When Francesco Totti scored for the first time in seven months against Chievo on Sunday, he lifted up his jersey to show a T-Shirt on which the cheeky but sincere slogan, “Sorry for the delay”, was written. The Roma ultras congregated behind the goal in the Curva Sud are hoping that it won’t be much longer before Daniele De Rossi relays the same message regarding the renewal of his contract at the club.


Walking off the pitch to be replaced by Leandro Greco after 79 minutes, De Rossi was treated to a standing ovation from the supporters. He later downplayed it, dismissing claims that the prolonged applause was an expression of their desire to see him stay, but rather that it was because he was substituted for the first time in two years and that they would probably afford him a similar gesture if he were to go off more regularly.


Don’t let that fool you, though. This felt different. With only four months remaining on his existing deal, there is a genuine fear that the player born in Rome, raised a Romanista and nicknamed “Er Capitano Futuro” to indicate his anointment as the eventual successor to Totti, will make the wrenching decision to leave rather than lead the club at the end of this season.


De Rossi did little to ease the fans’ concerns after the game with a cryptic comment about his current situation. “I have a very clear sense of what I want to do,” he told reporters. “I am aware of what is being said and what isn’t being said. In this city, a word or a comma out of place can provoke what I don’t want to provoke. But since there is unbelievable media attention, I prefer not to talk and to keep working. I don’t live to be on the front pages of the papers or on Sky Italia.”


That’s quite frankly impossible in Rome where the spotlight is so intense. There’s a daily paper, Il Romanista, devoted entirely to the club; a sports broadsheet, Il Corriere dello Sport, based in the city along with three nationals like La Repubblica, Il Messaggero and Il Tempo. Then there are at least three radio stations that talk Roma from dawn ‘til dusk and half a dozen local TV channels that give airtime to programmes on events at the club’s training ground Trigoria.


Things are routinely blown out of proportion, manipulated and misinterpreted, which in turn can lead to over-reaction and hostility from the fans. De Rossi is right to be cautious. Throughout his career at Roma, he has tried to keep a low profile, although not always with success, because when he does talk to the media he engages fully and speaks his mind on a wide range of issues, some personal, others political.


Take, for instance, the time in 2008 when he dedicated the two goals he scored for Italy against Georgia to his then father-in-law who had been found shot dead in an execution suspected to have been carried out by the criminal underworld. Or the time in 2010 when he said he was against the new tessera del tifoso, a fan passport introduced to curb crowd violence that inadvertently led to ordinary innocent fans feeling like they were being grouped together with hooligans, and in some cases unfairly targeted by the forces of order.


Held up as a bad example by government ministers and police chiefs, De Rossi, while unrepentant in the former incident and with some justification, did learn a lesson.  Media storms, even if they don’t “frighten me,” as he claimed on Sunday, are best avoided, and in this most delicate of situations he recognizes there’s a need to show a diplomat’s flair for picking his words carefully and correctly.


The reasons why are all too obvious. If De Rossi were to go public with his demands, he would risk exposing himself to being called a mercenary. By the same token, if he were to say he was flattered by interest from other clubs, he would leave himself open to being labeled a traitor.


Silence is golden at least while negotiations are ongoing. It won’t stop the speculation, but it will limit any inflammation that might prove unsettling and hamper contract talks further.  This is the line that the club has taken too.


“We talk too much about it as it is and have to learn to keep quiet,” Roma’s general manager Franco Baldini told Il Corriere dello Sport on December 3. “All I’ll tell you is that, as a player, but above all as a person, he is the kind of person we need. We’re talking about a player for whom clubs all over the world have an appetite and who only has months left on his contract. He is an intelligent person at the height of his career, tempted by thousands of offers, all of which are legitimate. This is the difficulty.”


Both parties, it seems, are approaching negotiations like adults. But that doesn’t mean to say the situation hasn’t been mishandled either, particularly by Roma. “With players of this level, it’s a shame to get to a situation where they’re at the end of their contract,” coach Luis Enrique said at the weekend. “They ought to have renewed a long time ago, but I am convinced [that he will stay] all the same.”


The question, though, is this: How did Roma allow themselves to drop or take their eye off the ball with regard to De Rossi? Why is one of the club’s most symbolic players in a position where he can walk away for free in the summer? It must be said there are mitigating circumstances here. This has been a year of almost unprecedented upheaval at the club. The takeover by the American Thomas Di Benedetto and his investors took longer to close than anticipated and the financial situation they inherited required greater consideration and resources than first expected.


Then there was a new board to assemble, a new structure to put in place with new directors like Baldini, Walter Sabatini and Claudio Fenucci, a new Barcelona-influenced philosophy to implement through a new coach in Enrique and a host of new players to find to suit the style of football he wanted to play. At the time priorities lay elsewhere. There were teething problems to overcome on and off the pitch. Even so, does all this excuse Roma’s lack of urgency on the De Rossi front? Not necessarily, no. But is it understandable? Yes.


What perhaps wasn’t foreseen after a couple of indifferent seasons in giallorosso was how De Rossi would re-emerge not only as one of the best central midfielders in the world, but also the cornerstone of Enrique’s Roma, re-inventing himself as a Sergi Busquets-like holder-cum-deep-lying playmaker, dropping between the centre-backs when the full-backs surge forward or collecting the ball from the goalkeeper and starting moves.


