The tragic tale of Roma legend Agostino Di Bartolomei

Any footballer’s career can have many peaks and troughs, almost regardless of the level at which they play. Games won or lost. Goals scored or conceded. Moments of exaltation mixing freely with others spent in sad reflection of errors made or chances missed can be a toxic and highly volatile cocktail. It is rarely the case, however, that the absolute zenith and nadir of a career can occur at almost one and the same time. For Agostino Di Bartolomei, captain of AS Roma at the time, some would argue that is precisely what happened on the penultimate day of May 1984, when his club faced Liverpool in the European Cup Final staged at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.

Despite having home advantage and a team comprising the likes of Falcão, Cerezo and Bruno Conti, as well as the imperious Di Bartolomei himself, the Giallorossi lost a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw. The captain was compelled to watch as, after he had converted his spot-kick, both Conti and Graziani failed and Liverpool lifted the trophy. The following month, Roma would receive a small compensation for the loss as they lifted the Coppa Italia, defeating Hellas Verona in the two-legged final. It would feel a hollow and somewhat Pyrrhic victory however with the lingering loss of the European Cup still hanging like a dark cloud over the club and, particularly, its captain.

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Di Bartolomei would describe the final as “the game of my life.” It had offered the chance to deliver the greatest prize in club football to Roma, a club he both honoured and adored all of his life. The favour of the Gods however can be a fickle commodity, and they turned their smile away from him on that May day. The events on that night in the Eternal City would have a long-lasting effect on the fate of Agostino Di Bartolomei, and some would argue that the day, precisely ten years after the final, when he took his own life, had been a sad but inevitable consequence of that shattered dream and a trail of events that began when the final was lost.

Agostino Di Bartolomei was a proud Civis Romanus, born in the Garbatella area of the city in April 1955, and would join AS Roma’s youth set up aged 14. His talent, coupled with a dedication and commitment to learn and progress, however, saw him quickly progress through the various representative teams at the club and he made his Serie A debut during the 1972-73 season facing the might of Giacinto Facchetti’s Inter. It was a rapid promotion and, in truth, one that probably came a little too early. By 1975, the club decided that it would be in his interests to go on a season’s loan to Serie B team Lanerossi Vicenza, in order to gain experience of regular first team football and become accustomed to the physical demands of the Italian league. Thirty-three league games later, he returned to the Italian capital a more rounded player and ready to contribute to the club.

It took little time to establish himself as a regular first team player, but Roma were very much a mid-table club for the first three seasons of his time featuring in the first eleven. Two eighth place Serie A finishes were followed by one four rungs lower on the league ladder. Things would improve though with the return of a former manager for the 1979-80 campaign. Nils Liedholm had led the club for four seasons in the mid-seventies, but his second coming would be much more productive.

Di Bartolomei was now the captain of the team, and its leader in every sense. A native Roman who had risen to exalted heights with the club that bore the city’s name. He was lauded by the tiffosi on the Curva Sud, not only for his play, but almost as their representative on the field of play and, under the new manager, things would take off, as trophies began to find their way into the Giallorossi’s welcoming arms with increasingly impressive regularity.

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The 1979-80 season saw Di Bartolomei granted the privilege that no Roma skipper had enjoyed for over a decade. On 17 May 1980, he raised the Coppa Italia in triumph following a penalty shootout victory in the final against Torino. Progress under the new regime was now unarguably tangible, and it was underscored when Roma finished an improved sixth in the final Serie A table. They were a mere three points short of third place and qualification for the UEFA Cup. That was a fairly small matter however, as their cup triumph had opened the door to a continental adventure anyway. Roma’s fortunes were moving in the right direction.

The summer of 1980 saw a significant strengthening of the club’s squad, with the arrival of the Brazilian playmaker Falcão. Liedholm now had two players vying for that spot, with the newcomer and Di Bartolomei both apparently coveting the position. The astute coach though already had a solution in mind. He moved the skipper back into a more defensive role ahead of the back four, recognising that the additional time and space that would now be afforded to Di Bartolomei as the team’s Regista would suit his game and allow him to flourish. It was a ploy that paid handsome dividends.

