The premise is wrong. It’s not a football club.
The day started with a call from one of these sophisticated new investors in sport. A podcast listener.
“I’m getting fed up wasting a lot of time trying to win arguments over the need for fresh thinking in football. Give me half a page of the best arguments for a SuperLeague. And the ripostes to their best counter arguments.”
As sport is about to enter into a savage period of polarisation, redefinition, and disruption, I’m well versed in the pitch.
This brought my thoughts back to poor Jim Pallotta, and his 7 circles of purgatory with AS Roma.
Penning apology letters and getting slammed by the legends. It’s as bad as it gets.
If he called me, what would I say?
This would be my first piece of advice to Mr James Pallotta.
It’s not a football club.
Or a sports franchise.
So don’t manage it like one.
It is, instead, a state of mind. “uno stato d’animo”. Until you realise that, anyone owning this Club is heading in the wrong direction. It’s definitely not an American sports franchise.
This article’s author has a rather unusual perspective from which to opine on such matters. Whilst not a citizen of the city, whilst not a true fan of the club, whilst not invested with emotional capital, I have been truly immersed in the river Tiber of “romanità” and AS Roma. And it has been wonderful.
My wife, her family, her groups of friends, my dearest work colleagues were, and are all, giallorossi doc. Whilst courting my wife, I did also live in the city, and in covering Italian football in the last 35 years, I’ve made enough mental notes about what matters to the fans of this club. I’ve inevitably endured the rants of too many Roman taxi drivers, and listened to too many of the infamous Roman football radio stations.
And in Francesco Totti, I’ve seen the zenith of the kind of footballer I enjoy. Let’s return to him later. Because let’s be honest. It’s all about him.
This article is a serious chronicle of what I currently see, where I think the Club sits at present, and what I’d do to ameliorate the current situation. But honeslty, it’s also playing to the above audience of friends and family, who like the outsider’s view on their beloved club and Francesco.
What is this strange word?
As we shall see, it is in defining this phrase, that the enigma can perhaps be solved.
Equally, if Jim Pallotta doesn’t let the concept seep directly into his blood, I suggest he will fail; and badly.
In fact, it is with this word that Totti lately cut deepest the American flesh.
“They have always wanted the Romans out of Roma.
Now they have it”.
It is difficult to understand the weight of this attack until you watch the Totti video included later.
Let’s however take a step back. Context. There is never any truth without context.
AS Roma is one of two clubs who participate in professional Association football in the capital of 8m.
The other being AS Lazio.
For the purposes of brevity, the distinction is this: la Roma is the club of real Romans (The Romanisti will of course say this), the bohemians. Whereas la Lazio is for the people in the suburbs and small towns outside, in the wider region of Lazio. Notoriously more right wing and single minded in their views.
The Lazio supporter is often called “burino”: a simple butter merchant, a peasant.
If you are not familiar with romanesco, the Capital’s dialect, feel free to scroll down past the following two videos, which indulge my Italian readers sense of humour.
Jokes aside, this is the crux of the matter. The derby with the ridiculed Burino-Laziale is probably more important than a Serie A title in that city.
Over these years I’ve asked some of my friends what this nonsense is all about. Compared to a Juventus, where the win is everything; where do Roman fans get their jollies instead? And, more importantly, why?
One of my philosopher friends, with a penchant for recreational drugs and a rare insight into calcio, sat with his B52, settling in for a long session, and patiently explained.
La “romanità”? It’s like this:
Roma ruled the world with such superiority for such a long long time, in culture, society, rule of law. They had no rivals and were SO far ahead, that they started to get bored and began killing each other in jealousy. They got lost of depravity and excess.
Never since has this city aspired to rule the world. Or been focussed on competing hard for excellence. They’ve done that empire dominance thing, and life is now for living. It’s a post modern state of mind. Success is indeed now defined differently. Winning, for many of them, is overrated.
Better to lose, with our identity, and essence, rather than winning with outsiders and mercenaries.
Hence, neither football team from the capital, despite a massive competitive advantage in catchment area, has ever won much. Almost nothing in fact, leaving the scudetti and cups to the Northern Clubs.
In veritas, since Constantine times, this impossibly beautiful place has frankly been organised chaos, with football no exception. Add in the seat of Government and the Vatican, we are talking world-class plotting and conspiracy. I have never, ever, in Rome, seen a dry plain vanilla logical decision-tree type of roadmap.
Where would the fun be in that?
Where are the laughs in all that?
Where is the thrill of the unexpected pivot?
And Jim, never ever underestimate the importance of the “battuta” in Rome. The gag. The wiseass putdown. Laughter is a release there, and also a rite of passage. If you can make a Roman laugh, that’s a big milestone in your acceptance.
Because life in Rome is tough: terrible traffic; inefficiencies; rubbish and dirt on the streets; charlatans and chancers galore; problems on every corner.
But quite often the city takes you aside and whispers; “stop, look around; look where you are, just smile, laugh, love!”
