Film review

11 Metri - The Penalty

October 23, 2012
By Tom Sweetman


As respected European football journalist Gabriele Marcotti introduced the showing of 11 Metri - The Penalty at the Kicking and Screening Film Festival in his dulcet Italian/American tones, he left the audience in no doubt that what they were about to see was one of life's incredible stories - one that you wouldn't really be able to write if you tried.

11 Metri
Other11 Metri: The story of the life and tragic death of Agostino Di Bartolomei

Marcotti gave a teaser of what the film was to be about: a Roma captain, adored by his fans, who would lead the club to their darkest ever hour - a penalty shootout defeat to Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup final in their own back yard. Ten years to the day after that loss, he would shoot himself in the heart. With the protagonist of the film, Agostino Di Bartolomei, a little before my time, this was all news to me.

The film - shot in documentary style - kicks off showing how a young boy from a working-class neighbourhood in Rome grows up to be an idol in the city. It paints a vivid picture of his upbringing and how he possessed the qualities required to lead a city into battle from an early age.

And then bang. Fast-forward to a fully-matured Di Bartolomei wearing the colours of the Giallorossi and doing what he does best... hitting the ball into the back of the net, very hard. He is now the "captain with a capital C", commanding the respect of the whole team - the link between the players and the board, the link between the players and the fans. He is the most important person in the city of Rome barring the Pope. He may be the man who never smiled - a hint towards his future depression - but he was a man who could get his message across without needing to.

As the film progresses, you begin to understand just what a complex character Di Bartolomei really was. We learn about a mugging involving the player at a restaurant, and from that day on he would never be seen (except on the pitch) without his bag, with a gun nestled inside. Was this paranoia or just playing things on the safe side, in a city where one man can be loved by the Roma fans but despised by Lazio followers? After one Derby della Capitale we see how the Roma players are somehow caught up among the Lazio fans outside the stadium. In what soon becomes an intimidating and threatening atmosphere, Di Bartolomei removes his gun from his bag and points it towards the opposition. Playing things on the safe side then, although I'd say there was some paranoia involved too.

The early 1980s is perhaps the most glorious period in Roma's history, with Di Bartolomei playing alongside such stars as Paulo Falcao and Roberto Pruzzo. And in 1983 these players guided the club to their first league title in 41 years. Cue beautiful montages of how the game should be played. The win in 1983 of course sets the side up for the focal point of the film - the 1983-84 European Cup and the final, played at the team's own Stadio Olimpico.

Knowing that Di Bartolomei's death comes exactly ten years after the final, 11 Metri - The Penalty does not quite do this uber-significant part of the story justice. Yes, it tells the tale of the night and how Roma eventually go down to Liverpool on penalties (Di Bartolomei scored his). And, yes, we do learn what a terrible night it was for anyone involved in the club who thought it their divine right to win that final. It just seems to happen too quickly and move on to the next chapter of Di Bartolomei's career, leaving you wanting more. A lot more.

We soon learn about how the player was ousted by new manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and moved on to AC Milan, a switch that plants a seed of doubt in Di Bartolomei's head that his career is not going to last forever. The tension over the transfer, which severs his ties with Roma (though, in the case of the fans, only briefly), comes to a climax on his return to the Stadio Olimpico in the colours of Milan. A mini-brawl breaks out with him at the centre as he is targeted by some of his former team-mates. However, Di Bartolomei, as was his wont, rose above it and scored as Milan win 2-1. Sweet revenge.

His career soon fades out at Cesena and Salernitana, where he, naturally, becomes a hero at both clubs. He then turns his eye onto coaching kids and campaigning for a sports centre to be built in the local neighbourhood, making the foreshadowed ending all the more sad.

The final part of the film delves into the depression he suffered after hanging up his boots, culminating in his suicide. The final chapter is also over too quickly - and the two most integral parts of the film are just not given enough coverage. You can't help feel a little short-changed.

However, the story really stands up for itself - it is one so extraordinary that it would not be surprising if a Hollywood scriptwriter were to produce it. 11 Metri - The Penalty is a must-see film that will educate those who, like me, had not come across the tale of Agostino Di Bartolomei and one of football's greatest tragedies.