In 15 years at the club, Di Bartolomei played 308 games, scoring an impressive 66 goals and captaining the team 146 times. ‘Ago’, as he was known, helped form one of Europe’s most feared midfields, alongside Ancelotti, Bruno Conti, Toninho Cerezo and the incomparable Brazilian Roberto Falcao. He led the team to the Scudetto in 1983, their first in more than 40 years, and only the second in their history. He also won three Coppa Italia winner’s medals in 1980, 1981 and 1984 and narrowly missed out on lifting the European Cup when Roma lost on penalties to Liverpool in the final in 1984.
Like Giannini and Totti after him, Di Bartolomei had Roman blood bursting through his veins. Born and raised in one of the poor peripheral zones of the capital city, Ago was signed by Roma as a 14-year-old. After winning the youth championship, he made his senior debut at the age of just 18 against Giacinto Facchetti’s Inter on 22 March, 1973.
By the next season he had become a first-choice in the Roma midfield and with the exception of a season-long loan spell at Vicenza to ‘build up his bones’ in Serie B, Ago soon developed into an indispensable player for the Giallorossi. Di Bartolomei played the role of the regista, the central midfield ‘director’, a position made famous by Gianni Rivera and which required a skilful playmaker who would distribute passes to the wings and the forwards and dictate the tempo of the game.
By the 1980s this position was beginning to disappear as coaches tended to favour midfielders who could press and tackle back. Perhaps this explains why Di Bartolomei was never called up for the Italian national team as coach Enzo Bearzot seemed to prefer the steel and substance of Marco Tardelli and Gabriele Oriali over the flair and fantasy of Di Bartolomei. A crime of gargantuan proportions, it certainly helps qualify Di Bartolomei as the greatest Italian never to play for his country.
Tall, elegant and skilful, with fantastic vision and technical ability, Di Bartolomei fulfilled all the requirements of the regista. He would regularly hit pinpoint 60-yard cross-field passes to a team-mates feet and could spot a through-ball that most other players did not believe existed. In a similar way to Andrea Pirlo today, Di Bartolomei never appeared to do much running or tackling back and for this reason he was often tormented by the criticism that he was lazy and slow. However, like Pirlo, 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.”
A creator of goals, Ago also boasted a superb scoring record for a midfielder, with a ratio of one goal in just over every four games. In the 1977-78 season he scored 10 (in a 16-team league), a tally most forwards would be proud of, whilst the season preceding that he chipped in with eight strikes. Even when in 1982 Di Bartolomei was moved into a more defensive position in front of the defence he continued to regularly find the back of the net, scoring seven league goals in the 1983 Scudetto-winning campaign.
Possessing a powerful shot, Di Bartolomei scored many thunderous long-range strikes during his career. He was also an exceptional penalty-taker, dispatching a number of vital spot-kicks. Perhaps the most crucial of these was during the European Cup semi-final second leg against Dundee United at the Olimpico in 1984. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg in Scotland, a penalty by Di Bartolomei helped Roma complete a miraculous comeback to win 3-0 on the night and book their place in the final against Liverpool. During the shoot-out in that final, Di Bartolomei kept his head to score, whilst others such as Conti and Francesco Graziani 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 the undoubted man-of-the-match. While most of his team-mates froze amidst the intense expectation of the Giallorossi faithful, Di Bartolomei’s class shone throughout the game. He was at the centre of every Roma move and like his manager Liedholm, 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 sadly 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 blatant foul on Roma keeper Franco Tancredi in the build up to 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 inexplicably allowed to leave and join Milan. It was a transfer that he bitterly opposed and Ago gave a number of interviews in which he declared his unerring love for the Giallorossi: “Why am I leaving? I don’t know.” Just a month into his career at Giuseppe Meazza he was reunited with his old team-mates as Roma visited the San Siro. As fate would have it Di Bartolomei scored as Milan won 2-1.
When Arrigo Sacchi arrived at San Siro in 1987, Di Bartolomei moved on again and he wound down his career at a series of provincial clubs before quitting football in 1990. Upon his retirement Roma offered Di Bartolomei nothing. After 15 years of fantastic service in which he undoubtedly 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. Some financial deals went wrong and a number of business plans stuttered, 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 significant. It was exactly ten 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 concluded. Many ex-friends and players turned up at the funeral, including most of the
glorious 1980s Roma team that Di Bartolomei had captained.
Di Bartolomei is a person who will always have an indirect connection with my own life. I was born just minutes after Roma’s penalty defeat to Liverpool, while he committed suicide on the day I celebrated my tenth birthday. As for the Rome derby, well in Di Bartolomei’s final Derby della Capitale, before joining Milan, he scored at both ends of the field as the Giallorossi came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in a classic match.
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