We're wrapping up Underdog week here at SB Nation, and throughout the week we've dabbled in some of the unsung heroes in recent Roma history, as well as picking out a few future scrappers who could help the club next season and beyond. Today we're going to get a bit more meta and talk about what it means to be an underdog, and focus in on one central question: Is Roma itself an underdog?
To get an answer, I bounced a few of these questions off a partially assembled CdT crew. Enjoy!
1. Before we get into specifics, what does the term “underdog” mean to you? Does it evoke positive or negative images? Is it a label one can shed or does it stick with you?
Bren: I don’t necessarily view an underdog as someone who has no chance to succeed or someone lacking talent in any way, but rather someone who punches above their weight, so to speak; someone whose performance exceeds expectations or somehow surpasses their prior record.
It’s not entirely positive, but I don’t think it has any pejorative connotations. Whether or not someone can shed that label probably depends on how consistently they can exceed expectations. Are they progressing or was that shock game/match just a flash in the pan?
JonAS: Well, it can be both positive and negative to be the underdog in a game. The risk and pressure is low, but the reward is high if you succeed. It can have a negative effect on the team spirit (‘we don’t stand a chance, they’re simply much better’) but if media continuously describe and condemn you as the underdogs, then maybe, just maybe, the players will rise above themselves and believe in a miracle.
Our Roma has shown two faces concerning an underdog position: They have been the inferior side many times in Europe and we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. They’ve cracked under pressure (7-1 vs ManU or Bayern) but against Barcelona in 2018 or Real in 2008 they simply amazed the world by winning 3-0 and 1-2 in Bernabeu.
I agree with Bren on the last part. A team can shed the label if they keep proving the doubters wrong and exceed expectations. But it takes time. And one tip: never sell your best players if you want to achieve bigger things. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board.
Ssciavillo: When I hear the term “underdog” I think of a team that isn’t expected to win because its opponent is considered far superior. I don’t think the term is exclusively positive or negative, but rather depends on the context it’s being used. For example, in an American college football game, a small school’s team could be 40 or 50 point underdogs against one of the top teams in the country. In that context underdog becomes a negative term because the team is being told it has no chance to win.
However, when a team that is unexpected to win pulls off an unexpected victory like Roma against Barca in 2018, the term becomes endearing in a way. Everyone loves a good underdog story. Just think about how beloved the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team is in American popular culture. The US is often favored in many Olympic sports, yet one of the nation’s biggest underdog stories is probably its best known Olympic success.
Additionally, neutral fans tend to root for the underdogs and despise the big boys. I think most people see a bit of themselves in the underdog, which can add to that positive image in society. It’s similar to a rags to riches story in some ways.
Eventually the label can be shed if the underdog does enough winning. However, it takes time to change people’s perceptions. One team that comes to mind is the Gonzaga University college basketball team. Back in 1999, they made it all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, which is an accomplishment for a big school, let alone a small school that few had ever heard of. Since then the team has developed into one of the best basketball programs in the country. The Zags are no longer underdogs, but favorites in most games they play.
2. Who are (or were) some of your favorite unsung footballers, Roma or otherwise.
Bren: Since I spoke at length about Leandro Castan earlier this week, I’ll dig a bit deeper and say Jimmy Conrad. Undrafted by the MLS, he worked his way up through the lower levels of the U.S. soccer pyramid before carving out a long career with Kansas City and becoming a fixture for the USMNT in the late 2000s, including the ‘06 World Cup. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a bit of a Roma fan, but I was always impressed with his drive and commitment to making a name for himself.
JonAS: What is a Jimmy Conrad? Is it dangerous? Can you eat it? Well, it proves Bren’s point that he was an underrated player. Then again, American football, uh sorry, soccer players are not my strong point.
Roma has had a lot of unsung footballers who surprised me. I never thought guys like Cassetti, Tonetto, Brighi, Taddei or Balzaretti would give us so much memories in the end. In the early 2000s Tommasi, Lima and Cufré are some examples of unsung footballers.
In terms of Belgian footballers, I think Simon Mignolet is very underrated. At both Liverpool and the Belgian NT he’s second choice but by plain bad luck. Alisson and Courtois are perhaps no1 and no2 goalkeepers of the world right now, yet Simon isn’t far off. No one lists him in his personal top five goalkeepers (Neuer, De Gea, Oblak and the other two I mentioned are the usual suspects), maybe because few people have followed him since 2010. Deserves a lot more praise and recognition if you’d ask me. All hail Simon!
