We’ve seen Best XI Roma teams that range from impressive to near-invincible, this past week. But it’s always hard to name a lineup outside of football’s traditional power-continents of Europe and South America, and the moniker ‘Rest of the World XI’ has laid testament to that over the last couple of decades’ worth of All-Star friendly fixtures.
It’s inevitable that this lineup will be dominated by African players, owing to the easy passage of young talent from the African continent to the peninsula, and Italy’s political influence in Africa. Nonetheless, there are a couple of highly-paid breakout stars in this team, including a man who’s been knighted by the Italian government for having an ice-cream and travel tours named after him. This team is money.
Goalkeeper: Giovanni De Min (Eritrea, 4 Appearances)
As you can tell by the four appearances in a Roma jersey, Giovanni De Min starts between the posts by default.
After nearly a decade fighting for games around Italy’s lower leagues, De Min finally got to prove himself at Hellas Verona in Serie B by the late sixties. His star-turn in goal helped Verona reached Serie A, and he spent another season in the top flight as Verona’s starter before being relegated to the bench. The winter of 1969 came about, and Roma landed De Min as their squad keeper for two more seasons in the capital.
De Min announced himself in Roma by playing in the 1969 Anglo-Italian Cup, and a further friendly against English opponents Leyton Orient. But he had one Roman-sized problem standing in front of him, in the form of homegrown keeper Alberto Ginulfi.
Ginulfi’s presence meant De Min would never really get a look in at playing in Giallorossi colours, but De Min did make 4 appearances in his second (and last) season with Roma, conceeding 10 goals in the process. It was enough to make him, still today, the only goalkeeper from the “Rest of the World” to top-flight football for Roma.
Full-Back: Samuel Kuffour (Ghana, 31 Appearances)
Just 31 appearances doesn’t really do justice to what was expected of Samuel Kuffour in a Roma shirt. Having won the U-17 World Cup with Ghana in 1991, while the tournament was hosted in Italy, Kuffour was signed as a youth player with Torino. No sooner did he graduate into Italian football than Bayern Munich swooped in to take Kuffour to Germany.
For fans like me, Kuffour will always be remembered for his reaction to losing the 1999 Champions League final against Manchester United, in the dying moments of that game. But Kuffour wouldn’t have to wait long to do justice to that part of his trophy cabinet; he’d go on to win the 2001 Champions League with Bayern, and countless other trophies in Germany as a versatile defender that could play wide or in the heart of defence. That was reason enough for Roma to bring Kuffour back to Italy, as a 29-year old “moneyball” replacement for Walter Samuel.
Kuffour started well enough in Serie A with Roma, but his debut season was interrupted by the Africa Cup of Nations in January of that same year. That was the opening that a young Phillipe Mexes took to usurp the elder Kuffour from the starting lineup, and it was never the same for Kuffour by the time he reported back for club duty.
On his day, Kuffour was a fearless challenger willing to put his body on the line, and put his head into any aerial challenge to cut out the danger.
Full-Back: Pierre Womé (Cameroon, 8 Appearances)
Here’s a guy who once had a Chiesa Di Totti entry—Womé Wednesday—named after him. Signed as a very raw talent who could get up and down the left flank for the first-spell of Zdenek Zeman’s “coast to coast” football in Rome, at the end of the nineties, Womé unfortunately lived through the infamy of conceeding a penalty to Lazio in a November 1998 Rome 3-3 derby draw. He’d also get himself sent off with a reckless challenge on Lee Bowyer in a UEFA Cup fixture against Leeds United.
There was serious talent with Womé, but Fabio Capello replaced Zeman on the Roma bench and decided the more well-rounded Vincent Candela would own Roma’s left flank from that point on.
Womé was let go, but he would immediately enjoy the best days of his career in a Cameroon shirt from then on, winning the 2000 and 2002 Africa Cup of Nations.
Centre-Back: Hector Moreno (Mexico, 6 Appearances)
Just recently, Mexican centre-back Hector Moreno admitted that he felt he “couldn’t defend” by the time he arrived in Rome. It was a sensational statement, but hardly news by the time Moreno left for Spain’s La Liga, just six months later.
Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco put it in more granular terms, during Moreno’s stay: through years of playing in Dutch football, Moreno had simply learnt to use his physique to try and win the ball back when needed. It was enough for Moreno to get by on man-marking opponents out of the game, but that made him ill-suited to Di Francesco and Roma’s more zonal style.
