Francesco Totti: Eternal man in the eternal city

This could be Francesco Totti’s last season in football. Here’s a look at the phenomenon who has never changed clubs, and at 40, is just as good as he was at 22

Francesco Totti in his No.10 jersey in a match against AC Chievo Verona in 2015. Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters
Francesco Totti in his No.10 jersey in a match against AC Chievo Verona in 2015. Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters

He is 40 years old, and he wears his hair in the cropped style so favoured by athletes today. Occasionally, a lock strays towards the right eye as a reminder of what used to be a flowing mane held back by a thin string high over his forehead. On the pitch, he has no problem turning back the years at AS Roma, the club he joined in 1989. He glides through midfield, into the attacking third, and cuts through defenders just like he has been for the past quarter of a century. In 1993, he made his debut in Roma’s deep red jersey with its golden yellow trim. He has worn it ever since. In the world of football, where so much, and so many, move so fast, this is a man who defined the word “faithful”. Every now and then, he would don the Savoy Blue of Italy. In 2006, he won football’s most coveted trophy in these colours. At the back of the shirt, his name gleamed in golden print, under it, the most coveted number in football, the No.10.

He was born in Rome in 1976, and it is here, in this old city, that he continues to inspire, entertain, and mesmerize with the ball at his feet. And just like Rome, whose history and beauty is one of calcified glory, he refuses to bow down to the modernism of his sport. He is Francesco Totti. And we’re witnessing his last years in the world of football, if not the last.

Totti playing against Palermo in 2015. Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters
Totti playing against Palermo in 2015. Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters

Totti’s name belongs in the pantheons of football. Partly it is because of his longevity—750 club appearances and 59 international matches—but this constancy, remarkable as it is in any sport, is only the result of something far more invaluable: a brilliance on the field that refuses to fade. The Roma captain’s story is one of an unending reservoir of talent, along with the ability to continue fighting for his club’s place as a top Italian team.

It’s almost surprising that Totti is second in the list of all-time Serie A goal scorers—that’s ahead of names like Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta, Alessandro del Piero and even Giuseppe Meazza, considered by many as Italy’s greatest ever footballer. Totti’s latest goal, which came against Torino on 25 September, took him to 250 strikes. Only Lazio and Juventus legend Silvio Piola is ahead of him, on 274, a record which has stood since 1954.

In the time he has spent at Roma, Totti has seen Filippo Inzaghi, Christian Vieri, David Trezeguet and even Zinedine Zidane come and go from Serie A. He had offers from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, but Totti turned them all down: season after season, manager after manager, scandal after scandal, Totti kept going for Roma.

Totti in a match against Foggia Calcio in 1994. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Totti in a match against Foggia Calcio in 1994. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

What makes a footballer of such proven greatness stay with his childhood club—a club without the kind of championship-winning pedigree of say, Barcelona, in this era of whirlwind big-money transfers and high ambitions (Roma has never progressed beyond the last eight in the Champions League, and won the Serie A only once, in the 2000-01 season, since Totti joined them)? When Roma played Barcelona in a pre-season friendly last year, that other mascot of loyalty and footballing greatness, Lionel Messi, asked Totti for his shirt and posed with him for a photograph, uploading it on Instagram with the caption: “A great! What a phenomenon!!”

Totti’s love affair started very young. He was born in a working class family and grew up in the most working class of Rome’s neighbourhoods, a narrow street called Via Vetulonia, crammed with post-war apartment blocks. His father was a bank clerk, and his mother an imposing housewife who drilled in her children stern moral and family values. Totti spent his time watching football on TV with his extended family, or perfecting his close control drill in the narrow alleys.

“But when I was seven years old, my father got tickets and I finally got to see I Lupi, the Wolves, in the Stadio Olimpico,” Totti wrote in The Players’ Tribune in August. “I can close my eyes and remember the feeling. The colours, the chants, the smoke bombs going off. I was such a lively child that just being in the stadium around all those other Roma fans lit up something inside me. I don’t know how to describe the experience...bellissimo.”

A mural depicting the player. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
A mural depicting the player. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

For this Roman, there was only ever going to be one club. He was already a precocious talent, watched over by his mother, who took him for formal football training by the time he was 6. At 13, AC Milan was already knocking on his door. Totti’s mother flatly refused the offer. She wanted him to hold out for Roma.

