When he arrived last season from Lille, the Frenchman brought an instant jolt of optimism to a club and fan base long known for its fatalistic bent. Under Garcia, Roma was unbeatable early on, setting a Serie A record by winning its first 10 matches, including the ninth triumph when Michael Bradley scored his last goal for the giallorossi to beat Udinese. Roma then cooled off, dropping precious points at home to teams like Sassuolo and effectively ceding the title race after getting slapped by Juve near the midway point. To fans, it wasn’t a big deal: the club would surpass expectations by finishing second and making the Champions League. This year, should Monsieur Garcia’s side slip up again, forgiveness may be harder to find.
Under Boston-based owner Pallotta, Roma has spent more money on transfers this summer (40 million euros) than any other club in Serie A, as of this writing. The largesse has come as rather a surprise. When they took over in 2011, Roma’s American masters went to great lengths to temper expectations, focusing on the need to clean up the club’s disastrous finances while investing for the future in potential stars such as Erik Lamela and Bradley. But the kibosh was soon put on “Moneyball.” Last season, Roma coughed up huge sums to sign stars like Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman, Moroccan defender El Mouttaqui Benatia as well as to fend off suitors and retain Bosnian wizard Miralem Pjani?. This summer’s big splash is Argentina’s Juan Iturbe—the “new Messi,” Gazzetta dello Sport says. The 21-year-old livewire signed from Hellas Verona for an estimated 22 million euros.
He’s only 21, but Juan Iturbe has his work cut out for him. After failing to make a mark at Porto, the latest diminutive Argentine to erupt on the world soccer scene came into his own last season at Verona, menacing defenders with guile and pace to score eight goals. With a lethal first step and wily left foot, Iturbe likes cutting in from the right and shooting from distance. The niño from Buenos Aires will be under massive pressure to prove he was worth busting the bank for.
Roma, in 2001, was the last team not from Milan or Turin to win Serie A. The Italian Cup, a decidedly lackluster chunk of silverware, was Roma’s last trophy, in 2008. Since 2001, five scudetti each have gone to Juventus and Inter, and two to AC Milan. (Juve was stripped of the 2005 title after a match-rigging scandal.) Despite the continued prominence of Napoli, Roma stands the best chance this season of finally wresting away the title from the northern capitals of industry and finance.
While the red-and-yellow side of the Eternal City is thrilled to be back in the Champions League for the first time since 2011, competing in Europe will put a strain on Roma’s title hunt. Taking part in Europe’s premier club competition may swell Roma’s coffers by an additional 40 million euros, but the extra games will tire legs. After all, one of the reasons Roma did so well last year was because it was only competing in Serie A. With several core players on the wrong side of the actuarial tracks—Totti (37), Ashley Cole (33), Maicon (33—concerns about fatigue and overwork may be justified.
Part of Roma’s problems has always been its bared-knuckles obsession with Lazio, its rival from across the Tiber. No matter how well either team is playing, or how badly, it seems there’s always a surprise when they meet. The result is often counter-intuitive, with the favored team going down in a loss—or simply dropping points, as Roma did in February when they badly needed a victory to stay in the title hunt. Look for Roma to struggle in the derby this year—precisely when they can least afford it.
Garcia’s three-man midfield has it all. Daniele De Rossi, when he keeps cool, is one of the best mediani in the game, able to break up play and in the same fluid motion initiate the attack, seemingly effortlessly. De Rossi at times struggles to show his best for Roma, but last season was a breakthrough. If he can keep it up, Roma is likely to do some damage. Pjani?, with sublime touch and vision, is one of Europe’s most promising creative midfielders, while Strootman’s complete game is the envy of about every coach on the continent and beyond. Whether the Dutchman can return to form after knee surgery that kept him out of the World Cup is the question.
Despite the new arrivals and the star-studded midfield, Totti, soon to be 38, remains Roma’s cornerstone, 21 years after making his debut with the club. In a sport where players change teams like so many dirty socks, Totti’s decision to spend his career with his hometown club is admirable. Nicknamed il ragazzo di Porta Metronio after the working-class neighborhood he grew up in, Totti remains one of soccer’s classiest players on the ball, able to shred the best defenses with a no-look through ball or a clever back heel. But he can’t handle a full season of starts; with the Champion League on the calendar, Totti may very well be spread too thin—even as he remains the attacking focus. Can Roma win without its captain?
Rome is full of passionate people, many of them Roma fans. Some are ultrás, the hooligans populating the south end, or curva sud, of the Olympic Stadium. Sadly, hardly a season goes by without their wrecking havoc. There was the Champions League quarterfinal with Manchester United in 2007, when a fight broke out between the two sets of fans, riot police moved in, and faces were bloodied. In 2013, supporters of both Rome teams were stabbed in clashes before the derby. And in May, a Napoli fan was shot dead before the Italian Cup final in Rome with Fiorentina. Five Roma supporters are under investigation for murder, according to Italian media reports. (And Roma wasn’t even playing in that match.)
Roma’s new status as a Serie A favorite is one of the few things that can bring a smile to faces in the Italian capital. Italy’s economy recently entered its third slump since 2008—one of the few triple-dip recessions ever registered in the developed world. With 40 percent of Italian youth unemployed, soccer remains an outlet for pent-up emotions as well as a source of joy in hard times. Ancient Rome invented the concept of panem et circenses—that food and games are all that’s needed to satisfy an unruly populace. Rome, last I checked, still had great food; but for the sake of giallorossi fans, the circus badly needs an upgrade. This could this be the year.