Legends of Rome: Agostino Di Bartolomei

We continue our Legends of Rome series on asroma.co.uk with the club’s iconic captain and, arguably, greatest legend – Agostino Di Bartolomei.

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Agostino Di Bartolomei was born on 8th April, 1955 in Rome, and his ability with a football was obvious from the very start. In Tor Marancia, people still remember him as a quiet, determined youngster who loved football more than anything else. He was rarely inclined to smile and didn’t speak much either, but instead did his talking on the football pitch. Ago first kicked a ball on his local pitches in Tor Marancia before joining OMI, one of Roma’s satellite teams. His talent didn’t stay unnoticed for long, but it was in fact Milan who first came calling rather than Roma. However, fortunately for the Giallorossi, the 13 year old Di Bartolomei turned them down as he felt that it was too early for him to move away from Rome.

Roma didn’t hang around, and brought him into their youth setup the following year where he flourished, winning two Primavera titles in 1972/73 and 1973/74. Di Bartolomei scored in each leg of the 73/74 final as Roma coasted to an 8-1 win against Milan, but by this point he was already part of the first team as well. His first appearance came on 21st February, 1973 in an Anglo-Italian Cup tie against Newcastle United (0-2), and he was handed his Serie A debut two months later by Antonio Trebiciani against Inter. Roma were in something of a crisis before the game, travelling to Milan without Franco Cordova and Sergio Santarini, but Di Bartolomei wasn’t fazed despite being thrown in at the deep end against Tarcisio Burgnich and Sandro Mazzola. Ago put in an excellent performance as Roma came away with a priceless goalless draw, which kept them safe from relegation on goal difference. As well as his talent, it was Di Bartolomei’s mentality and his love for the game that made him stand out. “I look at football as a profession”, he said in later years. “I try to take the advantages that it offers, like the financial ones, but most of all I’m trying to enjoy this time in my life when I’m truly able to do what I love, and that’s playing football. When I go on the pitch I think back to when I was playing in the street or on the beach”.

Adored by Trebiciani’s replacement, Manlio Scopigno (nicknamed ‘the philosopher’), and highly regarded by Nils Liedholm, Di Bartolomei played a number of times in the following two seasons as he bridged the gap between the Primavera and the first team before being sent out on loan to Lanerossi Vicenza. There he rediscovered Scopigno, who made him the fulcrum of his midfield. Vicenza didn’t have a good season, just avoiding relegation, but Di Bartolomei remained a starter for nearly the entire campaign. There was great expectation surrounding his potential on his return, and he played a key role in defensive midfield for Liedholm’s team in the subsequent seasons. Although Roma were struggling in the league, and nearly ended up being relegated again in 1978/79, Di Bartolomei had become a pillar of the team. His talent was obvious, and his vision on the ball legendary. From the middle of the pitch, Ago was able to pick out intricate through balls or long cross-field passes to change the dynamic of the play. He wasn’t the quickest, nor was he a goalscorer, but he had a powerful shot on him that meant he was always a danger from distance and from free kicks – not many players had the power and precision from set pieces that Ago had.

The defining moment for Di Bartolomei came when Liedholm made the move to transform him from a midfielder into a defender – more specifically, a libero. Di Bartolomei wasn’t a defender by trade, nor did he stand out for his tackling ability, but Liedholm knew that Ago wasn’t there for his defensive abilities. If hard tackling needed to be done, Pietro Vierchowod was right alongside Di Bartolomei to win the ball back. Instead, Ago was moved further back to exploit his talent for long passes, his ability to read the play and his tactical intelligence, which allowed Roma to begin their attacking moves much earlier than they had before. It took a little while for the team to adjust, but after that the system was an overwhelming success.

Di Bartolomei and Vierchowod were just the base on which Roma built their scudetto success in 1982/83. Since Dino Viola had taken the club presidency some years before, he and Liedholm had been building a ferociously talented side that by 1982 boasted the likes of Bruno Conti, Carlo Ancelotti, Paulo Roberto Falcao and Roberto Pruzzo. Despite early season defeats to Sampdoria and Juventus, Roma became unbeatable home and away as they swept all before them. After the turn of the year, Di Bartolomei found his form in front of goal, netting twice in a 5-2 win over Napoli, but arguably the most important goal came the game after Roma had been beaten by Juventus at the Olimpico on 6th March.

