Francesco Totti and Roberto Mancini were at opposite ends of their playing career spectrum in November 1998’s Derby della Capitale. And whilst both mercurial Number 10s took centre-stage, the match proved hugely significant for Roma’s young new captain.
November 29, 1998. Lazio v Roma
The Stadio Olimpico reverberated with excitement. It was exactly 45 years to the day that the stadium had first hosted the most hotly disputed derby in Italy’s top-flight, and with both teams about to become the preeminent forces in Serie A*, the atmosphere was crackling in the cool November night.
Perhaps the grand old arena, filling to capacity, sensed it was ready to bear witness to something historic; something significant in the narrative of its domestic showpiece fixture.
Was it the presence of Zdenek Zeman sitting on the Roma bench just a season after coaching Lazio? Or the presence of his opposite number, Sven-Goran Eriksson, who’d occupied the Giallorossi bench a decade earlier, adding to the overflowing emotion swirling around the stadium.
Rome’s great and good were ready and waiting in the stands, as was a rather unusual spectator from further afield: the bespectacled Diego Maradona with his now estranged wife, Claudia. El Diez there as if to ordain Mancini and Totti into the fantasista church, as the fixture promised an enthralling Number 10 duel not seen since Gascoigne v Giannini exactly six years earlier.
At the turn of the century, Rome was also Italy’s football capital – and its future king was about to start his ascension to the throne.
Francesco Totti had been Roma’s captain for only a month before this particular clash, making it his first derby wearing the armband. Totti became the team’s official leader on October 31, making him the youngest Serie A club captain ever at the age of just 22. He had yet to taste victory against Lazio in his career to date however, let alone score in any of his previous seven appearances.
Things had looked promising, initially. Coming on as a 17-year old substitute (wearing an unfamiliar No16 shirt) in the ‘93-’94 season for his derby debut, with Roma one goal down, Totti ran fearlessly and purposely at the Lazio defence, teasing and tricking Paolo Negro on more than one occasion until the hapless defender executed a clumsy challenge inside the penalty box. However Totti’s own idol, then captain and No10, Giuseppe Giannini, failed to convert from the spot and Lazio held on for the win.
The derby appearances that followed made grim reading for Totti: losing four and drawing two.
But now he had the armband.
The ‘away’ side began strong and had much the better of the opening 20 minutes, despite Roma’s new leader being roughed up from the start – and throughout. Every advance or control of the ball was brought to a swift end. The playmaker’s simmering frustration bubbled to the surface after one rough challenge too many saw him squaring up to the busy Portuguese winger Sergio Conceicao.
The period produced a flurry of yellow cards and the match threatened to become a bickering tit-for-tat affair until a fabulous ball by Pierre Wome caught out Lazio goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, allowing Marco Delvecchio to turn home after 25 minutes. It was a deserved lead for Roma, but, despite all the hullabaloo surrounding Totti as ‘the future of the fantasista’, Lazio’s own No10 refused to be consigned to the ‘past-it-playmaker-pile’ just yet.
34-year old Roberto Mancini had been Lazio’s one genuine bright spark during the opening exchanges, mostly occupying the left side of pitch where he’d been tormenting poor Damiano Tomassi, the workmanlike midfielder tasked with halting the No10…to no avail.
Mancini struck twice. The first, scored just three minutes after Roma had taken the lead, knocked the wind out of the Giallorossi, who fell further behind in the second-half when Mancini added his second (on 56 minutes) and Roma defender Fabio Petruzzi got his marching orders for receiving his second – yellow card – before Chilean striker Marcelo Salas converted a penalty (0n 69 minutes) to put Lazio 3-1 ahead with a man advantage (strangely, Mancini passing up the opportunity to complete a derby day hat-trick via the spot).
Both Mancini goals (each created by Sinisa Mihajlovic, another former Roma employee) had the incorrigible playmaker’s trademark™ stamped all over them: technical brilliance combined with sheer instinctive improvisation of the situations.
First, a sweet left-foot over-the-shoulder volley as the ball dropped from the sky. It was a delicious strike; technique in its purest form.
