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Totti Today: Roman Construction Delays, Zaniolo's Future & Sabatini Speaks on Fonseca-Dzeko Feud

Walter Sabatini calls Fonseca a jailkeeper, Zaniolo announces his comeback, and the rest of Rome’s news.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

How do we pick ourselves up after a textbook-loss away to Juventus? There’s the latest in Miotto’s Musings, and even Episode 29 of the Across the Romaverse podcast to cheer you up. This morning’s Totti Today is here to help turn the page on a new week, by scouring the Romaverse for everyone’s local two cents, from former club talisman to current players and hopeful stars of the future.

Except we’re not really going to do that, are we?

Because, even though this week’s edition takes you on a journey from the present, to the 1970s, 1980s, and back again, it starts with a local TV interview from a man who’s lived each and every one of those decades with a cigarette of some form close by. It’s none other than Walter Sabatini, who wants to talk about the Fonseca-Dzeko feud some more.

Walter Sabatini: Fonseca Should Stop Being a Prison Warden

Bologna FC v Reggina - Coppa Italia Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Sabatini took to Rome’s local show Al Circo Massimo (not to be confused with Rai 3’s Circo Massimo) on Teleroma 56 this past weekend to give his latest thoughts on... well, all things Roma of course.

Aside from talking himself up, talking up his ex-protege Ricky Massara and making himself available for the Roma sporting director job should the Friedkins ring him up, Sabatini weighed in his two cents on Roma’s current coach and players (via ForzaRoma):

“Very few clubs in Italy have the kind of players that Roma do,” Sabatini told the show. “And I’m not just referring to Mkhitaryan or Zaniolo. Villar has impressed me and he could become a playmaker on the world stage. The club is doing good work and you can see the hand of the coach guiding them. It’s true that sometimes their finishing is a bit lazy, but they’re putting together a very important [style of playing]. A player like Mkhitaryan is worth 70% of the rest of Serie A [put together]. My biggest regret is not being able to sign Mkhitaryan [for Roma], back when he was playing for Shakhtar.”

Football Serie A Roma-Inter Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

“I’d be proud of the players this Roma team has right now,” Sabatini continued. “I love the defenders and Villar. And Carles Perez has [a few things in his locker], even if he has to learn how to get more involved in the game. I see a big future ahead for Roma. They only have to stay out of the drama, and restore their rightful captain, who is still Dzeko for me. The top four isn’t easy to reach. If I have to fight for Champions League football, I can’t not rely on Dzeko.”

Sabatini continued his staunch defence of Dzeko, while offering both the carrot and the stick to Roma’s head coach Fonseca:

“Dzeko is an exceptional and very educated professional, who isn’t the type to create problems [in the dressing room]. The consequences he’s paid aren’t fair for a simple argument in the locker room, especially for a club who’s tried to sell him 4 times in 2 years and Dzeko has only ever wanted to stay. What’s the purpose of ruining the atmosphere from within just for a coach to make his stand?”

AS Roma v Benevento Calcio - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

“Fonseca will have done this to raise his charisma within the dressing room. Dzeko has suffered a big humiliation but it took him no longer than 20 days to get back with the program, so it’s useless for fans to question whether Dzeko is still fighting for the cause. They took the armband away from him. Short of a player committing murder, you don’t degrade a club captain like that.”

“Fonseca is a good coach, but he has to stop being a prison warden. On the pitch itself, I see him doing a truly good job. A director at the club asked me if it were the right moment to hire him as Roma coach, and I said nothing but good words about him [at the time]. Right now he has to focus on winning games, and put an end to the little dramas.”

So, yeah, I feel this story has been cooked to death (by me) at this point. But the segment is noteworthy for Sabatini essentially claiming that Fonseca started the fire, motivated by one of the oldest tricks in the coaching book: Throw a star player under the bus and use that as a binding agent to get the rest of the team behind you.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

It’s a trick Rinus Michels once wrote in his coaching bible Teambuilding: The Road To Success (a worthy read), but I’ve never really liked it when a coach does this (not that I’m going with Sabatini’s word as law here that Fonseca really did go this route).

