Few players have ever been revered with the same level of adulation, bordering on hysteria, as Francesco Totti. Il Capitano was the poster boy for the dying art of loyalty in modern football. His retirement at the age of 40 has left a gaping hole in the footballing public’s imagination.
Through his undying faithfulness to Roma, this particular legend of the game cornered the market as Serie A, and indeed Europe’s, one-club man. Sadly, players like him are becoming increasingly rare, and in his 25 years in the Italian capital, he came to epitomise all that was grand about his famous club.
Totti is a God; a cult figure; a superman. The only question mark against him is that his mantelpiece is not littered with silverware, but that is really a by-product of his decision to spend his entire career in his hometown. One Serie A title and two Coppa Italias is what he has to show for it. That, and a World Cup winners medal from 2006. If offered that at the start of their career, most players would accept it, but there has always been a feeling that it is a collection not quite worthy of one of the greats.
Individually, his career has been even more glittering. In 2000 and 2003, he was named Serie A Player of the Year, and when it comes to Serie A’s Italian Player of the Year, he has picked up the accolade no less than five times. For his goal-scoring, he has been rewarded with both a Capocannoniere and a European Golden Shoe.
In May 2017, it all came to a teary end. Such was Totti’s popularity that in the final weeks of the 2016/17 season, fans of other clubs would chant for him to be brought off the bench. AC Milan fans even prepared a banner, saying ‘La Sud rende omaggio al rivale Francesco Totti’ (The South End pays homage to our rival, Francesco Totti). It’s difficult to think of many comparisons anywhere else in Europe. Fans were practically begging to see him one last time.
Following the final whistle of that game, Luciano Spalletti was met with a barrage of criticism for not introducing the iconic number 10 onto the pitch. In theory, the coach, now in charge of Inter Milan, had as much right to marginalise Totti as he did any other player. The reality, however, was very different. It became a saga, and was close to blasphemy.
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Through no fault of his own, the continued presence of Totti in the ranks was causing a rift. The divide was one of Spalletti against the world – and against common sense. Despite his versatility, there was no real place for Totti in Roma’s starting line-up. Edin Džeko was not only the club’s top scorer, but the 29 times he found the back of the net also won him Serie A’s Golden Boot. Mohamed Salah was the other major influence in their attack. Yet there was something fitting about the fact that Totti so often found himself sitting in the dugout behind Spalletti, casting a long shadow over the beleaguered Tuscan.
Now with Inter, the former Giallorossi boss finally feels free to speak of the burden of managing such an icon as he wound down his career. A move to Inter should be a step down, given that they finished seventh and did not qualify for Europe at all, but it has released him from the shackles that were evidently becoming unbearable at his old club.
Spalletti told a press conference of the tension he felt towards the end of his second spell in charge. “In Rome, I had become the one that divided rather than united,” he said. “There was this problem on the management of Totti. I came to see this contrast – the love for the most important player prevailed on the support and affection that we had to have for the team.
“In not being able to put the two things together, I did not do my job well. These two things must go hand in hand. I was in trouble because I heard rumours from the fans. I heard them on the streets, in bars, at traffic lights. Many were in favour but there was a line of demarcation. They must all be united. I even now wish this to Roma.”
The decision to sideline his skipper seemed the defining factor that meant whether he joined Inter or not, he would not have been kept on at Roma. Achievements for which he deserved praise, such as getting the best out of former Tottenham flop Federico Fazio, were overlooked, as was coming ahead of Napoli. Juventus’ run of six successive scudettos does not reflect particularly well on the division, but Roma managed to close the gap to just four points as they finished second. In Italian football at the moment, being the best of the rest should almost be a trophy in itself.
Whatever condemnation Spalletti had to contend with, it was through no fault of Totti’s. Admittedly, the player encouraged the saga by refusing to say whether he would definitely be leaving at the end of the campaign. Perhaps he didn’t yet know – after all, the talk was nothing new. Every season, the question would be asked whether this would be his last, before he would suddenly silence the speculation by committing to another one-year contract.