Sure, Totti is by no means peripheral, but make no mistake about it De Rossi is literally and figuratively more central to how this team plays today. He, more than anyone else, has taken Roma’s new script and given outstanding performance after outstanding performance. Only Juventus’s regista Andrea Pirlo has attempted more passes in Serie A this season [1211 to 1187], yet it’s De Rossi who has the better completion rate of the two [88.4% to 85.5%]. This is why Roberto Mancini described him as “the perfect man to improve Manchester City” in a chat with La Gazzetta dello Sport on December 30.


Mancini has made no secret of his admiration for the World Cup winner, but he is also under no illusion as to how difficult it will be to persuade the player to tear himself away from the club he loves and grew up supporting. Why would he join Manchester City? The case is easy to make. At 28, De Rossi is perhaps aware that, as he approaches his peak as a player, his earning potential is never likely to be as high again. This could be the last big contract of his career, he is in a position of strength and no one pays better than City.


But this isn’t necessarily about money. As Baldini suggested to Il Corriere dello Sport, any claims that Roma don’t have a lira to rub together are “absurd.” The club’s “requirements are covered for the next three years,” and with some creative accounting De Rossi’s demands can be met. “There is a difference,” Roma’s finance director Claudio Fenucci admitted to La Gazzetta dello Sport on December 1. “We’re certainly not at the final details. We are thinking about adjusting our offers in such a way as to make the first years of the contract more in line with our budget.”


The issue here, however, is whether Roma can match De Rossi’s ambition. City offer the chance to challenge for big trophies now. After finishing runners’ up in four of the last six years in Serie A, Roma are at the end of a cycle and have started rebuilding. It will take time for them to be competitive again. De Rossi has lifted the Coppa Italia twice and the Italian Super Cup once. That’s a relatively small return on 373 games of service.


It all depends of course on what one classifies as success. It can be deeply subjective, as Miguel Delaney wrote in this brilliant article. [Please link http://eircomsports.eircom.net/News/medal-merit.aspx]


José Mourinho also touched upon this theme when he was trying to convince Zlatan Ibrahimovic to stay at Inter in 2009. “Winning a Champions League with Inter or with Barcelona has a completely different taste. I told Ibra: ‘If Barça win it again it won’t be because you arrived, but because they are a team that has already been built to win for years.”


Likewise if City were to win the Premier League with De Rossi in the team, it wouldn’t be because he arrived. People wouldn’t identify him with that success.  He’d be just another component in an expensively assembled machine. At Roma, the conquest of a Scudetto would mean so much more: it would be to realise the impossible dream lurking inside every football fan – that of one day leading the team they support to glory.


Baldini has to make that argument. Still, he’s in a dilemma. There’s no real winner if Roma and De Rossi part company – except City, that is, should he join them. It’s lose-lose. For Roma’s new ‘foreign’ owners, it would be a PR disaster and possibly do irreparable damage to their relationship with the supporters barely a year after they assumed control of the club. At the very least, they’d be accused of showing a lack of understanding and cultural sensitivity. For De Rossi, he’d possibly forsake the adoration of his hometown, unless he did good by Roma and signed a short-term one-year renewal with a buy-out clause that would at least see the club claim something rather than nothing for his signature.


When it comes to his decision, the realist in De Rossi might pick City on professional grounds. The romantic? Well, there’s really no contest. De Rossi, the boy, wasn’t destined to play for Roma even if his father Alberto still coaches the club’s youth team. He got there by determination and belief. “I wasn’t one of those boys, aged 10 or 11, that you see on YouTube who play keepie-uppie with oranges, I wasn’t convinced that I was good enough to make it at the levels, which I then reached,” he admitted.


But make it he did. De Rossi fought for it because he wanted it. Talking to Il Messaggero four years ago, he left no doubt as to why. It was out of love for the club. “If it were down to me, I’d sign for Roma for life, even until 2030,” he said. That outlook has softened. He admits there are more important things in life like being close to Gaia, the daughter he is separated from after the collapse of his first marriage. But De Rossi also insists that, as of yet, she isn’t the sole reason why he has remained at Roma.


“Up until now, no,” he told Paolo Bonolis on the TV programme Il Senso della Vita in April. “I haven’t stayed because my daughter is here. It would be romantic to say that, but in reality it’s because first of all I am a fan of this team. Sure, if I were to leave it would be far [away], while now it takes me 15 minutes to see her.”


What’s clear is that as a father, a fan and a footballer, De Rossi is tied to Rome. “For some months I have lived alone in Campo de’ Fiori, right on the piazza,” he revealed to Rolling Stone magazine. “I wanted to try the experience of living in the centre and it’s unforgettable; the smell of the market, the guys at the stalls, the bakers. No one bothers you. No one gets in your way. Then of course it’s normal that they look at me like I would as a boy seeing a footballer come to live next door.”


That’s actually how many Romans do see De Rossi. He is the boy next door, a person they can relate to who speaks their language. If he were to leave home, he’d be deeply missed.


While Italy celebrated the Epiphany last week, Romans were hoping for one in relation to De Rossi. According to some, it may have finally come in the form of a photograph showing one of Roma’s new majority shareholders, the influential James Pallotta, on a visit from the United States to Italy, shaking a smiling De Rossi’s hand, as Baldini looked on during a training session at Trigoria.


Did it indicate that some sort of agreement had been reached? Or was it nothing more than a polite welcome? When asked that question on the Roma Channel, a jovial Pallotta, who apparently jumped into the training ground swimming pool fully dressed during his stay to show the team they must have no fear, joked with the reporter: “Well, I think I got De Rossi signed…”


As of yet, there has been no official confirmation, but to the hopelessly optimistic it sounded like he was having the last laugh on the matter. If so, one thing’s for certain: there’ll be smiles all round at Roma.


This article first appeared for Fox Soccer