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Doping, denials and death in the dressing room: the tragic story of Roma’s Giuliano Taccola

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In January 2015, Francesco Totti inspired Roma to come back and draw 2-2 in the derby with Lazio. It was a memorable derby for another reason, though, other than Totti’s brilliance. Before the game, the Curva Sud displayed some stunning choreography of large banners depicting club legends, including the likes of Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Bruno Conti. Among those icons was one face that is perhaps not as well known to Romanisti as he should be: Giuliano Taccola. But Taccola didn’t have an illustrious playing career, nor did he earn renown as a coach. Tragically, at the age of just 25, he died in the Roma dressing room at Cagliari on 16th March, 1969. This is Taccola’s story.

Taccola was the complete forward, capable of scoring goals with either foot, his head, or acrobatically. He was an exceptional dribbler, and would also participate in the build up rather than just wait in the penalty area. Roberto Morassut, author of Giuliano Taccola: La Punta Spezzata, argued “if he had played in a better team, he would definitely have played for Italy.” He was born on 28th June, 1943 in Uliveto Terme, near Pisa, and started his career in Genoa’s youth teams. As a youngster he moved between a number of Ligurian clubs before returning to the Grifone in 1966, who sold him a year later to Roma. The Giallorossi supporters loved him from the start. On his debut, Roma travelled to Helenio Herrera’s Inter. A minute after Roma went behind, there was a scramble in the Inter penalty area and Taccola was on hand to equalise. It was the first of his 17 goals for the club. He ended up as Roma’s top scorer that season with 10, and one of his finest came against Spal, where he showed his skill on the ball and coolness in front of goal.

In the summer of 1968, Roma chose Inter’s Herrera to be their new coach to great excitement from supporters, who displayed banners including “Roma + Herrera = scudetto”, though Herrera warned “if people think Roma can win the scudetto next year, I’d say straight away that that would be very difficult.” This pressure for Herrera to deliver results immediately was to prove fatal to Taccola.

The 1968/69 season couldn’t have got off to a better start. Taccola scored after just 30 seconds of the new season against Fiorentina (the second fastest goal in Serie A history at that time), though they went on to lose 2-1. Although he missed the 2-0 defeat at Verona on 24th November due to a fever and a throat infection, by the end of the year he was the 2nd top scorer in the league with 7 goals and had scored in each of his last 5 games. But his fever, caused by tonsillitis, wasn’t abating. He didn’t play at all in January, and in February the Roma medical staff decided that Taccola needed to have an operation to remove his tonsils.

Taccola’s widow, Marzia Nannipieri, said that the operation “wasn’t a simple one; Giuliano lost a lot of blood. When he was discharged, he was prescribed a month’s complete rest.” Roma thought differently; they wanted him back in training the very next day, and as a result his fever returned. Giacomo Losi, the Roma legend whose career finished after Herrera froze him out of the team, recalled that “after the operation, normally after every training session, his fever got worse, so they’d give him another injection.” Taccola was getting increasingly weak, suffering from his persistent fever and bronchitis, but neither Herrera nor the medical staff believed the problem to be anything serious. Herrera in particular was keen to have Taccola back, as he was too important to the team to keep leaving out. He played in a game in the Campionato De Martino on 26th February, 3 weeks after his operation, and collapsed on the pitch. Nonetheless, Herrera selected him for the trip to Sampdoria the next week. This time, he lasted an hour before being forced off with an ankle injury. He never played again.

Roma’s next game was against Gigi Riva’s title challenging Cagliari, and after losing to them 4-1 earlier in the season, Losi says that the team needed Taccola back. “He shouldn’t have gone, but Herrera needed a centre forward, so he took him anyway.” By this point, Taccola’s health was failing and he was starting to regularly cough up blood. “Taccola wasn’t well but the coach wanted him on the pitch at any cost,” team-mate Franco Cordova said. On Saturday evening, Taccola said that he had fever again, but the Roma doctor didn’t feel it was necessary to admit him to hospital. Early the next morning, all the players were woken by the team masseur for a light run on the beach so that Herrera could judge who was fit to play.

It was a cold, windy morning, and by the end of the session even Herrera realised that Taccola was in no condition to play. His temperature was 37.4C (99.3F), and he was given some aspirin before going to watch the game from the stands. According to Cagliari’s club doctor, he was shaking and shivering throughout the game, before he rejoined his team-mates at around 5pm. When he came down to the dressing room, according to Herrera he was “congratulating the players and saying that he thought Roma could even have won. He was calm, happy, nothing suggested that a few minutes later he would be dead.” But after taking a drink of orange juice, Taccola collapsed. Augusto Frongia, Cagliari’s doctor, recounts that “Visalli, Roma’s doctor, burst into our dressing room, extremely worried. ‘Help me, I need antibiotics, right now!’” Taccola was given an injection, as well as a heart massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. As worries over his condition grew, Frongia went into Roma’s dressing room to evaluate Taccola’s condition himself. “I lifted one of his eyelids, and I could see it in from eyes immediately. He was dead.” In later years, Taccola’s team-mate Fabio Capello said that he wasn’t so certain. “It’s not true [that he died straight away], there was time to save him if there had been the means to help him. We watched him die without being able to do anything. It was terrible.”

