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The Pocketbook History of A.S. Roma: Part II (1931-1936)

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Roma sells her star player to Lazio, and captain Fulvio Bernardini refuses to fix a match for the league title.

Italian Manager Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

We left you with Roma getting her first taste of European football, after the last-gasp title push of the 1930-31 season. Maybe it led to an emotional climb-down in the few seasons after, but it also meant Roma were now focused—much to demand of the fans—on signing talent from abroad to raise the title-aspirations of the club on the domestic front. And that puts us right in the middle of a gathering crowd at Roma’s Termini train station, for the 1930s calciomercato version of “10,000 fans at the airport.”

That was once the unofficial declaration linked to Walter Sabatini’s big-name transfer moves of the 2010s, but here it’s the Roma fans crowding the train station to celebrate the club signing three Argentinian players.

1933: Goodbye Volk, Hello Guaita

Roma striker Enrique Guaita still holds the record for most goals over a 16-team Serie A season, and won the World Cup with Italy
Pallonate in Faccia

Brief: Roma make a triple-threat of incoming signing from Argentina, but star-striker Rodolfo Volk isn’t impressed with having to compete for a starting spot. Roma sells Volk to Pisa.

Backstory: Not much was expected out of Roma signing center-half Andres Stagnaro from Argentina’s Atlanta (he would turn out to be a flop in Italian football), but he still turned up on that Termini train-arrival with strikers Alejandro Scopelli and Enrique Guaita—both names signed from Estudiantes.

Guaita, in particular, was the big name. No one could be prepared for the extraordinary highs and lows that Guaita would put the club through in such a short space of time to come.

At the time, Estudiantes were still a long way off breaking into the ‘big 5’ of the Argentina league, but that hadn’t stopped them from fighting off suitors for Guaita from around the world. Yet, financial troubles meant Estudiantes had to throw in the towel in the summer of 1933, with Roma gaining from their troubles.

Truthfully, Guaita’s first outing—a summer friendly against Bayern Munich in Rome—was less than impressive. Yet by the time the 1933-34 Serie A season got underway, it wasn’t long before Guaita was raising Italian football to a level that electrified Rome’s Campo Testaccio crowd. It would earn him a call-up to play for Italy in the 1934 World Cup.

Meanwhile, if a Roma ultras account is to be believed, star-striker Rodolfo Volk wasn’t happy with new teammate Guaita competing for his place up front. He also reportedly had pre-existing beef with fellow strike partner Elvio Banchero. Roma felt the only solution was to move Volk, selling him to Pisa.

Notable Events

  • Roma sells star-striker Rodolfo Volk to Pisa, replacing him with Enrique Guaita. They offer Guaita an 8,000-lire contract, the beginning of unrest with the rest of the Roma squad.
  • Roma win the opening Derby of the 1933-34 season with a 5-0 thumping of Lazio.
  • Guaita quickly earns the moniker ‘The Black Bullet’ - partly owed to his love of scoring long-range goals, and partly because he scores a hat-trick against in a league game (vs. Livorno) where Roma debut their all-black away kits for the very first time.

1934: Roma Throws Ferraris Under the Bus, Italy Win World Cup

Uomo Nel Pallone

Brief: In a desperate bid to get the pressure of him and the team, Roma president Sacerdoti publicly blames star-player Attilio Ferraris for Roma throwing away a 3-goal lead in an eventual 3-3 derby draw with Lazio.

Ferraris is banned from training for the rest of 1934 and goes into full-time drinking at his local bar, before Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo puts him into a “boot camp” personal fitness regime in time for the World Cup campaign.

Backstory: When I first began (and never finished) the “Roma Captains” series, I wanted to put a resolution to the anger and hurt feelings around Francesco Totti’s retirement in 2017, as then-club captain. But even I wasn’t prepared for just how far back Roma throwing captains under the bus goes.

There are conflicting reports over whether Ferraris was still Roma captain at the beginning of the 1933-34 season (he may well have handed over the armband to Fulvio Bernardini before then or after), but he finished that season getting sold off to Lazio.

Yes, let our pocketbook history show that Roma sold off her first-ever club captain (and symbol) to Lazio; all because the Roma president panicked after a Derby draw at home.

