The Giallorossi may be behind most clubs in terms of history—still yet to reach a century in existence at the time of writing—but there’s already enough pathos, glamour and the occasional sporting success to fit anyone’s taste. True to modern-day character, however, even the details of how the club was founded aren’t something everyone can agree on. So we may as well just get to it.
A few notes to help set the scene first...
On the pitch itself, the popular formation around the continent was still 2-2-6, and players who could run with the ball were generally the ones to win the crowd. Italy’s legendary coach Vittorio Pozzo was gradually recognizing players who did more damage to opponents by passing the ball instead—with his metodo set to bring consecutive World Cups for Italy in the 1930s—but it would still be a while before full-backs were pushed out wide, center-halves dropped deeper to become center-backs and a ‘front six’ would stop being a thing.
This is also the era where you’re awared 2 league points for a win, and 1 for a draw; the tiebreaker was average goals scored for each team.
In the 1920s, off the pitch, football was facing it’s first identity crisis; European countries explored the pros and cons of recognizing football as a professional sport.
On the one hand, it could be seen as just another excuse for people to meet up on the weekends, in large crowds, and get to brawling. On the other hand, football had already exploded into an amateur past-time on the peninsula, ever since the English exported it to Northern Italy in the late 19th century. Still an amateur sport by the 1920s, it had already attracted very real financial backing behind the scenes.
But with that private money, were club patrons just buying up a new generation of young men as slave-entertainment for the gladiator arena all over again? Were the 1% simply profiteering off amateur athletes to bring in crowds through the gates? The shadow of the pre-industrial age was rearing its head.
It wouldn’t be until 1995 that football’s Bosman ruling brought free agency to the sport, so players either signed their rights off to a club for life (cue Hollywood Hogan’s NWO soundbite here) or had to buy themselves out of their contract just to move freely. And many players simply didn’t have the means to do the latter.
The women’s game in Italy (amid a number of setbacks over the decades) still faces the very same growing pains today.
Yet the bulk, if not all, of the answers would come for male footballers in the 1920s. Workers’ rights shook hands with the opportunistic pressure that Fascist government had ushered onto the Italian landscape, to the benefit of athletes around division football.
There was a need to present a united Italy, and the sheer number of amateur football clubs in existence by the 1920s (even today, the number of football clubs around the country is still seen as too much) had to be reduced in order to meet that image. If a unified Italy—today still rife with campanilismo (regional divide)—was a pipe dream, the consequences of chasing that dream proved real. A formal, professional, national Serie A top division was on the way, eventually becoming reality in the summer of 1929—two years after A.S. Roma came into being.
Roma were born into expectations. They were expected to level the playing field of sporting power towards the Central-South, catching up to the early 1900s successes of Genoa, Juventus and other northern clubs.
1927: The Beginnings
Brief: Fortitudo-Pro Roma (‘Fortitudo’), S.S. Alba-Audace Roma (‘Alba’) and Roman Foot Ball Club (‘Roman’) agree to merge as three-clubs-in-one, becoming A.S. Roma in 1927 under the hand of government aide Italo Foschi, who became A.S. Roma’s first club president.
A.S. Roma adopts the kit colors of the Roman Football Club. RFC brings in wealthy backers— including Roma president-elect Renato Sacerdoti—who promise to wipe out the debts incurred by Fortitudo.
Despite Fortitudo’s disaster season on the pitch, it’s felt they bring the best player roster of all three clubs to the deal, including center-half/midfielder Attilio Ferraris.
Alba guarantees the use of 10,000 capacity Appio Velodrome—a pitch surrounded by a bicycle track—or Roma’s home games.
Backstory: As we mentioned, the story behind Benito Mussolini's influence in Roma’s beginnings has always been conflicted. What is definitely known is that, by 1926, Lazio football club offered Mussolini a lifetime-spot on their club’s board. That was officially voted on and approved by Lazio within the same year. It’s also known that Roma’s first president Italo Foschi was a fascist, it not in belief then certainly in action.