The second, a deft back-heeled flick-volley from the Serb defender’s free-kick. This was vintage Mancio.
The former Sampdoria fantasista was in the midst of his second season with Lazio, coming off the back of a disappointing first – at least in goalscoring terms: 5 league goals only in 35 appearances. For context, that was on the back of his joint-best ever scoring season in Serie A: 15 with the Genoese club, which caused Lazio to bring the ageing playmaker to the capital.
However this season would prove to be his final hurrah when finding the net, bagging 10 in total; his last ever in Serie A. Curiously, in Lazio’s very next, title-winning, season, Mancini wouldn’t register a single league goal in 20 appearances.
The match seemed to be heading for an inevitable conclusion, with Lazio’s owner, Sergio Cragnotti, lapping up his side’s numerical advantages in the stands, grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat whenever TV cameras focused their gaze. His smile would soon be removed by Roma’s own fantasista.
Perhaps drawing power from his armband and new responsibilities, Totti became inspired as he attempted to drag his 10-men back from further embarrassment. His defence-splitting passes were already clearly evident throughout the game but now he seemed to shift up a gear. His wicked free-kick almost crept over the goalline but for the hands of Marchegiani, who also produced an acrobatic save to tip over a thunderous Totti half-volley.
The No10 would not be denied as he first turned creator. A clever dummy-and-turn in the penalty area wrongfooted the Lazio defence before his sharp pullback from the 6-yard box caused additional panic as the stumbling Pavel Nedved, in trying to cut out the danger, only served to tee up Eusebio Di Francesco who slotted home.
Desperate to hang onto the lead, Lazio dropped deeper and deeper. This caused further confusion to reign when the effervescent Delvecchio drew two defenders and Marchegiani into no-man’s land, before out-battling all three to toe-poke the ball across to Totti who, from the edge of the ‘D’, struck into the turf and over the diving-yet-despairing Lazio keeper.
Another dream moment for the childhood Roma fan realised; Totti ran towards the Curva Sud for the first time in celebration at the expense of his derby rivals, mimicking his idol Giannini, shirt off and twirling with joy. Underneath his now removed shirt was another, containing a message: ‘Ragazzi Carica!’ and the date – one to remember. The first of many goals had been struck along with the first of many unique goal celebration messages revealed, or played out, at the expense of his foes.
Unbound joy was almost – and perhaps should have been – complete, when Totti fizzed in yet another dangerous free-kick which Delvecchio met with the slightest of touches. Celebrations were short-lived as the goal was wrongly ruled out of a non-existent offside.
The last laugh was almost Lazio’s, though, and perhaps would have been if the unmarked Mancini had received an obvious square pass from Dejan Stankovic, who instead chose to go for glory but shot wide from an acute angle instead of laying on a match-winning assist for Lazio’s No10. Those that had followed Mancini’s career will know all too well the response the poor young Serb received from the volcanic playmaker for daring to ignore him.
After the game, from the position of being 3-1 up at home and playing against 10-men, a furious Mancini first dedicated his two goals to his unwell mother-in-law before lamented that “only Lazio could not win a derby like this,” whilst bemoaning the poor form of certain teammates, namely Marchegiani.
As for Totti, breaking his derby scoring duck proved significant and seemed to signal a change in fortune for Roma. From not being able to win the fixture since making his debut, Totti’s Roma would taste victory in 8 of the next 12 meetings, with Lazio winning just once.
Totti tormented Lazio for much of the following 20 years – scoring another 10 in which the variety and ingenuity of the celebrations would become more memorable than many of the actual goals. He retired as the all-time leading goalscorer in Rome derby history, making more Derby della Capitale appearances than any other player (44).
All he ever wanted to do was emulate his idol, the Prince of Rome. 19 years later he left the Stadio Olimpico as the King.
*Whilst Lazio would miss out on the title by just a single point (something which the Giallorossi delight in knowing due to the ensuing derby results in the season), the Biancoceleste would clinch their second-ever Scudetto the year after, along with the Coppa Italia. Not to be outdone, Roma would wrestle the title directly from their hated rivals the very next season, winning their third ever Scudetto – and Totti’s only one.