Let’s call a spade a spade. Those who still entertained hopes for a fourth place saw those hopes being incinerated by the finishing power of Alberto Gilardino. Fiorentina played a better game and had a better season. They deserve the Champions League more than Roma do, and frustration is out of place among true sportsmen.
A detailed discussion of the match can be left aside, not so much because it could be summed up in the words Apocalypse Now and not even because that same film has been running – shot by bloody shot – in the Olimpico since the beginning of the season. Rather, the reason we shall pass on the analysis (autopsy more like it) is that much more sensational news is looming on the horizon. Roma may be about to be sold. Again. After the shenanigans with George Soros last summer, the new Merchant of Venice is represented by a Swiss-German group apparently willing to make a bid for the AS Roma team and all its goods. At the time of writing, the parties involved have done nothing but fill their mouths with wind and no conclusion has been reached. The situation is susceptible to brusque and sudden changes, but in the meantime let us reason with what we have.
Rosella Sensi does not want to sell out. At the very most, she wants a partner, someone willing to share rather than usurp the command room. The Germans, for their own part, do not want to become mere investors. They want the Full Monty, from the stocks to the dish-washers in Trigoria. These are the facts, distilled of the talk. They have been enough to generate a backlash of epic proportions, most depressing of which has been the response of the tifosi. The general attitude can be encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Thanks for what you’ve done, now get the hell out.’ The assumption behind this is that the arrival of the Germans and the subsequent influx of cash will give way to a new age of gold and herald the conquest of title after title. Already wild mercato scenarios are being foregrounded, positing a Roma team walking into the next season with Fernando Torres, Karim Benzema, Cesc Fabregas and Philip Lahm.
This scenario is of course a myth. Yes, more cash will open new transfer possibilities for Roma on the short term. But if there is anything that the Kaka & Manchester City business has taught us this winter is that a team’s crude bank account and their operational possibilities on the mercato are not in a relationship of direct proportion. Infinite cash (which Roma would not have anyway) does not mean unlimited players. And the idea that Liverpool and Arsenal will be prepared to deprive themselves of Torres and Fabregas is hilarious. Roma may be able to sign up one big name, but outside of that, the immediate changes to the team will not be that dramatic – and even that one signing is unlikely to have an effect on the pitch proportional to that in the media. Who were the most expensive new signings this year? Julio Baptista and John Arne Riise, who proved discrete. Who were the true revelations? Matteo Brighi and Marco Motta, the former an originally home-grown talent and the other a 3.5 million euros deal. What about the seasons before this one? The most expensive new name was Cicinho, who proved heuristic, and the best were Marco Cassetti and Max Tonetto, who came along practically for free.
As disingenuous as the assumption that infinite cash means infinite possibilities should be called, it pales before the notion that mercato munificence is anything even remotely related to mercato wisdom. This is not a truth exclusive to Roma. Look at Milan’s Ronaldinho, Juventus’ Jorge Andrade, Inter’s Ricardo Quaresma. Compare them to home-growns like Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon among the Nerazzurri or Giorgio Chiellini and Sebastian Giovinco among the Bianconeri (even Alessandro Del Piero has outplayed big signing Amauri, and the man is 34). The best moves in the mercato come through relative modesty, forward-thinking philosophies and patience, not by financial blitzkriegs (which bear fruit with utterly frustrating infrequency). This is how Roma developed some of their best players in recent times – Philippe Mexes, Amantino Mancini, Mirko Vucinic. If the new management comes along, it will not mean a revolution with respect to what Rosella Sensi would do. What it will mean is this – a modest change in the short term, a potentially positive change in the middle term, and a potentially disastrous change in the long term. Beyond discussions on new names and old names, there can be no doubt that the two best players donning the Roma jersey in recent times have been the Romans themselves. Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi are there because Franco Sensi wanted them there. He wanted them because he understood their value. Would the Germans understand it? Would they even know who these people are? Face to the choice between an unripe Francesco Totti and a big signing of yester-year like Jari Litmanen, would the Germans see any reason to act like Franco Sensi did and keep the youngster?
People have been very vocal in their indictment of Rosella Sensi – they have condemned her unrealistic prices for the Roman assets, her reluctance to sell and her personal pride. But all these traits are symptomatic of something very important – a genuine attachment to the team. The disproportionate prices are not an offer but a message. They are a way of saying that Roma is not a good to be brought or sold. The indifference with which a new investor thinks a club – and its fans, and its symbols – can be purchased is indicative of the indifference with which they will drop it when things start turning for the worst. Franco Sensi faced dire financial straits too – they took place after he made of Roma the only Italian team alongside Lazio to win a Scudetto despite the (often illegal) oligarchy of Juventus and Milan over the last ten years. How did he behave back then? He kept Roma afloat by selling his own personal goods – lands and property. A few years later the entire system of Calcio collapsed in its own rot, and Roma sailed through unaffected and clean. This is the kind of value that the Sensi family brings to the table. This is the legacy that Rosella Sensi was brought up in and that she is working to honour, albeit having to compete without the megalomaniac means of her direct competitors. Can the Germans offer any guarantee of a similar belief and dedication? Do they have anything to offer except for blind money? One might as well hope so, given that one of the most boring arguments brought along by the tifosi is how terrible, indeed how tragic the club’s financial management under the Sensi family is – as though the previous two seasons had not witnessed the greatest growth of the team in years and a new stadium were not on the way to make the team’s finances self-sufficient (a project, let us remember, which the Sensi family has been working on for a while now). Next year, when Roma gets back into the first four with or without the Germans, the financial boost will come back and the team can start growing again after the hiatus. What Rosella Sensi understands (and the tifosi do not) is that football clubs are not handled as though every year were the last ever in Calcio. Rather, they go in gentle cycles of five years. These cycles have ups and downs, and it is enough to witness a dip (as we got this year) and skip one edition of the Champions League for everyone to run out screaming. But for all of the year’s degradation, Roma is still a much greater team than it was five years ago. Let Rosella do her work, and it will be even greater five years from now, without compromising anything that the club believes in. Without losing De Rossi and Totti for the Jari Litmanen of our age.
The most disheartening aspect in this story of blood and gold (the red and the yellow) is precisely how willing the tifosi appear to prostitute their own team. A couple of extra trophies (that’s if they come, of course) mean more to them than fair play, attachment to one’s own domestic values, belief in one’s flag and all the other good things that Roma is about. They mean more than family. If the Giallorossi fans are ready to see their team become a clone of Inter and go join the hissy fits on who will steal the next Brazilian thirteen-year old for five-hundred million euros, then why not bring the model all the way? One could do the Inter and Juventus thing and go straight for the refereeing system, making sure that a generous penalty or some other birthday present will be conceded whenever we’re facing a middle-to bottom-table team at home. In fact, let us extend the concept to the national team. Why not naturalise Amauri, Thiago Motta and Rodrigo Taddei and let them play with the Azzurri? Why not take the English path and hand over the coaching of the national team to a foreigner? Surely we could find a way of topping the Russian offer and bringing Guus Hiddink over. Maybe we would win the next tournament that way. Then we could all go back home chanting Campioni with the next World Cup or Scudetto or whatever trophy we’ve just purchased and kindly throw it in the bin.