Coach Claudio Ranieri reflects on a lifelong love affair with AS Roma and praises the "indomitable character" that has got his team back on track in the UEFA Champions League.
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Between his carefree youth playing football in a parish recreation centre to his high-pressure present as AS Roma coach, Claudio Ranieri draws one direct thread: a lifelong love affair with his home-town club.
Born 59 years ago in a working-class district of the Eternal City, Ranieri was already a huge Roma fan when he signed his first contract with the Giallorossi at 17, having caught the eye of legendary coach Helenio Herrera. "I don't remember any more – I was little, Roma and I were together, we were one and the same," Ranieri said, trying to recall when his passion for the club started.
"I've been playing football forever," he added. "In Italy, the churches usually have a recreation centre where there are football pitches and basketball or volleyball courts, and my older friends and I used to go and play there. I always liked to play with people older than myself to test myself. There were two churches I went to, San Saba, which was in my neighbourhood, and Testaccio, which was nearby."
Ranieri made his Roma debut on 4 November 1973 in a 2-1 defeat at Genoa CFC – the first of six appearances that first season. "It was extraordinary," he said. "I used to get emotional just at the thought of it, that one day maybe I would step out on the pitch. Then that day came and it was very, very emotional. These were childhood dreams coming true – of course, after a lot of sacrifices, a lot of training, a lot of things I had to miss out on, but that's nothing when your dream comes true."
Yet that proved his first and last Roma campaign as a player. Ranieri joined US Catanzaro Calcio the following summer and became the player with the most Serie A appearances for that club (128), before finishing his career in Sicily with Calcio Catania and US Città di Palermo. Ranieri then started a coaching career which has taken him around Italy and Europe before his 2009 return to where it all began.
"It is a dream come true to be manager of the team I have supported since I was a boy," Ranieri said. "After 35 years of wandering through Italy and Europe, to come back and become Roma manager, in my own city, is something marvellous."
Having replaced Luciano Spalletti after Roma's poor opening to the 2009/10 campaign, Ranieri oversaw a challenge for the Serie A title that ran until the last match of the season. "You have a double responsibility, one as manager, the other as fan, so everything is multiplied by two," he added. "If you lose, you're upset with the defeat, and also very upset because you're a fan. No man is a prophet in his own country, right? There's fear, you're thinking, 'What if things go badly?'"
Ranieri knows as well as anyone that Roma are much more than a football team for their supporters. "We Romans are a bit over the top. We love our city with all our hearts and we're proud to have been born in Rome. There's a slogan 'You don't talk about Roma, you love them'."
That means staying with them "in difficult times", he explained, and Ranieri's players have stickability too, as they have shown by recovering after another disappointing start. "It's not easy to pick yourself up but the team have an indomitable character, a willingness to fight, which appeals to me," he said. "A man can fall down, a player can lose a match, but what I like is to see how they react."
Roma have displayed plenty of character in this term's UEFA Champions League. After losing two of their first three Group E games, they won 3-2 at FC Basel 1893 then overturned a two-goal deficit to beat FC Bayern München by the same score, leaving them needing a point from Wednesday's match at CFR 1907 Cluj to seal qualification. Ranieri believes they are not far from being where he wants them to be. "There's already a great deal in place, because we have the nucleus, we have the players, but we still need to improve a bit," he said.
As for whether the Giallorossi could actually go all the way in the competition, Ranieri, who watched their 1984 European Champion Clubs' Cup final defeat by Liverpool FC on television, is reluctant to make predictions. "I don't dare think about it because everyone would go completely crazy here," Ranieri said. "It would be perhaps the most beautiful thing in sporting terms that Rome has ever seen."