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From The AS Roma Boardroom To A Rome Jail: The Story of the Man who Helped Birth Roma

Words by Paul Grech


No sooner had the deal been announced than a banner appeared outside AS Roma’s head offices. “Hope to never see you again,” it said. “James, the most useless president ever”. It was the final insult aimed towards James Pallotta, a man who had initially been hailed as saviour but whose relationship with the ultras had progressively worsened until there was no real way forward for him apart from selling up.


Such public criticism of owners are common everywhere in football, yet in Rome they seem to care more than they do elsewhere. This is a club where the two men who oversaw their golden eras of the early 1980s and mid-2000s – Dino Viola and Franco Sensi – are regarded as legends in much the same ways as former players.


Put it this way, there aren’t many presidents who have supporters’ clubs named in their honour as Viola and Sensi have.


In Rome, the people who own the club are expected to be as fanatical towards it as those who stand on the curva every other weekend. They must have a burning desire to do all that they can and spend whatever it takes to make the club successful. Pallotta, with his aspiration to build a sensible and self-sustaining model, never stood a chance.


Had he just taken a look at the club’s history – going back to the club’s early days – he would have understood that.


***


In the mid-1920s, football in Italy underwent something of a revolution. The fascist regime had come to appreciate the game’s power to shape opinions and when a strike by referees put the administrative body in a crisis, they quickly jumped on the opportunity to reshape the game.


This eventually led to the Carta di Viareggio, a sort of Magna Carta that introduced professionalism, barred clubs from signing foreign players and birthed a national league. Among those who had pushed for the latter change was Vittorio Pozzo, the man who would lead Italy to two World Cups, who also argued that there were too many clubs for the good of the game.


There was never any doubt that Rome would get a place in the newly formed Serie A and SS Lazio, founded in 1900 was the obvious choice. Rome’s other clubs realised that individually they didn’t have the stature to demand inclusion so three of them – Alba Audace, Fortitudo ProRoma and Roman – opted to join forces, forming another big club worthy of representing the capital and one which bore its name: Associazione Sportiva Roma.





Before that could happen, however, the new club needed to offer a guarantee that Fortitudo’s and Alba’s existing debts would be paid. In stepped Renato Sacerdoti. Roman born and bred, Sacerdoti was a very influential financier – he was known as the Banciere di Testaccio (banker of Testaccio, a district in Rome) – with a passion for football. He put in the 500,000 lire needed to cover the debts and in return was nominated vice-president.


Within twelve months he was put in charge. Italo Foschi, one of the authors of the Carta di Viareggio as well as AS Roma’s founding president, had to step down to take up political office and Sacerdoti was seen by all as the best man to take his place.


The fusion of the three clubs had brought together a number of good players and one undoubted star: Attilio Ferraris IV. Born in Rome, his talent shone from an early age so much that before he had even kicked a ball in the top flight Juventus sent a group of delegates in a bid to get him to join them. Ferraris chose to stay where he was and instead joined Fortitudo for whom he quickly became the leading man.


Once Sacerdoti had taken over the running of the club, Ferraris became even more influential, especially in identifying which players the club should sign to build a team capable of complementing his talent.


Sacerdoti was determined to make AS Roma one of Italy’s leading clubs and put the money needed to get them there. Prompted by Ferraris, one of his first moves was to bring back to Rome the midfielder Fulvio Bernardini. Considered among the finest talents of his generation, Bernardini had left Lazio for Inter in search of a club that could challenge for titles, something that he could not see happening if he remained in the capital.


The arrival of AS Roma, boosted by Sacerdoti’s largess, changed that and he was glad to return to the city of his birth. For Sacerdoti it was not only a major coup but also one that revealed his sharp commercial instincts. He had happily paid the money needed to convince the player conscious that in Bernardini he was getting someone who could immediately win the hearts and support of the Roman public, something that the new club needed to do.


Less spectacular but just as effective was the deal that brought in young striker Rodolfo Volk. The previous year, Volk’s goals had propelled lowly US Fumiana to promotion into the top flight. Roma outbid Napoli to get him and it proved to be a worthwhile move; Volk would eventually score 103 times in 157 games for Roma.


In later years, Sacerdoti would keep on spending. It was he who brought in goalkeeper Guido Masetti from Verona, a man who would become a legendary figure at the club for whom he played more than 350 games before embarking on a long coaching career at various levels within AS Roma that lasted till the late 70s.


That wasn’t all. Although Italian clubs could not sign foreign players, AS Roma still brought in three Argentinian stars - Alessandro Scopelli, Andrés Stagnaro and Enrique Guaita – who were promptly given Italian citizenship as oriundi in a move that the regime openly approved. Hardly surprising since this helped improve the national team. Indeed, Guaita would eventually play an important part in helping Italy win the World Cup in 1934.


All of this propelled the club among the country’s elite. Their ambitions were whetted in their first full season they claimed the Coppa CONI, thus christening the new club with its first piece of silverware. In truth, this wasn’t a major competition but one in which only those teams excluded from the championship stage of the top flight took part.


Still it provided AS Roma with a strong base from which to push on. And so they did.


The following season, 1928-29, was the first in which there was a national division that was won by whoever came first. Led by the experienced Englishman Willie Garbutt, AS Roma finished third which was considered to be an outstanding result for them. To top it all off, there was a 6-1 trashing of eventual champions Torino in the penultimate game of the season.


Roma fell away slightly the following year, finishing a disappointing sixth, but came back strongly the next season. By this time the team was led by another Englishman Herbert Burgess, who had played for both Manchester clubs in a long and illustrious career, and his affinity for quick passing football told off.