As such Moreno spent most of his time in the capital learning how to play defence in sync with teammates, and using the ball as his reference for where to move on the pitch. Still, it was Moreno’s actual ball-playing skills that landed him the Roma gig in the first place. And anyone who keeps a clean-sheet alongside Juan Jesus for 90 minutes deserves credit. Perhaps a Torino loanee in that game, Sadiq Umar, could tell you the story of a relentless Jesus-Moreno offside trap ruining Sadiq and Torino’s day.
Centre-Back: Mehdi Benatia (Morocco, 37 Appearances)
In some corners of Romaverse, Benatia will be remembered for a 5-second throwaway line within a 40-minute feature sitting alongside Blaise Matuidi in a Turin cafe. In that interview, Benatia mentions the “loser excuses” he feels he told himself to get by in Rome, as part of a wider reflection on how he was pushed to a new level of ambition at Juventus.
The tone of that interview was matter-of-fact, but of course that’s the one line that the written press dined out on for the following weeks. Yet Benatia has always been a guy to march to the beat of his own drum, and he felt he earned that right after taking a gutsy decision early in his career.
Having suffered a career-threatening injury as a promising talent at Marseille, Benatia was told that he could either find form on endless loans away from the French giants, or just collect his paycheck on Marseille’s bench. Benatia chose neither option.
Instead, he immediately asked the coach to be let go from his contract, taking the drop into Ligue 2 and playing at a club that believed in him as a first-team player once more.
It was huge gamble to take, but Benatia made it pay off and earned a moved to Udinese, then Roma, then Bayern Munich and finally Juventus before settling down for a well-earned twilight of his career in Qatar. Minor injuries followed Benatia throughout his career, except for one glorious 2013-14 season at the heart of Rudi Garcia’s Roma defence.
In that season, Benatia was the guy who could break out of the backline with the ball and offer Roma’s attack a third option to break the deadlock in games, outside of the creative influence of Miralem Pjanic and Francesco Totti up front. As reward, Roma owner James Pallotta alledgedly backed out of a verbal agreement to bump up Benatia’s pay - and that was the end of that.
Benatia insisted on being let go from Rome in the same fashion that the journeyman has always insisted on going where he feels wanted. But he was a Rolls-Royce of a football player on his day in Rome, pure and simple.
Midfielder: Seydou Keita (Mali, 59 Appearances)
There’s rarely a summer gone by where I don’t wish the club could make a signing as shrewd as Roma did when they signed Seydou Keita. For sure, he’d already seen his best days gone by when he signed for Roma, through a career where Keita had won everything there is to win in club football. But he still racked up nearly 60 games in just two years in Rome, during which Keita was trusted with the vice-captaincy.
The reason for that was visible on the pitch. There simply wasn’t a better player to link up defence and midfield, helping Roma to escape pressure on the ball from the back. Luciano Spalletti, on his own return to Roma’s bench in 2015-16, famously claimed that he knew he was in deep trouble once the club decided to let both Pjanic and Keita go in the summer of 2016.
It was apparently the loss of Keita (along with Pjanic) that convinced Spalletti to throw out Garcia’s possession football for a more direct style of play from then on. We can only wonder what the impact on Roma’s play would have looked like if the Giallorossi has signed Keita closer to his prime.
Midfielder: Michael Bradley (United States, 82 Appearances)
Could you believe that Bradley is still only 32 years old at the time of writing? And even if midfielder Gennaro Nigro may go onto change the fact, Bradley is still the only U.S. player to start a professional game for Roma.
Bradley played box-to-box in the capital, lending the kind of athleticism to Roma’s midfield that is the trademark of American soccer graduates. He was never one to turn down an adventure abroad, playing in Holland, Germany and England before plying his trade in Italian football.
Bradley rarely broke out into spectacular play during his time in the capital, but he also never lived through any extended individual lows either. Never afraid to put in a shift in the engine room, he found a muted form of consistency - a feat in itself at such a chaotic club - before moving back to the MLS with Toronto FC.
Midfielder: Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan, 40 Appearances)
When Perugia first brought Nakata to the peninsula, one thing was clear: the guy knew how to hit a ball into the back of the net. If you let Nakata beat his opponent anywhere from 30 yards to goal, it would be just a few seconds before the Japanese star used the space to unleash mayhem. That alone was enough for Roma to part with 20 million euros to sign Nakata to Fabio Capello’s title-chasing side at the turn of the millenium.
