Last September, Roma players were granted an audience at the Vatican by Pope Francis and was showered with gifts upon their arrival. One of those gifts included a #1 custom jersey by club legend, Francesco Totti, hailing the pope’s love for the sport, growing up a San Lorenzo fan in his native Argentina.
Jokingly, people said Pope Francis met God that day. While Totti may not possess the everlasting powers of the Holy One, Roma fans would be the first to tell you he is their omnipresent saviour; blessing Italy’s capital city with its greatest sporting treasure. When the 40-year-old officially calls it a career on Sunday as the Giallorossi host Genoa in their Serie A finale, the beautiful game will miss a one-of-a-kind talent who was equally mercurial as he was temperamental. Though his final chapter as a player is almost completed, you can’t help but feel there’s a cliffhanger for a player who re-wrote the history books, but hardly had his name written into silverware.
A man who’s won a league title, two Coppa Italia titles and a World Cup while becoming the second-leading scorer in Serie A history (250 goals) should have nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, he should be commended for his loyalty and love for his home town club, proving he was never in it for the money. Having previously hinted a bit of regret at not joining Real Madrid in 2003 though, the closest he ever came to leaving the Stadio Olimpico, there’s no doubt Totti himself, like football fans across the world, wonders what could have been.
By 2003, Totti’s status as one of the best in the sport was assured. Er Pupone (The Big Baby), a loyal servant at the club since puberty kicked in, became known for his versatility as a crafty #10 as well as a skill merchant on the wing. Moulded into such a dual threat by the likes of Zdeněk Zeman and Fabio Capello, Totti won Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year and Footballer of the Year awards in 1998/99 and 1999/00 respectively, leading the league in assists in the former campaign. But while he reached great individual heights, Roma couldn’t come anywhere close to silverware, finishing no higher than fourth in Serie A in his first eight seasons. The last of those eight seasons, 1999/00, Totti watched with disgust as arch-rivals, Lazio, won the Scudetto.
The following season, however, would finally see the King of Rome be crowned. Thanks to the additions of Gabriel Batistuta and Hidetoshi Nakata, Roma made its charge the Scudetto and would not be denied, with Totti scoring on the final day against Parma to help secure the club’s first Serie A title in 18 years and first silverware of any kind in 10 years.
Unfortunately, silverware turned to just silver the next season as Roma lost the title to Juventus by a single point. While Roma’s saviour can never be accused of being a Judas, Totti has more than half the proverbial pieces of silver the former disciple received for betraying Jesus. The capital club’s talisman has been a runner-up an astonishing 16 times at club level in his career, all coming after his Scudetto triumph. Eight times during that span, Roma has been second best in Serie A and is closing in on a ninth runner-up spot to now six-time defending champions, Juventus. Their next closest call after 2001/02 came under Claudio Ranieri in 2009/10, when Roma led the league with four games remaining. Unfortunately, a costly slip at home to Champions League-chasing Sampdoria, coupled with Inter Milan’s win at Lazio (a game Lazio fans unapologetically cheered for Inter to win) cost Roma their best chance to become league champs in the last 15 years.
You can accuse Roma of taking Totti for granted seeing as how they never truly surrounded him with top class talent to attain greater success. But you can also accuse Totti of being comfortable and loyal to a fault, perhaps being more concerned with gaining power as Rome’s dominant figure as supposed to sharing the spotlight with players of equal repute. This made him a hard man to manage at times, especially in both spells under Luciano Spalletti, with spats over playing time and Luis Enrique, who infamously substituted a visibly upset Totti during a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava in 2011/12 that they’d ultimately lose. His relationship with Enrique was rocky, with Totti wearing a shirt saying ‘Basta’ (‘enough’), shortly after that, though the now Barcelona manager eventually won his respect.
Totti would also refuse to be substituted and sometimes when he was (especially under Ranieri), would refuse to take off his captain’s armband, less than subtle reminders that this was his kingdom and he would not allow anyone to threaten his power.