Roma’s biggest European night: 35 years on from the infamous loss to Liverpool

It was supposed to be the glorious homecoming. The pinnacle of the history of a club. Competing in their first ever European Cup final, in front of their own fans.

On May 30th, 1984, Roma contested their first – and, to date, only – European Cup final, taking on Liverpool at Stadio Olimpico. It was the opportunity for the greatest side in the club’s history to establish themselves as world beaters. Several of the players were already known to the world – Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani were World Cup winners, Falcao a star with Brazil – but this was their chance to put Roma at the forefront of the European landscape.

Everything seemed to be lined up well. A year on from winning their second Scudetto, Roma had beaten IFK Goteborg, CSKA Sofia, Dynamo Berlin and Dundee United to book their place in the final, to be contested at their home ground. This was a Roma team consisting of stars, some of the best players to ever pull on the Giallorossi shirt.

The game did not start at a break-neck pace. The intense atmosphere of the Roman crowd was not matched on the pitch for the first 10 minutes, and it was the English side – officially the ‘home’ team despite the location – who took the lead. Roma keeper Franco Tancredi tried to claim a cross, but was bundled off the ball, before Phil Neal expertly found the gap between the diving Roma defenders to put the Reds in front.

In the modern day, it would probably have been given as a foul on the keeper, and even at the time, the Roma faithful were aggrieved at the decision to let the goal stand. But they couldn’t think about it too long. This was a final long before the days of VAR. There was a game to be won, and plenty of time to achieve it in.

Roma started to find a rhythm in the game, with inspirational captain Agostino Di Bartolomei pinging beautifully-struck long-range passes across the field. Little did he know that it would be one of his last games for the club, who he had represented so gracefully for over a decade. It hadn’t crossed his mind that it would have been a fitting end to his Roma career to go out with the European Cup trophy; ever the professional, Di Bartolomei just wanted to win for the sake of winning, as normal.

Alongside him in midfield, Brazilian duo Falcao and Toninho Cerezo were starting to get involved as well. The only two foreigners in Roma’s lineup, both had an excellent range of passing and desire to get forward, where they would link up with attacking midfielder Conti. The number seven played with freedom in the first half, taking most of the corners and trying to test Bruce Grobbelaar in the Liverpool goal. And, as half-time approached, Conti made his most decisive contribution yet.

The momentum had been swinging in Roma’s favour, and they got the equaliser they deserved three minutes before the break. Conti shrugged off the defender to play a cross in with his weaker right foot, and Roberto Pruzzo was there in the middle to finish with a swooping header. It was a marvelous piece of technique from ‘Il Bomber’, who managed to put a significant amount of power and placement on the header, despite his low position. The Italian had not had many opportunities before that – strike partner Graziani was seeing more of the ball – but he reminded the fans just why he was so highly regarded with the great finish.

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Roma were rallied by the goal; Liverpool were rattled. It is often said in football that there are few better times to score than just before half-time. In this instance, perhaps Roma could have benefited from scoring about five minutes earlier than they did. They were really putting pressure on Liverpool after drawing level, and maybe with a few more minutes, they could have got a second before the half-time whistle.

Despite their best efforts, a second goal never came – neither before, nor after the break. The second half followed a similar pattern, with both sides figuring each other out tactically. Neither keeper had too many saves to make, but the battle was intriguing nonetheless.

Sebino Nela was having an influence down the left-hand side, bombing on from his full-back position and putting in some good crosses. Roma were winning free kicks in dangerous areas, but weren’t making the most of them. Their approach became a little too predictable; Conti would roll the ball to Di Bartolomei, who would shoot from distance. Liverpool were thwarting most of the chances.

Roma’s hopes of winning took a downturn when Pruzzo was forced off injured. Odoacre Chierico replaced him, prompting a tactical reshuffle, but with the thought of extra time and penalties looming, Nils Liedholm knew he had lost one of his best options from the spot. Pruzzo was a clinical penalty taker, but he would unfortunately not be there for the shootout, when his team needed him most.

As we all know, that is how the game was decided. During an extra time period which fatigued the players – Dario Bonetti and Cerezo both suffering from bouts of cramp – the tension was palpable. Penalties were on the horizon, and as unfair a way as it is to lose, it really was the only way the two sides could be separated.

The shootout was to be conducted under the Curva Sud, Roma’s fans urging their side on. How romantic a scene it would be if Roma could emerge victorious. Liverpool went first, and when Steve Nicol blazed his effort over the bar, there was an immediate sense of relief, anticipation and hope. Di Bartolomei tucked his penalty coolly away down the middle, and it looked like the initiative was with the Giallorossi.

Very quickly, though, things turned back in Liverpool’s favour. After Neal had converted his spot kick for Liverpool, Conti repeated what Nicol had done, skying his shot over the bar. It was an unexpected miss from someone blessed with such good quality and technique, who had had a positive impact on the game in normal time. Things were all square again.

Graeme Souness, Ubaldo Righetti and Ian Rush all scored their penalties, leaving a tired Graziani to take next. His focus was interrupted by the now infamous scene of Grobbelaar wobbling his legs, getting in the head of his opponent. Like Conti before him, Graziani missed the target.

The decisive penalty fell to Alan Kennedy, and the Reds full-back made no mistake, breaking the hearts of the thousands of Romanisti in the Stadio. Roma had achieved so much under Liedholm, and had fought their way to a top position among the European elite. But even with the backing of their own home crowd, they couldn’t quite get over the line.

Who knows if it would have made a difference had Pruzzo stayed fit for the whole game? The striker would certainly have taken a penalty, and most likely scored, but would it really have been instead of one of the two who missed? It’s a story that we’ll never know, in the same way that the opposition’s fans now wonder how last year’s Champions League final may have turned out differently without the absence of ex-Roma winger Mohamed Salah. To lose one of your key players in the biggest game of their life is a hammer blow.

But despite Roma’s narrow defeat, the legacy of that team lives on. Most of those players have earned their place in club history, with seven of the starting XI having been inducted into the Roma Hall of Fame. Few would argue against the notion that that side was the best the club has ever assembled, arguably even better than the squad which last won Serie A under Fabio Capello in 2001. Wherever they ranked, though, they had become a huge part of the fabric of the club.

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Outside of Italy, only a few of the names from that Roma lineup have been remembered long-term. Falcao and Conti are probably the most well-known, but even legends like Di Bartolomei and Pruzzo are hardly household names worldwide. Had Roma been victorious that warm May night, then perhaps they would have become global icons, getting the recognition they deserved.

Roma may never have the chance to compete in a Champions League final again, especially one on their home turf. Even if they came close last year, that side of the 1980s far eclipsed the achievements of many of the Giallorossi sides that have followed. Therefore, for Roma, May 30th, 1984, will always remain a date synonymous with the phrase, ‘What might have been…’

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