Liverpool’s Champions League clash with Roma promises to be a truly special occasion between two romantic teams who have enthralled and enchanted everyone in reaching the semi-finals. But the tie will also bring back memories of one of the most tragic stories in the history of our sport.
The last time Roma and Liverpool played in the knockouts of the European Cup was way back in 1984, when the English side defeated the Italians in the final on penalties in their own stadium.
The captain for Roma in that game was club legend Agostino Di Bartolomei – a brilliant midfield playmaker in the mould of Andrea Pirlo. Exactly 10 years later to the day of the European Cup final, Di Bartolomei committed suicide in news that stunned Italian football.
Before Daniele De Rossi, Francesco Totti and Giuseppe Giannini, Di Bartolomei was Roma’s bandiera – symbol – spending 15 years at the club in total. He played 308 games, captaining the team 148 times. He scored 67 times.
‘Ago’, as he was known, was the leader of Europe’s most feared midfield of the early 1980s, alongside Carlo Ancelotti, Bruno Conti, Toninho Cerezo and Paulo Roberto Falcao. He skippered the team to their historic Scudetto of 1983, their first in more than 40 years, and only the second in their history.
Di Bartolomei had Roman blood bursting through his veins. Born and raised in one of the poor suburbs of the capital city, Ago was signed by Roma as a 14-year-old. After winning the youth championship, he made his senior debut four years later against Giacinto Facchetti’s Inter. Tall and graceful with fantastic vision, Ago soon developed into an indispensable player for the Giallorossi.
He played the role of the regista, the central midfield 'director’, a position made famous by Gianni Rivera. Liverpool’s scouting report ahead of the 1984 final, released last week, said of Di Bartolomei: “Dictates the play from the centre of the field. Excellent distributor of the ball with the long kicking being an outstanding feature of his game.”
Indeed, Di Bartolomei would regularly hit 60-yard passes to a team-mate’s feet. But like Pirlo, the Roman never appeared to do much running or tackling back and he was often called lazy and slow. Nevertheless, his brilliance was unquestionable. Roma’s Swedish boss Nils Liedholm said of him that “he never moved on the pitch without a reason. His passes were long, and perfect. He always ran with great elegance, with his head up.”
By the 1980s the regista role was beginning to disappear. Italian national team coach Enzo Bearzot preferred the steel and substance of Marco Tardelli and Gabriele Oriali over the flair and fantasy of Di Bartolomei. Incredibly, Di Bartolomei was never called up for his country during his career, making him arguably the greatest Italian never to play for the Azzurri.
Possessing a powerful shot, Di Bartolomei scored many thunderous long-range strikes during his career. He was also an exceptional penalty-taker. The most crucial of these was during the controversial European Cup semi-final second leg against Dundee United in 1984. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg in Scotland, a penalty by Di Bartolomei helped Roma complete a controversial (it was later revealed Roma's owner Dino Viola attempted - and failed - to bribe the referee before the game) comeback to win 3-0 in Rome and book their place in the final. During the shoot-out in that final, Di Bartolomei kept his head to score, whilst others such as Conti and Francesco Graziani (pictured below) buckled when faced by Bruce Grobbelaars’ ‘wobbly legs’.
Di Bartolomei described the final against Liverpool as “the game of his life” and it is difficult to disagree with him. Playing in front of his own fans, Ago was man-of-the-match. While most of his team-mates froze, Di Bartolomei’s class shone throughout the game. He was at the centre of every Roma move and like his manager Liedholm, of whom it is famously said once went two seasons for Milan without misplacing a pass, Di Bartolomei was cool and collected, never wasting possession and looking dangerous every time he touched the ball.
After a 1-1 draw after extra time, the outcome of this match ended with a defeat on penalties for Roma. However it could have concluded with Di Bartolomei lifting the cup in his own city had the referee spotted a clear foul on Roma ‘keeper Franco Tancredi on Phil Neal’s goal for Liverpool.
Incredibly this proved to be one of Di Bartolomei’s last games for the club, as after the arrival of Sven Goran Eriksson as coach, Ago was allowed to leave and join Milan. It was a transfer that he bitterly opposed and he gave a number of interviews in which he declared his unerring love for the Giallorossi. Just a month into his career at Giuseppe Meazza he scored the winner for Milan against his old club at San Siro.
When Arrigo Sacchi arrived at San Siro in 1987, Di Bartolomei moved on again before eventually quitting football in 1990. Upon his retirement, Roma offered Di Bartolomei nothing. After 15 years of fantastic service in which he earned himself the status of a club legend, Roma seemed to just abandon one of their greatest ever players.
Di Bartolomei began to suffer from severe bouts of depression as he struggled to adjust to a world outside of football. He got into financial trouble when a number of business plans went wrong, including the attempt to open a football school. On the morning of 30 May 1994, Di Bartolomei walked onto the balcony of his villa in San Marco di Castellabate and fatally shot himself through the heart.
The date of Di Bartolomei’s suicide was striking. It was exactly 10 years to the day of Roma’s European Cup Final defeat to Liverpool. The time Di Bartolomei chose to take his life could not have been a coincidence, although the reasons for suicide are less clear.
His suicide note tried to explain his decision. He had been refused a loan and was having some financial problems. “I can’t see any way out,” he wrote. Many ex-friends and players turned up at the funeral, including most of Roma’s European Cup final team that Di Bartolomei had captained.
Bruno Conti said after that defeat that Roma would one day get the chance to enact revenge on Liverpool for denying them the ultimate glory in their own city. Thirty-four years later that moment has arrived, but everyone should spare a thought for the man who lost more than anyone after that game; Agostino Di Bartolomei.