Ssciavillo: I’m going to follow bren’s lead here and go with another MLS player. Besides being a Roma support, I’ve had New York Red Bulls season tickets for years. One of my favorite players through the years has been keeper Luis Robles. Robles contemplated quitting football after failing in Germany’s second division before returning stateside. He arrived to little fanfare to New York in 2012, but became one of the best keepers in the league.
Robles was named the league’s best keeper in 2015 and led the club to the regular season title three times in his eight seasons with the club. (The team previously hadn’t won any trophies in its near 20 year history.) Robles even set the franchise record for matches and minutes played, and earned a few call-ups to the US National team during his NYRB tenure. Had it not been for the US consistently having EPL starting keepers in Tim Howard and Brad Guzan ahead of him, it’s likely that Robles would be better known outside of MLS circles.
3. Can you think of any player who truly transcended from being an underdog/role player into a genuine star, or at least someone who elevated their place within a team? And if so, what qualities were key to that ascension?
Bren: My mind immediately springs to Radja Nainggolan. When he was with Cagliari, he was mostly known for his energy and strength, and even when he came to Roma he was no more than a hold-over until Kevin Strootman returned from injury, but during his stay with Roma he became such a complete player, particularly under Spalletti’s tactics. He’s probably a smarter player than he’s given credit for, but I think his unique package of speed, balance, and strength enabled him to become a borderline star player for Roma.
Ssciavillo: That’s a great shout on Radja, but I’m going to step outside of the Roma-verse and look north to Bergamo. Papu Gomez has to be one of the best football underdog stories of the last decade. When Gomez first arrived from Argentina at Catania he wasn’t anything close to a star. In fact, he even left Serie A for Ukraine before coming back to the peninsula. However, upon his return to Italy with Atalanta he has become an absolute revelation.
Over the last five seasons Papu has 42 goals and 51 assists in 163 league matches. I think it’s been a combination of his skills and the fact that they fit perfectly into Gianpiero Gasperini’s system. His ascension has also coincided with Atalanta’s rise to prominence on the peninsula and now the continent, which speaks volumes of him as a player. He’s even earned himself 4 senior side CAPS for Argentina since his explosion. It’s quite an underdog story.
JonAS: Well since I follow Serie A more closely than other leagues, I’m picking an Italian guy: Toto Di Natale from Udinese. Went from Empoli to Udinese, which isn’t that special in terms of stardom and his first few seasons in Tuscany were rather ‘meh’. He would end up as one of many average Italian strikers.
But then suddenly after 2009 Antonio started to bang them in left and right: 23 goals, 28 goals, 29 per season. At one moment, he only had to make way for Ronaldo and Messi. Oh and Di Natale guided Udinese to the Champions League. UDINESE. Not too shabby.
Simply put: Di Natale was Udinese’s Totti. The fact he stayed at Udine until his retirement and never accepted a move to a bigger Italian club makes him even greater in my eyes.
4. What is your favorite underdog story in all of football?
Bren: Leicester City is probably the easiest answer, but I’m going back to 2002, specifically to the United States’ run to the Quarterfinals of the Korea/Japan World Cup. That was really the nascent period of my football fandom, but it was almost impossible not to get caught up in the hysteria that summer.
They had a few players in Europe at that time, but this was largely a squad propelled by MLS talents like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride and Steven Cherundolo, to name a few. They hadn’t been to a World Cup since 1994, so when they scored a victory over Portugal in their first match, it was on—they were playing with house money at that point.
But they just kept going, advancing out of the group and then drawing their arch-rivals Mexico in the knockouts, the famous Dos a Cero game. And then they met a powerhouse German side in the Quarterfinals and very nearly pushed it to extra-time were it not for an uncalled handball on Torsten Frings. I can still remember the vitriol for the official at that moment.
I don’t really follow the USMNT anymore, but that was a hell of a run and helped plant the seeds for the growth we’ve seen over the past twenty years.
Ssciavillo: Great shout on the 2002 US team. That was the first tournament that I really remember following closely. For a US fan, beating Mexico is always special, but there’s nothing like doing it in a World Cup. Leicester City would probably be considered the biggest underdog story of recent seasons and seeing Claudio Ranieri lead the way made it enjoyable as a Romanista. However, I’m going to go with a different Ranieri led team: the 2009/10 Roma team that nearly won the Scudetto.