And yet Nakata never really adapted to Roma, nor did the team adapt to him.
He was the ultimate luxury player, and it was his star-turn off the bench in a title decider away to Juventus in that 2000-01 season that lands Nakata on this team. Roma were losing that match 2-0, deep into the second half, and staring the possibility of Juventus narrowing the gap to just 3 points behind them.
Then Nakata came on as a sub for Francesco Totti (of all people) and lashed a 30-yarder past Edwin van der Sar to get Roma back into the game. Nakata wasn’t done there, unleashing another long-range piledriver in the final minute of the game, that the Juve keeper could only parry into Roma striker Vincenzo Montella’s path for Montella to score the equalizer. Roma walked away from that match with a 2-2 draw in the bag, and their lead at the top of the table unharmed.
Nakata would never really find his place in the Roma team, but his place in Roma history was guaranteed.
The club eventually convinced Parma to sign him for 28 million euros, representing a healthy profit and making Nakata the sixth-highest paid player in the world at the time, thanks to his personal sponsorship with Canon, and a future agreement to become the mascot for “Nakata tours” in Italy.
This was a time when football chairmen were chasing the “next big player” out of the Far East to make football popular outside of Europe and South America. Nakata represented the apex of that push in Italy.
He was knighted by the Italian government in 2005, for the business he’d brought into the country on his starpower alone - including having a range of Italian ice cream flying off the shelves in his name.
Forward: Mohamed Salah (Egypt, 83 Appearances)
So much has been written about Mohamed Salah, during and after his brief spell in Rome, that it’s simply not worth trying to go over it in detail once more. It’s enough to say that Salah was trusted with the fate of Roma’s attack, transforming the pace of Roma’s game at will, under both Rudi Garcia and Luciano Spalletti.
Every other Roma attacker took their cue from Salah’s decisions in the opposition half. His speed and ability on the ball meant that Salah could cut through many lines of defence on his own, or preferably, with the help of teammates.
While he did previously run into a bit of a morale-breaking spell as a young talent under Jose Mourinho’s rule at Chelsea, Salah used his time in Italy to refind his confidence and love of the game before negotiating a move back to the Premier League. His temperament was infectious - you’d struggle to find Salah looking like he was doing anything other than loving his rise to the top of the game.
Forward: Shabani Nonda (DR Congo, 14 Appearances)
Yet another player who was signed with big expectations that failed to match reality in the capital. Shabani Nonda had put in a sterling campaign with Monaco, captained by Ludovic Giuly on their run to the Champions League final, before he grew impatient with his lack of league football in France.
Roma jumped in and signed Nonda for a relatively steep transfer fee, as a way to back the recently appointed coach Luciano Spalletti in 2005. But Nonda wouldn’t ever set the world alight in Roma - despite a decent start with a 2005 autumn brace at home to Parma - before he made a hasty exit in 2007.
Despite the muted career, Nonda is still the highest scoring prima punta in our Rest of the World XI - with his 4 goals in a Roma shirt - beating our other candidates Sadiq Umar and Mido for this role as the tip of our attacking spear.
Forward: Gervinho (Ivory Coast, 88 Appearances)
None of our Rest of the World XI cracked a century of appearances for Roma, but Gervinho would come closest to managing that feat before he took an impromptu January exit to China, left unconvinced by the club’s decision to fire his mentor Rudi Garcia that same month.
Call him Yao. Call him Gervais. Call him Gervais Yao Kouassi. Either way, like Mirko Vucinic down Roma’s left flank before him, Gervinho was gifted at making the easy look hard, and the hard look easy.
No sooner were you questioning how Gervinho could curb time and space itself, to get on the end of a Totti pass and run through to goal, than you were asking yourself how he couldn’t tuck away the easy 5-yard finishes in the box. A lot of that owed to the fact that, like his successor Salah, Gervinho was weighed down with the huge responsibility of getting Roma’s attack motoring, alongside a late-thirties Franceco Totti and inexperienced Roma players slotting in on the opposite flank.
Gervinho put in a timeless shift in Rome, and his relentless ability to close down yards of space to any loose ball still lives on today. He’s into his thirties and still leading Serie A attacks at Parma.
This was the All-Time Best XI where we had to default to some names to make a cohesive lineup. But there’s always the chance that we missed some names. Who would you would have played in your Roma Rest of the World XI?