Words: Martin Mork
Coach Fabio Capello jumped off his seat as hundreds of Roma fans stormed the pitch with five minutes to go against Parma: “You idiots, get off the pitch!” he screamed as he wanted to clear the grass at the Olimpico whilst the intruders stripped his players down to their underpants.
Despite being up 3-1 with only a few minutes left on the clock against a team with nothing to play for, the Giallorossi, who were two points clear at the top of Serie A, wouldn’t be crowned champions of Italy unless the match was completed.
The former Milan coach spent the next 15 minutes helping staff and directors clear the pitch to play out the last remaining five minutes of the 2000-01 season. The fear was that police would not be able to hold back the odd 74,000 in the stands, perhaps an assault on the match official or broken goal-posts. Forfeit the match and Juventus win the League. To come this far and be undone by excessive enthusiasm would’ve been heart-breaking, yet this was what Roma fans had come to expect from so many close calls. Luck was never on their side, they had learned to expect the worst.
Capello had spent a hefty amount on players during the summer of 2000 and the arrival of players at the peak of their powers helped the Giallorossi go from strength to strength, constructing a side capable of winning their first title since 1983, and third in total.
The top signing was Gabriel Batistuta from Fiorentina, although President Franco Sensi had been reticent to spend big on the 31-year-old centre-forward. Rumours have it that sporting director Franco Baldini and Capello planted a story at the Corriere dello Sport about Batistuta and the praise coming the President’s way inspired him to fork out the money. It made him the most expensive Serie A player over 30, until Leonardo Bonucci finally broke the record with his move to Milan only two years ago.
His Argentine compatriot Walter Samuel was brought in from Boca Juniors and Jonathan Zebina arrived from Cagliari, whilst the defensive midfielder Emerson would complete the midfield next to the silent leader Cristiano Zanetti and versatile Damiano Tommasi.
Aldair, Zebina, Samuel and Antonio Carlos Zago gave Capello the luxury to have four great centre-backs to fight for a place in his trio in front of Francesco Antonioli, whilst ‘Pendolino’ Marcos Cafu ran riot at right-back and Vincent Candela contributed in both phases of the game on the left.
With the arrival of Batigol, the talent up top at the Olimpico was immense, and linked up with Vincenzo Montella, Marco Delvecchio and of course the extravagant No 10, Francesco Totti. Capello unleashed La Lupa to a feeding frenzy at the start of the campaign.
President Sensi had appointed Capello with the hope of building something concrete, as the coach himself explained upon his arrival I 1999. “I think Sensi came to me because he knows I’m not a dreamer, I’m a practical man.”
After winning four Scudetti in five years with Milan, Capello decided to take a break from football and was brought back by a hungry wolf in the Capital. It was to be a match made in Heaven, Capello’s tactical nous taking the edge off the nervous energy that constantly surrounds Roma.
He addressed the talent in the group, knowing he would need a season to build, claiming that Roma ‘can win the title’, but in 1999 lacked ‘the consistency to win week, in week out’.
His approach of ‘make do’ had taken them to sixth in Serie A during his first campaign and the immediate impact had only come through Montella’s 18 goals, a forward signed from Sampdoria during his first summer at the helm. The anxiety in the city grew exponentially when the Scudetto ended up going to their hated rivals Lazio in 1999-2000. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side were racking up the trophies in Italy and Europe, leaving their neighbours in the dust.
‘Er Pupone’ (the big kid) opened the show against Bologna in the first match of the new season. Totti, who had previously struggled to find his place under former boss Zdenek Zeman, now sat behind Batigol, on his debut, and Delvecchio. Capello fielded a curious 3-5-2 formation, seemingly more like a 3-4-1-2 with Zago, Samuel and Zebina at the back to help Antonioli provide a clean sheet in the first home match of the season.
The former Viola hitman wasn’t to make his mark until in the second round against Lecce at the Stadio Via del Mare, when he scored a brace, adding to Tommasi and Totti’s goals to make it 4-0. Capello’s men were off to a great start, as all three hitmen Totti, Batistuta and Montella netted in the 3-1 win against Vicenza.
Roma were top and aimed to stay there ahead of the first big task in hand at San Siro against Marco Tardelli’s Inter. However, Hakan Sükür and Alvaro Recoba, who was later found guilty of using forged documents to avoid the non-EU rules in the Italian championship, scored on either side of the break and sent Roma home with a 2-0 defeat, the first of only three in total that year.
After bouncing back with three wins against Brescia, Reggina and Hellas Verona and reclaimed top spot, Roma hosted Fiorentina in the Eternal City. It was an emotional and surreal moment for Batigol to face his former teammates for the first time.
“I played the whole match with these conflicting thoughts in my head,” Batistuta said afterwards. The Viola’s all-time leading goalscorer, who had moved for €36m to one of their greatest rivals, waved to his old fans before kick-off. Did he for a moment have regrets?
Batistuta had tasted Champions League football with Fiorentina and wanted more. Despite his efforts in Florence, the Argentine had only picked up the Coppa Italia in 1995-96 and the Supercoppa Italiana the following season. He wanted a Scudetto in his trophy cabinet before retirement.
It was inevitable that Batistuta would win the game against his beloved Viola. At the 83rd minute, the ball bounced across him, he waited for it to come back down and unleashed a trademark strike.
‘Angel Gabriel’ didn’t celebrate the goal against the club where he had spent nine seasons, but as Juventus sat in fifth after a win against Hellas Verona and even the reigning double winners Lazio were down in eighth after a 2-0 defeat to Parma, one place behind Capello’s former club Milan, the rest of the capital couldn’t help but let loose.
