Adam DigbyComment


Adam DigbyComment

It ended with them besieged by their own supporters who, hungry for souvenirs, preceded to strip their heroes of those famous Giallorossi shirts, shorts, socks, vests, literally anything they could get their hands on to remember the occasion. It was a day they would never forget.

Everything about that sunny afternoon back in June 2001 was almost perfect for AS Roma as they ensured they took the points necessary to guarantee what would eventually prove to be only the third league title in the club's history. Even the three names on the score-sheet – Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella and Gabriel Batistuta – perfectly reflected a season which had seen them lead Serie A from start to finish. It was a campaign that was perhaps the most dominant by AS Roma since they were formed back in 1927.

If that glorious day at the Stadio Olimpico was the consecration of Franco Sensi's dream of delivering the Scudetto to his beloved club, it was also the final chapter of a dream whose seminal moment came when seeing their bitter rivals Lazio achieve the very same success a year earlier. For, as the President's ambition was fulfilled with the tricolore finally stitched upon those egg and tomato shirts, it was also the perfect execution of a plan hatched between Fabio Capello and Franco Baldini just as the previous year's title was making its way to the other side of Rome.

The two men had, ever since the Coach arrived two years previously, tried and failed to convince the owner to grant then the funds necessary to land the truly world class striker both viewed as the final piece of their carefully crafted squad. Already a truly special group of players which provided Capello with the options to suit almost any situation, the duo – whose understanding would become as great as any Coach-Director of Football combination to ever grace the peninsula – knew they still needed to add a consistent natural goal scorer to aid them on difficult trips to Italy’s provinces which so often decided title races.

They knew the odds were against them as Lazio’s victory was the first for any team other than Milan or Juventus since Sampdoria’s 1991 triumph and the two Northern giants would be seriously reloading to prevent further infringement on their duopoly. Yet still the reticent Sensi balked at the kind of fees needed to capture a player of such stature so Baldini and Capello took a huge gamble, leaking false reports of a move for Argentinian hit-man Batistuta, an icon of Fiorentina and scorer of successive 20+ goal hauls in the three previous seasons and no fewer than 207 since his arrival as a 21 year old unknown a decade earlier.

Collaborating with the then Editor of Corriere dello Sport, the story of a move for 30 year old Batistuta was broken by the paper, causing a huge swell of public opinion, backing the merits of such a transfer and it soon became the talk of a city which embraces Calcio more passionately than almost any other on the globe. Well-wishers began congratulating Sensi on his astute move, prompting him to realise he was left with no option but to deliver on a promise he had never actually made. To fail now would likely see him dragged onto the floor of the Coliseum and fed to the lions in a manner befitting the history of the Eternal City.

It was a deal with no downside; Fiorentina had a vital injection of cash – roughly £23.5 million, still a record for a player over 30 – Batistuta himself finally had a chance to win major honours, Capello gained the striker he so desperately coveted and sales of Corriere were breaking all previous records. The spending would not end there as Sensi revelled in playing the generous owner willing to do whatever it took to see his side reach their lofty ambitions and he went on to spend a further €20 million to Boca Juniors for highly rated defender Walter Samuel and the same fee again to secure talented midfielder Emerson of Bayer Leverkusen.

Capello was left in no doubt as to the quality now at his disposal and told reporters before the season started that “this team is complete from top to bottom,” going on to declare that “with the squad we have put together, we simply cannot fail.” From a man who had taken on Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team and demolished them 4-0 in a European Cup Final this was no idle threat, he was making a promise, one which removed every last excuse from his players and forced them to deliver on his word.

And deliver they would, combining the power, hunger and hard work so readily associated with the Coach both before and after his spell in the Capital with a more exciting, fluid brand of attacking football possessing a verve that at times appeared to be a hold over from Capello’s predecessor Zdenek Zeman’s stint in charge of the club. Yes, this was a title that owed a huge debt to the solid dependability of Samuel, Emerson and the tireless work of Marco Delvecchio as he covered incredible distances in order to allow Totti and Batistuta the space and time to weave their magic, and it was almost entirely dependent on a style of football seemingly as alien to Capello as the idea of England players and their flip flops would be a decade later.

The platform the team was built upon was however typical of Capello, as an injury in pre-season ruled out Emerson and Damiano Tomassi partnered fellow defensive midfielder Cristiano Zanetti (sound familiar?) Both rarely ventured forward and had the discipline to hold their shape at all times as Capello, a long term believer in the virtues of a four man defence, broke his own love for the conventional and employed a back three. That typically saw Samuel line up alongside Jonathan Zebina and Carlos Zago to protect the equally average Francesco Antoniolli’s goal.

