Roma vs Lecce Throwback: How Roma Threw a Scudetto Chance Away

On April 20, 1986, half of the capital city of Italy caught their breath as Roma were ready to complete a thrilling Serie A comeback and strengthen their claim over their third Scudetto. Little did the Roma fans know that, instead, they were about to experience the perfect storm, with already-relegated Lecce shocking the Stadio Olimpico and shattering their dreams.

A team losing a title chance at the last lap is one of the most common football clichés. Inter and Milan know something about it, as their final found losses to Mantova in 1967 and Verona in 1973 still populate their supporters’ nightmares (not to mention Inter’s infamous Cinque Maggio 2002…). But no such loss has ever made so much noise in Serie A as Roma’s incredible defeat to Lecce, because of the starting conditions of the two sides.

In an all-Giallorossi affair, Roma prepared to face Lecce with their confidence and enthusiasm at an all-high. In retrospect, they were not even expecting to be battling for the title. They had won the Scudetto only three years before under Nils Liedholm’s guidance, but this season was different.

This season was being dominated by Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus. The Bianconeri had an eight-point lead over Roma halfway through the league, in an age when only two points were awarded for a win. They seemed to have the Scudetto in their pockets, but they unexpectedly started to lose pace as the year 1986 began.

And so, Roma recovered their gap, one point after another, by playing an attractive and sparkling football, pushed by a light-hearted approach that came from the awareness that they basically had nothing to lose. In 13 games, Roma collected 23 points out of 26 available. They had turned into a spectacular war-machine, led by their iconic captain Bruno Conti and their formidable striker Roberto Pruzzo, who was en route to become the Serie A capocannoniere for the third time.

With two games to go, Juventus and Roma were now sharing the top-spot in the table. But while the Bianconeri were expected to receive Milan at the Stadio Comunale in Turin, Roma’s test looked much more comfortable. After all, what could poor Lecce do? After enduring their maiden top-flight campaign, the Salentini were already doomed, and their mind better be at the upcoming Serie B season…  

Some data to put things even more in perspective: Roma had won all their season games played at the Olimpico so far, save for one. Lecce, on the other hand, had collected only one point away across the whole season. This was an absolute mismatch.

And still, somehow, something broke in Roma’s perfect machine. Probably they were bitten by the most treacherous and dangerous bug swarming in the football world underground. Overconfidence.       

Those who visited the Italian capital in the days before the Lecce clash remember a city that was bracing for celebration. The yellow-and-red part of it at least, as Lazio had some different kind of challenges to face in those years. Coach Sven Goran Eriksson’s Roma making short work of the Salentini seemed the only possible outcome of the Olimpico clash. And, when Francesco Graziani headed the ball home after just seven minutes, everything seemed to be going just according to plans.

But this is just not your average football story. There were many more plot twists still to happen in that 1985/96 calcio season. The first came on 26 minutes, when the Lecce goalkeeper Stefano Ciucci picked up and injury and was replaced by the inconsistent Giordano Negretti, whom he had benched earlier in the season. Great, now Lecce had also lost their starting goalie. What could possibly go wrong?

Roma’s custodian Franco Trancredi having to spring to defuse a tricky Carmelo Miceli’s header should have sounded as a warning sign for the home Giallorossi. But it was ignored, as Lecce soon had their equalizer. It was Alberto Di Chiara, a player grown in the Roma academy, to stab his youth club in the back as he headed home a cross deflected by coach Eriksson’s defense.

Eight minutes later, the Salentini incredibly put their heads ahead. Argentina’s future World Champion Pedro Pascutti (and yes, this time we’ll spare you the routine about the Serie A being so competitive in those days that a future World Champion could play for a relegation-battling side…) forced Tancredi to foul him in the box, prompting the referee Rosario Lo Bello to award a penalty. Up stepped another Argentine, Juan Alberto Barbas, and he sent Tancredi the wrong way to make it 1-2 before the half time break.

The Stadio Olimpico was dazed but there were 45 more minutes to put things back on track. You already know how it ended but it was not for lack of trying on Roma’s part. It was just that Negretti had a different idea than the home side. The 24-year-old goalie opened the second half with a superb save to deny Antonio Di Carlo.

Then, Barbas added more misery to Roma’s nightmare as he punished the home Giallorossi again on the counter. Differently from his teammate Pascutti, Barbas knew that he was not being called up for the upcoming 1986 World Cup and needed to let off steam. Roma ended on his path at the wrong time.

When the news that Michael Laudrup had opened the scoring for Juventus broke down, most fans on the stands, and perhaps the Roma players themselves, realized that the dream was about to vanish. Even more so, considering that Negretti didn’t seem to have any intention to let his guard down as he brilliantly pushed back a close-range header from Zwigniew Boniek. And when the Polish striker did manage to overcome Negretti with a lob, Miceli came to the rescue and cleared the ball right on the goal line.

Only with nine minutes left did Pruzzo manage to pull one back for Roma, but the goal that set the score at 2-3 only served the purpose of increasing the capocannoniere’s personal tally. The unconceivable had happened.

One week later, Juventus beat Lecce themselves by the same 3-2 score while a shell-shocked Roma side surrendered 0-1 to minnows Como. It was the 22nd Scudetto for the Bianconeri and it would be the last for almost a decade as their next title win came in 1995.

Sven Goran Eriksson and Roma had to wait even longer to finally put their hands on the Italian title. The Swedish coach did it in the 1999/2000 season, but he was now at the helm of the Giallorossi’s cross-town rivals Lazio. Roma became Campione d’Italia in the following season, putting the Lecce nightmare finally behind them.  



April 20, 1986 – Serie A 1985-86 Round 29

SCORERS: 7′ Graziani (R), 34′ A. Di Chiara (L), 42′ Barbas (L, pen.), 53′ Barbas (S), 82′ Pruzzo (R)

ROMA: Tancredi, Oddi, Gerolin, Boniek, Nela, Righetti, Graziani, Giannini (53′ Conti), Pruzzo, Ancelotti, Di Carlo (68′ Tovalieri) (Gregori, Lucci, Desideri) Coach: Eriksson

LECCE: Ciucci (26′ Negretti), Vanoli, Colombo, Enzo, S. Di Chiara, Miceli, Raise, Barbas, Pasculli, Nobile (65′ Paciocco), A. Di Chiara (Garzya, Causio, Rizzo) Coach: Fascetti

REFEREE: Mr. Lo Bello from Siracusa
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Graziani, Conti (R), Vanoli, Raise (L)