There are many performances and more than a few vital goals that we could use to sum up Toninho Cerezo’s career at Roma. But perhaps the clearest illustration of what Cerezo meant to the Giallorossi faithful came long after the Brazilian had departed the Italian capital.
The year was 2002. Cerezo – by then a 47-year-old manager – was in charge of Japanese side Kashima Antlers, who were visiting the Stadio Olimpico for a friendly against Roma on 24 August. Five minutes before kick-off, Cerezo walked out in front of the Curva Sud, his socks pulled down in his own inimitable style. He wore a Giallorossi shirt. On the back, Totti’s No.10. It was a sight that sent the Roma fans wild.
Rewind 20 years and we find ourselves at the beginning of Cerezo’s journey with Roma. The club began sounding out the possibility of bringing the Brazilian to the capital in the summer of 1982, though the move would only come to fruition the following year. It was a tricky transfer, with the FA even refusing to ratify the move on 2 July only to backtrack after a hard-fought legal battle.
When he finally did link up with Nils Liedholm and Co., Cerezo immediately showcased impressive technical attributes and incredible athleticism, qualities matched only by his knack for forging warm relationships with all around him.
Cerezo was the kind of maverick character that few football fans can resist falling in love with. At the final of the Amsterdam Tournament in August 1983, for example, Roma’s 1-1 draw with the great Johan Cruyff’s Feyenoord meant the match would come down to a penalty shootout. Yet the newly signed Cerezo was unable to take a spot-kick, having already donated his jersey to a young child in the crowd. It was clear to all that Roma's new Brazilian was something special.
Cerezo’s unique style with the ball, his seemingly inexorable energy, the moments of footballing genius he produced and his striking humility quickly made him a firm favourite with the Giallorossi fans. Indeed, such was the Curva Sud’s respect for the Brazilian that during one tough spell, they dedicated a special banner – written in Portuguese – to him during Roma v Sampdoria on 22 January 1984. “Come on Toninho! We fans are your strength” it read.
Over the course of his three-year spell with Roma, Cerezo won two Coppa Italias and was part of the team that came agonisingly close to clinching European Cup glory in 1984.
His farewell to the club was both clinical and poetic. On 14 June 1986, in the second leg of the Coppa Italia final against Sampdoria, Cerezo – who was struggling with an injury that would rob him of the chance to participate in his third World Cup with Brazil – entered the fray with just a few minutes remaining.
There is no better person to describe what happened next than Toninho himself.
“I saw [Roberto] Pruzzo about to cross the ball and realised he was going to play it quite deep. I was right and I had just enough time to guide my header into the far corner.”
That header was his parting gift to Roma, a goal at the death to hand the Giallorossi a 2-0 win and overhaul the 2-1 deficit from the first leg. It was a fitting farewell and one that forged an eternal bond between Cerezo, Roma and the Giallorossi faithful.
“I wasn’t the best player ever to play for Roma, but I think I might have been the one the fans loved the most,” Cerezo once remarked.
He may well be right. Today, those same adoring fans salute him as he enters the AS Roma Hall of Fame.