The Fallen Captain

The Fallen Captain

The European Cup final is supposed to be the pinnacle. For Agostino Di Bartolomei it was the start of a tragic downfall. 

On the 30th May 1984, Agostino Di Bartolomei led his boyhood club Roma out at the Stadio Olimpico for the European Cup final against Liverpool, fulfilling an ambition that every young football-obsessed child dreams of.

On the 30th May 1994, Agostino Di Bartolomei took his own life by firing a bullet through his heart.

Di Bartolomei was Roma’s best player against Liverpool. A tall and elegant playmaker, the Giallorossi captain ran the game from deep, turning defence into offense quickly by launching long, accurate passes forward for wingers Bruno Conti and Odoacre Chierico or strikers Roberto Pruzzo and Ciccio Graziani.

Despite his shirt bearing the number ten, Di Bartolomei played his best football as a regista; stationed just in front of the back four, he would routinely collect the ball from the centre-backs and instigate Roma attacks. It is a mystery that his career passed without a single Italy cap: long-serving manager Enzo Bearzot may have preferred the energy and industry of players such as Gabriele Oriali and Marco Tardelli in his starting eleven, but it is scarcely believable that someone of Di Bartolomei’s quality never even made an international squad.

After 120 minutes of action, the scores remained level. Phil Neal had given Liverpool a twelfth-minute lead after a fortunate ricochet fell the full-back’s way eight yards from goal, but Roma responded before the interval through Pruzzo’s looping header from a Conti cross. Neither team managed to get the allimportant winner in normal time, and the additional thirty minutes passed without event, neither Roma nor Liverpool willing to take unnecessary risks in search of a winner. As such, the European Cup would be decided on penalty kicks for the first time in its 29-year history.

When Steve Nicol fired the opening effort over the bar, Roma had a great opportunity to take an early advantage. The responsibility fell to the skipper and Di Bartolomei made no mistake, smashing the ball straight down the middle after his customary singlestep run-up.

Things quickly turned, though, with Conti striking his penalty high over the bar and Liverpool converting their next three spot-kicks. When Graziani failed to score, Alan Kennedy was given the chance to seal the game and secure Liverpool’s fourth European Cup, an opportunity he duly took by side-footing the ball to goalkeeper Franco Tancredi’s right. Nils Liedholm’s fantastic Roma side of Conti, Falcao, Carlo Ancelotti and Di Bartolomei had lost the European Cup final in their own stadium. Those players knew they may never get a better chance. Liedholm departed that summer to return to former club Milan, and his successor Sven-Goran Eriksson soon decided that Di Bartolomei was not part of his plans.

The then 32 year-old joined up with Liedholm at the San Siro but was extremely open with his feelings about the transfer, stating in numerous interviews that he could not understand why Roma were prepared to let him go. After all, Di Bartolomei had been born in the city, joined Roma at the age of fourteen and gone on to play 308 games for the club, wearing the armband on 146 occasions. This was not a player past his best, either; Di Bartolomei was an essential member of the 1983 title-winning team and had continued his excellent form throughout 1984. Notwithstanding Eriksson’s personal midfield preferences, Roma’s decision to authorise their captain’s departure remains difficult to explain.

Liedholm and Di Bartolomei spent three years with the Rossoneri but no great success was to be had, with the club still recovering from their two relegations to Serie B in 1980 and 1982. Indeed, Di Bartolomei’s most memorable moment in a Milan shirt probably came in the aftermath of a 1985 clash with Roma, when he was struck by former team-mate Graziani in a post-match fight. A falling-out with fellow ex-colleague Conti followed, and the incident seemed to indicate just how far outside the Roma circle Di Bartolomei had fallen.

Retirement came in 1990 aged 35, the midfielder’s career having fizzled out with brief spells at Cesena and Salernitana. Unlike Tancredi and Conti – who Di Bartolomei had since made up with – there was no coaching or boardroom role on offer at Roma, and having played professional football since his eighteenth birthday, Di Bartolomei was suddenly confronted with the need to find another way to pay the bills.

That proved difficult, and Di Bartolomei began to suffer from severe bouts of depression as he struggled to adapt to life away from the game. A football school was opened but could not be maintained due to a lack of investment, while personal financial problems also saw him amass a sizeable level of debt. “I can’t see any way out”, Di Bartolomei tragically wrote in the suicide note that was later uncovered in his pocket.

It is surely no coincidence that Di Bartolomei chose the 30th May as the day that he would end his life. It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if Conti and Graziani had netted their penalties and Roma had won the European Cup; Liedholm may well have stayed on as manager if the result had been different, and it is difficult to envisage a situation where the continental champions let go their homegrown captain just weeks after the greatest moment in the club’s history.

Counterfactuals of this nature are always dangerous and there was no explicit mention of Roma in the aforementioned suicide note, but what can be said with certainty is that Di Bartolomei felt shunned by his former club and, according to John Foot, was unable to “[find] space in the world of football [after retirement] despite constant attempts to do so”. It is still massively puzzling why Roma did not find a role for Di Bartolomei once he had hung up his boots, and after the news of his passing broke, many accused the Giollorossi of abandoning one of their own.

Twenty years on from Di Bartolomei’s heartrending death, football still has much to learn about mental health. The misconception that footballers can never be truly unhappy because of their occupation is still far too widespread; as the Daily Mail’s Brian Viner wrote in 2006, “depression is no respecter of wealth, athleticism, fame or talent”.

Whenever Roma’s current squad of players train at the club’s Trigoria complex, they do so on the ‘Di Bartolomei pitch’ after its renaming in February 2012. As the tragedy of Agostino Di Bartolomei’s death demonstrated, there are many things more important than football.

Words by Greg Lea
Illustration by Brendan Higgins