But falling in love and making it to a club is one thing and performing is another. Late in the 1992-93 season, a disappointing one for Roma, coach Siniša Mihajlović decided to give the then 16-year-old Totti his first taste of big-league football. In a Serie A match against Brescia, which Roma was winning, Totti came on for the final 5 minutes.

“I went out, warmed up for 10 seconds and went on. I only touched the ball a couple of times…I was too excited, and too happy,” Totti recalled later.

Totti then found a mentor—he was slowly given more and more playing time with the first team under coach Carlo Mazzone, who both protected him from the glare of the media, and developed and honed his abilities in one of the most difficult and unique of positions: the trequartista. Literally, the word means “three quarters” in Italian. The word describes the position well—it’s neither here, nor there. Totti’s position was to be a hole behind the conventional striker and the midfielders—a “withdrawn forward”—neither an all-out forward, nor a midfielder. It is a position that needs a spark of genius—you have to be equally good as a playmaker and a finisher, you have to have extreme situational awareness, and be able to think rapidly on your feet. These are the drifters, the ones who create and score and make your jaws drop, and have complete freedom of movement on the pitch. No wonder Diego Maradona reveled in the position. Or Zinedine Zidane. And now, Messi.

Totti made the position his own, and just five years after making his debut, he was given the captain’s armband. He was just 22. Now there was no holding him back. He scored audacious goals, created silken passes, and pulled an otherwise average team up the league table. Over the years, he proved equally devastating as a left winger, as part of a strike pair, and as a lone forward.

That taste and ability for audacity on the field has seen him score the famous chipped goals against Inter Milan in 2005 and against Lazio in 2002. Then there’s the “Panenka” penalty against Holland at Euro 2000, a deft clip past a bemused Edwin van der Sar (apparently, Totti had already told his coach he would chip the Dutch keeper). His best goals are cool, calculated and cut-throat; enthralling for his fans and agonizing to his detractors. He has two equally brilliant feet, an eye for a long pass that can create something out of nothing, a first-touch that makes the ball stop when and where he wants it to, and a precise finish, be it from close range or 30 yards out. Expand his Roma career to European and cup competition, and he sits on top of the club’s scoring charts with 306 goals, scoring in 23 consecutive seasons. He has created another 126. For Italy, he has nine goals and 11 assists: four of these came in their world cup winning campaign. Just like his ancestors, who ruled Europe with their sly political strategy, Totti’s brain sees play develop two steps ahead of his closest marker, allowing him to treat defences with alarmingly good positioning.

But it’s not just a skill, there’s also the ruthless Roman edge, a psyche that sits at odds with his skills. While Zidane’s aggression is captured in one frame—him head-butting Marco Materazzi’s chest—Totti’s moments of madness are too many and too different to encapsulate in a few thousand pixels. He was the subject of controversy as early as 1989 when Lazio and Milan came calling and his fiery mother turned them down. In 2007, he missed a drug test because he had to “apply ice to his ankle”. A similar misdemeanour cost former Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand eight months. In 2015, it was found that a run-down office building he rented to the Rome city council for homeless people saw him make more than double the going rate of the area. This scandal erupted again in January, when everyone involved with the project, except Totti and his brother (and agent) Ricciardo, were arrested. Mafia bosses who were jailed accused Totti “of using local police for his own needs and paying them back in handoffs”. He apparently even paid policemen €50,000 (Rs36.19 lakh) to keep a group of Lazio ultras from kidnapping his son.

On the pitch, Totti has received 123 yellow cards and has been sent off 15 times; once, for kicking out at the equally volatile Mario Balotelli, a sending-off remembered for how his face didn’t even flicker as he walked away. There’s a belief that Totti, being Totti, can get away with anything: the badass-ery and the mistakes, they are all part of the enigma.

Totti has been a ballboy at Roma games. He became their youngest skipper. He made the throat-slitting gesture in a match against Juventus. He’s taken a selfie with fans, mid-match, after scoring a gloriously acrobatic goal. Totti broke a leg, recovered just in time for the world cup in 2006, and won it for his nation in a remarkable show of physical and mental resilience. Totti is plastered across his city in murals. When he was young, his favourite player was Il Principe (“the Prince”) Giuseppe Giannini. Now it is Totti who is Il Re di Roma (The King of Rome). In his own words, “Rome is the sea, the mountains, the monuments. Rome, of course, is the Romans. Rome is the yellow and red. Rome, to me, is the world.”

Totti is the eternal man in the eternal city.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.

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