Paolo Bandini: The Juve-Roma saga

Perhaps the international break came at the right moment. In the aftermath of Juventus’s controversial 3-2 win over Roma in Turin, the prospect of a fortnight without Serie A games had initially felt disastrous. There would be no chance for Italian football to move on and heal after a game which ended in bitter acrimony. Instead there would be two long weeks for open wounds to fester.

And make no mistake about it, those wounds run deep. Francesco Totti’s protest at full-time that “Juventus should have a separate league” carried with it years of frustration, a deep-seated belief – justified or otherwise – that the odds in Italy would always be stacked against his team.

Pavel Nedved dismissed the claim, suggesting that such comments would have seen Totti stripped of the captaincy if he played for the Bianconeri. These words, too, were loaded. The Juventus director has had a personal feud Totti dating all the way back to 2003 – when the Roma forward reacted to Nedved’s  Ballon d’Or win by saying that the trophy should have gone to “someone who knows how to entertain”.

It is one thing for such remarks to be pitched back and forth between representatives two clubs. But the truth in Italy was that, for more than 24 hours after the game, similar barbs were being thrown everywhere from the stock exchange – where Roma’s share value fell by 2% in a day – to the Italian houses of parliament – where representatives in both the upper and lower chambers debated the standard of the nation’s refereeing.

Totti was congratulated by the Italian PM for scoring against City
Totti was congratulated by the Italian PM for scoring against City

Totti must have appreciated the irony. On the Friday before the Juventus game, he had told the newspaper La Repubblica about a congratulatory phone call he received from the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, after scoring away to Manchester City in the Champions League.

As grateful as the Roma striker was for the recognition, he expressed surprise that Renzi would have time for such a chat when the country is struggling through its third recession in six years. Now, just a few days later, the entire parliament seemed to be on hold, as elected politicians put aside economic reform to instead launch proposals for foreign referees to be brought in to officiate Serie A’s biggest games.

The Italian Football Federation, a body which did at least have a mandate to worry about such matters, responded by suggesting it was ready to introduce some measure of instant replay into the officiating process. The governing body’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, said he would write to Fifa requesting that Italy be used as a guinea pig for the testing of such technology in future.

It was a welcome gesture, even if it is hard to see how replays would have helped all that much at Juventus Stadium. Endless repeat viewings have not been enough for TV analysts to reach a consensus on the many disputed decisions made by referee Gianluca Rocchi.

The official himself has said that he erred on Juventus’s first penalty award, confessing that he was swayed into thinking that Maicon had handled inside the box after seeing the line of ‘magic spray’ he had used to mark out the distance for Roma’s wall at the preceding Juventus free-kick. But many observers have argued that the defender did not even commit a foul in the first place – given that his raised arm only stopped the ball from hitting him in the face.

And what about the other big calls that Rocchi made. Did Francesco Totti initiate the contact with Stephan Lichststeiner that led to Roma’s spot-kick? Did Miralem Pjanic foul Paul Pogba inside the box, or just outside, for Juve’s second penalty? And did Arturo Vidal, standing in an offside position, obstruct Lukasz Skorupski’s view of Leonardo Bonucci’s winning goal?

More than a week later, we still do not have definitive answers to any of these questions. But what we do have, at last, is a little calm. For that, Italy has two leading protagonists to thank. The first is the former Juventus manager, Antonio Conte.

Antonio Conte was very clear about his stance on the situation
Antonio Conte was very clear about his stance on the situation

Now serving as coach of the national team, Conte made it clear from the moment that Italy’s players gathered for their Euro 2014 qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Malta that he would not tolerate a disunited squad. When Leonardo Bonucci posted on Twitter with the message that read “rinse your mouth out” and “still celebrating” – words interpreted by some Roma fans as a taunt – the manager summoned him for a stern chat.

“Once players cross the threshold of [Italy’s training base] Coverciano, all other tensions must stay outside,” said team manager Lele Oriali, speaking to the press on Conte’s behalf. “Bonucci made a mistake and he knows that he did. We accept his apology but there are rules. We all have the same- coloured shirt here. If it happens again there will be consequences.”

But perhaps even more powerful were the words of Roma owner James Pallotta. On Tuesday he published a short statement on his club’s official website, encouraging everyone involved to “take a deep breath and calm down.”

“Football is a very fast game and sometimes there are controversies and mistakes,” continued the statement. “It happens both ways. At the end of the day we are both great teams and look forward to a long rivalry. It’s good for Italian football. Proud of our team forever. Love our spirit. And Roma will be back and there for a long time. Get used to it. Forza Roma!”

Roma's owner James Pallotta urged both parties to calm down
Roma’s owner James Pallotta urged both parties to calm down

It was the right message at the right moment. Arriving two days after the game, Pallotta’s words came at a time when tensions were still high, but after the initial round of shouting on both sides had just begun to die down. And while some more hard-line Roma fans saw his words as being critical of Totti, the American owner was quick to defend his squad’s rights to free speech.

“At Roma, anyone can say what they think: me, the staff, the managers, the players,” Pallotta insisted in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday. “Everyone has their opinion, and in the heat of the moment I probably would have said the same things. I like the idea that my team has personality and fights for everything.”

He will not want Roma to abandon their sense of injustice, but rather to bottle it and use it as fuel as they renew their title chase. As Pallotta was quick to point out, the Giallorossi could still draw encouragement from having pushed the champions so hard despite missing a number of key players – among them Kevin Strootman, Morgan De Sanctis, Davide Astori and Daniele De Rossi.

The latter two have since returned to training, and are both in contention to play against Chievo on Saturday. In one sense, at least, the international break has proved a perfect opportunity to heal.

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