That season Roma was the ultimate underdog. Inter was absolutely loaded with talent and got out of the gates with a double-digit lead in the standings on Roma. However, the Giallorossi clawed their way back and even beat Mourinho’s Inter head-to-head, only to let the Scudetto slip away against Samp. Roma may not have won the scudetto, but boy was it a fun ride.
JonAS: I have to say Leicester now, thanks to Bren. It has to be Leicester. C’mon, they went from near relegation to Premier League winners in what, 10 months time? They humiliated some of the richest clubs on the planet: both Manchester sides, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal. If you can top all of them, kudos.
They had no Totti, no Ronaldo or Messi. No De Bruyne. No Hazard. No Rooney. No Firmino. They did it with more than fifteen different nationalities, a strange assembly of unknown or discarded players. It was simply one of football’s fairytales, your prototype of underdogs. And they 100% deserved it in the end. “Dilly ding, dilly dong!”
5. Okay, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Do you consider Roma an underdog club compared to the traditional Serie A and European powers?
Ssciavillo: In general, I’d say Roma is an underdog in comparison with the traditional powers like Juve, Inter, Milan, Real Madrid, Barca, and some of the English powers like Liverpool and Man United. From year-to-year in a one off, or Champions League knock-out round match that could change based on form or roster make-up. For example, right now I would say Roma would be favored against Milan, but not in traditional terms.
Bren: I’m not sure how you can answer anything other than yes. In contrast to mega clubs you mentioned, Roma are a minnow; there’s just too much history and too much collective wealth between them. What worries me is this assumption that Roma are, at the very least, on par with clubs like Dortmund, Spurs and maybe Lyon. I wish that were the case, but those clubs seem more solid and better run than Roma at the moment, so I’m not exactly sure in which echelon Roma belong, but they are most definitely an underdog.
JonAS: Sadly yes. If your last title was won in 2001 and your last meaningful trophy in 2008 (bonzai trees not included), then no, you’re not one of the big boys. Far from it actually. I’m afraid it will take quite some time before people will recognize Roma as a European superpower. We seriously need to expand our palmares though, something, anything. A Coppa would be a good start.
6. Aside from the obvious financial reasons, what has kept Roma from truly reaching the upper echelons of European football?
Ssciavillo: I think it all comes down to pedigree. Roma don’t have the winning history that these other clubs have. With winning comes the prestige of being considered in the elite class. Even in the years when some of Italy’s more traditional powers have had downturns, like Juve after calciopoli and Milan and Inter in the last decade or so, Roma has often found itself as the bridesmaid with numerous second place finishes. It’s hard to move into the top tier of clubs when you haven’t won a league title since 2001 or any meaningful trophy since 2008.
Bren: I think it comes down to the day-to-day and year-to-year operations of the club. With a little bit of luck and a windfall or two, a club can become upper class without being steeped in history. That won’t happen to Roma unless we get a fee-spending ownership group, but I think the chaos and turnover we’ve seen over the past decade is what keeps Roma from at least being on level pegging with clubs like Dortmund and Spurs, for example.
JonAS: Don’t sell your f*cking best players and don’t bully your club legends to the exit door!! It’s a vicious circle though: Bigger clubs come and steal our best players. And that’s exactly why Roma itself can’t become a big club in order to keep those very same players. Because it loses its most prizes assets time and time again.
7. Okay, so how do they fix that?
Ssciavillo: I mean, the obvious answer is to start winning more. Making the semifinals of the Champions League was an important step to Roma making a name for itself on the European stage, but that was followed up by crashing out to Porto the next season in the Round of 16 and then not qualifying for the tournament this season. That’s not how elite status is achieved.
In order to win Roma has to be able to build a squad capable of contending year in and year out and that starts with not selling off its best players each season. So, unfortunately even though the last question said aside from financial reasons, financial issues are in some ways holding Roma back from being elite. Unfortunately, in modern football it’s hard to be elite without wealth. Just look at Milan, a traditional power that has struggled of late because of their own financial issues. Until Roma has better financial stability, it’ll be difficult to truly compete with the big boys and be considered in their class.
Bren: They need a plan and then the patience and willingness to see it through. Without that, they’ll continue to bob up and down from year to year. Get a director of sport and get out of their way. Let them pick a manager whose philosophy is congruent to theirs and the funds to build a squad capable of fulfilling that vision.
Until they do that, they’ll remain rudderless and desperately chasing more successful clubs. Consistency will beget success and success will beget profit.
JonAS: ‘We gettin’ Arab monaaaay’
Now that you've heard our say, what do you think: Are Roma underdogs? Is there any way to escape that label?