January 2017. Luciano Spalletti sat down in front of microphones to give a half-season assessment on his charges at Roma. The Tuscan trainer spent most of that time waxing lyrical about one man’s will to sacrifice himself for the club and prove himself on and off the pitch. Spalletti would go on to further single out the same man who’d made himself available to the team when they were desperately short of alternatives in his position. You almost couldn’t get Spalletti to stop praising the man in question. That man was Juan Jesus.
The Brazilian defender spent his first six months at Roma carrying a calf injury. Yet with injuries and poor fitness befalling a stack of other players in Roma’s backline, Jesus agreed to painkilling injections week after week - for six months straight - in order to play two positions for the Lupi. It’s a little heralded and little glamourised story of Jesus’ time at Roma, no matter the personal risks to his career at the time. For obvious reasons, fans lamenting the sale of Nainggolan as a ‘betrayal’ by the club wouldn’t bat an eyelid at Juan Jesus being asked to leave tomorrow all the same.
To put it bluntly: the most Juan Jesus has to offer Roma would never make as big a difference to the club’s fortunes on the pitch as Radja Nainggolan’s time in Rome. Jesus is also one of those names that benefits from opportunism in football, earning a payday simply because of the machinations of the market and clubs’ need make transfers for the grey areas of their accounting rather than earning his contract through form on the pitch. I am not here to feel sorry for Juan Jesus, no matter how much I like him, but simply pointing out player favouritism from fans based on performance, which is the name of the game. After all, we are talking about sport.
Nevertheless, some fans will lash out against the club and call Nainggolan’s sale a betrayal based on ‘doing a guy wrong’ but that is all part and parcel of the remarkably superficial, crass side of TV and camera-driven modern football. If we were a little more honest, maybe the anger and hurt comes from club ambition reflecting the very same ugly, cut-throat side of fan favouritism: this sale was based on the pursuit of performance and the need to see a difference on the pitch. Nothing more. It’s ok to do it quietly but it is unforgiveable to reflect it so honestly.
So why has the romanticism of some parts of the Roma fanbase now evolved into something more? There is an entitlement and arrogance nowadays, not just in Roma support but in supporting calcio as a whole. But it is not among the ultras or the sections of the Giallorossi and calcio support that are used to bearing the brunt of the ugly side of in the Italian game. Instead it’s the TV generation of Roma fan sitting at home on social media making the most noise about romanticism being dead.
As one Roma Daily News article put it a couple of weeks ago: “Prepare for Monchi to now face backlash for being willing to move on from a squad that has won precisely ZERO.” And we are seeing exactly that, not just on CdT but in web articles on ForzaRoma, Twitter, the usual places.
The seeds of this all sow back to a much bigger name in Roma history than Nainggolan - a player who legitimately (based on market value and pulling power during his prime) could consider himself bigger than AS Roma itself but refused to do so. Francesco Totti was the dividing line between generations of Roma support that was just waiting to make itself known once Totti retired.
Fans growing up prior to the 1990s will tell you they supported the club long before Totti came along and would do so long after he retired. For fans like myself growing up in the tailend of the 90s and into the 2000s, it has been hard to perceive AS Roma beyond the iconic armband and the #10 shirt. In the wake of Totti’s retirement, it’s enough to say that Nainggolan’s Roma career was the dead-cat bounce for those of us who still hadn’t come to terms with Totti’s empire falling just one summer prior.
The club is working hard to perceive itself as bigger than any player, working back to the era of Dino Viola where no name was too precious to be shipped off no matter what success achieved with the club (just ask Falcao).
In that time, successive Roma boards have witnessed Juventus adopt a cut-throat approach to squad management ever since the mid-nineties. Ravanelli, Vialli, Del Piero... no Juventus fan was ready for that trio to be split up after they’d won the Champions League, and yet the club moved on two pieces of that famous attack all the same.
So are Roma ready to become the new Juventus? No, and to be frank, why should they?
This isn’t a mountain-side club living out of the industrial heart of Italy and the Agnelli province. This is the warm pulse at the epicentre of the peninsula where summer is too hot to mask emotions and people are too connected to pretend or aim for anything less (it’s worth nothing that while I’ve lived all over Northern Italy - I am being hypocritical in that I’ve yet to set foot inside of Rome as I write this).
Roma is also the world’s number one tourist destination and log-jammed with traffic every single day, yet historic sites thrive among its everyday backdrop. There is little point dressing up a wolf to be a bull when, at its heart, it is essentially still a wolf.
