“Francesco, no matter what happens, remember that you're the best.”
Francesco Rocca was born a Roma fan.
As a youngster he would run after the team bus to secure his idols’ autographs and used to hitchhike from San Vito Romano – around 25 miles east of Rome – to the Stadio Olimpico to watch his team in the flesh.
It was inevitable then that Rocca took up playing himself, displaying a level of dynamism, passion and speed the likes of which Italy had never seen before.
He began his youth career at Genazzano, where his explosive style began to be noticed by some of the most prestigious clubs in Italy. Yet Rocca’s next club would be Roman outfit Bettini Quadraro. The story goes that when Genazzano and Bettini Quadraro met for a friendly, the latter’s president – who had come to take a look at Genazzano forward Ceccobelli – was so bowled over by the young Rocca that he promptly bought 40% of his rights.
Juventus scout Ugo Locatelli also showed an interest and made contact with the player, yet it was at around this point that Roma bought 60% of Rocca’s rights from Genazzano. The Bianconeri were in no mood for giving in and continued to pursue Rocca until 1971, when Alvaro Marchini used his last act as Roma president to buy him outright and create what proved to be an unbreakable bond with the Giallorossi colours.
On his arrival at the Roma youth academy - where he would go on to win the Italian Primavera Championship in 1973 and 1974 as well as the Primavera Coppa Italia in 1974 - Rocca went from strength to strength.
Giorgio Rossi, the masseur of that legendary youth side, later remembered that in friendly matches, the opposition player up against Rocca would often have to be put out of his misery and taken off at half-time.
Rocca made the step up to the first team in the 1972-73 season, with his physical strength continuing to give him a notable advantage over his peers, so much so that Roma captain Franco Cordova was forced to sit him down and tell him: “If you run that fast, when you reach the other end of the pitch you won’t find anyone there with you.”
On 25 March 1973, Rocca made his Serie A debut against AC Milan at the San Siro.
Bursting down the left, Rocca jinked past three men before coming face to face with Romeo Benetti, who hurtled towards the Roma man with all of his usual gusto. Yet it was Rocca who came away with the ball, drawing gasps of amazement from the Meazza stands.
Rocca had truly announced his arrival in the Italian game, with international football surely only a matter of time. When, in 20 November, 1974, Fulvio Bernardini handed him his competitive Italy debut against the great Dutch side of Johan Cruyff and Rob Resenbrink, he told Rocca: “Francesco, whatever happens, just remember that you’re the best player out there.”
“I ran out onto the pitch and felt as strong as a lion,” remembered Rocca, years later. A lion that helped rewrite the history of AS Roma.
“I was shocked considering how short my time was at Roma. Other people played there for 10 or 15 years, whereas I was there for a lot less. I’m very moved by this and I feel great pride and joy from the bottom of my heart. I’ve been given back a piece of my heart. I now look forward to going back to the stadium to embrace the fans, something I’ve not experienced in almost 37 years.”