Sadly for them, despite playing some exhilarating football they couldn’t go beyond second place even if they did have the satisfaction of once more humiliating the eventual league winners, this time Juventus, 5-0.


They tried again the following season but once again came short, finishing in third place. Yet, by now there was no doubt that AS Roma was among Italy’s elite.


They even had a brand new stadium, Campo Testaccio (Testaccio Field) named after the Roman district in which it was located. Again Sacerdoti had played a crucial role in pushing for this stadium that, incidentally, was designed by Silvio Sensi whose son Franco who would one day also own the club. Modelled on the wooden stadia popular at the time in England, particularly Goodison Park, the framework was painted in Roma’s red and yellow colours and was considered to be one of the finest of its time.


All of this made Renato Sacerdoti incredibly popular with the fans. The Romanisti even had a chant in his honour “fin che Sacerdoti ce sta accanto / porteremo sempre er vanto / Roma nostra brillerà…”; as long as Sacerdoti is with us / we will always be proud / our Roma will shine.


Sadly, those sentiments were not to be lasting ones.


***


Sacerdoti was a convinced nationalist and fascist. He had seen active service in the Italian army during the Great War and had become a paid up member of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party from early on. When Mussolini organised the mass demonstration that would come to be known as the March on Rome and which eventually resulted in the transfer of power to the fascist party, Sacerdoti was there with other blackshirts whose presence had frightened the establishment into caving in.


It was this dedication to the ideals of the ruling party that had allowed him to retain his standing as a wealthy member of society and there is little doubt that anyone without those beliefs would not have gained such a powerful position at the helm of one of the country’s most prominent football clubs.


Yet those feelings started to shift as the years went by as did attitudes towards him. In 1935, Sacerdoti was driven out of the club, the result of growing discontent at the club’s failure to win the title.


Worse was to come.


On the 6th of October 1938, the fascist newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia broke the news about an attempt to transfer money overseas in which it was alleged that a ‘Jew’ was involved. A few hours later the Grand Council approved the introduction of racial laws that mainly targeted Jews.


For Sacerdoti, this signalled the start of a personal nightmare. Apparently, he was the ’Jew’ mentioned by the Il Polpolo d’Italia and for that crime was sentenced to five years in prison. That he had renounced his faith and converted to Catholicism back in 1937 did not matter. Nor was there any leniency despite writing to the Duce himself on a number of occasions, reminding him of his past loyalty and even offering to join the military in view of the conflict that was increasingly imminent.


There was no reply to his correspondence. Sacerdoti’s past actions and convictions weren’t as important as his ethnic background and the excuse that it provided the regime to carry out their plan of racial cleansing.


Freedom would only come on the 27th of July 1943 when Mussolini was deposed from power. His time in jail even prevented Sacerdoti from witnessing his beloved AS Roma’s first league title that had come in 1942.


The respite for Sacerdoti, just as for many others in his position, was a brief one. On the 8th of September 1943 an armistice with the allied powers was announced but Nazi Germany still managed to retain control of a good portion of Italy, including Rome.


This meant that, as a Jew, Sacerdoti was once again in danger. He turned to the Vatican for help and salvation came in the form of a disguise as a Franciscan friar at the convent of Saint Peter in Montorio. The story goes that he fit in so well that not even his daughter recognised him the first time she saw him wearing a habit.


***


Sacerdoti’s personal nightmare only came to an end once the war was over. He was quickly rehabilitated back into a society looking to make amends. This included a place once more on AS Roma’s board, as vice-president where he immediately proved that he had lost none of his entrepreneurial acumen. Financially the club was struggling but Sacerdoti came up with the idea of a life membership for fans that successfully restored Roma’s finances.


He was helpless, however, in preventing Roma’s relegation to the Serie B in 1951 that in truth had been coming for quite some time. A crisis engulfed the club and, in the fall out, Sacerdoti was appointed as special administrator. He took charge of rebuilding the team which he did around the one true star that they had at that time, midfielder Arcadio Venturi.


Promotion was achieved at the first attempt, winning the Serie B in the process, and once back in the top flight Sacerdoti made sure that they would not struggle again. He invested in the squad, with his biggest transfer being that of Alcide Ghiggia, the Uruguayan who had broken Brazilian hearts when he scored the winner in the 1950 World Cup final.


With Ghiggia spearheading the attack, AS Roma would finish third in 1955, their highest finish in a decade.


Yet it would be Sacerdoti’s final hurrah.


***


By 1958, AS Roma seemed to be sliding back to mediocrity and Sacerdoti decided to leave, this time for good. “For us older presidents (the attraction in) sports has been driven by a romantic idea, pure passion, and today we cannot accept it as a business and a way to self promotion,” he said once he had left. “Other presidents are welcome to it, we’re leaving.”


Renato Sacerdoti died in Rome on the 13th October 1971, at the age of 79 years. It is easy to be critical of his choices. He renounced his faith without a hint of remorse and enthusiastically embraced a callous regime. Even when it turned on him, he kept on trying to prove how loyal he was to its ideal.


And yet, he was also a man living in a tumultuous era eager to find the path out of the chaos. He was not alone to be taken in by fascism’s promise nor was he the only one who paid a terrible price for that choice.


But Sacerdoti was also a football fan. Without him, there would probably not be an AS Roma today. He was AS Roma president for 13 years, the most anyone has held on to the role with the exception of Franco Sensi. He devoted time, energy and money to make them successful. Those actions brought joy to thousands during his lifetime, and laid the way for millions to find meaning in the idea of following AS Roma.


Perhaps that is where the focus needs to be, on the altruistic nature that gave away freely in the pursuit of a greater good. Renato Sacerdoti was indeed a flawed man, but in helping give birth to the dream called AS Roma he might have just about done enough to atone for his failings.


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