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The narrative of a feud between manager and player was latched onto by some sections of the Italian media. Before the final day clash with Genoa, Spalletti insisted that there was no resentment, no in-fighting – but that he did think there was a disproportionate focus on the situation because of his star man’s profile.
A rebuke was handed to the assembled media: “He was always put at the forefront of any performance, perhaps annulling the quality of another player. Of course [the media] will take all this and make it look as if I’m angry with Totti. I use the principle of [the media] and me, but it has turned into ‘Totti and me’.
“A coach has to deal with 20 players – a whole dressing room – not just one. There was a time when Totti missed six penalties in a row. I went to other players and asked if they wanted to take the kick, but they all said they wouldn’t when Francesco was there … Totti is a gift that has been given to football. However, he has also been at times used in a way that is not right. Certain headlines and front pages use Totti to create stories and situations.”
There was little Roma could do to placate the fanboys. Spalletti’s final pre-match talk was remarkably self-aware, but it was also a nod to the tensions he was trying to avoid.
Loyalty is the quality most readily associated with Totti. The other is humility. His farewell was dramatic, but it did not rival the bizarre, narcissistic farewell of John Terry at Chelsea. Terry’s substitution in the 26th minute of his final game against Sunderland was questionable for many reasons, not least because it was entirely orchestrated and self-indulgent.
However, in many ways, the centre-back’s situation has run parallel to what happened with Totti in Rome. Antonio Conte made the bold decision that the captain would not be a major part of his plans, yet he had the advantage that – as he was quite clearly going to lead the Blues to the title – the fans accepted it almost without exception.
There is another obvious difference between Totti and Terry, and that lies in the public’s perception of them. For Terry, his flaws have long been out in the open. He has never been embraced to the extent that he deserved for his contribution, and that is undoubtedly because of the many personal scandals that have followed him around. Ultimately, it meant that in his quest to be loved on that brief, final appearance in a Chelsea shirt, he was met with ridicule by other fans.
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That provides a stark contrast to the scenes at the Stadio Olimpico against Genoa. The Italian press universally praised Totti upon his goodbye. There was a special entrance, a guard of honour, a shirt presentation. The feuding that had preceded his departure was rightly forgotten.
It was a difficult final season, with just one league start and 17 appearances from the bench. In the Europa League, he made more of an impact, with four assists in six games, but it wasn’t enough to take Roma past the round of 16. Injuries took their toll, especially on his back, and he looked a shadow of the player he once was.
Amid the emotion that greeted his retirement, it’s easy to forget that he was not always perfect. An alleged dive at the 2002 World Cup was forgiven, even as Italy succumbed to a shock 2-1 defeat to South Korea, because it was just one of a number of refereeing decisions that seemed to favour the victors on that day. There was even talk of a conspiracy against Italy. His next offence, at the European Championships in 2004, was not so easily brushed under the carpet. Most fans missed him spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen at the time, but it was picked up by the cameras, and he received a three-match ban.
That would have been a tragic way for his international career to finish. While it would still come to a premature end, the finale actually came two years later in Berlin. Gli Azzurri may never have won the 2006 World Cup had Totti not scored an injury-time winner from the penalty spot against Australia to put them through to the quarter-finals. The tournament’s memorable final against France was to prove his last game for Italy, as he decided to focus on domestic football.
Regardless of the ups and downs he enjoyed with the national side, he was never a love-hate figure. Even those who wished Roma ill begrudgingly respected him, almost to the extent that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are now above any criticisms of their respective teams. Maybe the Totti-Spalletti affair should serve as a reminder that no player should be ever bigger than the club, but there will always be some characters who transcend those laws.
Totti has been put on a pedestal he has earned through his loyalty and through his marvellous ability. The 2000/01 title was quite possibly the moment that defined the status he would enjoy for years to come – though by then he had already been playing for the senior side for eight years. For his own sake, his final season ought to be glossed over, and Spalletti’s legacy at Roma should not be remembered for a spectacle that did not need to become as theatrical as it did
By Katherine Lucas @Kat_Lucas_