeper thinker of the two. Totti used to say that if he had not been a footballer he would have liked to work as an attendant at a gas station because he liked the smell of the fumes. De Rossi, by contrast, wanted to grow up to be a judge.
But perhaps it is also easier for Totti to roll with any punches that get thrown in his direction because he has already achieved the thing that matters most: winning a Serie A title with Roma. De Rossi only made his senior debut in October 2001, five months after the Giallorossi had won their last Scudetto.
For a long time, De Rossi’s desire to emulate that achievement was enough to stop him from considering a move away. Plenty of Europe’s biggest and richest teams had expressed an interest down the years, including City last summer. The Premier League club were prepared to pay him even more than the €6m per year that he eventually accepted to sign a new deal in Rome.
Last year’s experience with Zeman, however, had prompted De Rossi to reassess his situation. Was it even realistic any more to believe that Roma could challenge for a title after finishing sixth, seventh, and sixth again over the last three years? And was it worth fighting through for a losing cause when so many people who followed the club seemed to want him gone?
And so De Rossi stepped away for a while and reflected. This was not a decision to be rushed, and nor was he a man to rush it. As well as thinking about his own career ambitions, he also needed to consider the impact a move might have on his ability to see his daughter, Gaia–De Rossi and Gaia’s mother separated in 2009.
He gave ambiguous answers to journalists’ questions about his future over the summer for the simple reason that he had not yet made up his mind. He knew that there was interest in him from Manchester United, and maybe one or two others. Some days, he would wake up thinking that those options did not sound so bad.
But now he found himself pulled back from the brink by a new consideration. No longer was he thinking about the trophies he wanted to win with Roma, but instead the one that had got away, the one that Lazio took from him at that Coppa Italia final in May.
“It was the thought that I just could not get rid of,” said De Rossi. “I could imagine myself in any team in the world, lifting any trophy, but the thought that I had played my last match in a Roma shirt in a derby, and a final, that we lost – the thought that this could be the closing act of one of the greatest love stories between a player and a team that I know of – it was just all wrong.”
And so, instead, he decided to stay. It helped that Garcia was not Zeman, and instead had phoned De Rossi to make clear from day one how much he was looking forward to their working together. The new manager was not fooled by last season’s lacklustre displays. “It’s not normal that a player should play this well for his country,” mooted Garcia, “but not be able to do it for his club.”
With De Rossi turning 30 in July, Roma’s directors knew that this might be one of their last opportunities to sell him for a worthwhile fee. But they also recognised the vision that Garcia was developing. De Rossi, playing alongside Miralem Pjanic and the newly-acquired Kevin Strootman could become the strongest midfield trio in the division.
So it has proved. Restored to his preferred central role, De Rossi has been an ever-present for Roma, repaying his manager’s faith with performances of the highest order. He might not have the statistics to show for it with fewer assists and goals than either of his starting midfield team-mates, but those were never his speciality in the first place.
Instead what De Rossi brings is something more intangible, a reading of the game that few others could replicate. In possession he rarely makes a mistake, completing almost 90% of his passes this season and very often the ones that might launch an attack in the first place – the assist to the assist, if you will. When defending he shows up in the right places at the right times with startling regularity. It was his clearance off the line from Goran Pandev that kept Roma from falling a goal behind in the first-half of their eventual 2-0 win over Napoli.
Some have speculated that he might eventually be adapted into a centre-back, emulating the career path of Franz Beckenbauer. He has been asked to fill that role on occasion for both Italy and Roma in recent years, and his performances when doing so have certainly suggested that he could be up to the task.
For now, though, De Rossi will continue just where he is. For many years he has been referred to in Rome as “Er Capitan Futuro” – the Future Captain – a reference to the assumption that he would one day take over from Totti. But with the forward missing games due to a hamstring injury, it has fallen to De Rossi to lead the team forward in his absence. He is making a perfectly impressive job of it so far.