It feels almost wrong to write about Agostino Di Bartolomei today. It’s often easy to fall into the trap of rhetoric when commemorating a fallen hero, but there was no rhetoric about Agostino.
He was L'Uomo in Più [The Extra Man] for Paolo Sorrentino (the director who dedicated a film to him) and to all of us.
He was not a man of poses, but he will always be remembered for the way he stood over a free-kick, his face pulled into a half-sneer, his legs standing straight, ready to put every ounce of himself – much of which he kept well hidden – into the impending kick. He loved taking huge run-ups for his free-kicks.
They were Ago’s missiles. They were the outpouring of everything inside.
Ago left countless memories – some happy, some terribly sad. The vase of flowers he launched into the stands after Roma had won the Scudetto. The strange expression on his face when he lifted the Coppa Italia against Verona on 26 June 1984, knowing it would be his last act with his beloved Roma.
And then the morning of 30 May 1994, ten years to the day after Roma’s European Cup final loss to Liverpool – only this time, the tears were not borne of defeat but of grief.
To mark Ago’s last match for Roma, the Curva Sud unveiled a banner reading Arrivederci Campione – see you again, champ. But they never did.
“You taught us to fight the right way, both on the pitch and in life. You embodied the dream of every boy from Rome,” wrote the boys from Rome – who back then were all from the Commando Ultra Curva Sud fan group – in a letter given to Ago before his last match.
It was followed by another banner: “They’ve taken Roma away from you, but not your Curva.” But they were wrong. No-one will ever be able to take Roma away from Di Bartolomei – though perhaps we only truly realised this after his took his own life.
So although it feels wrong to write about Ago today – on what would have been his birthday – the fact is that the real wrong was the indifference he was subjected to after he hung up his boots and after he was sent away from Roma to AC Milan. You can bet your bottom dollar that he’d never have left the Giallorossi had it been up to him – the ferocity with which he celebrated scoring against Roma the year after he left was simply a celebration against that indifference.
In a 1980 interview by Enzo Tortora for Intrepido magazine, Ago revealed he had two dreams: “The Scudetto, which will come sooner or later, and that people who live on the outskirts of town continue to support friendship and mutual support, pushing indifference to one side…”
What to say? Perhaps it makes it easier to understand how he felt when he found himself on the outskirts of interest and memory, powerless to ask for help or to sell himself out – he had spent his whole life helping others and had never once sold himself out.
That was our captain.
While it was Dino Viola who taught us to be proud of Roma, Di Bartolomei ensured we would be thus forever more. While it was Dino Viola who said “Roma have been released from the prison of dreams after 41 years” in Genoa back on 8 May 1983, it was Di Bartolomei who demolished those prison walls.
And while it’s true that Roma was changed by one Paulo Roberto Falcao, it’s also true that Roma will always belong to Agostino Di Bartolomei and what he came to represent – loyalty, belonging, professionalism, dedication.
Ago loved Roma. But not just the wonderful Roma sides of the Stadio Olimpico era. He loved the gritty Roma of Campo Testaccio. The Roma proud to return to Serie A after a 0-0 draw at Hellas Verona. The Roma that won Serie B. The Roma that clinched its first Scudetto at the Stadio Nazionale in 1942. The Roma cheered on by Oscar-winning Rome-born actress Anna Magnani in 1951 with the club bottom of the league with four matches left.
You see, when things get tough, Roma needs Rome. And sad though it is to say, there came a time when Ago needed Rome and nobody could give it to him. You’d be hard pushed to find two faces that encapsulated Rome better than those of Anna Magnani and Agostino Di Bartolomei. Its truth, its suffering. Its beauty and its visceral passion.
It speaks volumes of the man that on 11 January 2015, when the Roma fans created a beautiful display of 16 of the club’s favourite sons, it was Ago’s face staring out from the very centre of the Curva.
No matter that thirty years had passed since his departure from Roma. No matter that twenty years had passed since his farewell – he was still there, in the centre of the Curva as he was in the centre of the park.
Agostino Di Bartolomei doesn’t belong to the past but to the future. Ago lives on when we speak of him and in the example he set for us. Ago lives on every time we celebrate his birthday, painful though they are.
And when, last June, the Roma youngsters started to sing “oh Agostino! Ago-Ago-Ago-Agostino go” along with the Curva Sud fans who’d made the trip to Trigoria for the Agostino Di Bartolomei tournament, Ago lived on.
Ago lives on in the flowers they gave to his wife Marisa. Ago lives on in the flag Franco Tancredi waved under the Curva Sud on the day of the Hall of Fame inductions. He lives on in the emotion etched on the faces of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi when the Agostino Di Bartolomei pitch was inaugurated at Trigoria.
He lives on in the name of that pitch and in all the nameless pitches on the outskirts of Roma, where “friendship and mutual support” reign supreme over indifference.
Ago is no longer with us but neither will he ever be truly gone. Ago took us to within an inch of the ultimate glory, sticking his penalty away to light up that May night and give us the lead over Liverpool. He took us to within touching distance of our dreams – and then they drifted away.
Fast forward ten years and it was Ago himself drifting away. It was not his mistake but ours, all of ours. And perhaps it is a mistake to write that Agostino Di Bartolomei loved Roma more than his own life, that he lived for Roma, that no Roma fan should ever forget him, that we should all try to realise how much he gave us and how much we lost on that fateful morning.
Perhaps it’s a mistake, but it’s the only thing we can do.
You were the greatest, Ago.
Happy birthday, my captain.
'Ago' illustration by Forza27 for asroma.com.