A standing ovation at the Stadio Olimpico, the hug of his team-mates, a victory to celebrate with the fans... It was the belief - or at least the dream - that he could experience all this again that convinced AS Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi last summer to accept the lowest minimum wage allowed by Italian law for professional footballers to continue playing for the club.
More than 15 months after suffering a career-threatening knee injury during a pre-season friendly, Tommasi's dream came true when he came on as a second-half substitute for Roma against Ascoli Calcio 1898 on Sunday. "I was very excited when I was named in the squad for the game against Ascoli and when the coach [Luciano Spalletti] asked me to warm-up, but when I went on I was only thinking about keeping the right position in midfield," Tommasi said during a press conference in Roma's Trigoria headquarters earlier this week.
Tommasi replaced Olivier Dacourt with 25 minutes to go and the Stadio Olimpico rose as one to greet their returning hero. Soon after, they were holding their breath as Ascoli's Andrea Parola went in hard on the midfielder. Roma and Ascoli players ran over to check Tommasi was all right, but the veteran was quickly back on his feet. Parola, relieved, hugged him. The Giallorossi tifosi could breath easily again. The Gazzetta described Tommasi's performance as "25 minuti di sostanza" - 25 solid minutes; solid gold for Tommasi and his legion of supporters who must have doubted they would ever see him play again.
"As a doctor I don't use the world miracle that often, but Tommasi's strength and desire to play again was something close to miraculous," said Pierpaolo Mariani, the doctor who operated on Tommasi and helped him recover from the severe damage he had suffered to the cruciate ligaments in his right knee and the surrounding area on 22 July 2004. "In cases like this the mental strength of the patient is so important the success of rehabilitation can depend up to 25 per cent on it."
Tommasi's contract with Roma expired last summer and the club, going through financial difficulties, could not afford to offer him another without being sure he had completely recovered. The midfielder decided to make things easier by requesting an unimaginably low salary for a top-flight footballer of €1,500. That is €1,500 per month, similar to what your average employee would earn in any other line of work, not a day as some of his colleagues earn.
'I love Roma'
"I did it because I love Roma and football," Tommasi said when he signed the contract. The 31-year-old from Negrar, a small village in the Verona area, was already considered extraordinary by football's standards because of his extensive charity work, but this was without precedent. "It was a bet I made with myself," he said. "Only time will tell if I have won this bet or not."
Tommasi, a crowd favourite at the Stadio Olimpico, joined Roma from Hellas-Verona FC nine years ago and was a key figure in their title-winning campaign in 2001, playing all 34 league matches. He has also appeared 31 times for Italy, winning his last cap against Finland in June 2003. Regaining a place in the Roma side is now Tommasi's aim, but as usual he is putting the team first. "A group is solid when every player understands that everyone is useful but nobody is essential or irreplaceable," he said. "I think we are on the right path in this sense."
Nicknamed 'anima candida' - candid soul - Tommasi is one of the most respected players in Italy, for his work off the pitch as much as on it. He raises money for children's hospitals and to help handicapped kids. In 2002 he visited Stubbla in Kosovo to inaugurate a football pitch and at least twice a month he visits the Ospedale Bambino Gesù - a children's hospital in Rome. "The youngsters see us as idols and we have to set a good example," he said. "I try to do what I can, remembering that I am very lucky to be have the job I do. This is a joy but also a big responsibility.
"When my return seemed so far away and I had to work hard, I used to think only about the good times before the injury. Now I can only have positive thoughts about my future." The return of Tommasi, with his bushy hair and unkempt beard, and most of all with his courage and personality, could be a huge boost for Roma in both Serie A and Europe this season. And it won't only be fans of the Giallorossi cheering him on.
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