We continue our legends of Rome series on asroma.co.uk with a look back at Roberto Pruzzo, one of Roma’s greatest ever strikers and the club’s second top scorer of all time.
Pruzzo was an old fashioned centre forward; while he wasn’t particularly tall or especially agile, he won every header in the penalty area with exceptional timing and anticipation, caressing the ball with his head and putting it wherever he wanted. All moustache and bad temper, Pruzzo didn’t contribute much to the build up play (until later in his career under Nils Liedholm) but came alive in the penalty area. There were few others like him; while he could infuriate fans with his lethargy and demeanour, he would punish the slightest lapse in concentration by the opposition. Nicknamed ‘il Bomber’, Pruzzo was capocannoniere three times and the club’s top scorer for seven seasons in a row. Scoring goals in Pruzzo’s time was harder than in modern football as there were only 16 teams in the league, plus there were either players of the calibre of Juventus’ Gaetano Scirea and Sergio Brio or terrier-like defenders at the league’s smaller sides who wouldn’t allow strikers a moment’s rest. None of them could stop Pruzzo though, and he remained Roma’s top scorer until being surpassed by Francesco Totti in 2004/05.
Pruzzo was born on 1st April, 1955 in Crocefieschi, a small comune around 20km northeast of Genoa. He started his career in Genoa’s youth teams, but wasn’t initially convinced that a career in football was his calling. “I didn’t think I’d become a footballer”, he said in an interview years later. “I played because I enjoyed it and I wasn’t convinced about the idea of signing a contract. It was hard for president Fossati to convince me”. But convince him he did, and on 2nd December, 1973 coach Arturo Silvestri handed him his Serie A debut for the Grifoni aged just 18. Pruzzo played 19 times that season, but he couldn’t find the net and Genoa went down to Serie B. The club kept faith with Pruzzo though, and after scoring 12 in 1974/75 he finished top scorer the following season with 18 goals as Genoa were promoted, earning the nickname ‘O Rey de Crocefieschi’ (the King of Crocefieschi, recalling Pele’s nickname ‘O Rei’) by the club’s supporters. Back in Serie A, this time Pruzzo was rampant and scored 18 times, finishing second in the scoring charts behind Ciccio Graziani, but by 1978 he was ready to move on.
Half of Serie A wanted to sign Pruzzo, including the very best. Juventus made enquiries, but Roma were the team who made the decisive move. Many saw him as a star in the making, and president Gaetano Anzalone paid a record 3 billion lire to bring him to the capital (though it was Dino Viola who actually provided the cash). Bruno Conti was also sold to Genoa on a co-ownership deal as part of the transfer. It was perhaps not quite as big a step up as Pruzzo could have made as Gustavo Giagnoni’s team were a far cry from the great side of the 1980s, and they battled relegation in Pruzzo’s first season. He scored against Verona on his debut, then scored a vital goal in the penultimate game of the season against Atalanta to keep Roma safe from relegation. Although the season had not been a success for the team, Pruzzo had settled into the Roman atmosphere straight away, and the fans appreciated his character, even if it was a little brusque at times, his determination and, of course, his goals.
In the summer of 1979, Nils Liedholm returned to Roma on the back of winning the scudetto with Milan. Liedholm saw Pruzzo as the man to lead Roma’s attack, the player who had to be the target in the box for Bruno Conti’s crosses. Pruzzo and Conti had already played together at Genoa, but the partnership didn’t bear fruit immediately as the first season of the Viola era started poorly. In an interview at the time, Pruzzo admitted that he didn’t recognise himself any more. But then things started to click, he started to find the net again and then he never stopped. ‘Il Bomber’ became the perfect striker for Roma as Viola and Liedholm built a team that became great during the 1980s. They missed his effectiveness when he was absent; if, for whatever reason, he wasn’t playing, scoring immediately became a problem, but fortunately it was a problem that was rarely encountered.
Pruzzo exploded into life in 1980/81 and brought Roma to the brink of their second title that season, but the Giallorossi were denied by the infamous game in Turin when Maurizio Turone’s goal (from Pruzzo’s assist) was disallowed for a highly questionable offside call. The game finished 0-0, and Juventus went on to win the title by two points. Pruzzo finished as Serie A’s top scorer that season with 18 goals, including a spectacular late winner against Inter, but lamented the futility of finishing top scorer if it didn’t help Roma to win the title. He was top scorer again in 1981/82, becoming the 7th player to finish as capocannoniere two seasons running, but despite his goal scoring prowess he was still rarely called up to the national team by Enzo Bearzot. Bearzot preferred the likes of Graziani and Franco Selvaggi to Pruzzo, who was forced to watch the 1982 World Cup triumph on the TV instead. In fact, Pruzzo’s international career was already over by Spain ’82, having made just three starts and three substitute appearances for Italy without scoring. Even a superb season in 1985/86, when he finished top scorer in Serie A again, wasn’t enough to earn him a call up to Italy’s World Cup squad, suggesting that his ostracism under Bearzot was more down to his surly, brutally honest character than his ability on the pitch.
