After months of speculation, Jim Pallotta’s reign as President of AS Roma has finally come to an end. Under his leadership, Roma restored their pride on the field but seemingly hit a glass-ceiling in their attempts to reach the top table of Italian and European football. The promised new stadium, a critical piece of the jigsaw that would enable Roma to compete financially, remained, to Pallotta’s great frustration, an unfulfilled dream.
The stadium plans became fatally entangled in Italy’s infamous bureaucratic sink-hole. A familiar story played out across the peninsula, in part a result of the pervasive model of public stadium ownership. Local decision-makers have little incentive to approve construction plans which would render their own assets worthless. Consequently, Roma remain shackled to their shared municipal home at the Stadio Olimpico. This was one mountain that Pallotta could not conquer.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Roma have always been at the whim of a civic landlord. Just across the city lies the faded remnants of the last home they could call their own, Campo Testaccio. It was much more than a playing field; it was their fortress, a spiritual home that embodied the essence of the club and its values, and one that has taken on a near-mythical status since it was abandoned some 80 years ago.
Campo Testaccio was constructed in 1929 as a first marital home for the newly-formed AS Roma. The club had been established two years earlier through a three-way merger of Fortitudo-Pro Roma, Football Club di Roma and Alba-Audace. Under the encouragement of the Fascist regime, the intention had been to create a football club in the Eternal City that was capable of competing with the powerhouses of the North. However, the new club needed a venue befitting of these lofty ambitions.
Architect Silvio Sensi, the father of future club President Franco Sensi, took inspiration from British stadia, with Everton’s Goodison Park a particular point of reference. The rectangular design comprised of four separate wooden stands, with a narrow cinder track separating the tifosi from the pitch. The pitch itself was state of the art; it’s luscious grass surface, underpinned by an advanced drainage system, represented a welcome departure from the rudimentary pitches of the day which alternated with the season between dust-bowl and quagmire.
The venue, liberally painted in red and yellow club colours, also doubled as a training base and provided living quarters for the head coach. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, supporters would drift in and out to watch the team train. On Thursdays, there would usually be a practice match against other teams traversing the country on their way to fulfil fixtures in the far-flung extremes of the country the following weekend. On Fridays, local teams were given the opportunity to play on the hallowed turf. It was much more than just a stadium; it rapidly became the heart of the club and the community.
However, it was Sunday afternoons, when the stadium would truly come to life. Capable of holding 20,000 supporters and often packed to the rafters, those tight dimensions and the thunderous noise generated by the stamping of Roman feet on the wooden boards created a lion’s den. It was a ferocious, intimidating sound that drove the Roma players on.
A club shaped by its surrounds…
To truly understand the significance of the stadium, requires an understanding of the district in which it is located. At the turn of the 20th century, the Testaccio district was one of the very poorest areas of Rome, a place where more than half of the children born never saw their fifth birthday. By the time the stadium was built, the fortunes of the district and its people were on the rise thanks, in no small part, to the construction of an industrial-scale municipal slaughterhouse.
Testaccio was chosen for the slaughterhouse due to its ample space and easy access to the Tiber river for shipping livestock in. It’s not particularly fashionable to eulogise about an abattoir, but it was a phenomenal economic endeavour, the largest of its kind in Europe. It was a vast enterprise replacing a multitude of smaller, inefficient establishments in the heart of the city. Each type of meat was butchered in a dedicated pavilion and moved around the site on a network of hooks and pulleys. It even had its own micro-biology laboratory.
The mattatoio provided enough work for the people of Testaccio, and more besides. A rapid programme civic home-building was required to provide living accommodation for the workers and their families. These tall, angular dwellings arranged around courtyards gave Testaccio a distinct appearance which still survives today.
By the time Campo Testaccio opened its gates in 1929, Testaccio had evolved into a busy working-class district. For those who could afford it, Campo Testaccio provided a meeting place and an outlet for those hardy men who dealt in flesh by day. For those who couldn’t cover the entrance fee, the Monte dei Cocci or Aurelian Walls provided a vantage point that offered a partially obscured glimpse of the field.
