It's "Inside Roma Week" at Bleacher Report and day two brings an exclusive interview with former player Alberto De Rossi, who now serves as coach of their Under-20 team. He's also the father of Roma midfielder and Italian World Cup winner Daniele De Rossi.
More from Inside Roma Week—Francesco Totti Exclusive
AS Roma's headquarters is a long way from the bright lights of the Stadio Olimpico, around 20km from the city centre along a nondescript, narrow road bordered by hedges, the occasional diner and not much else.
The complex is obscured from prying eyes by high walls, and other than the fact that the adjacent piazza—more of a bus stop than the impressive central square that the name might suggest—is dedicated to Dino Viola, the club's president during the 1970s and '80s, there's little to suggest the fact that this unremarkable little corner of the Roman suburbs is home to one of the most famous football teams in the world.
The Centro Sportivo Fulvio Bernardini is named for one of the club's earliest heroes, a native of the city who joined the Lupi a year after its inception and was a star during the late 1920s and '30s.
It's a fitting dedication, because almost 90 years after Bernardini first pulled on the Giallorosso shirt, much of the facility is now dedicated to discovering the next local boy to follow in the footsteps of hometown heroes like Bruno Conti, Agostino Di Bartolomei, Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi.
So when Bleacher Report decided to do a Roma Week, it made perfect sense to seek out the man at the centre of one of Italy's most successful youth teams.
Few people in football probably know what it takes for a young player to make the step up to first-team duties quite like Alberto De Rossi. Because not only is he the manager of the Giallorossi's Primavera (the U20 team), he's also the father of Daniele, Roma's World Cup-winning midfielder.
When we find him one bright winter's day in Trigoria's empty press-conference room, De Rossi Sr. is a little nervous. Not because of the trivial matter of an interview—his friendly, chatty demeanour suggests he's a natural at that sort of thing. No, the 57-year-old Roman is restless because they're about to make the draw for the next round of the UEFA Youth League, a competition that's incredibly important in his eyes.
Roma's Primavera qualified for the competition by virtue of the fact that the senior team was in the Champions League, but unlike Rudi Garcia's side, De Rossi's charges finished second in the group, ahead of Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow and behind Manchester City.
Our conversation is put on hold while the matches are made. The draw is a favourable one, because Roma dodge any difficult long journeys to far-flung corners of the continent. But they still have their work cut out for them, because when the Round of 16 takes place in February, they'll be facing a club with some pedigree in terms of youth development: AFC Ajax.
Bridging the gap to senior level
“I think this [the UEFA Youth League] is something that should be obligatory,” says De Rossi, with conviction. “For Italian clubs and those abroad, for the youth here in Italy and elsewhere. I really believe that it's something that's absolutely formative, for us and for our adversaries.
“It completes the players with this different experience, against teams that play in totally different ways, who have difference philosophies, different structures.
“We had a really difficult group, but also a very educational one. We played against three totally different types of teams. For the players to have an experience like that is fantastic. And in my opinion it should be compulsory.
“I know it's difficult to organise, but I believe that it's been worthwhile not only for the players, but also the staff, to encounter different ideas, styles, formations.
“Bayern are all small, excellent technically. City are all huge, really strong physically and play with a lot of aggression. Moscow wait for you and then counter-attack. Always something different.”
It's the kind of apprenticeship that most players can only dream of. Encountering different types of football, travelling as a group and having an international title to aim for prepares them in a way that simple training, or even a youth league at national level, never could.
De Rossi puts it simply: “It's enormous, the gap between youth level and the first team. Here in Italy, we haven't been able to bridge it yet, unfortunately. Other countries haven't completely closed this gulf—of experience, pace, intensity, everything—but they have an intermediate category in between the Primavera and the senior squad. Either they have the reserves, or they have a B team that plays in a lower division. Either way, it gives the youth another experience.
“In Spain, a lot of teams have second teams in the third division, where they play normally. Then, if they win, they get promoted. OK, if they win Serie B they don't move up, like Barcelona for example, but the young guys get to play a proper championship.
“Our colleagues with the national team see it too, for example when Italy U19 plays another country, where 15 or 16 players in the group have already played in important senior competitions at club level, and our team is still playing in the Primavera. The difference is huge. Imagine going from the Primavera to the senior team in Serie A—it's almost impossible.”
Changing times at Roma
A long-term servant of the club, De Rossi has seen its fortunes wax and wane over the years, and there's no hiding his excitement about the new ideas and energy that Roma's new owners have brought to the club after a difficult period.
“I've seen two different owners: the Sensi family [first Franco, and then his daughter Rosella], and now James Pallotta.
“With the Sensi family, we had some great moments—at both youth and senior level. And now, Mr. Pallotta is revolutionising everything—there's so much energy, he's like a volcano! They're working to 'internationalise' the club, also at the Primavera level. You can really feel it, there's a great desire to improve.
“Just this year, we've been to Vietnam in January, then we went to South Africa in July for a tournament, then Moscow, Manchester and Munich. Next we'll go to Orlando. There was also the Viareggio Cup, the Coppa Italia, the championship—imagine what kind of experience that is for the guys. Also for us coaches, it's beautiful!
“They're as busy as professional footballers, maybe even more so! I tell them all every day how lucky they are. It's not just an experience on a technical or tactical level, but also on a cultural one. Like when we were in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, we went to see the war museum, and it really makes you reflect on what you have. Then, we also played in front of 25,000 spectators, which was great.
“Durban was the same. We visited schools and saw how people live there. It opens these guys up to the world, it's not just a trip, a hotel and a game. The Primavera needs to be more than just a football team for these kids.
“There needs to be more than just football. To see that school in South Africa, full of dignified, happy people, even if they have almost nothing. That's an experience that the players can take with them in their everyday lives. That way, when they return to Rome and come up against something they don't like, they can deal with it in a better way.”
The meaning of real success
It's clear that, to De Rossi, the Primavera is as much about moulding young adults as it is about creating professional footballers. Which isn't to say he's not there to win—he has two national-league titles under his belt, after all—but rather to emphasise that, for those involved in academy football, there's more to life than trophies.
“Real success means sending a player to the first team. It might seem banal, or a rhetorical response, but it's true. It's an enormous satisfaction, very emotional. You've been with this kid for two or three years, and you remember everything, the problems he's had, his development. The moment he goes on that field—it's amazing.”
Alessandro Florenzi is the latest superstar to come from the Primavera at Trigoria, but even he didn't make the transition immediately. Back in 2011 he went on loan at Crotone, a Serie B side based in Calabria, in Italy's deep south. There, he was a constant presence in the starting XI, and even contributed 11 goals for the campaign.
There's plenty of hope in Rome regarding Alessio Romagnoli, who at 17 made his senior debut in 2012 under Zdenek Zeman. He's currently on loan at Sampdoria, where he's featuring regularly.
“In the last 10 years, there's probably only been three or four players who were ready to go directly from the Primavera to the first team. That's because of the gap I mentioned, but also because the current atmosphere doesn't help. Everyone wants a player who's totally ready, who doesn't make mistakes, not even one pass.
“I can't make a judgement on whether the attitude is the same in other countries, but in other countries I see young players, and if the youth are playing, I don't believe that these kids in other countries don't make mistakes. I believe that others accept the errors and have some patience. In Italy, there's no patience. But what could be more beautiful? A player, created in the academy, maybe even born in the city? It's a fantastic idea.”