We begin our Legends of Rome series on asroma.co.uk with a look at Giuseppe Giannini, former club captain and Giallorossi icon known as ‘il Principe’.
Giuseppe Giannini was born in Rome on 20th August, 1964, and after coming through the ranks at Almas he wore the red and yellow shirt of Roma for 15 years across the 1980s and 1990s. He was not only a mainstay of the Roma side but was also key player in a richly talented Italy team under Azeglio Vicini. Giannini’s talent and love for the shirt was unquestionable, and while some fans never forgave him for an incident in the derby in 1994 he remained an idol to others. One such person was Francesco Totti, who as a boy had a poster on the wall in his bedroom of ‘il Principe’ wearing the famous number 10 shirt that he would later inherit.
As a child, Giannini earned the nickname ‘Paperella’ because even when the pitch was sodden or thick with mud, he never lost his balance. At Almas, he was scouted by Milan and went for a trial with the Rossoneri, but his heart was set on wearing the Giallorosso shirt. The dream became reality in 1980 when Giorgio Perinetti (who was in charge of Roma’s youth sector) signed him, and it was quickly apparent to the club management that their new young star wouldn’t be just another of the many talented youngsters who briefly showed promise before disappearing and being forgotten. Not only was Giannini under the tutelage of the great Nils Liedholm, he was competing for a place in a midfield alongside the likes of Agostino Di Bartolomei, Bruno Conti, Carlo Ancelotti and Paulo Roberto Falcao. Giannini’s own natural talent was enhanced by his commitment and desire; Liedholm often said that he would stay behind after training to work on his long balls.
He made his Serie A debut on 31st January, 1982 against Cesena, coming on for Roberto Scarnecchia in the 56th minute, but it wasn’t until 1984/85 that he secured his place in the first team. Under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, he made 37 appearances in all competitions and scored his first goal for the club in a 1-1 draw against Juventus. By this time he had earned his famous nickname ‘il Principe’ (the Prince), given to him by team-mate Odoacre Chierico for his elegance on the ball and his unmistakable style of playing, running with the ball at his feet and his head up as he looked to pick out a team-mate. He dictated the tempo of matches, never rushing but instead picking his passes perfectly, whether they were played short or launched 50 yards across the pitch.
Eriksson’s Roma won the Coppa Italia in 1986 and nearly completed a remarkable comeback to win the title as well, having made up eight points to draw level with Juventus with two games to go. But Roma then contrived to lose the next game at home to already-relegated Lecce, and the title went to Juventus. It was so often the story of Giannini’s career, caught in juxtaposition between glory and failure. Even on his debut, the proud moment when a Romanista wore the Giallorosso for the first time, Giannini lost the ball inside Cesena’s half and they raced up the other end to score the only goal of the game.
However his impressive performances for his club were not going unnoticed at international level. Giannini was part of Vicini’s Under-21 side that reached the final of the European Championships in 1986 and scored against Spain in the first leg, but after losing the second leg Italy lost the resulting penalty shootout 3-0. Giannini was one of those to miss his spot kick, saved by Juan Carlos Ablanedo. When Vicini moved on to the senior job, he took many of his Under-21 squad with him, and under his stewardship Italy reached the semi-finals of both Euro 88 and Italia 90, where Giannini wore the number 10 shirt. Vicini’s side was littered with talent, including the likes of Franco Baresi, Roberto Donadoni and Roberto Baggio, and Giannini played a vital role in the heart of midfield. ‘Il Principe’ scored the winning goal for Italy against the USA – a game that was played at the Olimpico – but the Azzurri were knocked out in the last four on penalties by Argentina. Vicini was then replaced by Arrigo Sacchi in 1991 and, ill-suited to Sacchi’s 4-4-2 formation, Giannini never played for his country again.
Sacchi wasn’t the only coach who didn’t favour Giannini at the time. Ostracised by Ottavio Bianchi at Roma, it looked like Giannini would leave the club in 1992 as there was little indication that his contract would be extended beyond the summer. But then president Giuseppe Ciarrapico gave him a new four-year deal, and in the summer Bianchi was replaced by Vujadin Boskov. Whether it was the absence of Bianchi, whether Boskov and his tactics were better suited to him or whether it was simply down to his own incredible determination, ‘il Principe’ shone once more under Boskov. At 28 he was in the prime of his career, and his performances were matching it after the blows of losing his place in the national team and even his captaincy at Roma, which was soon restored by Boskov.