I didn’t like it when Luciano Spalletti did it to Francesco Totti at Roma or Mauro Icardi at Inter (I always forget the name of the captain he did it to at Spartak), I didn’t like it every time Jose Mourinho did it at every single club he’s ever coached, so I can’t offer a defence for Paulo Fonseca if he’s done it this season. It’s a short-termist approach that speaks Fonseca’s supposed desperation to finish in the top four by May, and suggests the coach really is feeling the pressure to get those results by any means necessary.

The bottom-line issue with this approach is that it gets costly, and spirals beyond the means of a club like Roma. One season you’ve cast aside Alessandro Florenzi (who I still maintain doesn’t meet the needs of this current Roma side, whether playing with a back three or not, but he’s still a valuable player), the next season you cast aside Edin Dzeko. Who’s next?

AS Roma v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If Fonseca is still in the hot seat for the 2021-2022 season, and Roma are hovering around 5th place come February 2022 with the coach needing to get his point across to the team, are we then chucking Lorenzo Pellegrini out of the club? (And that isn’t as implausible as it sounds, with teams likely willing to let Roma have more and more of the ball to deny the Giallorossi counter-attack from here on in, it’s 50/50 as to whether Pellegrini can adapt to possession football in tight spaces within the next 12 months).

For what it’s worth, Walter Sabatini also spent part of the interview lamenting the loss of Javier Pastore to injury, claiming that it seemed written in Roma’s destiny to lose important players who can change the destiny of the club and that A.S. Roma needed to perform “a ritual” on the grounds to put an end to that curse. But that’s a theme we touched on in detail, with Pastore, just yesterday in Bren’s feature piece.

De Sisti: Mkhitaryan, Dzeko and Villar the Keys for Roma

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

We’ll only briefly touch upon this story, but Italy, Roma and Fiorentina football legend Giancarlo De Sisti—speaking to the Gazzetta dello Sport last week (via ForzaRoma)—echoed very similar thoughts to Walter Sabatini about who the key players are in this current Roma side.

Aside from spending a couple of words on the off-the-ball runs of Jordan Veretout and the attacking potential of Leonardo Spinazzola, De Sisti labeled Mkhitaryan a “crazy player” doing “exceptional things” in Serie A, while re-affirming he’d never take Dzeko out of the team because the Bosnian lets you change tactical approaches mid-game in a way that erstwhile-replacement Borja Mayoral does not (according to De Sisti).

De Sisti was not just a hell of a player in his time, but a successful coach. So these aren’t the words of someone simply speaking as a fan. And who should Roma be most excited about among the new generations of players?

“Borja is definitely an added resource, I’ll say that again. But the one I truly love among Roma’s new players is Villar.”

Nela vs. Spinozzi: The Derby of Tell-All Autobiographies

Former player and AS Roma women manager Sebino Nela looks on... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images

Moving from a Roma legend of the 70s to one of the 1980s, Sebino (or Sebastiano) Nela was interviewed by Il Romanista this week, in a promotional piece for Nela’s newly-released autobiography The Wind in My Face and a Storm in My Heart, published by Mondadori. If I were judging it by the book title alone, I’d say it’s going to be one of those autobiographies that focuses on covering Nela in glory more than some of the more brutally honest sporting tales out there, like the unforgettable books of Andre Agassi and Bret Hart.

But that’s just a snap judgment and I haven’t read the book itself.

What Nela does promise to shed light on are his two “divorces” from Roma. You may or may not remember Nela was let go from his position on the Roma women’s team before the football re-start last summer, with his daughters taking to Instagram to claim the club had behaved shamefully given Nela’s current battle against cancer. But I didn’t know about Nela’s close ties to former Roma coach Ottavio Bianchi, and the claim that his successor to the Roma hotseat in the 90s, Vujadin Boskov, immediately decided he had no use for either Nela nor striker Rudi Voller in Boskov’s Roma side.

AS Roma v Inter - UEFA Cup Final, second leg 1991

Out went Nela to Napoli, following coach Bianchi down the road. And thus ended a remarkable Roma playing career. It’s all very sentimental stuff from Nela, and worth the valuable insight as I love a trip down the glory days of calcio, myself. But Nela has one problem: former Lazio defender Arcadio Spinozzi is re-releasing and promoting his own tell-all autobiography of the 1980s—A Lazio Life. And if the sentiment isn’t your thing, then you’re far more likely to want to read Spinozzi’s stories that had to be seen to be believed.

There’s gambling, corruption, and oppression. There’s Spinozzi literally clawing himself out of a derailed train wagon that was “hanging off the side of a river” by his elbows, with Spinozzi about to fall to his death in a race against time.

