Alessandro Florenzi first kicked at ball at 18 months. By 10, he was pretending to be Francesco Totti in the playground. A year later he was playing for Roma’s U12 side.
If football has always been a part of his life, then Roma has always been his passion.
This is an interview about how a young boy who grew up dreaming about playing for his hometown club – and made it happen.
Tell us about your childhood…
"I had a happy childhood. I was lucky to have two parents and a brother who loved me. I grew up in the outskirts of Rome in a suburb called Vitinia. My first memories are of my family... and football! All I needed was a ball at my feet and I was happy."
How old were you when you discovered AS Roma existed?
"I think I must have been four or five when I first started watching games on TV with my dad. That's when I began to understand what football was all about, the rules and who that team in yellow and red was."
Was your family passionate about football?
"We're a family of football lovers. My dad used to play football – not at the very top level but he made it up to Promozione [Italy's sixth tier]. It was a higher level back in his day, almost on a par with the Lega Pro [third tier] of today. My brother played too, for Cassino, but then he stopped."
Did anyone in your extended family ever try and convince you to support Lazio?
“Actually a friend of mine tried to. He was called Alessandro and we went to primary school together. My dad had already pushed me in the right direction but spending all day with each other at school, Alessandro tried to convert me. He was convincing too, but I ended up fending him off and staying a Roma fan."
As a child, did you watch matches on television or go to the Stadio Olimpico?
"I first started learning about football and Roma while playing outside my house and watching games on TV at a very young age. Then when I was about five or six – I don't remember when exactly – my dad started taking me to the Olimpico. I can't remember the first match I ever saw at the stadium but I remember other things from that day, like all the people at the ground, the players and the green pitch."
How old were you when you first started kicking a ball?
"A year and a half. I fell in love with the game very early on, as soon as I learned to walk. I remember I used to play indoors because we didn't have a garden. The only person who as a bit less happy was my mum because I broke a few things around the house."
Who was the first player you can remember trying to emulate in the school playground?
“There were the usual famous names when we played outside or at school and of course being in the capital, Francesco Totti was the most popular of the lot. I was 10 when Roma won the title in 2001. Then when I grew up and started playing for teams, Cesc Fabregas was my idol – I thought he was a magnificent player."
Who was the first team you played for?
"My first team was a club called Axa that has ties with my family. My dad used to play for them and my mum worked in the bar at the sports center so it was only natural that I would start kicking a ball about there."
What position did you play?
"When we were really young at Axa it was just five-a-side so we didn't really have a position. The first times we played with specific positions, I was mainly a forward. I played as a second striker with two up front, or if there were three forwards I'd play wide on the right or left."
Did you stand out as the best player even then?
"Yes, I did actually, starting from when I was at Axa. I realized that when we used to have kick-abouts and in the first league matches. Athletically and technically I was one of the best."
How did you end up in Roma’s Academy?
"When I was nine I joined Lodigiani, which was basically Rome's third-biggest team at the time as they were still playing in Serie C. After two years there I had to choose between Roma and Lazio because they both wanted me. I made up my mind when I went to Trigoria with my dad and met Bruno Conti, head of the academy. I don't remember what was said exactly but just the fact it was him and the way he welcomed me was enough to make me choose the Giallorossi."
Do you remember your trial or first training session? Were you nervous?
"I didn't have a trial as such. I remember the first training session clearly though. We were at Eucalipti, a pitch near Via Marconi in the south of the city. It was the 2001-02 season and I was just starting out with the Esordienti (U12s). I was quite nervous because it was the first time I'd worn the Roma kit and there were coaches from the club there. But I forgot it all as soon as we started playing. At the end of the day it was just us kicking a ball about on a pitch and having fun."
Who was the first star that you met?
"Not all the youth teams trained in Trigoria so it wasn't easy to meet the first-team players but I was lucky because I was a ball boy at the Olimpico. I started in 2002-03 and that's where I got to see all the players. One of the first players I saw close up was the captain [Francesco Totti]. I remember thinking he looked very big and I felt rather intimidated, but it only took a word from him and I immediately felt at ease."
Did you ever meet De Rossi when you were young? If so, what was that experience like?
"Funnily enough, the first time I met and spoke to Daniel wasn't at Trigoria but on the beach! I was in Ostia, where he was born and used to live. I remember he was with his dad, Alberto, who was already coaching the Primavera side and he knew me because although I was in a lower age group, he'd occasionally called me up to train with his team. That's how I met De Rossi the first time. We said hello to each other and chatted for a bit. Then a few years later I met him again in the first team. I get on really well with both him and Francesco."
You were ten years old when Roma last won the Scudetto. What are your most vivid memories of that time in the city?
"I have a really vivid memory of the last game of the season against Parma, which I watched at home. And I'll never forget the party afterwards – the whole city went wild. My father and I went around Rome the day we clinched the title and again the week after, when they had that party at Circus Maximus. Unforgettable."
Lots of young players join club academies but are released each summer. Did you worry that would happen to you?
"You do think about it sometimes because you hear about it and see it happening to other people you've met in the game who didn't get the same breaks you did. I think two things really help in that respect and they're both fundamental: having a good family and a strong mentality. You need to be strong mentally and for that you need people who care about you looking after you and teaching you good values. I was lucky because I had both my mum and dad who made sure I kept my feet on the ground, as they'd come from the street too. They made sure I understood right from the start how important it is not to get carried away and to work hard if you want to achieve your targets."
You must have had some real ups and downs during that time – did you have any particularly low moments?
