For many people in football, their club becomes their family. Franco Sensi was someone whose love for both was heavily entwined.
The summer of 1926 was an intense one in the Italian capital. Its population were still acclimatising to the fascist regime, while temperatures were soaring. It was against this backdrop that Franco Sensi was born on 29 July 1926.
Franco was very much his father’s son. Silvio Sensi was a renowned businessman in Rome who had a passion for football. Just a year after Franco’s birth, his father helped pave the way for the formation of AS Roma.
Benito Mussolini himself desired a strong Roman club that could challenge the dominance of the northern sides in Italy. Along with Roma’s first president Italo Foschi, Silvio was central to the deal which saw the merger of three Rome-based sports clubs, Fortitudo-ProRoma, Roma Foot Ball Club and Alba-Audace into the Giallorossi. The one club in the capital that refused to join was SS Lazio.
As a child, Franco was taken to the stadium by his dad to see the newly formed AS Roma play and his love for the club grew. Soon enough he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
At university, he gained a degree in mathematics and became an entrepreneur. Success in industries such as oil, property and politics was followed by the Sensi family coming full circle as Franco joined the board at Roma in 1960.
As vice-president, Sensi oversaw a promising time at his beloved club. In 1961, Roma won their first and, to date, only European trophy in 1961, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, beating English side Birmingham City in the two-legged final. A Coppa Italia triumph followed three years later as the Giallorossi claimed a first major domestic trophy in a generation.
Yet not all was well behind the scenes. Just a year after the Coppa Italia final against Torino, Sensi left the club as Franco Evangelisti became president. Disagreements over football issues put pay to Sensi’s brief but successful time at the club.
Disappointed but not disheartened, Sensi regrouped and once again put all his effort into his businesses. His love for Roma remained, as was evident in the way he talked about his first stint with the Giallorossi. “Back then the fans' contribution was vital as gate receipts were the only source of income,” he said. “Back then you ran the club and got nothing back.”
Despite the club being well set, in part thanks to the work of the Sensi family, as well as a golden era during the early 1980s, by 1993 the club was in crisis. Major problems on and off the pitch had seen Roma’s sad demise set in.
By the end of the 1992-93 season, club president Giuseppe Ciarrapico was on his way to prison due to financial irregularities. The club itself was on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. In need of a hero, the Giallorossi’s prayers were answered by a local hero.
“There wasn't a club when I arrived,” Sensi declared in the aftermath of his takeover. “Lots of people would sit around all day with their feet up. I bought Roma when it was on the verge of bankruptcy, paying 20 billion lira only to then discover debts of 100 billion.”
In fact, when Sensi re-joined his beloved club he did so with Pietro Mezzaroma, but became the sole owner just a few months later. The rebuild would take time and money. Despite their reputation as one of the greatest clubs in Italy, Roma needed someone simply to keep them in Serie A.
Carlo Mazzone was Sensi’s first big appointment. The Italian coach came in with a reputation for keeping clubs afloat. Like Sensi, it was Mazzone’s dream to take charge of his hometown club. He earned Roma a seventh-place finish in Serie A during the 1993-94 season which – given the problems that still hung over the Giallorossi – was a remarkable achievement.
Always an ambitious man, seventh was not enough and although he always considered Mazzone a good friend, Sensi let him go as he craved tangible success. Another Carlo, Bianchi, came into the hot seat but was never really a good fit at the Stadio Olimpico.
Off the field, things looked brighter. Sensi had restructured the finances at the club, meaning a repeat of the dire situation that he inherited would never happen on his watch. A relationship between the fans and the club was blossoming for the first time in years. Roma supporters knew the club was in safe hands and could see it was moving in the right direction. They also believed in a new talisman.
Francesco Totti made his debut for the club just months before Sensi became president. The careers of the two Roman men were interlinked from the beginning. “He gave me my soul,” Totti later said of Sensi. “It is thanks to him that I stayed at Roma. I was on the verge of joining Sampdoria but he chose me instead of Carlos Bianchi. If I had gone I would not have come back."
By the end of the 1990s something special was happening at Roma under Sensi and Totti. Although Zdeněk Zeman had built a strong side, they had always struggled to get over the line. A poor derby record, questions of doping offences and a desire to dismantle the whole team by Zeman left Sensi with no choice but to make a change.
A proven winner was needed and in Fabio Capello, the Giallorossi got just that. The former AC Milan coach radically altered the mindset of the players. Sensi let Capello assemble an incredible side, with the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, who Sensi always referred to as the “cherry on top”, Walter Samuel, Emerson and Jonathan Zebina all joining for an astonishing 120 billion lire.
Yet for Sensi, there was one man who was the key. “We were always getting injuries. Even with the new signings we had a small squad. I brought in Massimo Neri as a fitness coach and everything changed,” Sensi asserted. It was this attention to detail that marked Sensi out as a great president.
Everything fell into place. Capello shifted from his trademark 4-4-2 to an aggressive 3-4-1-2 formation to get the best out of the deadly trio of Totti, Batistuta and Vincenzo Montella. Their goals, as well as a solid defence marshalled by Samuel, led Roma to the 2001 Scudetto.
Unfortunately, soon after his greatest hour as president, Sensi became unwell. In 2004, his daughter Rosella Sensi began to handle the day-to-day operations of the club, while Franco remained in the role of chairman. It is a testament to how well run Roma was that despite this, the team continued to win. The Giallorossi won two Coppa Italia’s and two Supercoppa’s between 2001 and 2008 while enjoying superb football under young coach Luciano Spalletti.
Franco Sensi died on 17 August 2008 at the age of 82 after a long battle with illness. He died in his home city, and the Giallorossi went into mourning. As the 20th president of the club, Sensi was the longest serving, remaining at the helm for 15 years.
Tributes poured in, including one from Roma icon Bruno Conti. “In his 15 years at the club he always addressed difficult moments, bad seasons,” the former Italy international declared. “But it never impaired his great love for the team.”
Rosella continued as president in the wake of her father’s death and almost repeated his success as Roma narrowly missed out on the Serie A title in 2010 under fellow Roman, Claudio Ranieri. It was at this time that Roma’s proposed new stadium was set to be named after Franco Sensi, though the plans altered when the American investment group took over.
It could be argued that given the resources invested and money spent, the Giallorossi never achieved enough under Sensi’s stewardship. However, such notions do not take into account what type of club Roma is. It is not one used to success—one title is celebrated with the fervour of a dozen at the Milan clubs or Juventus. 17 June 2001, when Roma won their third title, will always be ingrained in the minds of the Giallorossi faithful and it was largely due to Sensi.
When Roma fans look back at Franco Sensi, his loyalty and family values will stand out. He will be seen as a throwback to simpler times and an emblem of the purity of the beautiful game. As his last coach Luciano Spalletti said: “He understood the passion and enthusiasm of the Roma fans… He was one of their own.”
Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman
Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma's dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.