Now entering the peak years of his powers, Di Bartolomei was both tactically astute and versatile. He could have delivered performances in a number of positions for the club, ranging from a back-line sweeper, through the Regista role he would make his own, producing the template for later similar players such as Pirlo, to midfield playmaker. His allotted role though was unarguably his most accomplished. To some, none of whom stood on the Curva Sud, he could appear lazy and slow – ironically, it was a criticism also often levelled at Pirlo years later – but to his fans and team-mates, it merely reflected a studied understanding of the game, and an ability to control it.

An opportunity to take possession from his defence and initiate moves tapped into his game knowledge and tactical acumen. Tenacious and determined, he lacked any searing pace, but his loping stride usually got him where he needed to be in plenty of time, as his quick-witted mind had given him a head start. Once in possession, his ability to arrow passes over long distances was a potent weapon. Add in a well-tuned eye for goal and a powerful shot when the opportunity arose, plus a proficiency from dead balls, and his armoury was complete.

Liedholm was an unstinting admirer of his captain, delighting that “he never moved on the pitch without a reason. His passes were long, and perfect. He always ran with great elegance, with his head up.” Some years later, the Liverpool scouting report ahead of that fateful Rome final would concur, detailing that he “dictates the play from the centre of the field. Excellent distributor of the ball with the long passing being an outstanding feature of his game.” The Swede would not have disputed the Anfield club’s assessment.

Conversely, the Regista role may well also have served as the block preventing Di Bartolomei ever wearing the famed Azzurri shirt of the national team. Manager, Enzo Bearzot, hardly favoured the role in his team, preferring instead to deploy the more robust qualities of Tardelli in the defensive midfield role, eschewing the silky ability of players such of Di Bartolomei. It meant that the Roma skipper was probably one of the most accomplished Italian players never to win an international cap. Bearzot’s supporters would of course claim the 1982 World Cup triumph as a justification for his preference. It’s a reasonable stance, but to favour steel over silk, artisan over artist, feels somewhat ascetic at the very least.

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On the domestic scene though, things were progressing. In the following season, Roma climbed to second spot in Serie A, losing out to Juventus by a couple of points, on the back of the hotly disputed defeat in Turin, and the gol di Turone controversy. The Giallorossi retained the Coppa Italia though, again defeating Torino in a penalty competition, but only after a Di Bartolomei penalty had squared the scores in the second leg in Turin. It meant that, had the goal scored in that game away to Juventus had stood, as all Roma fans insist long and hard that it should have done, Di Bartolomei would have led his team to a domestic double. It would have been a glorious first in the club’s history.

A third-place league finish the following term confirmed Roma as serious challengers for the Scudetto, but the title ended up in Turin again. All that would change though in the 1982-83 season. This time, the roles were reversed and it was the Old Lady of Turin, looking up and seeing the name of AS Roma topping the table, landing the club’s only second ever Scudetto. The Turin club had defeated Di Bartolomei’s team in both league encounters by 2-1 score lines, but across the season, the Giallorossi won out and Agostino Di Bartolomei became only the second ever captain of AS Roma to hold the Serie A trophy aloft, sending the club into their first ever European Cup journey.

A solid performance in the continent’s premier club competition appeared a distinct possibility for Liedholm’s side. If Falcão was now the attacking creative brain of the team, Di Bartolomei was its heart, beating out the rhythm of play and pumping passes through the arteries of the Giallorossi. Could the captain drive his team on to European club football’s ultimate prize? The early stages of the tournament suggested that it might well be the case.

Comfortable aggregate victories over Sweden’s FK Gothenburg, and then CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria took them into a last eight confrontation with East German club Dinamo Berlin. The first leg was played at the Olimpico in early March, and although the rugged and uncompromising Germans had held out until half-time, three goals inside the last 25 minutes had surely put the tie beyond redemption. Back in Germany, a strike by Emidio Oddi ten minutes after the break increased the advantage. Two late German goals were the slenderest of compensations. In their first European Cup adventure, Di Bartolomei and the Giallorossi had reached the semi-finals of the competition.

In what seemed to be the kindest of draws, Liedholm’s club were paired with Dundee United. Jim McLean’s team had shaken up the Old Firm dominance of Scottish football by winning the title the previous season and had reached the heady heights of the tournament’s final four after scrambling past Rapid Wien on the away goals rule. The other semi-final would be between Liverpool and Dinamo Bucureşti of Romania. If any of Roma’s tiffosi were expecting an easy canter to the final however, the first leg, at Tannadice Park on 11 April would dispel any such misconceptions. In what turned out to be both a tumultuous and controversial tie, the Giallorossi would once more have their iconic captain to thank for progress.

While the game started with typical Scottish gusto and Dundee urged on a by a baying crowd, it was Roma who nearly stole a march when characteristically smart thinking by Di Bartolomei, arrowing a quickly taken free-kick through a recovering Dundee defence, almost had Graziani in the clear. Only smart thinking by Hamish McAlpine, hurrying from his goal to boot clear saved the day. The Scots continued to dominate possession but Roma, clad in an unfamiliar all white strip required by their opponents’ tangerine shirts, seemed to carry a more potent threat on the break; a bludgeoning Scottish claymore against an a razor-sharp Italian stiletto.

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Another astute pass from the captain to Chierico saw the midfielder cross for Graziani to thump a header against the bar and over. It seemed that the away team had the game under control, keeping the Scots largely at bay and looking to strike on the counter. When the breakthrough came however, just three minutes after the restart, it was Dundee who went ahead.

A cross into the box caused uncharacteristic panic in the usually well marshalled defence. A couple of ricochets saw the ball land the feet of Billy Dodds, who fired home. Up to this point, Roma had appeared comfortable, if not in total command. Whilst the goal would inevitably reignite Scottish passions that had been dampened down by the efficient Roma defence however, a single goal defeat, with the home leg to come, would not have been disastrous. There was, however, more to come.

Just a dozen minutes later with the Scots pressing and the crowd clamouring for more goals, Derek Stark hit a speculative shot from distance that appeared to deceive Tancredi to find the net. With a full half-hour still to play, Roma were on the ropes and another strike would leave them with a mountain to climb. With Di Bartolomei organising his players though, and controlling the possession that they garnered, they saw out time. Heading to the second leg though, the Scots would surely think they had a better than even chance of progressing to the final. If they could notch another goal, Roma would need to score at least four times; something they had failed to do even once in the first leg. It was the prelude to one of the most controversial European ties of the era.

The bald score line of 3-0 to the home team, thus overturning the deficit from the first leg and moving to the final, hardly covers the back story. In what was a bad-tempered affair, Roma had eliminated the deficit by the break, with a brace of goals from Roberto Pruzzo. After missing the first leg, Falcão was back in the Roma line up, and it’s unarguably true to say that, whatever came out after the game, the Brazilian’s ability to prise open defences was a key factor in the turnaround. McLean’s team were made of stern stuff though, and refused to buckle under the pressure of 73,000 fans roaring on the home team.

Half-time came and went with no further score, but as the pressure built up, it seemed a third goal would surely come. Just before the hour mark, with the striker through on goal, McAlpine upended Pruzzo and the award of a spot kick was inevitable. At such times, the need for a cool head and a calm demeanour, an ability to deliver when under the highest of pressure, is paramount. Di Bartolomei was the man for the moment, and he delivered for the adoring fans on the Curva Sud, coolly sending McAlpine the wrong way from twelve yards. Dundee pressed for the all important away goal, but there was no way through and Roma would return to the Olimpico on 30 May for the final.

During, and immediately after the game, Dundee players and officials would complain long and hard about the officiating of the game. Reckless tackles by the Italians were seemingly ignored, whilst the visitors appeared to be harshly penalised for even the slightest of contact. Long-serving player John Holt, who took to the field from the substitute’s bench just ahead of the break, spoke for many, years later in an interview with The Independent. “We were robbed,” he declared. “That’s right, we were robbed.” Adding later that, “Yeah, there was that much suspicion, there certainly was. The referee was giving free-kicks when we’d hardly touch a guy,” Holt recalled. “I felt the referee was more for them than us. I didn’t feel he was right down the middle. Every free-kick, I thought, and there were a lot. It just kept increasing the pressure. We all felt it at the time, no doubt.” McLean also felt wronged and SFA secretary Ernie Clay demanded a UEFA investigation. Unsurprisingly nothing came of it.

