The need to cash-in on young stars early in their careers means Argentine clubs in the modern era rarely get to see the most of their prodigious talents. Argentina’s loss is a usually some European clubs gain and as such, there are fewer genuine club icons created. San Lorenzo, like any one of the grandes, have had their fair share of quality skimmed off the top but in Leandro Romagnoli have been gifted a legend who can comfortably be placed alongside the likes of Rinaldo Martino or José Sanfilippo.
The 37-year-old increasingly a peripheral, if ever popular, figure of Claudio Biaggio’s side announced on Wednesday that he would be retiring and moving into a role of Director of Football at the club that he has given everything as a player.
As part of José Pékerman’s under-20 World Cup winning side in 2001, more was expected of the tricky playmaker, but while Romagnoli might not have fulfilled his vast potential, San Lorenzo got plenty of enjoyment from his gambetas, his goals and his passion.
— Leandro Romagnoli (@ElPipiRomagnoli) June 7, 2018
The son of a footballer, Romagnoli was very quickly identified as a talent within San Lorenzo’s academy and while still in the under-17s World Cup winner Oscar Ruggeri had singled the young playmaker out. When Ruggeri was made manager in 1998 it didn’t take long for Romagnoli to be handed his senior debut at only 17 years of age.
A year later and Pipi was already a regular in the side as San Lorenzo finished third in the Clausura. The following year saw Romagnoli debut in the Copa Libertadores but as San Lorenzo went out in the group stages, the remaining grandes were able to gloat once more at Los Cuervos failure to lift the greatest prize in South America.
Success was soon to follow though as Manuel Pellegrini arrived at San Lorenzo and with Romagnoli pulling the strings behind forward Bernardo Romeo, the club walked to the Clausura title – chalking up eleven straight wins.
Alongside Javier Saviola, Andrés D’Alessandro, Fabricio Coloccini and Maxi Rodríguez, there was success internationally too, as Romagnoli starred in an Under-20 side who under José Pékerman lifted the World Cup.
And with San Lorenzo following that up with the Copa Mercosur, Romagnoli looked destined for Europe like many of his Argentina teammates. However, a serious knee injury during preseason at the start of 2002 ruled the youngster out for six months and ensured that he wouldn’t be going anyway for a while.
Returning at a point when San Lorenzo’s team had lost a number of its stars, Romagnoli was undoubtedly the figurehead and proved that by leading them to the Copa Sudamericana in 2002 – scoring a decisive penalty against Racing (the side against whom he had injured his knee) in the quarter finals.
Another serious knee injury in 2003 was another huge set-back and with European clubs perhaps wary of such a history, it was Mexican club Tiburones Rojos de la Veracruz who paid a then Liga MX record transfer fee of around $3.5 million.
Romagnoli did soon after get his move to Europe but it was hardly in the circumstances expected as his year in Mexico had proved deeply disappointing and Veracruz shipped him out on loan to Sporting Clube de Portugal.
Initial frustrations only continued in Lisbon but once Romagnoli found his feet, his quality shone through. Pipi’s first full season in Portugal ended in Sporting winning the Taça de Portugal and the then 26-year-old was instrumental so the Leões took up their option of making the transfer permanent for a fee of €1.3 million.
Under the management of Paulo Bento it proved to be a moment of great success for Sporting with a consecutive Taça de Portugal, back-to-back Taça da Liga finalists and in qualifying for the Champions League for three consecutive seasons, Sporting were breaking club records.
The emergence of João Moutinho and Adrien Silva and the subsequent signing of Matías Fernández under Bento would eventually see Romagnoli marginalised and so when the playmaker was looking for pastures new, the opportunity to return to the place where he felt most loved was one he couldn’t turn down.
Injuries had taken their toll on Romagnoli but in wearing the San Lorenzo number ten shirt, Pipi almost immediately reminded the supporters what they had been missed. Trailing 2-0 against Estudiantes in La Plata, Romagnoli turned and curled in a wonderful shot from the corner of the penalty area to pull a goal back and earn his side a point. The result mattered little but it was a signal to show that the magic was still there.
Playing through injury, San Lorenzo were in the midst of a relegation battle but Romagnoli gave everything to ensure that Los Cuervos remained in the top flight and the supporters adored him even more as a result.
Ricardo Lombardi making way for Juan Antonio Pizzi saw an upturn in San Lorenzo’s fortune and while there was the disappointment of a Copa Argentina final defeat to Arsenal in October 2013, two months later, Romagnoli would be celebrating his second Primera title. A goalless draw on the final day of the season was enough to be crowned champions as Lanús failed to beat Newell’s.
Pizzi had laid the foundations with that title win but it was under Edgardo Bauza the following season that Romagnoli would reach the pinnacle of his career and forever etch himself into the history books.
Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro or, Club Atlético Sin Libertadores de América, as they had been cruelly dubbed, were the only remaining grande never to win the famous competition and every passing failure was met gleefully by rival supporters.
Only a miraculous 3-0 win over Botafogo and a 5-4 win by Independiente del Valle over Unión Española avoided an embarrassing first round exit but from there, Bauza’s pragmatic side seemed to grow in belief. A penalty win over Grêmio, a narrow victory over Cruzeiro and a semi final thrashing of Bolívar had San Lorenzo one step away from the most elusive prize.
A 1-1 draw in Asunción against Nacional had left the final up in the air but Néstor Ortigoza’s penalty at the Nuevo Gasómetro did it. San Lorenzo and Pipi Romagnoli were Copa Libertadores champions.
That 2014 side will forever be remembered but none more so than Romagnoli. Nothing could ever top that night and while the veteran has remained an active part of the squad since then, his playing time and influence on the pitch has obviously diminished.
This day was coming and while it is with sadness that Pipi calls time on his playing career, his presence at the club will not be lost. President Matías Lammens, all to aware of the adoration for Romagnoli, has wisely handed him the role of Director of Football and so supporters will be hopefully be able to continue watching as Pipi strives to take the club forward.