“Stop calling me Capitan Futuro” was the message from Daniele De Rossi in an interview with Sky Sports Italia in 2013. The Roman native had earned the nickname after becoming a vital player for his boyhood club AS Roma, and given that the man wearing the armband was seven years his senior, it was only natural to assume it would be passed down sooner rather than later. When the man in question is Francesco Totti, however, that assumption is not an easy one to accept.
De Rossi was making these comments out of nothing but respect for Totti of course, and indeed for his own achievements, going on to add: “I am proud to be vice-captain of Roma. Francesco is ahead of me and to know I’ll only take the armband when he retires is not a pleasing thought for me or the fans.”
He would eventually inherit the captaincy in 2017, but his status as a Roma and Italy legend was already long secured.
It was Fabio Capello who gave De Rossi his full Roma debut as an 18-year-old in 2001, but the midfielder managed only four appearances in all competitions and would have to wait until January 2003 for his first taste of Serie A.
The 2003/04 season proved to be his true breakout year, as he began to cement his place at the heart of the midfield in a Roma side who eventually finished as runners-up to AC Milan.
In the years that followed, he went on to establish himself as one of the standout players in Italy. A fierce warrior on the pitch, De Rossi was renowned for his tough tackling, physical style of play, and even boasts a tattoo on his leg of a ‘hazard’ sign depicting a slide tackle.
In truth, his reputation may have already been warning enough.
There was, however, far more to his game than his own right leg would have you believe. His positional awareness and passing range made him one of the most complete midfielders in the world in his prime, and despite being used primarily as a defensive midfielder, he also possessed an eye for goal, and was fond of the occasional 30-yard ‘golazo’.
‘𝑁𝑜-𝑜𝑛𝑒 𝑤𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑟 𝑙𝑜𝑣𝑒 𝑦𝑜𝑢 𝑚𝑜𝑟𝑒 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑛 𝐼 𝑑𝑜…’
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) July 24, 2021
Despite a penchant for picking up cards (De Rossi amassed a grand total of 150 yellows and 13 red cards for Roma), he was also known for his good sportsmanship on the pitch. In a 2006 match against Messina, De Rossi was praised by both opponents and referee alike after admitting that he had scored via a deflection from his arm. The incident had been missed by the officials and De Rossi’s honesty resulted in his goal being chalked off.
The 2005/06 season proved to be a defining one for De Rossi, as he picked up the Serie A Young Player of the Year award following another runners-up finish with Roma. A place in Marcelo Lippi’s squad for that summer’s World Cup beckoned and it proved to be a memorable tournament on the world stage, both for Italy and De Rossi.
Despite being the youngest member of the squad, De Rossi started the opener against Ghana and turned in an impressive performance alongside Andrea Pirlo as Italy ran out 2-0 winners. Pirlo scored a typically superb goal with a long-range drive as the Azzurri began with three points, while De Rossi picked up a typically De Rossi booking.
He kept his place in the starting side for the second game against the USA, though it ended in very different circumstances. A flailing elbow into the face of Brian McBride when jumping to head the ball left the American bloodied and needing stitches, and resulted in the Italian being sent for an early bath. True to form though, De Rossi was described as “classy” by McBride after the game, as he sought out the American to apologise for leaving his mark.
The misery was later compounded for De Rossi as he was slapped with a fine and, more devastatingly, a four-game ban. This meant that the tournament was all but over for De Rossi, as he would only take to the field again should Italy reach the final. They couldn’t, could they?
A dramatic extra-time win against host nation Germany in the semi-final, thanks to unlikely hero Fabio Grosso, meant that the dream was alive for De Rossi and he was introduced as a second-half substitute in the final against France for club-mate Totti.
After 120 minutes, two goals and one infamous head-butt, the greatest prize in football would be decided by a penalty shootout for just the second time. De Rossi stepped up to score in the shootout, before that man again, Grosso, converted the decisive kick to crown the Azzurri as world champions for the fourth time.
As a 22-year-old world champion, it seemed like De Rossi had the footballing world at his feet and indeed throughout his career he was one of those names consistently linked to the biggest clubs in Europe. But no transfer ever materialised and he would follow in Totti’s footsteps by dedicating the best years of his career, and remaining fiercely loyal, to his boyhood club.
Roma won back-to-back Coppa Italia titles in 2007 and 2008, with a Supercoppa victory to boot. But the silverware would stop there for the Roman giants. De Rossi continued to perform as one of Europe’s top midfielders and was named Serie A Italian Player of the Year in 2009, but perhaps never collected the honours that his individual talent perhaps deserved.
De Rossi guided Roma to their first Champions League semi-final in 2018 as captain, scoring in a remarkable comeback against Barcelona as the Italians overturned a 4-1 deficit from the first leg, but they couldn’t overcome Liverpool to reach a first European final since 1991. In 2018, De Rossi became just the second player to reach 600 appearances for Roma in their history after, you guessed it, Francesco Totti.
In 2019, it was announced that De Rossi would leave Roma after 18 seasons at the club and, after a short-lived stint with Boca Juniors, he retired from professional football in January 2020. He finished his career as the Giallorossi’s second all-time appearance maker, and Italy’s fourth most capped player with 117 games for the Azzurri. No mean feat for a nation of players famed for their longevity.
It is, however, difficult to tell the story of his career without mentioning one other statistic – in those 18 seasons with Roma, De Rossi finished as Serie A runner-up a remarkable nine times, and a further five in the Coppa Italia.
This would arguably point towards a career of missed opportunities and a sense of what could have been, while De Rossi himself has admitted as much after conceding he would have ‘probably won more’ had he gone to play for clubs ‘such as Barcelona’. But, for De Rossi, his passion for his city and his club was always his driving force and the legacy he carved out at Roma will be talked about for decades to come.
De Rossi perhaps passed up the opportunity for silverware in favour of playing for the club he had always supported, joining the likes of Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard, and Totti, in placing loyalty above his desire for trophies.
Was that the right decision? It is a debate which still rages in football and likely always will. Football fans are famously fickle. Loyalty such as that shown by De Rossi is often praised, though those who choose to remain can also be criticised for a lack of individual ambition.
It is hard to begrudge a professional athlete from putting their own personal gains and achievements first and it is often this mindset and drive to succeed which separates them from us mere mortals. This, therefore, is why loyalty in football is so admirable, particularly by those blessed with world class talent.
For De Rossi, there can surely be no regrets. His trophy cabinet may not be as full as it should be, but there is no doubt that at Roma he was never just another player, and truly became something more.