Roma were leading 3-0 on the day, but Lazio clawed it back to 3-3 in a damaging draw that would contribute to Roma finishing outside of the European spots. But Sacerdoti didn’t even let the season play out before he tried to rally the team around a “common enemy”: Roma star-player Attilio Ferraris.

Ferraris was exiled from club training, and Sacerdoti even went as far as accusing Ferraris of throwing the derby in favor of Lazio. Unfortunately this desperate “team-bonding” tactic was mirrored by Franco Sensi much later in Roma’s history, when Sensi threw club captain Giuseppe Giannini under the bus through Derby disappointment in the 1990s, in a futile attempt to get over with the fans.

Back in the 1930s, Ferraris took the accusations very literally, and eventually demanded a summer 1934 transfer to cross-town rivals Lazio. But while Roma imploded, Italy were on the rise.

Ferraris was dragged out of his club-exile funk by Italy coach Pozzo, and joined Roma teammates Guido Masetti (Italy’s bench keeper) and Enrique Guaita for Italy’s 1934 World Cup success on home soil.

Though he wouldn’t yet reach his best scoring form in his debut Roma season, Guaita did enough for the Argentine-Italian striker to get called up Italy’s first-eleven in time for the 1934 World Cup (all athletes with Italian heritage in the generation immediately above them—the Oriundi—were free to play for the national team) despite the fact Guaita had already played several times in an Argentina shirt.

Notable Events

  • Serie A change to a 16-team format (as originally intended) from 1934-35.
  • Roma blow a 3-0 lead at home to Lazio, drawing 3-3.
  • Roma president Sacerdoti accuses Ferraris of throwing the derby, and bans him from training with the club. Eventually Ferraris feels he’s forced into a move to Lazio.
  • Ferraris and Bernardini took issue with the board’s wage policy, after Roma gave into Guaita’s demands for a contract of 10,000 lire - a record contract in Italian football at the time. Compare that to the fact homegrown player Antonio Fusco was playing for free, and homegrown player-part-time-stockbroker Giorgio Carpi played for free, refused wages and even offered to manage the club’s finances for them... and you can see squad mismanagement here.
  • Fulvio Bernardini threatens to walk out the club after his and Ferraris’ treatment (Bernardini was also blamed and fined along with Ferraris after the derby), but Bernardini is convinced to stay and now becomes full-time club captain.
  • Roma wrote a clause in Ferraris’ transfer agreement that he would not play against Roma in a Lazio shirt, unless Lazio paid a financial penalty. Lazio fans encouraged the club just to pay the fine, and Ferraris started against Roma in a Lazio shirt at the very first opportunity of the 1934-35 season. This was the beginning of the Roma-Lazio turning from “a family day out at the game” to a venomous rivalry.
  • Several Roma players are part of Italy’s 1934 World Cup winning campaign on home soil.
  • In 1933, Sacerdoti starts to offer the role of “lifetime partner” (a role he created himself) to Roma players who are on the way out of the club. This sounds insignicant at the time, but it was a move that would save Roma from financial troubles in dark times ahead. It would also allow Sacerdoti to stay on as club benefactor, behind the scenes, in his own darkest hours to come.

Nothing amazing happens in 1934, except for Lazio’s increased ambitions on the domestic front. Lazio announce the signing of Silvio Piola in the summer of 1934. If you recognize the name, it’s because Piola goes on to become the only man (still, to this day) that has outscored Roma’s Francesco Totti in Serie A.

It’s really up to you to decide which record is more impressive. On the one hand, Silvio played less league games the Francesco Totti. On the other hand, Piola started out his career as a striker, in an era where time and space was given more freely than Totti’s playing days. Totti alternated his career between playing as a forward, winger, attacking midfielder and withdrawn (or ‘false nine’) striker.

If there is one area where Totti toppled Piola from the record books, it was with the Roma legend’s 2016 brace, scored from off the bench against Genoa in the closing stages of the 2016-17 season.

A 39-year old Totti becomes the oldest-ever player to score two league goals in a single league game on that day, beating the previous record held by 39-year old Silvio Piola (set at Novara), by a matter of months. The two men’s careers are inextricably mirrored through time.