Foschi was responsible for bringing fascist propaganda and education into the region at a grassroots level, and Foschi was also known to be a lover of sport in general. It seems like Foschi faced an internal conflict in how to let those two sides of his personal and professional life co-exist.
Italo Foschi simply had too many professional roles to juggle, and would hand over Roma to Renato Sacerdoti in 1928.
If you believe the Lazio narrative (and the main elements of their tale have survived into the mainstream today) then Mussolini’s trusted general Giorgio Vaccaro was the first to break away from merging Lazio with Fortitudo and Alba, when the deal was still on the table for Lazio to make it.
Many people credit Lazio director Vaccaro with being the man (deliberately or not) to distance A.S. Roma from fascist government, instead choosing to try and keep Mussolini’s interests firmly rooted in Lazio football club at the time.
Other versions of the story claim that Lazio were insistent on the merged club being named Lazio-Fortitudo, and Fortitudo pulled out of the deal because of this and the fact Lazio wanted 50% of their own debts to be brought into the new club, with a long-term subsidy plan from the state.
Some Lazio fans will tell you that Lazio were the club offering the money that would wipe out Fortitudo’s debts. We haven’t found any non-Lazio sources that agree with this version of the story.
In any case, A.S. Roma 1927 has everything it needs—players, stadium and management—to compete in Serie A, which is just around the corner.
- Roma play their first ever game against Ujpest of Hungary. Ujpest only just turned professional in 1926, and are looking to break the duopoly of MTK-Ferencvaros in their home league, similar to Roma in Italy. Hungary’s ‘Danubian school’ generation of football has a big say in the early ups-and-down of Roma in the 1930s.
- Roma play their first ever domestic game against Livorno. They would later debut their first-ever black away kit against Livorno, and choose to play their last ever game at Campo Testaccio (their future home) against Livorno.
- Roma’s first ever league game against Juventus ends in a 0-0 draw. Some sides of the press claim it was a “victory for Juventus’ defence” that “could have even gone on to win the game at the end”. Other media articles lament “Roma’s domination” of the match, and claim the Giallorossi lack a finisher up front who could win these games for them.
- Attilio Ferraris IV becomes A.S. Roma’s first ever captain. His charisma on the field is only matched by his roller-coaster life away from it.
- Angelo Cerretti was brought on as chief physio, serving in the role until the club reformed as a limited company in 1965. For his 38 years as physiotherapist, Cerretti was given shares in the club by 1960s.
- In December 1927, a home game against La Dominante is called off mid-game at 4:06 pm due to an earthquake erupting. No fans in attendance are harmed, but a young Brazilian priest is fatally wounded by a falling rock by Rome’s Four Fountains. The event is grounds for Roma to consider relocating to a more purpose-built stadium.
1928: The First Trophy
Brief: Roma win their first trophy—the Coppa CONI—beating Triestina in the cup final by a 4-0 scoreline.
Backstory: If any trivia quiz ever asks you what Roma’s first piece of silverware was, there you have it. Roma won the second (and last-ever) edition of the Coppa CONI, a short-lived competition that was Italy’s answer to trying to bring teams from the North and South competing together, before Serie A came along.
The only other club to win a CONI cup was Alessandria, prior to Roma.
After frustrating goalless draws against the likes of Juventus in games that Roma otherwise dominated, in the first two seasons, Roma’s answer was to sign Rodolfo Volk up front, in time for the 1928-29 campaign ahead.
- Renato Sacerdoti—former Roman F.C. financier and Roma board member—becomes Roma’s president.
- Sacerdoti’s Roma kicks off by announcing the signing of hit-man striker Rodolfo Volk up front, in the summer of 1928. Volk would go onto become the club’s first ever Capocannoniere (Serie A topscorer).
- Roma sign all-around player Fulvio Bernardini - a former Lazio captain - from Inter.