Yet those six players allowed what was perhaps the key element to this title win and it is one which still sees a smile come to the face of the most cynical of football watchers even today. To make a back three effective, top quality wing-backs are vital and for this, one season, Roma had what was arguably the finest pairing ever made at club level. On the right was the simply brilliant Cafu doing everything he was famous for; running forward at will, often well ahead of any other player on his team and providing a steady stream of accurate crosses. On the opposite flank, Vincent Candela had the season of his career, not quite at the level of the Brazilian but good enough to provide a similar threat and stretch play to create space for that dangerous front three.

One other thing they brought was Cafu’s smile. You know the one, usually made after he just fails to connect with a cross-field pass that would have sent him through on goal. He turns, gum hanging out of his mouth, raising a thumb in the direction from which the ball had come, at once acknowledging the pass and the fact he should have had it before that grin broke out across his face, lighting up the stadium as everyone present thinks the same; ‘wait until the next one!’ It was a smile that not only brought joy to onlookers everywhere but one that showed life under Capello could be fun and, even more pertinently, that footballers in the Capital could enjoy themselves.

So often a microscope-cum-goldfish bowl that examines the character of even the greatest of players, Rome – its people and its press – have destroyed potential title challenges before they have even begun. But from the start this was different. This Roma knew they were good, they knew what they had to achieve to be recognised, and they knew - with the kind of intrinsic, deeply rooted belief that grants complete freedom - that they would actually deliver Scudetto glory to the Giallorossi.

If the wing-backs were the keys to the formation working, the forwards available to Capello were undoubtedly the reason the players had such faith in where their journey would end. Of course Batistuta was the closer, the finisher who guaranteed goals when they were most needed – he too would deliver, netting 20 goals in a season which cemented his reputation as a true great – but his fellow strikers were equally important.

Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio had combined for thirty goals in the previous campaign but the arrival of the Argentine obviously spelt the end of their partnership, and it would be the latter player who seemed to earn the trust and respect of Capello. ‘Bati-Gol’, as his moniker suggests, thrived on chances and Delvecchio was – as well as being a hard worker who could protect one flank defensively – the more creative of the two, much to the chagrin on Montella.

Yet such was the faith in the system and those charged with executing it, the ‘little aeroplane’ would channel his anger at constantly being left out to bag fourteen goals, many from the bench. Those included a key late equaliser away to Juventus which kept the Turin club at arm’s length with just five rounds of the Championship remaining.

And then there was Francesco Totti. The hometown boy and idol of the Curva Sud was placed at the centre of this team by Capello, utilising him in his natural trequartista position with the strikers running off him, the wing-backs giving him room and the rest of the team providing defensive stability behind him. Make no mistake; for all the other elements including the tactical acumen of the Coach – it was he who knitted it all together and it was he who would decide almost every key moment and, as much as it was a collective effort to deliver the title, it would be his consecration as a truly world class talent. It may have been Roma’s third Scudetto but it will forever be Totti’s title.

If this incarnation of the Giallorossi were an orchestra, one made up of some of the finest musicians of their generation, then Totti was the undisputed conductor, and he set the tone perfectly. Of course there have been other wonderful number 10’s but Totti, this Totti, wasted nothing. Every touch, and there were some simply beautiful ones, had purpose. Seemingly gone – if only for this one campaign – was the petulant arrogance, replaced for the duration of the season with the swagger of a genuine champion.

Perhaps it is hindsight, the passing of time creating an illusion that only grows the more years that pass but if, as Capello himself once stated, a Scudetto in Rome is worth ten in Milan or Turin, then it appeared Totti knew he had to see at least one arrive on the chests of the Lupi if he were to cement his place in the club’s history alongside his own hero Giuseppe Giannini who was so key in their 1983 triumph.

It would not be his finest year on a personal level, that accolade would probably go to the twelve months of 2006-07 which saw him lift the World Cup, Coppa Italia and Italian Super Cup before going on to be named not only Serie A top scorer and Italian Player of the year but also the Golden Shoe as the continents leading marksman, adapting his game to be the truest of false nines under Luciano Spalletti.

Yet he would probably swap all those honours, perhaps even the World Cup win, to enjoy another campaign like the one enjoyed under Capello, one which brought ultimate glory to Rome and allowed both he and his team-mates to enjoy adulation that is not repeated anywhere else on the peninsula. Yes, it is not hard to imagine that Totti, Batistuta and Cafu would call that summer’s afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico the greatest day of their lives, the day they truly were the Kings of Rome.

Follow Adam on Twitter @Adz77 for more insight into Italian football, past and present.