The squad left for the airport soon after, except for club secretary Vincenzo Biancone and 3 players: Franco Cordova, Paolo Sirena and Vito D’Amato who stayed with Taccola, but not all of the team were even aware of the tragedy that had occurred. Herrera was subsequently heavily criticised for keeping the news from as many of the players as he could, and club president Alvaro Marchini was furious with the coach for leaving Cagliari without having informed the whole squad. Herrera himself denied that Taccola had started playing again too soon after his tonsillectomy, but Marchini disagreed. One of the problems, according to Roberto Morassut, was that “Herrera didn’t have much faith in the medical team; he believed he was able to manage the players’ treatment and recovery when they were injured.”

But to understand the reason for this (and, possibly, the reason for Taccola’s death), it’s worth briefly looking back at an aspect of Herrera’s time at Inter. Ferruccio Mazzola, brother of Sandro, accused Herrera of doping in an interview with L’Espresso. “I saw Herrera give tablets to players to put under their tongue. Some of the players took them, some secretly spat them out. When Herrera realised we were spitting them out, he started putting them into our coffee. Once, after one of those coffees, I spent 3 days and nights in a state of complete hallucination. When Herrera went to Roma, he took the same methods he had used at Inter with him. What else do you think Giuliano Taccola died of?” Losi also confirmed that Herrera gave players supplements at Roma. “He said that they were vitamins to strengthen our bodies. I refused them.” However, Morassut believes the tablets that Herrera supplied, even at Inter, were “probably just ‘motivational’ tablets, a sort of placebo containing sugar and aspirin that convinced the players that they would run harder and faster.”

The unfortunate truth is there has never been a clear answer as to what caused Taccola’s death. In 1966, when Taccola was playing for Genoa, it was discovered that he had a heart condition, but it was never thoroughly diagnosed, and this lack of precision – combined with the infighting at Roma regarding Taccola’s almost instant return to training – resulted in a lack of clarity about exactly what happened in the Cagliari dressing room and, more importantly, how it could have been prevented. What seems almost impossible is for it to have been natural, caused simply by exhaustion. There’s no question that Taccola was given various supplements to try and improve his health; according to Roma’s club doctor Visalli: “I gave him a daily injection of magnesium sulphate and vitamin C as an anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory, every day I’d give him 3.5 grams of sodium salicylate as an anti-rheumatic and anti-flu, and as a detox and anti-anaemic I prescribed an injection of liver extract and vitamin B complex.” However every Thursday all treatments were interrupted so that the supplements would be out of the players’ systems by Sunday (i.e., the day of the game).

Given Herrera’s history, it therefore seems unlikely that they were purely restorative, but equally it was not only Herrera who is claimed to have been involved in doping at that time – indeed, Taccola himself was given injections while at Genoa. “We were losing all the time and we needed something to help us up the table,” Carlo Petrini, who played with Taccola at Genoa, explained. “Someone at the club prepared some “restorative” shots. I don’t know what was in them, but they were bright red. At the end of one game, I remember Taccola being very pale, then he went purple in the face. He was struggling to breathe.” But Frongia denies this could have caused Taccola’s death. “I’ve heard that they were doping him so that he could play. But if they were, that doesn’t provide a meaningful connection with his death.” If not the effects of doping, what was it? Possibly the injection of penicillin mixed with procaine, which caused an anaphylactic shock and subsequent cardiac arrest. After the tonsillectomy operation, the surgeon told Roma’s medical staff to avoid giving him an injection of penicillin at any cost. “We’re convinced that it was the injection of antibiotics that caused the player to go into spasms,” Herrera said, though Roma’s team doctor Visalli denied it was the injection killed Taccola. Visalli may have believed the condition to be infective endocarditis, a very rare infection curable with antibiotics, while Taccola’s widow has often said that she believed Taccola had bronchial pneumonia. This was later asserted to be the cause of death.

The truth may never be known. The inquest into Taccola’s death was dismissed in January 1971 as – according to the Corriere dello Sport of 4th January – “neither the medical staff, nor the directors, nor the coach Helenio Herrera can be held accountable: in short, the death was the result of accidental causes.” His funeral was held at the Basilica di San Paolo, and it was a testament to his popularity with the Roma supporters that 50,000 people attended both inside and outside the church. The coffin was covered with a large black drape, on which was placed a Roma shirt with the number 9 on. As happens with all players though, the fans soon moved on to cheer on new heroes, and so did the club. Taccola was forgotten, as were his 22 year old widow and two young children. His family were forced to endure not only the personal trauma of Taccola’s death but, in financial ruin, were then completely sidelined by a football world that has no hesitation in forgetting the same idols that it once helped to create.

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