It's a ritual after every Roma home game. Win, draw or lose, the players head over right under the curva, where the Ultras sit.
"It's a gesture of respect," Daniele De Rossi, the (other) hometown hero, said Wednesday night, after the 3-2 home defeat to Shaktar in the Champions League. "We divide everything with them, the joy of victory and also nights like this one."
Usually the players applaud and throw their jerseys crowd. Not on Wednesday. The Ultras did not want to know. Roma's unwell right now and, while a cure may be on the horizon in the form of Boston Red Sox part-owner Thomas R. Di Benedetto, it's going to take a while before the therapy kicks in.
It's not so much the result on the night. Roma actually played reasonably well; about as well as you can play when you concede three at home. As coach Claudio Ranieri pointed out, one of Shaktar's goal's came after a double-deflection, another was a wonder goal from Douglas Costa, the third was prompted by an individual error from John Arne Riise.
The problem is that this is a team in limbo. There is no leadership at club level, which is what you'd expect given that, for the past two years, it's been basically on life support, operated by the bank the Sensi family, Roma's nominal owners, are heavily indebted to. And perhaps the fact that the bank, rather than appointing its own people to oversee the sale of the club, kept Rossella Sensi around as president. Liverpool, faced with a comparable situation, at least brought in new blood. In Rome you have the lamest of ducks.
A furious Sensi demanded that the players go into "ritiro:" that curious and punitive Italian practice whereby the players are sequestered away in a hotel to "prepare" for the next match. They flat-out refused. And she left the Stadio Olimpico in a huff.
Reportedly, Di Benedetto was watching the game somewhere in Boston. You wonder what he was thinking. Doing due diligence and completing the sale -- right now his group of investors are merely preferred bidders -- will take months. Is he merely going over balance sheets? Does he know what he's getting himself into?
No other city on earth has a daily paper devoted exclusively to one club. Plus another sports daily which, no matter what, devotes a minimum of four broadsheet papers to the team every single day. Plus half a dozen local TV stations whose "talk shows" pontificate daily on the goings on at Trigoria. Plus three sportsradio stations that talk almost exclusively Roma (with a smattering of Lazio), day and night. And all these media outlets are there to serve a public which devours every shred of news and questions every single step, even the most innocent. Julio Baptista, who played for Seville, Sao Paulo, Real Madrid and Arsenal says only Madrid comes close in terms of media coverage and fan pressure.
And that's just one side of it. Roma has a huge and historic stadium that looks great from a distance but where the fans sit miles away from the pitch. Which may explain why it's tough to sell out (and why it looks empty even when, as was the case against Shaktar, 39,000 plus fans show up). And even if it did sell out, because Roma is only a tenant -- it's owned by the Italian Olympic Committee -- matchday revenues are laughably small compared to Europe's bigger clubs.
Roma made it to the Champions' League knockout stages this year, but, barring an act of God (like, say, the giallorossi actually winning the darn thing), it won't be back next year: it's eighth in Serie A. And to make matters worse, Ranieri and Francesco Totti, the captain and resident icon, are at loggerheads. One of the two definitely won't be back next season and it won't be Totti ... which incidentally, may not be a good thing.
Then there's the debt. Fine, Di Benedetto can do his math. But there's also a team that needs to be blown up and rebuilt. Every single player who has played significant minutes will be 30 or older by the summer except for Philippe Mexes (but in his case it doesn't matter, since his contract expires in June and, even though he's one guy who probably should be re-signed, no deal is forthcoming), Jeremy Menez, Daniele De Rossi, Mirko Vucinic and Marco Borriello. Five senior pros, a bunch of children and a bunch of old guys, most of them overpaid. That's the starting point.
So much for the bad news. The good news? Roma is the proverbial sleeping giant. The fan base is huge (somebody must be watching all that TV, calling in to all those radio shows and buying all those newspapers) and so is the catchment area. More than a million people crowded into the Circus Maximus to celebrate the last scudetto back in 2001. Apart from those pesky crosstown rivals at Lazio, the nearest Serie A club is Napoli, some 150 miles away. The youth academy is one of the top 3 in Italy. And despite the lackluster attendances (Roma should really be drawing more than 32,000 a game), stone age commercial deals and paltry matchday revenue, only 17 clubs in Europe boasted higher revenues last year according to Deloitte and Touche's Money League report (and that was down from 12th the previous season).
Which suggests there is plenty of room for improvement. As long as you know what you're doing ... and, in that sense, the Red Sox, after all, are a pretty solid organization, which bodes well. The concern in Rome is that an "outsider" like Di Benedetto won't understand the club, its fans and its culture. Fair enough, he'll just have to learn, even if it means joining the players postmatch under the Curva and getting showered with abuse.