Chelsea colossus Antonio Rudiger returns to Rome on Tuesday night as a significant figure in Italian football, and not only because the powerful £34million defender was a major reason his former club qualified for this season’s Champions League.
Rudiger is remembered in Serie A for the way he was forced to stand up to racial slurs, opening up the issue to wider debate and scrutiny in Italian football.
It was last December that Lazio’s Senad Lulic mocked Rudiger after the Rome derby by saying: ‘Two years ago he was selling socks and belts in Stuttgart, now he acts like he’s a phenomenon.’
Antonio Rudiger has made a big impression at Chelsea since his summer transfer from Roma
Rudiger returns to Rome with Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday night
Lulic was banned for 20 days – but missed just one Serie A game because it coincided with the winter break – and fined £8,500 for his hurtful remarks.
Rudiger also continued to be punished for the colour of his skin. Lazio fans directed jeers and monkey chants at him when the two city rivals played next, forcing the stadium announcer to appeal for calm.
The lack of action from Italian authorities to combat racism properly with stadium bans or points deductions prompted Rudiger to say: ‘You see posters saying “No to racism” but nothing is really done about it in Italy. In several games fans have made monkey chants but still nothing has happened. It’s simply incomprehensible.
‘I find it’s easy for other people who don’t have the same skin colour as me to say that we should stay quiet. They will never know how it feels. My opinion is that this needs to be dealt with strongly.’
Rudiger was subjected to racist abuse from Lazio supporters during his time in Rome
He was also racially mocked by Senad Lulic – here wearing a t-shirt against anti-Semitism
Rudiger refused to take the abuse and fought back, while also proving himself on the pitch
It might have been a relief therefore for Rudiger when he signed for Chelsea last summer having helped Roma finish runners-up in Serie A to Juventus.
The reception the 24-year-old German international gets in the Stadio Olimpico will be interesting given his history, but there’s no doubt the travelling Chelsea fans are full of admiration for the way he’s started in the Premier League.
Despite Chelsea’s general problems in trying to defend their title, Rudiger has given Antonio Conte’s back three the transfusion of pace and physicality needed after the departure of John Terry and ageing of 31-year-old Gary Cahill.
Rudiger, born and raised in Berlin where his parents met after fleeing the civil war in Sierra Leone, has become a regular starter.
ANTONIO RUDIGER’S CAREER SO FAR
Born: Berlin, Germany
2015-16 Roma (loan)
Germany – 20 caps, 1 goal
1x Confederations Cup
Though Chelsea have been unusually vulnerable at Stamford Bridge – including a 3-3 draw with Roma in the first Champions League clash between the teams – their supporters will be glad to note that the club have conceded only three goals in the five away matches where Rudiger has featured.
Conte wanted Rudiger to join him when he arrived in England in 2016. But the player suffered a cruciate ligament injury which kept him out of Euro 2016 and put his departure from Roma on hold for a year.
Tactically, he is used to playing in a back three and his physique means he’s had no problems adapting to the more robust nature of the Premier League. Four yellow cards this season show he is happy to mix it when required, but that’s an improved disciplinary record from last season when he was sent off twice with Roma.
Having started his career in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart – he chose them ahead of Borussia Dortmund because it offered a quicker route into the first-team – the move to Italy undoubtedly improved Rudiger as a player.
German national team coach Joachim Low now sees him as an important part of the country’s World Cup defence in Russia next summer.
‘He came on a lot and gained plenty of experience with Roma,’ said Low. ‘He has huge potential.’
Rudiger left the trouble in Italy behind for Chelsea in a big £34m deal last summer
He has settled in well and was pictured wrestling with N’Golo Kante in training on Monday
Chelsea are top of Champions League Group C heading into the match in Rome
Rudiger believes the progress has continued in England under Conte. ‘He is a fantastic coach and has improved a lot of players like Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses. They played a great season to win the title and that’s why I thought: “I want to be part of that”.’
Defensively, the 6ft 3in stopper has been solid. He scored his first Chelsea goal a week ago with a clever header that dropped over Everton’s Jordan Pickford in a 2-1 Carabao Cup win. And on Saturday he got the nod over Cahill to partner David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta in a well-drilled 1-0 win at Bournemouth.
He should be treated as a hero on his return to Rome given what he had to put up with in Italian football. Hopefully he’ll be given a great reception from both sets of supporters.