1935: Fugitives and Fugues

Core de Roma

Brief: Guaita finishes the 1934-35 season as Serie A Capocannoniere, but even his goals can’t propel Roma beyond 4th place. Sacerdoti reacts by making a huge-double signing of World Cup-winning defensive pair Lugi Allemandi from Inter and Eraldo Mozeglio from Bologna.

Guaita walks out on the club at the beginning of Roma’s 1935-36 title push, along with Roma’s other two Oriundi signings of two summers ago, leaving Roma’s frontline in complete disarray. To top it off, Fascist Italy turns its back on president Renato Sacerdoti, who’s forced to resign due to his Jewish roots and oncoming war-tension abroad.

Roma make the last-minute signings of striker Renato Cattaneo, who’s contract demands were rejected by Lazio before Roma signed him, and unproven youth Dante Di Benedetti mid-season.

Roma captain Fulvio Bernardini threatens to walk out on the club if they accept an offer from Brescia to fix the last game of the season at Testaccio, which would have guaranteed Roma taking league-leaders Bologna to a title-decider.

Backstory: Roma signing both of Italy’s world-champion fullbacks in the summer of 1935 is huge, especially nabbing them from title-hopefuls Bologna and Inter.

It’s seen as the last missing piece of a title-ready Roma; they finally have world-class stars through the spine of the team. Masetti is in goal, the defence is a pair of World Cup champions, Bernardini marshals the midfield, and Guaita is the league’s reining Capocannoniere up front.

And then it all goes to crap in the same summer as Roma lose their strike-force to forces outside of football.

Star-striker Guaita (on record wages) grew increasingly paranoid that his adopted Italy would call him up to the front-line, to fight Italy’s war campaign in Africa within the next year. Alongside fellow Oriundi signings Stagnaro and Scopelli, Guaita eventually cracked and chose to flee to France, with all three players eventually catching a boat back to native country Argentina.

Vittorio Pozzo bei Fussball Länderspiel Italiens - undatiert Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Having abandoned Argentina on the pitch, and fled from Italy off of it, Guaita was never truly welcomed back home in Argentinian football; though it should be said he remains—with the passing of time—a fond memory as ‘The Black Bullet’ among Roma fan folklore today. But not even the league’s biggest contract could prevent Guiata bringing unforeseen misery on Roma.

That’s because his escape was seen as the final excuse that Italy’s Fascist government could use to turn the screws on Roma president Sacerdoti, who’s Jewish roots were becoming more of a problem for Mussolini ahead of a wartime alliance with Hitler’s Germany. Sacerdoti tried to build a more “Italian Roma” on the pitch, with World Cup winning heroes at the back, but it wasn’t enough.

The 1933 signings had now blown up in his face in ways no one could predict, and cost him dearly. The government outright accused Roma president Sacerdoti of aiding the Oriundi to desert Italy, when there was no evidence Roma did anything but try to convince all three players to stay.

There was also scant evidence that they would seriously ever be called up for military service in any case, making the condemnation against Sacerdoti twice as phony. Really, Italy had just lost-face at their World-Cup winning hero Guaita fleeing the country twelve months later.

Sacerdoti resigned as club president in 1935, and would spend the rest of the thirties going into hiding, looking to avoid deportation to a Nazi concentration camp. Despite a couple of major errors along the way, Sacerdoti was known as a very generous backer; a backer not just of Roma’s title ambitions, but her all-round formation as a club from the ground up.

It wouldn’t be the last of him as Roma president but, for now, it was an abrupt break-up.

Meanwhile, Roma were forced to patch up their title bid with the stereotypical “kiddies and rejects” transfer policy at the last minute; Roma signed 32-year old Renato Cattaneo after he was literally rejected, mid-contract talks, by Lazio across town, for fear of Cattaneo being too old for Lazio’s aspirations.

As it turned out, Cattaneo wasn’t past it; he wrote a declaration in the local papers saying he “promised to honor the Roma colors just as [he’d] done the [Alessandria] colors for 17 years”, he then rejuvenated his career in a Roma shirt and became known as Castigalazio - loosely translated as the guy who spanks Lazio’s *ss.