"Yes, when I was in the Giovanissimi Nazionali team. I barely played in the regular season under coach Dario Scuderi. Then in the final phases a new coach, Andrea Stramaccioni [former Udinese and Inter head coach], came in. When he took over, I started every game, as I did the following year too when I moved up to the Allievi Nazionali with him."
What’s your best memory from your time in the Roma academy?
"Definitely winning the Scudetto with the Primavera in 2011. It was an incredible achievement, given that in the final against Varese we were trailing 2-1 in the 91st minute. Then, with almost the last kick of the game, Montini, our striker back then, scored, before bagging the winner in extra time. It was an amazing feeling because I was captain of the team too."
It takes a lot of sacrifices to make it as a footballer. How hard was it seeing your friends doing stuff that you couldn't?
"You know, I didn’t mind not going out late on the weekend because once I started looking at football as a job that could provide me with a stable future, I took it very seriously. Ironically, the thing I missed the most when I was in the academy was not being able to play five-a-side when my friends called me. On a number of occasions my father put his foot down and stopped me from going to play, as he was afraid I’d get injured and I struggled to accept that. In hindsight, I have to say that he was right to. Mind you, I went to play a few times anyway!"
At what point did you start secretly thinking – I’m going to make it as a professional footballer?
"I told myself, 'I can do this' in my last year with the Primavera, when we’d won the Scudetto and I was going out on loan to Crotone. Something rose up inside of me, you don’t even really notice it. Something happens in your mind and you realize that you’re on the right track. The time comes when you just think, 'I can be a footballer'."
What do you remember of the day you signed your first professional contract? Were your parents proud?
"I signed my first professional contract in Trigoria when I was in the Primavera team. The best thing about it was that with me were the two people who were there on my very first day at Roma – ten years after I arrived for the first time. My father and I entered Trigoria and crossed paths with Bruno Conti once again. The three of us together again. What can I say about that day… my parents were really proud and very happy because they realised I could achieve something big by doing my favorite thing in the world – playing football."
Tell us about your memories of your debut – not many people can claim they replaced Totti on the pitch for their first Roma match…
"It was in May 2011, a Roma v Sampdoria match at the Stadio Olimpico. Francesco himself made it really easy for me by giving me a quick smile – that calmed me down a bit. I wasn’t on the pitch long as there were only three minutes left, but I have to say it was a fantastic feeling. It’s one of those big moments that stick in your memory and I’m happy my family were in the stands to see it."
How much of a role have the likes of Francesco and Daniele De Rossi played in your development?
"Their role hasn’t just been important, it’s been absolutely fundamental. Both Francesco and Daniele have helped me in all areas. They have been the two people that have helped me the most at Roma, no question about it. They’ve supported me and given me advice on everything from A to Z – especially in terms of the attitude you need to show on the pitch and more generally in an environment like Rome. Sometimes they take me aside but often all it takes is a single word, phrase or look to make me understand whether I’m doing something well or not."
What have you learned from them as footballers and people?
"Francesco Totti doesn’t just teach you things – you see the stuff he pulls off on the field and try to recreate it, even though it’s not easy. He’s always a source of inspiration. From Daniele, I’ve taken his on-field attitude, will to win, fighting spirit and tactical nous."
Tell us about the emotion of scoring your first goal…
"It was in Milan in the 2012-13 season, my first back at Roma after my year on loan at Crotone. It was an Inter v Roma match, the second match of the season and the first match I’d started. I scored a header from a Totti assist – it was a great feeling, especially as we won. I only realised the magnitude of what I’d done at the end of the match, because during the game I was just thinking about giving my all. Back in the locker rooms, with a cool head, I realised that the goal was a special moment that I’d remember forever."
Being a local player – do you feel there is extra pressure on you or does being a boyhood fan help you?
"As I always say, I’m very proud to play for my hometown club but it brings with it great responsibility. You have to try to find a balance and look at it from that perspective."
Did your life change after you made your debut – and how do you deal with fame now?
"Well, I always try to stay humble, just like my family taught me, but I’d be lying if I said my life hasn’t changed. Having people recognise you, even away from Rome and outside Italy, is nice and should never be looked on as a drag. I think you should take it as a sign that you’re doing good things and are on the right track. You need to take a laid-back approach to it and remember that you have a chance to set a good example for young children."
When you were first loaned out, did you think that maybe you wouldn’t have a career at Roma?
"I never thought about that. During that season I was only focusing on performing well and giving my all for Crotone, with a view to showing Roma what I was really capable of. Fortunately I was able to do a good job of that and was recalled by the Giallorossi."
How did it feel to return to the club knowing that Roma really wanted you?
"It was really satisfying and almost a tiny bit of personal ‘revenge’, if you can call it that. The year before that Roma hadn’t wanted to keep me, but after a good season at Crotone I managed to make them think again. It was a good feeling to earn the call from Roma through my performances on the field. I have to say that from a personal perspective, the year in Crotone was vitally important – I left home and grew up, as a footballer and as a human being."
Three years on, how much has your life changed and how much has it stayed the same?
"Apart from becoming more famous I’ve stayed the same, I have the same values I did when I was young. I have the same humility, the same relationship with my family, the same girlfriend… well, actually that has changed as we got married in July."
Finally, if you were to offer one piece of advice for a young boy who now looks up to you and wants to play for Roma, what would it be?
"First of all you need to be humble, it’s fundamental that you always keep your feet on the ground, even when you start playing in the big games. The second thing is hard work – the only real way to realise your dreams is to make the sacrifices, nobody is going to do it for you. Finally, it’s vital that you try never to forget that football is about having fun – it’s the best game in the world."