De Rossi and the passing of the Roma baton

Next season will be the first in nearly 20 years in which Daniele De Rossi will not be playing for AS Roma.

The club’s decision not to renew the captain’s contract was announced on Tuesday, coming as a major shock to the fans who thought he still had a lot to contribute to the team despite his increasing years.

When fit this season, De Rossi has been one of Roma’s best players. Arguably only Stephan El Shaarawy has been more consistent on the pitch, but he hasn’t had the inconvenience of seeing his season disrupted by a series of injuries. Had De Rossi been physically capable of making 10 more starts than he has, then perhaps he would be the one taking the player of the season plaudits.

In a summer in which plenty of change is expected in the Roma squad, it doesn’t seem right that the one ever-dependable presence is being shown the door. For the majority of the 21st century, De Rossi has been Roma’s bedrock, the gladiator that held the whole thing together by putting the side’s needs before his own. The number of players that have shared a changing room with De Rossi will reach into the hundreds, but thanks to his fierce loyalty and imperious ability, Daniele has always been there.

By now, Roma fans are used to seeing change. Rarely is an entire team stripped away, but every summer will see at least one major departure. Through thick and thin, despite offers of higher wages, better football and more trophies, De Rossi has never been that man to leave. As supporters looked ahead to a new season with no clear picture of what the team would look like, they at least knew their bandiera would be there.

This summer, they can’t even say that.

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The decision not to offer De Rossi a contract extension has not been handled well. Much of the blame has been directed at recently-appointed CEO Guido Fienga, who only informed De Rossi of the decision on Monday – citing the club’s bad season as the reason that their captain’s situation had fallen to the back of their minds. Likewise, De Rossi hinted in his press conference that he had not even spoken to club president James Pallotta about the decision – something which will do little to repair the ever-faltering relationship between the American entrepreneur and the Giallorossi faithful.

But De Rossi himself knew this day was coming. He openly admitted that, having not received any phone calls from the Roma directors, he could infer that the club were not intending to prolong his stay. Still, it doesn’t sit right that, after so many years of loyalty, he should have to work out his future by intuition, and not by being told.

This is nothing new with Roma though. Just two years ago, Francesco Totti was effectively forced into retirement in a similar situation. The difference was, fans were made aware at the beginning of Totti’s last season that it would be his final campaign in giallorosso. The news about De Rossi has been revealed with just two games left on his contract.

Even before that, under previous regimes, Roma’s other most iconic captain, Agostino Di Bartolomei, had been pushed out of the club in 1984. Throughout history, Roma’s legends do not seem to get the farewells they deserve.

Nor can De Rossi escape that fate. He too will leave the club when he was eager to continue playing. But whether the decision was right or wrong – and it’s easier, and more appropriate, to lean towards the latter – the timing seems somewhat suitable. Yes, it would have been nice to have known that this was De Rossi’s last season from the start, as was the case with Totti. But recent outings have shown that there are willing candidates ready to pick up the baton.

Last weekend, with De Rossi on the bench, Alessandro Florenzi wore the captain’s armband. Against Juventus, the right-back led by example, avoiding getting drawn into a petty psychological battle with Cristiano Ronaldo, and scoring the goal that set Roma on their way to victory. Florenzi is sometimes criticised by his own fans, but he proved in that match, as he has in many others, that he is fuelled by the same Roman passion as De Rossi. Grinta is as big a part of his game as technical quality, but the latter hasn’t abandoned him fully. Florenzi still possesses the required elements to take over.

He is not as good a footballer as De Rossi, something he would probably confess himself. But Florenzi is Romanista. De Rossi himself personally praised Florenzi, stating that the essence of Romanismo is in good hands. At 28 years old, Florenzi is stepping up at the right time.

Along with Florenzi, De Rossi also pointed towards Lorenzo Pellegrini, a man who must be given more responsibility following the captain’s departure. A player who has often lined up alongside De Rossi in the Giallorossi midfield, the 22-year-old has gone on record to say that he would like to follow in his teammate’s footsteps and become the club captain one day. To keep the spirit of Romanismo alive, Pellegrini must be entrusted as a torch-bearer. The club must provide him the foundations to achieve that dream upon.

Pellegrini’s career path could well emulate De Rossi’s. Already admired by big European clubs, such as Manchester United, and Italian rivals like Inter Milan, Pellegrini will have no shortage of offers to leave the club as he continues to develop – just as De Rossi did. The hope remains that Pellegrini will be allowed to follow a similar path and turn down those propositions, to stay at his beloved club and grow into a leader. As long as Roma stay in a healthy financial position, keeping Pellegrini ought to be a priority.

In fact, Pellegrini’s faith in the project should be rewarded immediately. The club ought to seriously consider promoting him to the role of vice captain once De Rossi departs, to keep passion for Roma at the heart of the team. Players like Edin Dzeko and Kostas Manolas may be more experienced, but there is an ethos that needs protecting, and a future leader that needs to be nurtured. Pellegrini has shown enough this season to suggest that he can emulate his heroes, and to maintain the strong Roman spirit of the squad, he deserves to be fast-tracked to a role of greater responsibility.

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Of course, the team must come first, and it may be the case that it is in its best interests if less Romans are involved. But if the right people have the right quality, then they should be allowed to thrive. Because with the departure of De Rossi, Roma will lose something more than just a player. They will lose a symbol that defines the club.

It cannot be avoided, though, that there is a future that Roma needs to emerge into. Removing De Rossi is a controversial decision, and one that has perhaps not been made by people who fully understand football, but it is one that he has graciously accepted. While Roma will not be the same without him, they must trust what symbols of the club they have left. A humble character like De Rossi would want to give faith to those who can continue the tradition, and that means more responsibility for those who have learnt from him.

Next year will be a strange season. For many fans, it will be their first experience of a Roma side without Totti or De Rossi. But against all the odds, Romanismo will not go down without a fight. Florenzi and Pellegrini will be there to build on the immense foundations that have been built for them by their seniors. The pain of De Rossi’s exit will take a long time to diminish, but he would want all the focus to be on the team. A team that he should have been a part of, yes, but a team that, if molded around the right people, can build on the legacy he has provided.

And so the baton is passed. Who knows what this new era for Roma will look like? But with Florenzi and Pellegrini at the core, then no matter what the people above try to do, there is still hope for the principles of the foundation to be carried on.

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