That’s because Cattaneo—of what precious few goals scored in a Roma shirt—saved his best against Lazio, scoring the winning goals in both capital derbies during his debut Roma season. He also scored to help Roma become the first club to beat Juventus on their own soil for four years. Nor was mid-season signing, and fellow strike partner, Dante Di Benedetti a flop, either.

Il Romanista

The unproven 19 year-old Di Benedetti was fully thrown in at the deep end (hello, Zaniolo) in the spring of 1936. In the grand scheme, the teenager would only last two seasons in Rome but he hit the ground flying; he was a 1-in-2 goals per game striker during his stay in the capital.

That all lead to Roma’s second-place finish behind Bologna in ‘35-’36—closer than ever, but not enough in the end. Only... it came with a final twist on the last day.

Roma captain Fulvio Bernardini caught wind (through Roma’s new vice-president) that Brescia’s goalkeeper was offering to throw the final league game against Roma, effectively guaranteeing the win needed from Roma to draw level on points with Bologna and take it to a title-decider (or it may have taken Roma to an outright title victory, but goal-average was the league tiebreaker back then and we don’t feel like doing the maths - someone else will have to confirm it.)

Roma captain Bernardini would threaten to walk out of the club if the board accepted Brescia’s match-fix offer. And so the Giallorossi turned down the offer to pay Brescia’s keeper in the end, and both sides played the match clean.

Roma drew that final game against Brescia 1-1 (some say this was down to Roma playing an injury-hit lineup, but if you ask us this story-line is already martyr-like enough as it is without the extra sauce on top) and Bologna win the 1936 league title.

Notable Events

  • Roma’s blockbuster full-back signing Eraldo Monzeglio was a known family-friend of Mussolini’s, to the point where Monzeglio earned the moniker “Mussolini’s tennis player”. That’s because Mussolini’s lover, Claretta Petacci, once wrote (in her later-published diaries) that Mussolini would tell her “Monzeglio still never manages to win a tennis game against me. He’s useless. I run as much as him, if not even more.”
  • Monzeglio later denied rumours that the Mussolini family were unhappy with him signing for Roma, and not Lazio. Monzeglio claims Mussolini’s sons told him, over the phone, “it’s good enough that you’re in Rome.”
  • Despite signing Mussolini’s buddy Monzeglio to the Roma starting lineup, Roma president Renato Sacerdoti is forced to step down and going into hiding all the same.
  • Fulvio Bernardini ends up doing a hit-and-run (unrelated to other matters) on Mussolini’s azure-blue car, in the middle of Rome at the time. After rear-ending Mussolini, Bernardini reportedly immediately drove off but Mussolini recognised him straight away. It was left to teammate Monzeglio to smooth over relations, once again over a doubles’ tennis game where Bernardini had to come along and let Mussolini win on court. This incident is sometimes cited as the ulterior motive behind Bernardini never making Pozzo’s Italy teams.
  • Five-time champions Juventus hadn’t lost a league game at home in four years, before Roma put an end to that streak with a 3-1 victory in Turin thanks to goals from Cattaneo and Di Benedetti.
  • Roma come to within a point of the Scudetto title, their closest yet.
  • Roma is briefly in the hands of caretaker-president Antonio Scialoja, before new full-time Roma Igino Betti assumes control of the club. Betti finds the club’s accounts in a mess, and also has to find funds to renovate Campo Testaccio.

I’ve often tried to defend the policy of signing foreign players (neither being Italian nor Roman myself), but even I have to accept the summer of 1935 is as stonewall as you can get, when it comes to arguing for the promotion of homegrown talent to the first team.

In theory, the idea is sound. In practice, it turned out to be so bitterly on-point that year.

Rinus Michels’ once wrote “once you’ve managed to get a player to see the team’s problems as his own to solve, then you’ve reached gold as a coach.” Homegrown, academy players are - on paper- the path of least resistance to that gold.

There’s no player like one born in the neighborhood that will train, play and think of solutions on the pitch as if both his and his club’s life depended on it. Never was that more exemplified than in the 1935-36 season.