There is a premium on beauty and life.
My mild asthma started in the 90s in this place; from laughing too much and not catching breath. My four years in the music business, with those guys, was a bagatelle of astonishing anecdotes told with impeccables timing. I have literally dined out on those dinner party stories for 25 years.
Rome is a city of intangibles.
Its translation in italian is sfumature. Perfect.
Therefore, you can’t judge Rome and Roma with numbers and spreadsheets; rolls of honour. The place operates on different KPIs. It is, Jim, in your world of finance, the ultimate example for the Balanced Scorecard.
Simply think of the genius of the best Roman films from the likes of Fellini, and the best recent example is La Grande Bellezza. It’s not the plot, it’s the colour that captures you.
Unsurprisingly, football in Rome means everything,
but there is no real plot, only a million colours.
Colours something like this:
Every September, Roma supporters will sup at the tavern of hope and glory. But deep down, they know that it will be for nought. They will lose. They know this, the Club knows this, the players know this. The city knows this. The unknown is how, and with what palette of emotions.
This tavern is however a magical place of irresistible seduction. Starting in late summer evenings full of bella gente, with perfect tans and handsome white shirts, walking the cobbled stones of Trastevere to an impossibly charming trattoria of incredible food. Overly intense discussions of new signings, only interrupted for the passerella of stunning girls, that Rome offers in unnerving frequency. It’s a brief pause, with nodded heads, before retuning to the serious matter of fullbacks and wingers.
Early weeks can be thrilling: enthusiasm and side-splitting humour will fill the air on the back of the regular promising starts to the campaign.
Winter, however, usually brings harsh reality to the city and the team; and, as the wag says, your hopes will be turned off, like the central heating in February.
At this point, Romanisti will concentrate in finishing higher than the burino Lazio cousins. No more no less.
May brings the start of the beaches and summer sun.
Rinse and repeat. Soundtrack Antonello Venditti.
In a strange way, it’s not about winning. It’s about this film, soaked in “romanità.”
Personified by demi-gods like Totti!!!!
It’s really difficult to describe this person and this player. His stats and medals probably don’t worry the experts in standard deviations. Against the benchmark of the American sport data Moneyball KPIs, the Francesco Totti story isn’t told.
But, for a connoisseur of the true beauty of our game, he really is Picasso. The best way I can describe him is this:
All fathers pushed time hard, to accelerate the footballing maturity of their sons, so they could in primis explain to them who this player was and, secondly, to share those moments of football bonding.
“Dad did you see how he did that and how it….”.
“I know son”, we interrupt, “I’m so pleased you can see that now. Enjoy it, it won’t last much longer. This is a football talent on a special level, and, just think, he is ours.”
All successful popular culture
has had always one thing in common.
It allows the public to identify.
And this is the second part of the Totti magic. In the video, these commentators are, in my experience, utterly representative of the “popolo”.
He is easily seen as still the same little lad from a poor suburb, who isn’t excessively smart and likely happy to not be. Who speaks simply but authentically, and still smiles when chasing a ball like when 7. He never got aloof or arrogant.
He chose to never leave AS Roma, when they all came calling. A local lad, one of us, who just was so absurdly talented.
This is the truth I adhere to.
Here, however, is the version Jim Pallotta will have been told.
Totti has been playing for far too long. The Club has had to adapt the whole playing and player strategy to accommodate and cover the fact he can’t run anymore. As a result, we are a prisoner to an icon, and no matter how much we too love him, he is now compromising our future. Therefore, we need to bite the bullet and move past him (and the other local icon De Rossi).
Your author is not tone deaf to this thesis. Indeed if AS Roma were a football club like Juventus, it makes palpable sense.
But it’s not.
AS Roma is undeniably not a football club.
It is a state of mind.
The symbol of “romanità”, personified in Totti.
Jim Palotta has fumbled badly the handling of the retirement of Totti and De Rossi. He is being seen as trying to surgically extract the Roman DNA. That’s what Totti said. That’s devastating.
Pallotta may never ever recover.
This would be my idea as to how he should try.
- Come and live in Rome, I mean, it’s Rome, not Southie. Enjoy it.
- Learn Italian, learn the gags. Listen to the taxi guys.
- Identify the people who have been advising you badly. Remove them.
- Make a mission statement for the club, that doesn’t involve bricks, mortar, social media followers in Asia, or money. Instead, specifically mention the role (I’d suggest central) of Roman players for the club. You have a huge catchment area and a great culture of young players. This is doable. State them and their “romanità” as being at the heart of the club you will build.
- Be coherent with your Mission and communicate it clearly to the fans.
- Keep talking to your fans whenever you will not be able to stick to that Mission. It will not always be easy, but authenticity is often rewarded.
AS Roma can compete with the best, with a new stadium and this type of brand and football philosophy.
(I owe this finale to my romanisti friends and to my family)
From Roger on Totti, read also his “An ode to greatness“.
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