At club level though, Pruzzo was far from ostracised and in 1982/83 he won the biggest title of his career when Roma won the scudetto. By 1982, Liedholm was in charge of a well oiled machine with top class players such as goalkeeper Franco Tancredi, Agostino Di Bartolomei and Pietro Vierchowod providing cover in defence, Paulo Roberto Falcao and Herbert Prohaska in midfield, Conti on the wing and Pruzzo up front. With so many quality players in the side, Liedholm asked Pruzzo to make more sacrifices for the benefit of the team. Even though he scored less goals that season, the move was a masterstroke and his support play was invaluable as the Giallorossi went on to win the title, sealed with a 1-1 draw against Genoa on 8th May, 1983. Roma’s scorer? Pruzzo, of course.
After winning the title, Roma were eyeing the European stage, but they fell just short in their efforts to win the European Cup at the first attempt. Roma lost the first leg of the semi-final 2-0 to Dundee United, but Pruzzo scored twice late on in the first half of the return game to restore parity on aggregate before Di Bartolomei scored a penalty to take the Giallorossi into the final. Everyone knows what happened next. Phil Neal put Liverpool ahead at the Stadio Olimpico, before Roma equalised in classic fashion – a cross from the left wing by Conti (with his right foot) that begged Pruzzo to convert it. Pruzzo obliged with a perfect header; the anticipation to beat his marker, the timing of the jump and the precision of the finish. But midway through the second half Pruzzo was forced off for Odoacre Chierico because of abdominal pains, and the Lupi lost the final on penalties. Had Pruzzo remained on the pitch until the end, it could have all ended so differently.
Roma’s European Cup hangover continued as they struggled the following season under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, failing to qualify for Europe at all, and Pruzzo’s goal return diminished as a result. He was back to his best one once more in 1985/86 as the Giallorossi mounted another title challenge, only to be ended by another infamous defeat at home to Lecce. ‘Il Bomber’ was capocannoniere for a third and final time after scoring 19 goals, including all five in one incredible game against Avellino on 15th February in a 5-1 win. The next Monday morning, one student at the Sapienza University of Rome recalled that, instead of posters of Che Guevara or Karl Marx adorning the walls, there were collages of Sylvester Stallone and Roberto Pruzzo with the tagline “Rambo 3, Rocky 4 … Pruzzo 5”. Writing about him some time later, he also says “it was entertaining going to watch him. For the first 20 minutes he was praised then, if he hadn’t scored, the fans slowly started to lose their patience, watching him look tired, unenthusiastic and annoyed. “Come on Robè, you’re running like Donald Duck’s grandma”, but then when it seemed like you were about to lose hope and you were ready to die, there he was putting the ball in the net and he was the bomber again!”
Pruzzo’s place in the Roma starting line up was eventually taken by Rudi Voller, and after 315 appearances and 138 goals for Roma he left in 1988/89 for Fiorentina. But another future star was currently lighting up Florence; Pruzzo found himself competing for a place with Roberto Baggio at the Viola and, aged just 34, he decided to retire at the end of the season. His final game, coincidentally, was against Roma in a UEFA Cup playoff match after the two teams finished level on points. On 30th June, 1989 the two teams faced each other at a neutral venue in Perugia. After 11 minutes, Alberto Di Chiara played the ball back for Baggio to cross for Pruzzo to score his only goal for Fiorentina. It was a classic Pruzzo goal and he ran off celebrating as he always did; some found it hard to accept, given what he had done for Roma and the cost the goal did to the Giallorossi, but celebrating like that was in his nature – he had done the same against Genoa while he was at Roma.
It was in fact a fitting way for him to end his career, even if it did leave Roma at home for the 1989/90 season. Having scored his first goal in Serie A against Roma, it was perhaps destined that his last would also come against the club in whose colours he had scored so many. He was not only a prolific goal scorer, but was also a scorer of quality goals – like his overhead kicks against Inter and Juventus – and vital ones too. He was an idol of the Curva Sud, who sang “Blessed be Roberto Pruzzo” or “Come on Roberto, give us a goal”. With a bit more luck and a more accommodating personality, his career could have been even better – particularly in terms of playing for the national team.
His character was one of the things that defined him though – brusque, taciturn and brutally honest, he was the same in good times and bad. “Sometimes I’d like to be less reserved and moody, but I can’t”, he said in 1981. “I always say things how they are, and maybe that makes my life more complicated than it needs to be. I am who I am, I can’t change that”. There were very few other Italian strikers like Pruzzo, and his unique talent made him one of the deadliest marksmen in Italian football during the 1970s and 1980s. He was and is fondly remembered for his lengthy runs underneath the Curva Sud by Romanisti, who still often greet him with a “Ciao Bomber”. To them, Pruzzo will always be ‘il Bomber’, one of the greatest strikers in the club’s history.
Honours: Serie A (1982/83), Coppa Italia (1979/80, 1980/81, 1983/84, 1985/86).
Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com