Former Lazio defender (then playing for Verona) Spinozzi was a survivor of the Murazze di Vado train disaster of April 1978, on his way to play against Roma at the time.

There’s everything short of a Stallone action film mixed in with a Clint Eastwood redemption tale from Spinozzi, as he held together the internal politics of a Lazio dressing room—throughout the 1980s—charged with the unenviable task of guiding the club back from relegation to Serie B, while players went unpaid for months at a club in full-blown crisis. The promotion piece for Spinozzi’s story was done by Corriere della Sera this week.

Spinozzi was playing for Verona at the time of that April 1978 train crash, with him and fellow teammates traveling to the Eternal City to play against none other than A.S. Roma.

“[I remember] the cold, the dark, the rain. The certainty that we were about to die. The wounded and dead around us, and then the rescue to safety. I remember the Hellas fans lending us their bus so that we could get back to Verona, and just three days later we were made to play that same match [against Roma]... which we lost, like we lost almost every other match after the [train] incident.”

New Sports Center To Be Built in Rome (It Only Took 14 Years)

The Via Como leisure centre took some time
Carte In Regole

Can Via Como’s newly-approved sports playground give us a glimpse into the fate of the Stadio della Roma? The tennis and swimming centre is a significantly smaller project that’s now going to be built—over the course of the next nine months—in Rome, but the planning (and re-planning) and approval of this small project began all the way back in 2007.

Yes, as you can tell from the irony of the meme above, it’s taken fourteen years of broken promises to get this far. Considering the Stadio della Roma has only been a concrete idea for half of that time, we’ve got some way to go.

The final Via Como project has one less tennis court (a total of four) than was originally projected but, with a swimming pool thrown in, hopefully, it will go some way towards renovating an area that wants to get back to former glory. And either way: It’s all greenlit now. So Italian bureaucracy can’t turn back now... or can it?

And Finally... Zaniolo Makes It Short and Sweet

Nicolo Zaniolo (C) of AS Roma competes for the ball with... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

I think it’s fair to say that, by now, every single one of us on the Chiesa di Totti team have very conservative expectations around any impact Nicolò Zaniolo will be asked to make on Roma’s current league campaign. Let’s not forget we’re talking about a player who still hasn’t actually ever played a full Serie A season in his career, to date. But you can’t keep a good story down!

Zaniolo is back to making his own headlines on Instagram; this time for the better as he announced, last night: “Negative [test result]! I’m back.”

This is a big blip on the Roma radar, yet not as big as it once was less than 12 months ago. Back then, Zaniolo was ready to go critical mass, as a kid on the streets of Milano was photographed kicking the ball around in a Zaniolo jersey during the first pandemic lockdown. What better visual to encapsulate that Zaniolo as the hope of Italy’s next generation?

Zaniolo has already become iconic beyond just the city of Rome, inspiring kids up north in Milan
Gazzetta dello Sport

Nico made good on that promise by scoring two excellent individual goals (albeit against small sides, on the counter with Roma already ahead in the scoreline) but injury put the breaks on his career once again. And now the buzz has moved on from Zaniolo outside of the Romaverse, which probably suits Roma fine if they’re hoping to keep him at the club.

Yes, he gets praise from Roberto Mancini and Nicolò Barella talking up Zaniolo’s chances of making an impact at the EUROs—as is only right and justified to motivate Zaniolo when he’s on the road to coming back from injury—but time doesn’t stop for anyone.

Holland v Italy -UEFA Nations league Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images

Juventus used to covet Zaniolo but found a more complete talent in 1999-born player Dejan Kulusevki. Inter Milan still have the younger Sebastiano Esposito in the pocket, who could explode at the San Siro in the near future if the club had any other coach besides Antonio Conte conducting affairs. That leaves the last of the traditional “Big Three” Italian teams, AC Milan, potentially fishing for a young, game-breaking attacking talent among their ranks (unless you rate Leao or Hauge, which I actually do, but not as highly as I rate Zaniolo).

Given that Zaniolo doesn’t sound like the type to want to move away from Italy, that leaves the coast clear for Roma’s number 22 to stay in the Eternal City for the rest of his career. He’s just been given a clean bill of health after testing negative for Covid and will begin training at Trigoria this week.