Standing across from Daniele De Rossi in the tunnel of the Arena Amazonia on Saturday evening will be England players who were so nearly his teammates. Had he accepted the overtures of Roberto Mancini instead of signing a new contract with Roma in spring 2012 to become the highest-paid player in Serie A, he would perhaps have embraced goalkeeper Joe Hart and fellow midfielder James Milner. By now they would have spent a couple of years playing together at the Etihad with Manchester City. Alas, it wasn't to be.
Nor was it for their crosstown rivals Manchester United. Had chief executive Ed Woodward and manager David Moyes not wasted so much time pursuing other unrealistic targets, De Rossi would perhaps have gone to the World Cup on the back of his first season at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones might all have saluted him before they headed out onto the pitch in Manaus.
Never in a million years, some might say. De Rossi would surely never have left his hometown club. He has always been a Roma fan. His father, Alberto, a long-time coach of Roma's youth team, first took him to see them at the Stadio Flaminio in the late `80s [the Olimpico was being refurbished for Italia `90]. Daniele couldn't take his eyes off the Curva Sud. Not too long after, he'd work in front of it as a ball boy, and when Roma scored, the young De Rossi would run and celebrate with the team. Seek out the footage of Francesco Totti's earliest goals on YouTube. You'll see a blond kid going wild behind the net. That's De Rossi.
To have followed in his footsteps and those of other Romans and represented the team he supported must have been quite an emotion. De Rossi got his chance when a senior player asked to leave. It was Pep Guardiola. He grasped it with both hands and has played at the heart of Roma's midfield ever since.
To many observers, De Rossi has lived his dream. He can have no regrets. But it isn't quite that simple. True to himself and honest with the fans, De Rossi isn't afraid to bare his soul and confront the truth. Reflecting on his career last week, he told La Repubblica, "I should have left Italy when I was 20 and had a life and a football experience abroad. I would have played more Champions League and perhaps more finals. Broadened my horizons."
For years, he couldn't bring himself to leave. His parents live three minutes down the road in Ostia. De Rossi bought the dream house that he used to point out to his friends as a kid and say, "One day I'd like to own that." He plays cards with the old men in one of the bars near the beach. Separated from his first wife, moving away would perhaps have meant not seeing his first daughter Gaia as much. Along with the road sign tattoo on the back of his calf depicting a stick man making a sliding tackle, he has another one of her favourite Teletubby on his bicep. Then there's the other love of his life: The Great Beauty of the Eternal City itself.
"Rome bewitches you. It's almost impossible to leave here," De Rossi said.
And yet last summer, De Rossi came closer to doing so than ever before. The timing hadn't felt right two years ago when City made him a contract offer. De Rossi was the player around whom Luis Enrique was building his team, and he really bought into his ideas. In the meantime, however, things had changed.
When SoFoot put it to him that there had been a lot of rumours about him leaving at the end of last season, he replied, "There were a lot of rumours because the understanding was I was willing to leave.
"My link with Roma is very strong and goes very deep. I know that if I had to leave one day, a lot of the fans would be sad. So you ask yourself over and over again should I stay or should I go? You hesitate.
"And it always ends the same way. 'De Rossi is not leaving.' But [last] summer was different. I was quite convinced -- not entirely, but quite -- that it was the best thing to do for me, and for Roma. A little because of May 26 [when Roma lost the Coppa Italia final to Lazio]. But also because of the way things went with [Zdenek] Zeman, our coach last season."
A gentlemen's agreement was reached with Roma's owners. "If a good team came in with a good offer before a certain date, I would have left. I made a pact with the new coach [Rudi Garcia]. After a certain date, I could no longer leave." United's bid was made after the deadline expired.
"If this offer had arrived two weeks earlier, perhaps we wouldn't be talking about it or we would be talking about it elsewhere [i.e. in Manchester]."
Things turned out for the best. They were looking up at Roma. Garcia was a revelation. He made a real impact on De Rossi and the rest of the team. Over the winter, Il Corriere dello Sport claimed Roma's vice captain had been telling his friends, "Thank goodness I didn't go to Manchester, otherwise I would be killing myself now."
That wasn't a knock on United. Roma had set a new Serie A record by winning their opening 10 games, and at the time looked to be in with a chance of claiming their first Scudetto in 13 years. As a fan of the club, watching them achieve that so soon after leaving would have been particularly painful for De Rossi, who hadn't broken into the first team in time to be part of Fabio Capello's title-winners in 2001.
In the end, Roma finished runners-up [again], but they did so with a sense of redemption, renewed enthusiasm and a genuine belief that they can challenge next season. The last campaign was also one of De Rossi's best. He goes into his third World Cup as one of four players in the current squad to have been there, done it and got the winners' medal. To get a further idea of the man behind the beard, it's worth reflecting on his first tournament in 2006.
Still ashamed of his elbow on Brian McBride for which he received a four-match man, De Rossi returned as a second-half substitute in the final against France and showed tremendous courage to step forward as one of the penalty takers in the shootout. He wanted to make up for his mistake against the USA.
"I remember that just after I volunteered, Vincenzo Iaquinta said to me: 'You're taking one!? Are you mad? If you miss, they are going to kill you!' Of all the things to say to me at the time! I replied: 'Listen, if I miss. I miss. But if I score I will be free.' For me it would have been a lot worse to sit quietly and watch without taking my responsibility."
That's De Rossi. Never one to shy away, he faces everything head on. He scored.
While much of England's focus will be on Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti this Saturday, in particular their ability to pass and keep the ball, it's De Rossi who starts Italy's moves, dropping between the centre-backs like Sergi Busquets does for Barcelona, allowing the team's playmakers time to extricate themselves from their markers and find space. In the event that they can't, make no mistake he has the range to find another out-ball. No player averaged more passes per game in Serie A this season than De Rossi.
"I think Daniele will have a great World Cup," Marcello Lippi told La Gazzetta dello Sport last week. "He has had a great season with Roma but for a variety of reasons he almost always performs better for Italy. It could really be a worthy culmination of the years Daniele has played with the Azzurri." Should he excel against England in Manaus on Saturday, both Manchester clubs will once again be made to wonder. De Rossi could have been blue. He could have been red. And while you can't miss what you never had, the sight of De Rossi crunching into tackles and bringing the ball forward will presumably make their fans ponder what might have been. Who wouldn't want him on their team?