Campo Testaccio rapidly became a fortress for AS Roma as the club began to fulfil its original brief of challenging the northern clubs. An 8-0 mauling of Padova (1930) and a 5-0 defeat of Juventus in (1931) were seminal moments for the new club (both presided over by an alcoholic Mancunian coach named Herbert Burgess). Meanwhile, closer to home, back-to-back victories over Lazio in the 1931/32 campaign signalled a shift in the balance of power within the Eternal City.
The stadium and the team became the pride of the district. There existed a romantic notion that the team, comprised of several Roman-born players and several more adopted sons, was ‘owned’ by the people. The proletariat finally had their own team to challenge that of the bourgeoise (Lazio). That passion, that pride was transmitted from the ordinary supporters in the stands to their heroes on the pitch.
The enduring bond, formed between the club and its surroundings, was immortalized in a song, which celebrates the players – Massetti, Volk and Ferraris – and their famous stage. As Campo Testaccio fades from living memory, it’s legend lives on in folklore. To this day, an AS Roma team which has shown character on the pitch, which has fought adversity and battled against the odds is called Roma di Testaccio.
“The affection of the Roma crowd has been for me the greatest honour of my career. It has always supported me, it has spurred me to lavish all my strength for the greatness of Rome” – Guido Masetti (goalkeeper)
In many ways, Campo Testaccio became a victim of its own success. The symbiosis between the stadium, the people and the team spurred AS Roma on to unexpected new heights. Second and third-place finishes triggered a further growth in the popularity of the club, which meant that Testaccio’s capacity became a constraining factor. This issue was compounded in 1937 when subsidence issues were discovered in the distinti, further reducing the capacity and forcing AS Roma to move their biggest games across the city to the Stadio Nazionale PNF (pre-cursor to the Stadio Flaminio).
By the end of the decade, it became apparent that Roma had outgrown their fortress. A decision was made to move the club permanently to the larger municipal PNF in the north of the city, a venue already inhabited by their rivals, Lazio. By the time of the final competitive match against Novara in 1940, Campo Testaccio had hosted 170 matches, resulting in 112 home victories.
The stadium was razed soon after the final game, leaving only traces of AS Roma’s cathedral. The intention had been to turn the site into a public garden, but the onset of war soon afterwards caused those plans to be shelved. The playing surface was turned over for the production of crops, whilst Campo Testaccio’s underground changing rooms received an unexpected lease of life as an air-raid shelter. The site lay largely unloved for half a century, with small residential and commercial developments permitted to encroach onto the margins of the site.
For several decades, the aspiration to reinvent Testaccio as a modern sporting venue was discussed; AS Roma President Franco Sensi lobbied hard to reinvent his father’s vision as a training base for the club. However, when that talk did finally translate into action at the turn of the Millennium, it was on a modest scale. A clay pitch was laid, rotated through 90 degrees compared to the original, providing a home for local team AS Testaccio ‘68 and an occasional venue for AS Roma’s youth section.
This new purpose was to be short-lived as plans to utilise the site for an underground car park gathered momentum. In 2008, the sporting facilities were scrapped but work on the car park ground to a halt when surveys revealed that the site was not suitable for such a development. The site was fenced off and a further period of inertia took hold, with the remaining buildings providing unsanctioned shelter to some of Rome’s homeless community.
In May this year, the site was cleared once again in anticipation of development into another new sporting venue. However, further progress has been delayed by a row which erupted between Rome’s city authorities and the local town hall. The former favour a commercially-backed proposal, whilst the latter want it to be run as a social enterprise. Another protracted period of indecision seemingly beckons.
Walking along via Zabaglia today, fenced off and strewn with rubble, there are few clues as to the glorious past of this forlorn urban wasteland. It’s all in stark contrast to the fortunes of the slaughterhouse, which has been reinvented as a hipster arts venue. Yet, unless and until Stadio Della Roma becomes a reality (the holding of breath is not advised…), Campo Testaccio remains the only stadium that Roma could truly call their home.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, take a look at the story of Pier Luigi Nervi’s unfulfilled stadium plans for Swindon Town.
Title image credit: AS Roma shirt from personal collection