A tribute to Daniele de Rossi and the responsibility of hometown heroes
If Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira taught us anything, it’s that footballers don’t necessarily need a pre-existing connection to a city to understand what it means to represent its club.
For years on end, the pair became emblematic of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal, coming to symbolise the respective characters of their clubs through an instant understanding of what was required of them.
Sometimes, though, there is a little less learning required: Daniele de Rossi was born in Rome, joined his hometown club aged 12 and never stopped playing as if taking his first opportunity to represent the club he loves.
“For me, it is the normal thing to play right here,” De Rossi told the New York Times in 2012.
“I never tried, or really wanted, to play outside for another team. I think some players who come here feel so much pressure. I’m accustomed to feeling this pressure. You grow up feeling it, even when you’re a simple fan. It’s just something you live with.”
On the surface, there can be a temptation to reduce De Rossi’s game to anger and ferocity. However, when you strip back the snarling exterior, you have a player whose game never stopped being about doing a duty to his hometown and to himself.
Determination manifests itself in football in many ways, but it doesn’t always have to be driving runs or last-ditch tackles.
Heroism can feel like something which might only exist at the extremes of sporting behaviour, but for De Rossi it came through conversations with younger team-mates and moments of flair and genius amid all the blood and guts.
His goal against Juventus in 2009 demonstrates his single-mindedness, the willingness to let others take the lead from his deeper-lying position but to take it upon himself to do it all when required.
It’s rare for anyone to catch Gianluigi Buffon off-guard, but to do so from this range, with this accuracy, is as close as you’ll get to a football unicorn.
Buffon’s expression is almost one of anger as much as bafflement, his arm raised in protest at such a goal even being possible. He’s trying to come to terms with not being in control of the situation, and this says as much about De Rossi as it does about him.
From De Rossi’s point of view, it’s not a case of taking the lead out of frustration at team-mates’ inaction but rather seeing an opening and taking it simply because he’s determined he’s the only one who can see it; it’s a self-confidence born out of knowing his own importance and responsibilities.
While it will always be frustrating to waste great goals on defeats, De Rossi’s only goal against English opposition remains emblematic of what he’s capable of both mentally and physically.
With a 6-0 deficit, there can be a tendency to ease off and wallow before full-time, perhaps going into challenges with a little less venom or saving more extravagant attempts on goal for when they really matter.
De Rossi, though, rarely, if ever, showed himself to have anything resembling an off-switch, and the defeat at Old Trafford was no exception.
One might look at him pulling off such a technically difficult move and decide it was made easier by the lack of situational pressure, but another way of looking at it is to acknowledge a refusal to accept defeat – something which we saw once more with De Rossi with his role in Roma’s comeback-for-the-ages against Barcelona in the 2017-18 Champions League.
With Francesco Totti finally hanging up his boots in 2017, De Rossi’s role as the talisman of the old guard became even more defined. There were times when he could have been prised away, but after taking the captain’s armband his duty became only greater.
Three-goal comebacks are something Barcelona do to you, not the other way around, and for once we saw a small amount of tension in De Rossi as he stepped up to take the penalty which would bring that three from the start of the day down to just one with half an hour to play.
As a player of his age, there’s always a realisation that each big opportunity could be your last, and the spot-kick, if not weak, was a little uncertain.
Its importance was clear, though, with the release of what felt like more than a decade of emotion – it was arguably his biggest moment since scoring from the spot in the 2006 World Cup final and, like then, his achievement would count for little without others helping him finish the job.
De Rossi’s Roma debut saw him share a pitch with 1994 World Cup veterans Aldair and Cafu, whose victory over Italy in Pasadena seems a lifetime away, and his comments about football’s generation game go some way to explaining his own achievements.
“When I was young, the older players would say, ‘It wasn’t like in my day’ – that’s life and it always will be,” he told Undici in 2017.
“[The younger generation are] 18 years old and in 20 years’ time they will find themselves complaining about the youth of today.’”
This mentality came through in De Rossi’s game as much at the end of his career as it did the start, only he moved from one end of the scale to another.
At first it was a case of showing the older and more experienced players he had something to add, whereas by the end it was about showing those younger than him that his age remained no burden to what he can bring the team.
De Rossi left nothing on the pitch during his career, and the times he failed were simply when everything wasn’t enough.
There aren’t many like him left.
By Tom Victor