During a six-game unbeaten run, local rivals Lazio were beaten 1-0 in a packed Stadio Olimpico thanks to an iconic own-goal by Paolo Negro, and a goalless draw against title rivals Juventus, kept the Giallorossi at the peak. However, Capello did not have quite as much joy against his former club.
Milan won 3-2 at San Siro, despite a brace by Italy international Totti, and gave Juventus a chance to creep up behind the league leaders, making for an interesting second half of the campaign.
Roma bounced back in their fortress against Napoli, beating the Partenopei 3-0 at home, starting a run of seven consecutive wins, but in February the FIGC was forced to take action against six clubs due to the fake passport scandal.
The verdict penalised 15 players from six different sides, including directors, for tampering with the registration of players, inventing long-lost Italian relatives for their South American stars to help gain passports and circumvent the rules. Considering at the time teams were allowed only five non-EU players in the squad and three on matchday, these passports represented a huge advantage.
Capello, who had previously accused Lazio of cheating by having falsified Juan Sebastian Veron’s documents, was silenced when Roma were hit by a fine of 1.5bn lire, as both Gustavo Bartelt and Fabio Junior were suspended for carrying false passports.
But the scandal didn’t affect the performances on the pitch and neither did the mind games from Juventus CEO Luciano Moggi. Capello had changed the mindset at Roma and the former Invincible coach had made the Olimpico into a fortress.
The coach had changed the 4-3-3 of Zeman, made Cafu and Candela into wingbacks and placed Totti in a more dangerous position in front of goal. He had opened the mental block and kept steering the Giallorossi towards glory.
But during spring, something happened to spook his wolves. It started with a goalless draw against Reggina, and as they lost 3-1 to Fiorentina, Roma were held to another draw against Lazio on Sunday April 29, managing just two wins in six games.
A Week 28 trip to the Stadio delle Alpi against Juventus awaited and Moggi was furious when he learned that a lawsuit made by the Italian clubs had led to the Federcalcio scrapping the non-EU rules, just in time for the Scudetto showdown.
Roma could suddenly use all five non-EU players in the direct clash against the title rivals. Hidetoshi Nakata, who had been brought to the capital as somewhat of a cost-efficient addition, had been sent to the stands week in, week out. Now, he had the chance to be decisive towards the end of a transformed tournament.
Despite going through a difficult run, the gap above the rivals had been solid and Roma had been top of the table since Week 6.
Nakata was included in the squad, with the likes of Cafu, Samuel, Batistuta and Assuncao, but he was only on the bench.
It was the worst possible start for Roma Zinedine Zidane had found Alessandro Del Piero with his pitch perfect cross and the Bianconeri talisman erupted the Delle Alpi by flicking the goal-bound ball over Antonioli and into the back of the net.
Moments later, Zidane played a one-two with Filippo Inzaghi and a missile flew past a bewildered Roma goalkeeper. Juventus were 2-0 up within six minutes.
Capello was sure it would be impossible to leave Turin with anything. Montella replaced Delvecchio at half-time, just to shake things up, and with half an hour to go, Capello sent on his two non-EU players Assuncao and Nakata. These were two players who would have been left in Rome had the match taken place only a week earlier.
Nakata replaced Totti, a surprising move in the tight Scudetto race. The biggest hero of them all went off and in came the utility back-up player from Japan. It proved an inspired substitution, Nakata winning the ball in the middle of the park and heading straight for goal. Nakata’s finish whizzed past Juventus goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
The Japan international had pulled them back into the game, showing that he could do more than just sell shirts in a lucrative market. He tried his luck again, this time even further out. Van der Sar fumbled when trying to keep his effort out and the ball fell to substitute Montella, 2-2!
Amassing six points in the next two games against Atalanta and Bari set them up for a thrilling run-in, but Milan again decided to postpone the party by holding Roma to a 1-1 draw, whilst the match against Napoli in the penultimate round is mostly remembered for Montella coming on at the end and missing the chance to win the Scudetto in his hometown when the teams were tied at 2-2.
The forward and the coach clashed after the final whistle, blaming each other for the extended title race. Montella had scuppered the chance to win the title with one game to go, and when Parma arrived at the Olimpico on Sunday June 17, 2001, Juventus were only two points behind Roma, who had it all to do.
But Capello made sure he put the controversy behind the two immediately, as Montella was back in the starting line-up against Parma.
He sent the players out in a packed stadium and told them it was ‘their biggest final’: “I told them that we have the possibility to become the champions of Italy. There was nothing else I needed to say.”
After Totti’s opener in the 19th minute, Montella responded with his 13th goal of the season to make it 2-0 at half-time. Batistuta contributed his 20th of the campaign and Marco Di Vaio’s consolation goal eight minutes before full-time couldn’t stop Capello from winning another Scudetto, even if for a while he feared the premature enthusiasm of the fans would ruin everything.
“Did you see it, even today, we created confusion and made life difficult for ourselves,” the coach told Rai. “But it was the great passion of these fans. Supporters who have helped us a great deal and we are happy for them.”
Roma surpassed Lazio and reclaimed the Scudetto, meaning once again they had more titles than their rivals. Always trying to one-up each other, the Giallorossi worked to make their party last even longer, be even more extravagant and - keeping a promise she had made the year before - Roma fan, actress and model Sabrina Ferilli performed a striptease to celebrate the Scudetto at the packed Circo Massimo.
Serie A 2000-01 Table
Serie A 2000-01 Scorers
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