Roma were going to Pisa with the jitters after their lead at the top of the table had been cut by the Bianconeri, and after Falcao had headed them in front Roma were pegged back inside their own half. After sustaining a lot of pressure, the Giallorossi won a free kick. Conti touched it off to Di Bartolomei, who lashed a fierce shot into the corner. Despite Klaus Berggreen pulling one back, Roma came away 2-1 winners. From there on Roma continued to pick up results until they travelled to Genoa on the penultimate day of the season needing just a draw to win the title. The game duly finished 1-1, and Roma were champions for the first time since 1942. “I always dreamed of helping Roma win the scudetto”, Ago said. “I would have liked to win it with any team, but I knew that winning it in Rome would be different. And here I am, captain of Roma, who are champions of Italy again after 41 years”.

The year after winning the title, Roma reached the European Cup final and faced Liverpool at the Stadio Olimpico. Phil Neal scored to put Liverpool ahead after 13 minutes, though Roma were aggrieved as they felt Ronnie Whelan had fouled keeper Franco Tancredi in the build-up. Pruzzo equalised just before half time, but he was later forced off through injury. The sides were inseperable thereafter, and the game went to penalties. Di Bartolomei stepped up to take the first penalty shootout and scored, jumping in the air to celebrate. At that point, Roma were at the pinnacle of their history, ahead in the shootout and on their way to becoming champions of Europe. But the tide quickly turned, and it was a night Ago would never recover from. Conti and Ciccio Graziani missed their penalties, allowing Alan Kennedy to win the trophy for Liverpool. Di Bartolomei and Falcao are said to have clashed in the dressing room afterwards about the Brazilian’s refusal to take a penalty, and though Tancredi later denied that any argument had taken place, the agony of defeat remained with the captain for years after. “There was an enormous pain inside Ago” said his widow, Marisa De Santis. “I don’t know how many sleepless nights there were afterwards, a lot, and he couldn’t share his pain with others”.

Roma did lift the Coppa Italia less than a month afterwards, but it was scant consolation and in fact it turned out to be Di Bartolomei’s final game for the club. Liedholm left for Milan, and although his replacement – Sven-Goran Eriksson – didn’t doubt Ago’s quality he didn’t feel that he had the pace and dynamism required to play his style of football and allowed him to leave. In the end, Di Bartolomei followed Liedholm to Milan, wearing the Rossonero shirt that he had turned down 16 years previously. Roma played Milan in San Siro early on that season, and Di Bartolomei scored one of the goals in a 2-1 win. His vibrant and passionate celebration, aimed at the club who he felt had pushed him aside too early, upset his former supporters and he received a hostile reception when he returned to the Olimpico later in the season. During the game, he went in particularly hard for one challenge with Conti, and the former captain then almost came to blows with Graziani.

Ago stayed with Milan for three seasons, but didn’t win a trophy before he was sold by Arrigo Sacchi to Cesena. At the age of 32 he helped Cesena to stay in Serie A in his final season in Italy’s top flight, and his career ended after two years with Salernitana in Serie C. He wore the captain’s armband during his final campaign, which saw Salernitana promoted back to Serie B after a 23-year absence from Italy’s second division. After retiring, he founded a football academy at Castellabate where he tried to impart his vision of the game to young players as well as a respect for the rules and fair play. But 30th May, 1984 continued to cast a long shadow over Ago.

Then on 30th May, 1994 – 10 years to the day after the European Cup final – Di Bartolomei walked onto the balcony of his villa at San Marco di Castellabate and shot himself with his Smith & Wesson pistol. The reasons for his suicide have never been fully explained; some say that he had found himself in a precarious financial position with his business crippled by debt and applications for loans rejected, others claim that he had been suffering from depression after feeling that the world of football – to which he had given so much joy – had cast him aside and forgotten about him after his retirement. Only a brief note gave an insight into the dark thoughts that must have plagued his mind in the time leading up to that moment – “I am in a tunnel without an exit”.

Di Bartolomei had always been a reserved and quiet character, a long way from the extrovert and brash personalities that characterised the game then and now. Despite this, and even though he wasn’t a national team hero like Conti, he still had the respect and unconditional love of the Curva Sud. When Ago spoke it meant he had something worth saying – when he said something, people listened. There are few men or players like Di Bartolomei in football any more, and his memory and spirit still live on at Roma. The club’s sporting director Walter Sabatini once said that “I truly believe that if we could bottle up the strength of his conviction and bring it to Trigoria, Roma would become invincible”. Ago still retains a place in the hearts of the club’s fans for his dedication and passion on the pitch, and his generosity and personality off it. Throughout his time at Roma, not just during matches but in training and in interviews as well, he demonstrated exactly what Roma was. Taciturn but a leader, he played in the spirit of the game for the love of his team.

Honours: Serie A (1982/83), Coppa Italia (1979/80, 1980/81, 1983/84).

Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com

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