1929: Top Tier Football
Brief: 32 clubs are made to play the 1928-29 season, in two different groups of 16, to decide on a 16-team Serie A top flight the following season. The bottom clubs from each group would then be sent into Serie B.
Roma comfortably make Serie A qualification, finishing 3rd place in their group. In the following season (1929-30), the first ever Serie A league, Rodolfo Volk scores the only goal as Roma win the first ever Derby della Capitale away to Lazio.
Backstory: A Volk-powered Roma comfortably make the cut for the new Serie A season to come. It’s decided the original 16 teams who qualified for Serie A don’t hold enough representation for the south, so Lazio (and Napoli) are lucky to get into Serie A on a matter of geography rather than league performance (the both finished mid-table in ‘28-’29).
Serie A is forced to expand from its originally intended format of 16 teams to 18 top-flight clubs for the inaugural season.
At some point, though it’s hard to say what year, Attilio Ferraris is said to have wrote into the local Rome papers about how he feels his friend and teammate Fulvio ‘Fuffo’ Bernardini is much more suited to wearing Roma’s armband than Ferraris. Bernardini is the calm-headed ice to Ferraris’ fire, as they go onto form a formidable pairing at center-half on the pitch.
Interestingly though, despite his gambling and drink problems, it’s claimed that Ferraris had the better feel for time and space on the pitch—at least in Italy CT Vittorio Pozzo’s eyes. It would be Ferraris, and not Bernardini, that would enjoy the biggest successes with the national team in the 1930s.
But Bernardini would become Roma’s captain in time for the Testaccio years.
- Roma sign foreign striker Luigi Ossoinak (naturalized to Ossoinach) in the summer of 1929.
- Roma win both derbies against Lazio in Serie A’s inaugural 1929-30 season.
- Roma beat Cremonese 9-0 in the league, which still today is their largest-ever victory (equaled only by a European Fairs Cup 10-1 victory over Turkish side Altay Izmir in the sixties).
- Fulvio Bernardini becomes Roma’s second captain around this time.
- Roma vacate the Appio Velodrome, playing games at the National Stadium (then known as the National Fascist Party Stadium or Stadio PNF) and Lazio’s Stadio della Rondinella in the interim, before Roma move to their new 20,000-capacity Campo Testaccio in November 1929.
- Campo Testaccio is the brainchild of engineer Silvio Sensi, father of future (and record longest-serving) Roma president Franco Sensi. Testaccio was modelled on Everton’s Goodison Park at the time, with underground passes for the players to walk on and off the field and four pillars of red and yellow between the stadium walls. Testaccio held a bigger capacity than Lazio’s 15,000-capacity Rondindella. It was a major statement of intent from Roma, though a Roma ultra site claims that Silvio Sensi “made most of Testaccio out of wood”, forcing the club to spend a lot on re-doing the stadium over in the 1930s.
- There were claims both Silvio Sensi and president Sacerdoti immediately were unhappy with how the stadium project turned out, with accusations the club had wasted its money on a poorly-built stadium.
- Two notable figures you’ll hear about when it comes to Campo Testaccio are groundskeeper Zi’ Checco (‘Uncle Francesco’) and his wife Sora Angelica (‘Lady Angelica’ or ‘Sister’ Angelica). Checco was supposedly known to run a tight ship, and get the Roma players to paint the lines on the pitch themselves while he’d help them organised as a unit on match days.
Zi’ Checco, vive all’angolo del mitico Campo Testaccio, ma non è un tifoso qualunque: è il guardiano dello stadio. Con parsimonia segna le strisce del terreno di gioco, prepara palloni e scarpini. Muore nel ’41, senza riuscire a vedere pochi mesi dopo il primo scudetto della Roma pic.twitter.com/XPORh3gnf2— AS Roma Partite (@ASRomaPartite) March 17, 2020
1930: Guido Masetti and Saving Lazio from Relegation
Backstory: The thirties come around, and both Roma and Bologna are seen as outside favorites to break Turin’s domination of the Italian football scene (at this point, mostly led by Torino). In reality, it turns out be the decade of Juve’s five-consecutive Scudetti (that would last into the 21st century history books, until today’s Juventus broke their own record).