Roma fans, even internally in the Curva Sud, have always been split on Giannini though, stemming from an incident on 6th March, 1994. Roma were losing to Lazio in the derby, a game they hadn’t lost since 1989. Then Paolo Negro conceded a penalty for a foul on Totti, but, in front of the Sud, Luca Marchegiani dived to his right to save Giannini’s penalty. It was a moment that many fans never forgave him for, including president Franco Sensi who openly and harshly criticised the captain. The derby defeat was not just a disaster in itself; Roma had not won at all for over three months and were just one place above the relegation zone when they travelled to Zdenek Zeman’s Foggia two weeks later. With 16 minutes of the game left Roma were trailing 0-1 but, with the pressure mounting, the ball broke to Giannini on the edge of the box. He didn’t hesitate as he struck the ball first time with his left foot, flying past Francesco Mancini and in off the post. Giannini’s celebration was pure emotion, racing away with tears on his face. Seven days later Roma finally won for the first time that year when they defeated Lecce, and they went on to win five of their final six games to salvage seventh place, a mere five points about the relegation zone.
Giannini remained with Roma for another two years before leaving at the end of the 1995/96 season along with Carlo Mazzone. The Giallorossi had endured a tough campaign, finishing fifth in Serie A and being knocked out of the Coppa Italia in the second round. Mazzone’s team had reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup where they faced Slavia Prague, but lost the away leg 0-2. With seven minutes to go of the return match at the Olimpico, Roma were 1-0 up and facing elimination, but up stepped Giannini as he flicked a header past Jan Stejskal to level the tie, sprinting to celebrate under the Curva Sud. In the end, it wasn’t enough for Roma to go through (the tie eventually finished 3-3 after extra time, with Slavia progressing on away goals) nor was it enough for Giannini to earn himself a new contract. Turning down offers from Fiorentina and Juventus, he moved abroad to join Sturm Graz.
After a single season in Austria, Giannini was set for a return to Italy but a move to Cagliari – where Mazzone was coach – fell through when the Sardinian club were relegated. However, Mazzone moved on to take charge of Napoli and signed Giannini for the Partenopei instead. His stay was only brief as Mazzone was sacked mid-season, and Giannini moved onto his final club, Lecce, who he helped to promotion in 1998/99 before being released by new coach Alberto Cavasin. Only lower league clubs offered Giannini a contract though, and in November 1999 he confirmed that he was retiring. “I can’t carry on like this any longer. There wasn’t an opportunity to continue with Lecce, I would have had to play for another season in Serie B when I wanted to be in Serie A. Why keep punishing my family for that? And if I hadn’t quit this year, I would have done it next year”.
Giannini had one last desire: to play a farewell match with an all-star Roma team playing against an Italian international XI. Giannini would play one half for each side, playing for the Azzurri in the first half and for Roma in the second. His testimonial was arranged to take place at the Olimpico on 17th May, 2000 – the day after Lazio won the scudetto. Around 40,000 people turned up for the game; the Curva Sud was completely full, the Tribuna Tevere was packed, and fans of all ages (including families and children) came to say goodbye to ‘il Principe’. Voller gave Super Roma the lead with a clever chipped finish, bringing choruses of the “flying German” chant from the stands. It was an ideal way to start what should have been a celebration, but trouble began even before half time when a group of fans attempted to get into the Monte Mario stand to protest against Franco Sensi.
At half time Giannini started a lap of the pitch wearing his Roma #10 shirt; some fans threw scarves at him, and others started to climb the enclosures to get closer to Giannini. The security staff didn’t intervene, and the numbers spilling onto the pitch began to grow. The situation then degenerated when one of the gates was opened, and thousands of fans spilled onto the pitch. The players retreated to the dressing rooms while the club tried to restore order but the security forces, undermanned and unprepared, were unable to stop the mob from ripping up the turf, destroying the two goals and tearing up seats. It fell to Giannini and Bruno Conti to urge the fans to leave the pitch – “please, if you don’t leave then we won’t be able to play the second half” – but the damage had already been done. The carnage left behind was unplayable: entire tracts of turf were missing from the pitch, and the benches and goals – particularly the goal underneath the Curva Sud – were in pieces. It was impossible to continue. Embraced by Conti and Francesco Totti – who had spent the first half on the bench – Giannini said in tears afterwards, “It shouldn’t have ended like this”. The Curva Sud showed their disdain for the invaders, chanting “You’re just like Laziali” and as Giannini lapped the stadium one final time they produced a new banner which simply said “Sorry”.
Giannini was appreciated by his team-mates and fans for his exceptional vision and ability on the ball, even from a young age. He soon became captain, but his captaincy was a transitory period and he never had an opportunity to play in a truly stellar team, coming between the great Agostino Di Bartolomei and the even greater Francesco Totti. Giannini’s story with the Giallorossi was often a tormented one, especially at the end. He won three Coppe Italia and nearly added a fourth but, despite scoring hat-trick in the second leg of the 1993 final, Roma were beaten on away goals by Torino. But ‘il Principe’ always showed determination, self-sacrifice, character, pride and love for the shirt on the pitch, giving all he had of himself. Although fans were and still are divided on Giannini, there is no doubt that he is a true club legend.
Honours: Serie A (1982/83), Coppa Italia (1983/84, 1985/86, 1990/91).