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‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, may not be an inappropriate remark. Many years later, Riccardo Viola, a Roma director and son of the club’s late president Dino Viola revealed, on the Italian TV station, Mediaset Premium, that indeed things were not as they should have been. The referee for the game was Frenchman Michel Vautrot – hence the increased significance of the cynical quote from countryman Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr – and Viola revealed how the club had approached the official with an apparent clear intent to influence the outcome of the game. Vautrot was allegedly advised to take dinner at a particular restaurant ahead of the day of the game. A signal would be given to the official by a waiter, alluding to a telephone call for him. This would be the cover for a sum of 100million lire being handed over.

There is of course no corroborating evidence to the claims, although any number of Dundee United players, officials and fans would be pleased to offer circumstantial support. Viola, despite candidly confessing that such action would be “shameful” also asserts that the bribe failed. What appears clear however is that if the bribery attempt was made – whether successful, or not – there is no evidence to suggest that the Roma players had any knowledge of it, and when Di Bartolomei stood over the ball with time ticking away and a chance to redeem a dream for his club, his emotional state would not have been affected.

In domestic matters, inevitably perhaps, Roma’s league form suffered as they reached out for the ultimate prize. Between the two games against the Scottish side, a goalless draw at home to Juventus hardly helped their attempts to defend the Scudetto, and further away draws to both Avellino and Catania stymied their league aspirations. Juventus recovered the league title, but Roma, arguably, had bigger things in mind.

In front of a shade less than 70,000 fans, Liverpool and Roma contested the 1984 European Cup Final at the latter’s home stadium. The stage was surely set for the Giallorossi to cross that seldom reached bridge offering a passage from the merely outstanding to greatness and legendary status. For a son of Rome, this meant so much more. Di Bartolomei could ascend to a unique pantheon of Roma players, and forever be acclaimed as the first Roma captain to lift the European Cup.

In such circumstances, with the weight of pressure hanging heavily on their shoulders, lesser players, lesser men, would wilt. Agostino di Bartolomei was no lesser player though, and certainly no lesser man. The Roma captain would deliver a virtuoso performance, widely acclaimed to be the outstanding player on the pitch. There is only so much that one player can do though, and when the harsh twists of fate conspire against you, it can be as a labour akin to that of Sisyphus to overcome them. Was it an ill omen when Roma lost the toss of a coin to decide who would wear their usual colours? As with the game against Dundee United, the game began with the Italians wearing all white.

At kick-off, Di Bartolomei wasted little time in demonstrating a desire to impose his will on events. The ball was rolled back to him and he fired in a shot from inside his own half, but Grobbelaar was alert and comfortably caught the audacious attempt. It had been a declaration of intend by the Roma skipper though. This would be his game. A number of his team-mates coped less well with the enormity of the occasion, but the captain’s class shone like a beacon.

If the loss of the coin toss appeared merely a less than fortuitous omen, it took on the guise of a harbinger of doom when Phil Neal scrambled the ball home to give Liverpool the lead in the ill-fated 13th minute, a highly debatable challenge on Tancredi shortly before notwithstanding. Given the events surrounding the semi-final passage against Dundee United however, Roma may not have been best placed to claim an injustice.

For the next half-hour or so, Roma pressed with Di Bartolomei at the centre of every Roma move. Cool and calculating he probed the opposition and prompted his team-mates, jealously protecting possession and looking to instigate attacks whenever possible. Just ahead of the break, Roma equalised when Pruzzo flicked a cross over a stretching Grobbelaar to bring the Olimpico to a boiling cauldron of ecstasy. All things were now possible, but there would be no more goals and the game went to a penalty shout out.

In a coquettish flutter of her eyelashes, fate offered a glimpse of glory to Roma when Nichol fired his first penalty over the bar. Responding for Roma, there could be no other option that Di Bartolomei to inspire his team. A fiercely drilled spot kick from the captain brooked little argument from the goalkeeper and Roma were ahead. Fate can be a cruel mistress though, and after Neal had buried his penalty, Conti reprised the effort by Nichol and fired his kick too high. The momentum was now in the balance.

Souness scored and Righetti responded in kind. Rush netted and when Graziani took up his position to shoot, the Liverpool goalkeeper adopted his ‘wobbly legs’ pose, imitating a nervousness that he hoped may be transmitted to the Italian striker. Whether suffering from the pressure or not, Graziani copied Conti’s effort, clipping the bar in its errant flight the ball sailed off into the Rome night, and while Liverpool rejoiced in anticipation, Roma, and Di Bartolomei feared the worst as the sands of hope slipped through their fingers. Kennedy delivered the coup de grace, and it was done. Commentating for ITV, Brian Moore described how Liverpool were celebrating and Roma were “distraught.”