Rather, what Roma management is seeking to do is exploit and promote that wolf’s strengths. Number one tourist destination in the world? No problem, build a new stadium. (Though the less said about the local politicians willingness to overlook the chaos this would bring to traffic, the better. Then again maybe not. Maybe more should be said about that). Vibrant, passionate and connected community? No problem, bring in a coach who knows what it’s like to live through the maddest days of a 2001 Roman summer in Eusebio Di Francesco.
And that is really where the dividing line makes itself known: the way that 2001 summer was managed and the dysfunction exploited within Roma’s fanbase ever since. The opportunity to capitalise from that Scudetto win was wasted horribly by handing over power to the players. Though history may not mention it too often, the dressing room after 2001 was a nightmare in the hands of a young, unprepared Francesco Totti. The armband worked as a shackle to keep him symbolising the club rather than truly befitting a gifted player who showed all the signs of needing to mature as a man. Prior to 2006 and his first major injury, Totti was really a bit of a petulant asshole to Roma teammates and opponents alike. If he wasn’t getting himself sent off, he was making like miserable for some of the younger or more professional players at the club along with Antonio Cassano.
You can still find —on Repubblica’s legacy website —the logged phone calls from Gaetano d’Agostino begging Moggi’s sports agency to earn him a move out of Roma for what d’Agostino called “two idiots” dividing the dressing room. Then there was Capello, Emerson - rights and wrong on both sides of the club but ultimately a club sank from title-winners to mid-table, with the transfer spending of a European giant. A recipe for chaos.
The club took action, but only belatedly and quietly when running out of options. Antonio Cassano was moved onto the Real Madrid for a bargain price in 2005 while Francesco Totti met his unapologetic wife. Ilary was probably the first and only person who has refused to lie or soften the blows for him when needed. When Totti retired, the sycophancy around Totti from “fans” attacked his wife for voicing publicly and honestly that she’d thought it best he retire two seasons earlier for his own emotional wellbeing. When Ilary refused to stand in the same camera shots as Totti on his retirement day for want of letting him have his moment to himself, the same Totti sycophants accused her of not caring for him enough. Thankfully for Francesco, he went with the voice that really was invested in his long-term wellbeing as soon as he met her, as he went through successive major injuries that forced him to re-think the kind of professional he wanted to be before he hit his thirties. After a World cup win, international retirement and hitting his late twenties, Francesco Totti became the true professional and leader that we are willing to re-write history for, today.
In that time, Totti also turned down a major move to Real Madrid in 2003. It was unfortunate that his decision laid down the blueprint for how players would perceive “being loved” by the fans ever since. All you had to do is repeatedly mention in every interview how you turned down big-money moves to bigger clubs, and you would win some empathy in a Roma shirt from the same wave of sycophancy. Players are not above playing the game in that sense, as Bruno Peres’ Instagram declarations early this year can attest to. No sooner was the Brazilian fullback making it publicly known he turned down moves elsewhere to “redeem” himself in Roma colours, then he was caught just weeks later partying, drinking and wrecking his car before a morning where he was scheduled to turn up to training.
Would Nainggolan exploit that same sycophancy in the same way? I’m going to suggest probably not to the same extreme, but I wouldn’t begrudge him or anyone being aware that the reasons to do so are certainly there. Bigger contracts, payraises and political leverage inside a dressing room where—as Nainggolan himself can attest to—careers are short-lived in a sporting world full of ass-kissers. As Nainggolan’s interviews became increasingly cynical in 2018, he may not have realised his words were becoming a parody of their own self. He wasn’t even in the top five for kms covered on the pitch this past season, yet his on-camera heroics were enough to keep the sycophancy proclaiming him as the engine and heart of Rome.
I’ve read comments about how Salah’s fans were over-the-top and made supporting Salah a pain, but none of the reaction from Salah’s sale has been as vitriolic as that from the Nainggolan fanbase on the web - not just limited to CdT. Some of that very same fanbase would even begrudge Radja a move to Inter Milan - despite the move making sense for him on both a professional and personal level - so Radja himself will be aware these are the very same voices who won’t care for him once his influence on the pitch is over.
Ask Gabriel Batistuta how many fans care for his silent fight against former Roma management, having his long legal battle and lawsuit against the club thrown out by courts in 2018. The former striker gave what was left of both knees to that 2001 Roma title success, and yet he will have to rebuild his post-footballing career from the ground up all over again - he has just passed his coaching badges at Coverciano. We’ll assume it is left to Firenze as a city to find work for Batigol at a time where he quietly needs it, also needing to cover the costs of an appeal that may drag onto until 2020 against Roma’s former management. There is no rest for the wicked.
Maybe new club-before-player sentiment that Roma’s board and coaching staff is trying to stir among future Roma generations can remain more aware of this aspect of the game to keep closer ties to athletes as people within the community, not just as entertainment figures on our TV screens.