Countless club legends, three Coppa Italia titles, only their second Scudetto triumph and the heartache of losing a European Cup final, the early 1980s will forever be remembered as Roma’s glory years.
For large periods in their history, the club has undergone decades of mediocrity and fleeting moments of success, but with very few exceptions, the majority of the finest players ever to don the Giallorossi shirt did so in the early 1980s.
In order to understand the dominance of this magnificent side it is important to cast our eyes back to 1979: the club after decades of footballing irrelevance, no Scudetto in almost 40 years, no Coppa Italia in ten where even reaching the lofty heights of third place seemed like a task of gargantuan proportions, was on the cusp of a level they had not touched before with the arrival of Dino Viola as president in May 1979.
Viola was able to bring investment and ambition to the Italian capital, but most importantly he was also able to attract the legendary Swedish coach Nils Liedholm who was the foundation for the club’s success.
Liedholm, known in Italy as Il Barone, had been a leading player for AC Milan and Sweden in the 1950s, captaining his homeland to the World Cup final in 1958. After returning to the Rossoneri as coach he guided Milan to another Scudetto before making his move south to the Italian capital.
He immediately set about changing the fortunes of the Giallorossi and recalled the iconic winger Bruno Conti from Genoa, signed the promising Carlo Ancelotti from Parma as well as adding midfielder Romeo Benetti and the experienced Maurizio Turone.
Liedholm developed Roma’s tactics by abandoning the man-marking still favoured in Italy at the time, for a zonal approach which could cope robustly from the threats of more fluid attacks.
He also placed a strong emphasis on fitness which was an attitude formed in his playing career. As well as being a former Olympic gold medal winner, after training during his time with Milan he would often dedicate extra time to his overall athletic ability by throwing the javelin and performing the high-jump, allowing him to play until he was nearly 40.
The Swede was often castigated by sections of the Italian press for such a zonal approach, however the success that followed witnessed many other Italian teams replicating these tactics in the years to come.
The Giallorossi kicked off their 1979-80 campaign trying to keep pace with leaders Inter, but inconsistent form including three defeats towards the end of the season meant Roma eventually finished seventh.
However, in an Italian league season again blighted by another match-fixing scandal, Milan, who had won the title under Liedholm in the previous season, and Lazio were both relegated to Serie B meaning Roma rose to sixth place.
Alas, it was the Coppa Italia where they would really make their mark and a 4-0 demolition of Milan in their quarter-final first-leg at the San Siro sent them comfortably through to the semi-finals where they were 3-1 aggregate winners against Ternana to set up a final against Torino.
In a closely contested final with the score 0-0, the sides went to penalties. After a dreadful shootout which witnessed seven misses, Carlo Ancelotti struck the decisive penalty to hand the Giallorossi a 3-2 win earning the club their first domestic trophy in 11 years.
With the taste of success firmly established, Roma approached the 1980-81 season in search of the Scudetto.
A move for Zico never materialised but Romanisti need not have been worried after the club sealed the arrival of Paolo Roberto Falcao, one of the greatest players in the club’s history. Affectionately referred to as the ‘Eighth King of Rome’, Falcao was arguably the most complete midfielder in the world during his time with the Lupi.
By now it was clear that Liedholm was building quite the formidable force with a team also containing the phenomenal winger Bruno Conti and the prolific striker Roberto Pruzzo. The midfield featuring Falcao also contained the elegant playmaker Agostino Di Bartolomei. A great captain, ‘Ago’, was bizarrely deprived of ever representing the Azzurri and tragically took his own life in 1994, ten years to the day of Roma’s European Cup final defeat.
Roma managed to win the Coppa Italia for the second successive season with a quarter-final win against Fiorentina and a semi-final victory over Juventus setting up yet another final against Torino where the Lupi won another shootout, this time Falcao hitting the decisive penalty.
But it was the feat of the Scudetto that the club had firmly in their sight. Remarkably with just one title in their entire history, Roma were on the brink of something truly historic. In a fantastic league campaign, they found themselves neck and neck with Juventus going into the closing stages of the season before the two clubs eventually came head to head in Turin.
For fans of both clubs, May 10 1981, will likely never be forgotten. With just three games of the league season remaining, the Bianconeri sat top of the table leading Roma by just a solitary point. Victory was everything. However, the Old Lady knew a draw would also keep them firmly in the driving seat to clinch their 19th title.
In a tightly contested and intense match blighted by fouls, Juventus’ Giuseppe Furino was shown a second-half red card for a series of offences, The Giallorossi sensed that a numerical advantage could decide the fate of not only the match, but ultimately the Scudetto itself. With ten minutes remaining, following a move initiated by Carlo Ancelotti, the forward Roberto Pruzzo whipped the ball into the box for sweeper Maurizio Turone to header the ball past Dino Zoff and give Roma a 1-0 lead in Turin: sufficient enough for the Giallorossi to leapfrog Juventus and claim top spot.