For one particular player, that may have been a significant understatement. Having endured the loss of a potential ‘double’ triumph snatched away in the most dubious of circumstances, Agostino di Bartolomei now experienced defeat in the ‘game of his life’ as a contested goal, and then the heartbreak of a penalty shootout doomed Roma to the bridesmaid’s role once again. Things would hardly get better in the coming weeks. He may not have been aware of the fact at the time, but he would never play for his beloved Giallorossi in a Serie A or European fixture again. All that remained was the completion of the Coppa Italia fixtures, and at the end of the season, he would be gone from the club. Another hammer blow to darken his demeanour.

Almost a month after the defeat to Liverpool, Roma played the second leg of the Coppa Italia Final against Verona back in the Olimpico. A 1-1 draw in the away leg had made Roma favourites to lift the trophy and an own goal from Mauro Ferroni was enough to convert the advantage to victory. For the Giallorossi captain however, it was the emptiest of victories. By this time, it had become known that Liedholm was leaving the club to venture back north to join his old club, AC Milan. The incoming manager at the Olimpico, Sven-Göran Eriksson, was, understandably, looking to build a new team and the club’s captain, just 29 years old, was deemed surplus to requirements. He would follow Liedholm to Milan.

It was a move that he had hardly sought, and the tiffosi held similar sentiments. A banner displayed on the Curva Sud at the game spoke for many, proclaiming that, “They took away your Rome, not your curve!” It was a clear message that the fans too were against the move and would always hold a place in their hearts for their Roman hero. In a number of interviews afterwards, the always dignified Di Bartolomei would express similar unbridled affection.

The move to Lombardy was hardly successful as Milan suffered two relegations to Serie B with Di Bartolomei wearing Rossoneri. He would never regain the form so regularly displayed in the eternal City, but nothing is forever, not even in Rome. His career drifted away with moves to Cesena and finally Salernitana, where he finally retired in 1990. Some, especially many on the Curva Sud, may have been expecting Roma to offer their legendary captain some role within the club, perhaps a kind of Emeritus position to encourage young players and be an example of what can be achieved, but nothing was forthcoming. The neglect may have cut deeply into a chronically open wound.

Players, and so often with players of great renown, struggle to adapt to life outside of the game after retirement. For Di Bartolomei however, that descent may have begun much earlier than retirement, when his world was shattered into shards that sliced deep into his spirit during in the weeks between late May and the end of June 1984. The symptoms may have been apparent well before he hung up his boots, but it became clear after he stopped playing that he was experiencing bouts of depression, a condition not helped by financial problems following failed business ventures. The treacherously slippery ever-downward slope was nearing its end.

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On 30 May 1994, precisely ten years to the day after the defeat in the European Cup Final, Agostino di Bartolomei walked onto the balcony of his villa in San Marco di Castellabate, pointed a pistol at his heart and ended the pain. For many, the date of the suicide was plainly significant, for others it may have been less so. A loan he had been pursuing to assuage some of his debts had been refused, and a suicide note said “I feel locked inside a hole. I can’t see any way out.”

Agostino di Bartolomei had the rare distinction of being the standard bearer for his hometown club. It’s an honour he wore with enormous pride. He ‘lived’ Giallorossi for 15 years, played over 300 games for the club and, despite his often being deployed in a deeper role, especially later in his career there, scored 67 goals. Could a defeat in a game of football, perhaps added to a perceived loss to an injustice, create an ever-deepening cloud of depression that, in the end, simply becomes too heavy to carry around as it crushes even the strongest of spirits with its all-enveloping pain? It’s an impossible question to answer. Football can, and often does, offer a turmoil of emotion, and fans often deny their heroes any fallibility, expecting mere strength and purpose in exchange for devotion and acclaim. Surely however, there’s a fragility, even if it is unseen, disguised and buried beneath a cloak of Machismo in us all. We should all ponder the tragic tale of Roma legend Agostino Di Bartolomei, and take heed of a love that can destroy.

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