European Football Stories: How Roma’s Fate Was Decided by a Coin

Roma is a club that is synonymous with belief. It is a club that can also be construed as being one that defies reason, simply because the protagonists involved, as also the audience watching, always put emotion on the forefront. Their overall record, when it comes down to tangible silverware both within the country as also at the continental stage, may not do justice to their iconic status but fact is the Giallorossi continue to be one of the most supported clubs in Italian football.

The Rome-based outfit is one of those handful of clubs that has witnessed a slew of legendary players in action over the years, with a few new additions with each passing decade. From Alcides Ghiggia, Amedeo Amadei, Fulvio Bernardini, Giacomo Losi and Pedro Waldemar Manfredini back in the day to the eminently popular Falcão, Giuseppe Giannini, Rudi Völler, Ruggiero Rizzitelli, Aldair, Daniele De Rossi and of course Francesco Totti in the more recent times. More importantly, these are names who not only played with their hearts up their sleeves, and gave their all for the Roma shirt but also had the love for club embedded deep in their hearts long after they had finished playing.

When it comes to sheer passion few can match the Giallorossi fans, as can be explained by the fact that the Stadio Olimpico is packed during the club’s home games while Lazio, the other club based out of Rome, struggle to sell tickets and usually play their home games in a half-full stadium. The manner in which their current manager José Mourinho and star player Paulo Dybala – the two most high-profile acquisitions made in recent years – have been welcomed provides further testimony to how dear the club is to the Romanisti.

That being said, it is also a fact in their 95-year history Roma have won the Serie A on only three occasions – 1941/42, 1982/83 and 2000/01 – and the Coppa Italia nine times. When Mourinho managed to steer the club out of trouble against Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt in particular, and marshalled his limited resources commendably well through to the Albanian capital of Tirana, it marked a rare opportunity. And when Rotterdam club Feyenoord were accounted for in the final of the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League it marked a first European trophy for Roma.

In fact, the Giallorossi also happen to be the only Italian side to have won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, beating English side Birmingham City 4-2 over two legs – 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico – in the 1960/61 season. While such a statement will be an immensely satisfying reading material to the passionate and overtly sentimental Roma fans, the reality is a tad disappointing if not entirely bitter. While FIFA did recognize that competition, often considered as the precursor to what is now known as the Europa League, the UEFA neither recognized it nor considers a club’s records in the now-defunct tournament as part of their overall European records.

As such, even though the Giallorossi participated in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup on as many as seven occasions – the last of them being in the 1965/66 season, it cannot be officially considered as the club’s continental debut. To know about Roma’s first foray in Europe one has to fast forward by five years.

The Rome club had finished a distant eighth in the 1968/69 Serie A season, a whopping 15 points behind champions Fiorentina, this despite of the fact that they had appointed the legendary Helenio Herrera – who had previously managed an Inter side famously known as Grande Inter in an immensely successful eight-year period – as the manager in what was then a record deal.

While the Argentine had failed to galvanize his new club in the league, he was smart enough to seize the opportunity in the club competition. With Spanish midfielder Joaquín Peiró chipping in with six goals Roma won the Coppa Italia title by remaining undefeated (in six matches) in the final group. For the uninitiated, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) had introduced a final group phase – with the four teams playing each other home and away in a round-robin format – in the Coppa Italia competition instead of semi-finals and finals in the period between 1968 and 1971.

It is imperative here to mention that while Roma secured their maiden success in Coppa Italia in the 1963/64 season, they did not actually represent Italy (Serie A) in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the following season. Torino, the team they had beaten to the cup title, did. With the scheduled Coppa Italia final at the Stadio Olimpico ending in a stalemate in early September, and keeping the term limit for the UEFA competitions in view, the FIGC made a bet over Torino.

The logic was simple. Torino would have played the replay at home in November, and palpably been the favorites to win. And Roma would have been given the opportunity to play at the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup as a consolation for this premeditated exclusion. As things turned out, a late strike by Italian forward Bruno Nicolè earned Roma a title triumph in Turin, with the FIGC losing out on the bet. Unfortunately for the Giallorossi, by the time the Coppa Italia final replay was played Torino had not only got past Dutch side Fortuna 54 (5-3 over two legs) in the opening round of the 1964-65 European Cup Winners’ Cup but were also scheduled to play their second-round (first leg) game against Haka of Finland in a few days’ time.

As a consequence, while the Giallorossi lost both home and away to eventual champions Ferencváros of Hungary, and bowed out of 1964/65 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the third round, Torino made the most of their good fortune going all the way to the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup – even forcing a play-off therein, before losing to German side 1860 Munich.

Fortunately for Roma, their second Coppa Italia title ensured them a better return. It earned the club their maiden opportunity to participate in a UEFA-recognized continental competition. The Giallorossi began their 1969-70 European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign with a goalless draw against Northern Ireland club Ards. A 3-1 win in the second leg, with Elvio Salvori scoring on either side of the break, ensured progression to the second round.