However, in one of the most-debated decisions in the history of calcio the linesman had signalled to the referee that Turone was in an offside position and the goal was ruled out, it was a decision which has essentially stoked the rise of bad blood between the two sides ever since.
But all was not lost, the Scudetto was still up for grabs. Juventus may have retained their one-point cushion but their fixtures included the formidable task of a trip to the Stadio San Paolo to face a Napoli side who had been title contenders for much of the season themselves, as well as entertaining Fiorentina in Turin. For Roma’s part they had a home fixture against Pistoiese before finishing the season away to Avellino.
As they have managed for much of their history, the Bianconeri dug out the crucial results winning both games by a 1-0 margin and ultimately consigning Roma to a runners-up spot. After the heartache in Turin, the Giallorossi couldn’t even hold up their own end of the bargain because despite winning against Pistoiese they could only manage a draw in their final game to finish the season two points off first place.
Despite the additions of prominent players such as Giuseppe Giannini and Sebastiano Nela, Roma could not mount a serious title challenge in the 1981-82 campaign after injuries to key players such as Carlo Ancelotti and Falcao severely hampered their chances and they ended the season trophyless.
Italian football approached the 1982-83 season in buoyant mood on the back of the Azzurri’s stunning World Cup win in Spain, and Roma were no different as they started the season in fine form with five wins from their first six games and were challenging around top spot for much of the season, despite the absence of Carlo Ancelotti and also the iconic winger and Italian World Cup star Bruno Conti.
After fighting off Verona and latterly Juventus for much of the campaign, Il Barone had clinched the Scudetto with a game to spare in a 1-1 draw away to Genoa on May 8 1983 to hand the Giallorossi their first title in 41 years. There were scenes of jubilation in the Italian capital and Liedholm’s side had cemented their names in the club’s history, by winning only their second ever Scudetto, whilst also giving rise to the anthem titled ‘Grazie Roma’ by the prominent singer and fan Antonello Venditti.
Never before had Roma played in the European Cup, which at the time was only reserved for league winners. For the Romanisti, the timing was spectacular: the 1983-84 European Cup final would be in Rome.
The Giallorossi had already showcased their domestic capabilities, but performing on the European stage was an altogether different matter. The destruction of catenaccio at the hands of the total football adopted by the Dutch in the early 1970s, as well as the generally evolving tactics espoused among the Northern European sides had meant that no Italian team had won the European Cup since Milan’s win in 1969.
Yet, they still had domestic matters to attend to and a Scudetto to defend. In another closely contested title race, defeats for the Giallorossi at the hands of Udinese, when they fell victim to a goal from Zico at the Stadio Friuli, as well as slip ups against Inter and Verona were fatal to their chances and Juventus reclaimed the Scudetto eventually finishing the season two points above Roma.
The disappointment of losing the Scudetto would have been a mere afterthought if the Giallorossi were able to become European champions. Throughout the season, the possibility of a final between Roma and Liverpool had been the subject of wide speculation with the two sides generally regarded as the finest in the continent at that time.
Liedholm’s side got to the semi-finals rather comfortably by dispatching IFK Goteborg, CSKA Sofia and Dynamo Berlin all by two goal aggregate margins and must have thought their place in the final was essentially booked when they came up against tDundee United. The Tangerines boasted even fewer league titles than the Lupi but in their semi-final first-leg it was the Scots who had triumphed 2-0 in Dundee and seemed on the brink of setting up an all-British final and prolonging Northern Europe’s stranglehold of the competition. However, in a convincing display Roma sealed their place in the final with two goals from Roberto Pruzzo and a second-half penalty by captain Agostino Di Bartolomei.
In a closely contested final in the Italian capital, Pruzzo was again on the scoresheet to cancel out Phil Neal’s early opener for the Reds, but neither side could ultimately be separated and the match went to penalties.
It would not have escaped Liedholm that his side had won two Coppa Italia finals by means of a shootout themselves and when Steve Nicol skied Liverpool’s first spot-kick above the crossbar and Di Bartolomei sent Roma 1-0 up in the shootout the trophy would have seemed within touching distance. Liverpool however scored their next four spot-kicks whilst Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani both missed meaning the Reds triumphed 4-2 to win the trophy for the fourth time in just seven years.
The sheer devastation for La Maggica could only be softened by yet another Coppa Italia triumph less than a month later when a 2-1 aggregate win over Verona again handed them the trophy.
In the history of calcio, every great team will be remembered for their glory but also for their heartache. For the fans of Roma, the 1980s will always create a sense of nostalgia and the yearning for a time when their side could truly compete with Europe’s elite, but it is important also to look to the future and with impressive plans for a new stadium, perhaps a new era of glory could be just around the corner.