In the past decade, we’ve seen center-backs come and go at Roma in the blink of an eye. Defensive talents the world over have shined at the club, only to be sold a year or two later. Who can forget players like Marquinhos, Mehdi Benatia, Antonio Rudiger, and Davide Astori? Sure, Kostas Manolas stayed long enough to create some fond memories, but most were gone in a flash to the highest bidder.
However, it wasn’t always like that. In the preceding decade, way back in the 2000s, Roma actually brought in defenders that stuck around for awhile. Those players created the foundations of some solid squads. Guys that become part of the heart and soul of the club.
They were players that fans could relate to because they began to feel like Romanisti. It felt like they were going to battle because they loved the crest almost the same way that the Romans loved Roma.
There was the stalwart Christian Panucci. The silky smooth Juan. You can’t forget the solid Matteo Ferrari. And, of course, Nicolas Burdisso, who despite his Nerazzurri past, always battled to the end for the Giallorossi. However, one center back from that era always resonated with me more than all the rest: Philippe Mexès.
The French-born defender arrived in the Italian capital from Auxerre in Ligue 1 for €7 million. His Roma career got off to a rough start, but once he settled in, Mexès became a fixture at the back for seven season in the Italian capital—compiling 254 Roma appearances in the process.
Mexès was with the club when I started my emotional roller coaster ride as a Romanista. Club icons Totti and De Rossi will always be held in a higher regard than all others in my Giallorossi heart, but there was always something about Mexès that made him one of my favorites.
Much like De Rossi, Mexès played with a (usually) controlled aggression. A grit and toughness that at times got him in hot water—occasionally producing a red card. Don’t get me wrong, the Frenchman had a temper, but he always seemed to put it all on the line for the crest and backed down to nobody. Just ask Zlatan.
Mexès wasn’t the flashiest or best defender that Roma’s ever had, but he was a great fit for a team built on a Sensi budget. The Frenchman was a physical defender and strong tackler. He often went in hard, making his presence known. Mexès was a good athlete, who possessed decent ball skills and good pace. He even chipped in the odd goal, often a header from a set piece. He was also the perfect compliment to the silky smooth Juan; often his defensive partner.
In many ways, he was to those 2000s teams what Manolas was to recent Roma sides: a solid defender who could make bonehead mistakes at times, but was an asset for most of his Giallorossi tenure.
However, for all the on the field memories of Mexès dispossessing opposing attackers, the image of him that still resonates with me isn’t even from a match that he played in. It’s from one of my most heartbreaking moments as a Romanista. Back in 2009-10, Roma was poised to do the unthinkable and rip the Scudetto away from holders (and eventual treble winners) Inter, who were led by Jose Mourinho. Then disaster struck at the Marassi when Samp beat the Giallorossi.
Even though there was still time left in the season, everyone knew that the loss would inevitably lead to another Inter title. And there was Mexès on the sidelines in tears. The man was legit crying. In that moment he was nothing more than a tifoso, who was helpless in the Giallorossi’s painful loss. That moment showed just how much Mexès loved Roma.
The Frenchman ended his Roma tenure with a torn ACL (yeah even back then Roma had that issue) before signing on a free transfer with AC Milan in the summer of 2011. Despite that, he left behind many fond memories including two Coppa Italias and one Supercoppa.
Mexes left it all on the field for Roma: blood, sweat, and tears. Roma would be well served to build it’s current squad around players that become as attached to the club as Mexès was.