The Italians faced PSV Eindhoven next. The Dutch giants had it relatively easy against Austrian side Rapid Wien (6-3 over two legs) in their opening round encounter, and held their ground for most parts at the Stadio Olimpico. It took an 87th minute strike from their future manager Fabio Capello to ensure the Romans headed to the Netherlands with a slender advantage. That being said, a single-goal lead is always a dicey proposition and with Roma struggling to get that crucial second goal, the legendary Dutch forward Willy van der Kuijlen put PSV ahead on the evening and level on aggregate.

It was time to flip the coin. Back then, the tossing up of the coin (as a tie-breaker) was not unusual, and had been used on multiple occasions to decide the outcome of a match, most notably in the 1968 European Championships – where the Azzurri had benefitted from the coin toss in the semi-final against the former Soviet Union before going on to win the tournament. Herrera’s side got it right with the coin on this occasion and advanced to the quarter-finals at the expense of the Eindhoven outfit.

In the last eight the Giallorossi faced Turkish opposition in the form of Göztepe Izmir, with Stadio Olimpico playing the hosts first up. Teenage forward Fausto Landini put Roma ahead while Capello doubled the advantage in the second half as the home leg was won comfortably. The return leg in Izmir finished goalless, ensuring Herrera’s side a fairly comfortable passage to the semi-finals, and a match up against Górnik Zabrze.

The Polish side had got the better of Greek giants Olympiacos Piraeus in the opening round, winning 7-2 on aggregate – with a 5-0 scoreline being a clear indicator of their domination in the second leg. Likewise, Michał Matyas’ side comfortably accounted for Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers in the second round, winning both the legs by an identical scoreline (3-1). While the Poles were beaten in the opening leg of their quarter-final in Sofia – against a Levski Sofia then known as Levski-Spartak following a merger with Spartak Sofia, one that was forced by the Bulgarian Communist Party. Nonetheless, a 2-1 win in Zabrze ensured progression to the semi-finals on away goals rule.

In the first leg of the last four tie, Jan “Bubi” Banaś put the Polish Cup winners ahead at the Stadio Olimpico but Salvori helped the home side draw level in the second half. A ninth-minute penalty by Capello helped bolster the Giallorossi advantage at the Stadion Śląski (Silesian Park) in Chorzów. The Romans held on to their advantage till the 90th minute when the legendary Włodzimierz “Włodek” Lubański managed to drive his spot kick past Italian goalkeeper Alberto Ginulfi to send the tie to extra time.

The Gliwice-born forward, who remained the all-time highest goal scorer for the Polish national team (48 goals in 75 caps) for close to three decades before Barcelona star Robert Lewandowski surpassed him in October 2017, scored his second a few minutes later to leave Roma scampering. Veteran Francesco Scaratti scored a dramatic equalizer in the last minute of extra time to force a play-off.

The play-off was played at the Stade de la Meinau in Strasbourg (France). Lubański scored for a third time in the tie to put the Polish side ahead three minutes before the breather. It was Capello who helped the Romans restore parity, once again from the spot. It remained 1-1 after extra time, and a toss of the coin became once again the only alternative left to decide the finalist.

Peiró, the Roma captain, had got it right with the coin while choosing ends, both before the game and ahead of extra time. However, the Spaniard was not as lucky at the third time of asking. Górnik Zabrze won the toss and the right to play English side Manchester City in the final at the Praterstadion (in Vienna) – a match they would go on to lose.

As far as Roma are concerned, suffice to say the coin that could have ended their campaign early (against PSV), thereby making it possibly a more expected albeit less painful result, instead opted to give the Romanisti initial hope before ensuring eventual disappointment, one that would take a long time to recover from. In case of the Giallorossi the disappointment was also in a literal sense.

Losing on a coin toss not only marked a forgettable end to an otherwise memorable European debut but also to what was an extremely underwhelming domestic campaign. The club failed to defend their Coppa Italia title while only managing an 11th place finish in Serie A – a whopping 17 points behind champions Cagliari, which also happened to be the club that had cut short their Coppa defense. In fact, it was also after a game against the Sardinians in that season when highly-rated, and to an extent irreplaceable forward Giuliano Taccola, at the time only 24 years in age, suffered a seizure in the locker room and did not survive the trip to the nearest hospital.

Roma’s impressive performance in Europe notwithstanding, their poor run of results at a domestic level gave the then club president Alvaro Marchini multiple valid reasons to sack Herrera. In a span of less than two years in Rome, the Argentine had gone from being the highest paid manager in the world to becoming an expendable entity.

More importantly, the unfortunate defeat also marked the beginning of a period of lull for the Romans. They would not win a piece of silverware again till the 1979/80 season – when club icon Roberto Pruzzo inspired them to a third Coppa Italia success. The same also ensured a second ever qualification to the now-defunct competition again, after more than a decade. The return albeit was a disappointing one, with the club suffering an opening round defeat against East German side Carl Zeiss Jena.

The Giallorossi would qualify for the competition on four more occasions but failed to replicate the spectacular run of their debut campaign. With UEFA opting to draw curtains on the competition following the 1998/99 edition, and merging it to what is now known as the Europa League, Roma never quite got the chance to play for the title proper in a competition that had marked their official debut on the European stage.