So what were Roma missing? They have a hugely influential center-half pairing of Bernardini-Ferraris, firepower up front and an impressive stadium. But keeper Bruno Ballantini is just as capable of a great performance as he is of letting in blunders. Deemed “too emotional” by the Roma board, Ballantini is sold off to Fiorentina in the summer of 1930.
In his place, Roma sign Guido Masetti from Verona and choose to give Masetti his professional debut in Serie A. To say Masetti would go onto become a club legend is an understatement, even if he never quite becomes a regular with Italy in the same era.
Meanwhile, Lazio lose to Juventus at the end of the 1929-30 season. That leaves the Biancocelesti knowing that relegation-rivals Padova can travel to Rome and save themselves with a win over Roma (who had nothing to play for on the last match-day at home).
However, Roma take to the pitch just like any other game and beat Padova 8-0, meaning Roma effectively save Lazio from relegation to Serie B at the last hurdle.
- Roma’s win over Padova, on the last day of Serie A 1929-30, keeps Lazio in the top flight.
- Roma sign future legendary goalkeeper Guido Masetti in the summer of 1930. They now have everything they need to push for the top of the table.
1930: Cinque a Zero
Brief: Juventus start off the 1930-31 season as Serie A’s runaway leaders, even beating Roma 3-2 in Turin. Roma payback the favor and then some, beating Juventus 5-0 in the capital. But Juventus manage to see out the season as Serie A champions.
Backstory: By the spring of 1931, something has changed for runaway leaders Juventus. They look like they’re playing with the handbrake on, as second-place Roma close in on what was thought to be an insurmountable gap at the top.
“Roma have been hot on the heels of Juventus for five straight months, and the top two face each other tomorrow” - Il Littoriale’s billing of the Roma vs. Juve game, on 14th March 1931.
And Roma don’t disappoint on the day, handing out a 5-0 beating to Juventus at the Campo Testaccio. The game is immortalised by Italian director Mario Bonnard, who shoots the 1932 sports comedy film Cinque a Zero.
- ‘Guitarrita’ from the 1930 film The Love Song is morphed into Roma’s first club anthem - the Testaccio Song. The chant is sung in the stands as Roma beat Juve 5-0, and future Testaccio games from then on.
- In the March game prior to beating Juventus, Roma were on the end of a 3-0 loss away to Napoli in the Derby del Sole. Nothing could better encapsulate the up-and-down nature of the seeds sown into the club’s fabric, as Bernardini and Ferraris physically came to blows with Napoli fans on that day.
- Roma miss out on the Scudetto by 4 points, but finished second to qualify for their first ever European tour in the Mitropa Cup.
If the 1931 league finish held small battles won for Roma, it was a short-lived flash in the pan compared to Juventus winning the Serie A war that decade. That was a war that, truthfully, Roma struggled to count themselves a part of—amid competition from brighter lights Torino, Bologna and even Inter (forced to re-name themselves as Ambrosiana-Inter at the time).
To top it off, it was never long before Lazio were always trying to outdo Roma as the capital’s contender. But Roma’s 1931 step into European football would prove be hugely influential, despite the flat period of 1931, ‘32 and ‘33.
Roma’s hundreds of travelling fans first got a glimpse of football in the Danube (Austria, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia) and wanted the board to bring international footballers to the Italian domestic scene.
That would lead to a few expensive foreign signings to come, a fugitive controversy that would cost Roma dear in the middle of the thirties, and some shocking treatment from Roma president Sacerdoti towards club-symbol Attilio Ferraris after a 1934 Derby-day defeat.
Sacerdoti would let the Derby pressure get to him and, perversely, sell star-player and former captain Ferraris to cross-town rivals Lazio in our next chapter.