The ancient city of Ostia has been the physical and geographical guardian of Rome since the Lupetta she-wolf saved Romulus and Remus from their infanticidal fate along the banks of the river Tiber.
Laying west as Rome’s point of access to the Mediterranean, Ostia was the first defence for Rome, which warded off invaders and helped protect the city for its imperial heights and glory. It’s no coincidence that the fortified outskirt would give birth to A.S. Roma’s defensive enforcer two millennia later. Daniele De Rossi has embodied this spirit as the protector of Rome, and is ready to assume his deserved position as the one and only captain of his ancestral city.
Yet, just as Rome’s glory was almost sabotaged by the tragedy of Cannae, and the slaughter of some 20,000 troops at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, De Rossi’s rise came with crises that threatened to capitulate his illustrious career.
In the middle of the sweltering summer of 2008, a pungent smell was coming from the undergrowth at the Campoleone railway station. The corpse of Danielino’s father-in-law, Massimo Pisnoli, had been decomposing for some time. The investigators said the body was unrecognisable – disfigured by multiple shots to the face and back. The area – just 35 miles south of Rome – was known to house at least eight different mafia families.
“It was a classic execution,” the investigation reported. There was no mistaking who the bullet had been intended for.
The mafioso’s daughter was a dancer for Mediaset, and she and De Rossi married in 2006, just around the time he was preparing for Italy’s upcoming World Cup. Tamara, a year shy of Daniele at 24 years old, had called the authorities after several attempts to get in touch with her father. Yet, her communication with the law wasn’t always as transparent. Her collusions did not mix well for her marriage to Roma’s Capitano Futuro, and from the beginning, the two’s tumultuous relationship proved nothing but problematic for his well-being and focus on the field.
He often sought less enriching ways to handle the stress of the relationship.
In December of 2014, Tamara was arrested for abducting, beating up, and threatening to kill a Roman businessman to extort 200,000 Euros from him. She claimed the victim owed her money following a failed business deal, and threatened to murder him by the hands of an “Albanian hitman.”
The judge who remanded her to house arrest stated she was a "violent woman, accustomed to oppressive and intimidating behaviour who manages her large wealth with the support of the criminal underworld." It was a situation he was fortunate to escape from, unscathed and emancipated.
But De Rossi’s reputation and responsibility would not be broken by marital difficulties or any off-field distractions – his game continued to improve, and donned Roma’s armband for the first time when they faced Middlesborough in the UEFA Cup. It was this tenacious leadership, which exuded when he was the youngest player in Italy’s 2006 World Cup squad, at a prodigal 22 years old.
It was unfortunate that his toughness got the better of him in the Azzurri’s group stage match against the USA. American football fans can immediately recall Daniele’s elbow, which landed on the face of Brian McBride. Apologising to the American international after the match (which resulted in a 1-1 draw), De Rossi’s remorseful demeanor made one feel that he would have rather received the three stitches McBride endured, rather than the four-match-ban.
He claimed that in this moment of solitude and shame, it was none other than Andrea Pirlo who made him feel calm and collected, inviting him to dinner with his family.
It was destiny that the young defensive midfielder then reentered action in the final against France – coming on as a substitute in the 61st minute, for Roma teammate Francesco Totti. His captain scored the winning goal against Australia in the fifth minute of extra time to advance in the tournament – and in true symbolism as a changing of the guard, De Rossi scored the third penalty kick for Italy to win the World Cup final. Roma’s next captain was developing nicely, just as long as he could keep his cool.
It was of little surprise to the Roman media that Tamara and Daniele divorced in 2009. As with any divorce, it’s always the children who take the brunt of the split – a fact Daniele has tried to make the best of by his constant affection for their daughter, Gaia.
Rosella Sensi, the daughter of legendary owner Franco Sensi, who won the 2000/01 Scudetto, went bankrupt in 2010, and the bank had forced her hand into selling the club. A year later Unicredit negotiated the sale to an American consortium from Boston, including now-president James Pallotta, who ran Boston’s strongest hedge fund prior to the 2008 economic collapse.
De Rossi’s future at the club boded uncertainty as his contract came to a close in the summer of 2012. Major sums of money were being thrown at him by the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City. Many realistic fans started to think that the slogan Capitano Futuro may end up as nothing more than an idea.
The new ownership realised that the Bandiera’s leadership was integral to the squad, the club, and the city. A five-year contract of 10 million Euros per season made De Rossi the highest paid player in the league.
But voices from the British Isle did not subside, after a difficult season under Zdenek Zeman created a volatile atmosphere throughout the dressing room. Many results had been squandered, and the midfielder became a regular fixture on the bench. A transfer to Manchester United collapsed the following summer, when time ran out for negotiations. De Rossi was discouraged, down, but not out.
A strong start under new manager Rudi Garcia the following season was largely due to De Rossi’s deputizing of the defence. The Wall of Ostia protected Roma as they surged to a ten-game win streak, and admirable finish of second in the league. A red card for slapping Stefano Mauri in the Derby della Capitale and questions of his leadership qualities resurfaced through whispers in the vicoli of the city, but few could doubt his overall impression that season.
Just as the appointment of Luciano Spalletti steadied the ship at Roma, De Rossi’s life found a new sense of stability and calm in 2015. The day after Christmas, he married English-born Italian actress Sarah Felberbaum in a private ceremony in the Maldives. They celebrated the union with their one-year-old daughter, Olivia Rose.
In a reflection of everything he had earned, fought through, and came to appreciate, one special moment ten years later symbolized the ascension of his career as a player and captain. He would put his 2006 World Cup winner’s medal in the coffin of Pietro Lombardi, who had been the kitman for the Azzurri during the tournament. Humble, a dependant father, and a finished product of a virtuoso.
His next season, 2016/17, was arguably one of his best. Danielino’s hard-nosed tackling and distribution was fundamental to Roma’s success, which culminated with a last-minute capture of second place and automatic Champions League qualification. His goal in the 74th minute on the final day against Genoa should have been the match winner, before last-minute dramatics marked one of Roma’s most historic comebacks of all time.
After the final whistle, and Totti’s last bow in front of the Olimpico, the passing of the torch to Capitano Futuro became official when he signed a triumphant contract for two more years.
Italy’s all-time second-most prolific midfielder still has a story being written. He recently announced next year’s World Cup will be his last, but his responsibilities in Rome are needed now more than ever. With the peace of mind of a loving family, and captain of a flourishing Roma, the Wall of Ostia has solidified himself as the protector of the gates that the Lupetta would be proud of.
Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome