Part three- Francesco Totti
Er Pupone, Il Bimbo d’Oro, Il Re di Roma, Il Gladiatore
“I liked Francesco straight away, not only as a player but as a person. He is a phenomenon, a rare player. It seems as if when he was born, the heavenly father said: ‘Go down there and play football and that’s it.’ And he did what he was prescribed to do” – Luigi Riva
One of an increasingly rare breed of one club men, Francesco Totti ranks as one of the best players of his generation and one of the best Italian players of all time. After over a quarter century at A.S. Roma as part of their youth and senior teams, Totti has cemented himself as a legend for his exploits on the field even if his off the field persona doesn’t attract the same level of adulation.
Francesco Totti belongs with a select few players in Europe’s top leagues debuting from 1990 to have played more than 20 years at only one club. The rest of the list begins and ends with Ryan Giggs (1990 to 2013, Man United). Next best are two more from the class of ’92 at Man United, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, 1994 to 2013 and 1992 to 2011, respectively. Such is the rarity of this feat at the top level. Totti could have left Rome in search of more certain title prospects as Real Madrid and Barcelona showed real interest in his prime. If he had moved then at the age of 26 he without doubt would have won numerous titles and his narrative, although still one of a great player, would read very differently. In the end he stayed, and not swapping Rome to Madrid was stated by the man himself as his only regret. The five (5) trophies won with Roma, including just one Serie A in 2000/01, would have hit double digits comfortably if he was solely obsessed with such accolades. Carving out the career he has in an era where such a thing is novel isn’t so bad.
“Totti is an artist of football, a true Number 10, just like I was” – Michel Platini
We have been privileged to collectively witness 24 Serie A seasons, 598 games, 247 goals and numerous assists from the Italian magician. He’s not necessarily finished yet either. Totti is considered by many to be the best of the three in this series. An immensely talented, complete attacking footballer, there isn’t much beyond the scope for Francesco to do on a football pitch. Right foot, left foot volleys, a master of the cucchiaio (scoop) also used in the panenka penalty, dribbling, passes, assists…you name it. Totti exemplifies much of what the current Italian national team now searches for.
He is underappreciated in England, almost comically so by those such as Glen Hoddle and Graeme Souness so much so that you wonder if they have ever seen the man. The ridiculous assertions that if he was truly top class he would have moved on completely ignored their very own Steven Gerrard at a club that never won the league title and were on comparable standing to Totti’s Giallorossi. His longevity perhaps fooled these underexposed Englishmen that Totti was some mid-tier player known for consistent, decent performances and loyalty. No, that’s a great, great player.
Nevertheless, the five time Italian player of the year’s record is immense. His personality has led to clashes with more than one manager. He, in some senses, is as big as the club and his influence is so much that a manager wanting to keep his job would be unwise to go against his will. Fabio Capello, Luis Enrique and Carlos Bianchi were two he butted heads with and Totti stayed while they eventually left. The strained relationship at the time with Capello, another strong willed and opinionated man, broke up what could have been a team to dominate Italy. Then they had the services of Cafu, Walter Samuel, Hidetoshi Nakata, Vincenzo Montella, Gabriel Batistuta and Totti himself. That doomed marriage ended after 2003/04.
Now approaching 30, Totti enjoyed possibly his most successful personal spell under Luciano Spalletti wining the Coppa Italia twice and finishing runners up in the league three times. Played as a centre forward, Totti put his footballing acumen and adaptability on display, essentially interpreting the role as that of a false nine. Nevertheless, the goals came…55 in 84 games over the course of three seasons between 2005 and 2008 under Spaletti and a World Cup sandwiched in between where he picked up a goal and four assists and was instrumental to that coup of a title by a determined, talented and immensely organised Italian unit.
Even then his World Cup exploits were met with criticism in Italy. It was maybe partly because of the fact that his talent has led fans to believe his output is boundless.
His Italy record… nine goals and 24 assists in 58 games and one memorable World Cup triumph as redemption after a travesty of refereeing in 2000.
Racking up records and cementing a legacy
After another tough period under Claudio Ranieri, when he was still the tinkerman, Totti reemerged under caretaker manager and former teammate Vicenzo Montella. It was in this period that the man crossed the 200 Serie A goal milestone becoming only the sixth man to do so. He also overtook another man with a claim of being the Azzurri’s greatest ever, Roberto Baggio.
The accolades kept coming. Most different teams scored against, just about every Roma appearance record, moving into second all-time on the Serie A scorers list, oldest UEFA Champions league goalscorer at 38 years, 59 days old and most Rome derby goals scored are just a few examples. His longevity has allowed for such achievements but it has come at the price of personal achievements and trophies. That his best showing in the Ballon D’or is only 5th in 2001 shows the price of playing at a club such as Roma and outside the favoured clubs for such awards. His reach and knowledge of just how great this man is…is severely dampened. Had he played in Madrid the worldwide legend would be greater but being a legend in his homeland as a seventh generation Roman is some consolation.
All three, Pirlo, Del Piero, and Totti can all lay claim to being legends of their generation and to being all-time Italian legends. Totti is the antithesis of Del Piero in personality while Pirlo is just way too cool for school. The manner in which all played and continue to play the game serve as a reminder of how good that era of football was. Three offspring to the greatest attacking player of them all, Roberto Baggio, the Italians are all forever linked by the fourth World Cup they helped bring to the Azzurri.
The new era of Italian football thirsts for players of such talent, bravado, technique and just pure footballing genius to resurrect what is one of the three greatest footballing nations in history.