As featured on Guardian Sport
Rome, the Eternal City, has hosted some of the game’s all-time greats – among them Conti, Falcão, Signori and Chinaglia. None, however, are greater than current captain and symbol, Francesco Totti. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to label the local star as one of European football’s greatest talents. Further to that, on skill alone, Totti may well lay claim to being one of the finest players in the history of the sport. His skill is at times immeasurable, for what he brings to Roma is unique and everlasting.
Strangely, it’s romance that may never have blossomed. It is widely accepted that Totti’s mother turned down a lucrative offer from AC Milan so that he could join his hometown club, a dream that was realised in 1989. Foreseen as one for the future by Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani – whilst Fabio Capello went about revolutionising calcio with his invincible Milan team of the early 1990s – the pair must have been left rueing the what ifs had Totti indeed joined the Rossoneri revolution.
However, despite all evidence to the contrary, considering the success of his remarkable career, it would be safe to assume that such presumptuous hindsight would be misguided, given the very nature of Totti’s success with Roma, the one and only club he has ever represented professionally.
Like so many geniuses, his career is flawed; blotted by moments of madness. Controversy has followed Il Bimbo d’Oro (The Golden Boy) throughout his career and his psyche remains one of the most intriguing and unpredictable in the game.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Totti is that he’s still here; still gracing our screens with match-winning performances and memorable goals; still bringing hope to a city besieged with socio-economic and cultural challenges; still giving hope to the thousands of children who dream of becoming the next monument in Italian football; still keeping alive the romantic dream of the classic fantasista.
He is, along with Juan Román Riquelme, quite possibly the last of the aforementioned breed. He still relies on technique, vision and precision – much like he did on 28 March 1993 when he made his debut in an unremarkable 2-0 away victory against Brescia.
His genius lies in his three unrivalled skills: the ability to create something from nothing off either foot, his supreme and deadly finishing – which has brought him 250 Serie A goals – and the confidence with which he goes about his business. Who can, of course, forget his Panenka from Euro 2000 against the Netherlands?
Read | How Del Piero and Totti heralded Italy’s new wave of Fantasistis
His genius also lies in his psyche. His feet are natural. Touching a ball, striking perfectly with ease, comes naturally. However, his mind is what separates him from the rest. He thinks ahead. He’s the enigma who has carried his hometown club for over two decades and won a World Cup along the way.
Some managers have tried to negate the enigmatic Italian’s influence. Luis Enrique notably paid the price. Not necessarily because he lost his job, but because Roma lacked invention, skill and unpredictability. Perhaps Fabio Capello best laid the blueprint on how to use Totti back in 2001: don’t stop using him. Make him the focal point of every attacking move and let him carry the burden. He can- he’s certainly strong of mind.
His stats are sublime: Totti has played more than half of his footballing career as a classic trequartista and yet, has managed to outscore greats like Del Piero, Baggio and Batistuta; players that had more freedom to score as forwards and have played more or less the same number of matches as the Roma captain.
Who can forget his 113th strike back in the 2005-06 season at the Giuseppe Meazza against Inter, where his majestic chip from outside the box sailed over a stranded Francesco Toldo? That goal is perhaps one of the greatest chips scored in calcio history. Sadly, having suffered a career-threatening injury a few months later, many feared that they’d seen the last of the star at the very top of the game.
But his love for football and Rome helped him recuperate in time to be selected by Marcello Lippi for the 2006 World Cup in Germany where he played every match and, having contributed four assists and the crucial last-minute penalty against Australia in the second round, was one of the protagonists of the world conquering Azzurri side. That was some comeback, and for his never-ending fight to stay fit even after the age of 35, he deserves nothing but respect.
At 40, he’s fitter and stronger than most players from his era still playing the game. Perhaps he can’t drift around like he used to, especially in the channels, however his ability to find space in key areas ensures he remains one of the game’s most dangerous players. For a man who many considered to be past his best when Luis Enrique took charge in 2011, he has improved and grown yet again. Just like any eternal being would.
People spend plenty of time asking Totti why he never moved clubs in search of trophies but the truth is, why would he? He is the soul of Roma, lauded as their saviour and afforded hero status; and he loves the adulation. Always a man in search of a greater purpose to find motivation in performing his magic on the pitch, Roma has long presented itself as the ideal foil for him to find his way to superstardom.
Read | The divisive final days of Francesco Totti at Roma
The relationship between Roma and Totti is of mutual benefit. Roma need their captain to galvanise the team and Totti needs a major stage to shine on – it’s not difficult to see why he remains motivated and hungry to carry on. Thankfully for the world of football, Totti made the right decision to turn AC Milan down as a child. He hasn’t looked back since.
This isn’t to say he hasn’t had offers. Real Madrid came on occasions and were politely ushered away. Manchester United tried their luck in 1999 and 2000. Sir Alex Ferguson had openly spoken of his admiration for Totti’s talent and his desire to see him grace Old Trafford. Perhaps his incessant desire to turn away potential suitors and remain in Rome is what deters some quarters of the English media from truly understanding him.
Despite dividing opinion at times, it has done little to disparage the Italian who, according to IFFHS, was the most the popular footballer in the whole of Europe as late as 2011. For Totti, he will ultimately judge his career on what he’s given back to the Romans, who he calls “his people”.
Trophies are a bonus and the 2001 Scudetto will surely sit proudly alongside his European Golden Shoe in 2007 and World Cup winner’s medal. Factor in his five Italian Player of the Year awards and he will no doubt sleep easy.
Success is subjective. Ask Alan Hansen and he’ll tell you it’s all about the number of trophies you have in your cabinet. Ask Steven Gerrard or Paolo Maldini, however, and they’ll point to Hansen’s fact, alongside the achievement of playing for one club – the club you love – your entire career.
For Totti, his subjectivity cannot be criticised. For him, he’s given more back to the people of Rome than any trophy can. He’s given them loyalty and hope – a role model and a “monument”, as Lippi calls him. He’s given them the chance to live each game through a man who wandered the same streets as they did as boy. Most importantly, he’s kept their identity alive.
In an Italy where identity and social segregation becomes an ever increasing and contentious topic in political forums, he’s united the people of various clubs and groups through his undoubted talent and application. And as he celebrates turning 40, he offers a wonderful glimpse into a bygone era of success at Roma and for the wider Italian game.