Italy celebrates its perfect 10s as Totti overtakes Baggio

All they had was 20 minutes. It was February 10, 1999 and Italy were sparring in a friendly against Norway under the leaning tower of Pisa when Dino Zoff threw on a 22-year-old Francesco Totti to play alongside Roberto Baggio.

Il Divin Codino had already struck the post from a free-kick. He now moved over to the left-hand side to make way for his protégé. “Totti was without doubt Baggio’s heir,” Zoff said. “Even then I knew that he had the qualities to be so and his career and his numbers confirm it.”

The match ended 0-0, but never before had Italy seen so much fantasia on the pitch at the same time, partly because of coach Ferruccio Valcareggi's damned ‘relay’ between Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera in 1970. We would never see these two formidable modern No.10s play together again.

Perhaps we would have discovered they were incompatible, but perhaps not. The only thing that stays with us is the magic. Unfortunately time was against them. Baggio’s career with Italy was coming to an end while that of Totti, a player nine and a half years his junior and a debutant in Azzurro in 1998, was only just beginning.

Memories of their brief encounter were piqued on Sunday when a brace in a topsy-turvy 3-2 victory over Bari saw Totti overtake Baggio and go fifth in Serie A’s all-time goalscoring charts with numbers 205 and 206. Interviewed by Sky Italia after the match, Totti unveiled a T-shirt on which was written “The King of Rome is not dead” – a slogan coined by FourFourTwo’s very own columnist Richard Whittle while commentating on the Rome derby in March.

“The King will never die,” Totti said. “I know what I can give. The slogan is for everyone who thought I was dead. I am happy to have broken another record and to reach a champion like Baggio. He was a great player, someone who made history. But if I have a quality it’s that of not being envious of anyone... I enjoyed designing a T-shirt with the Colosseum on the front and me on the back making the ciuccio gesture of sucking my thumb.”

Totti had prepared his commemorative clothing 10 days earlier, but Simone Perrotta scored the only goal when his former side Chievo visited the Olimpico on April 23. He faced another dilemma on Sunday when, after passing Baggio’s landmark, the referee awarded Roma another penalty. “I had already written 206 so I missed it on purpose because I only had this one T-shirt,” he laughed.

Baggio, meanwhile, wasted no time in lauding the King of Rome. “He is an example. With his passion and love for this sport, Francesco is the symbol of the fact that you can always go further, and I’d like to give him one piece of advice: he has the quality and the ability to concentrate on reaching the players who are still above him in the scoring charts. He is one of the last true No.10s.”

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Inevitably, though, it wasn’t long before comparisons were being made between the two players whom Marcello Lippi described as “monuments of Italian football”, with debate focusing on their contrasting fortunes in the World Cups of 1994 and 2006. To Totti’s credit, he saw through the parlour game right away. “I won it and he didn’t, is that what you’re saying? But he was only playing with one leg.”

A breakdown of the statistics reveals just how little there is between the pair whether it be in terms of goals scored with the right and the left foot (which Totti shades 89 to 84 and 29 to 25) or set-pieces (which Baggio edges 21 to 18 on free-kicks and 69 to 57 on penalties). Either way, both are tied on goals considered decisive, with a staggering 96 each. It’s really tit-for-tat with two Scudetti here, one Scudetto there, a Ballon d’Or here, a Golden Boot there.

“Baggio was the poet, a dream, an absolute love, which in Florence they compared to that between Dante and Beatrice,” wrote La Repubblica. “Totti instead is a party or a religion, absolute and untouchable. He has an entire [Roman] nation to lead.”

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to Carlo Mazzone, who famously mentored Totti at Roma and Baggio at Brescia. “I am privileged because I had the luck of seeing Totti’s first goal in Serie A as well as the fantastic culmination of Baggio’s career,” he recalled. “If I had been able to coach both of them together in the same team I would have won a lot and certainly wouldn’t have lost all my hair. I’d like it a lot if we could all have dinner together and remember their goals.”

Indeed, wouldn’t we all. 

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