Santarini, the defender who reinvented the position


May 11, 1980, Avellino – Stadio Partenio
Avellino 0-1 Roma
Serie A, Week 30

Italo Allodi signed him for Inter after seeing him do a job on Pelè in a friendly between Venezia and Santos. Helenio Herrera fell in love with him and took him with him when he took up the reins at Roma. The great Argentine manager once even played him in the derby against Lazio five days after an operation, merely stating: “Your presence is enough.”

But none of that quite encapsulates what Sergio Santarini meant for Roma. Santarini was elegance, security, calmness, dependability, grace, belonging, reassurance, intelligence. And he was something of a trailblazer, because he was the first central defender in Italian football to get involved with the game in front of him, to head upfield, to help build the play.

Santarini had experience that belied his years – even when he was a young player, he had the guile to calmly do his job against the likes of Pelè. Of course, Santarini only improved with age over his 13 seasons with the Giallorossi. Yes, Sergio Santarini is an everlasting part of AS Roma.

He wore the captain’s armband from 1976 to 1980, safely delivering the club from the times of Giacomo Losi and Herrera to those of Paulo Roberto Falcao and Dino Viola, picking up three Coppa Italias along the way.

For any Giallorossi fans that were young lads around that time, the enduring image of Santarini is surely that of him wearing a big, padded coat as he parades around the Stadio Olimpico with the Coppa Italia aloft. That cup, won against Torino on May 17, 1980, was joined in the trophy cabinet a year and a month later as Roma once again tasted Coppa Italia glory, again at the expense of Torino but this time at the Stadio Comunale.

Nils Liedholm created the space for Santarini to play, and Santarini rose to the occasion to help build the most cultured, tactically sound side in Giallorossi history. Maurizio Turone and Santarini were both ball-playing defenders, you see, and neither wanted to commit to being the team’s stopper. Santarini went to see Liedholm to suggest they switched to zonal defending. “But are you up to it?” asked the Swedish coach. “We are,” came the response from Santarini. And so the switch to zonal defending was made.

It was the start of a truly great team, and when Roma won their second Scudetto on May 8, 1983 in Genoa, Falcao was keen to remember Santarini’s contribution, thanking him for having formed such an integral part of the team.

On this day in 1980, Santarini scored his last goal for Roma. It was nothing special – Santarini didn’t score many – and neither was the game itself against Avellino anything to write home about. But it’s a great reason to talk about Sergio Santarini, a man who is in our hearts and in our history, a man who fought for every ball but was as clean as that brilliant white Roma away strip with which we remember his Giallorossi career best.