Francesco Totti has become synonymous with Roma but, as Greg Lea explains, the iconic Italian forward's time at the top table is drawing to a close...
Some players become legends at their club. Others, like the Giallorossi captain, become the bedrock on which a club’s identity is built.
There is nothing that gets football supporters excited quite like the first-team debut of a locally born academy product.
These players – often replete with tales of serving as a ball boy or mascot at the club or having had their photograph taken alongside a former star as a wide-eyed 10-year-old – are always given more of a chance by those on the terraces, who unconditionally cheer them on, willing them to succeed.
It’s 22 years since Francesco Totti was that youngster, full of hopes and dreams as he pulled on a Roma shirt for the first time against Brescia on March 28, 1993 at the tender age of 16. Even the most optimistic Giallorossi fan could not have imagined things turning out as they did over the next two decades, with Totti becoming both the club’s greatest ever player and the spiritual symbol of its collective identity.
This season, though, could be his last. Totti’s contract expires in June, with reports emerging earlier this year that Roma would not be handing him a new one. It has always been known that this day would come, but that doesn’t make it any easier for fans to face, particularly when there is arguably no player as synonymous with a single club in modern times. Totti’s sheer longevity is incredible - it’s possible for a Roma supporter to have started and finished school, got married and had kids of their own in the period between his first and most recent appearance at the Stadio Olimpico.
He is also a marvellous footballer, one of the best Italy has ever produced. Only Silvio Piola has scored more Serie A goals than Totti’s 243, a remarkable return considering he’s not even really a striker. While he has played up front – most notably as a false nine under Luciano Spalletti in 2007 – it is more than just goals that define him. A quintessential trequartista, Totti has always been at his best when operating in the space between midfield and attack, wandering across the forward line, pulling strings as he goes.
A certain Romance
Totti’s combination of loyalty and ability makes him adored by Roma fans and respected by lovers of the game around the world. Other one-club men – Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs, for example – clearly loved their clubs, but were never put in a situation where they had to choose between personal allegiance and professional progression. Both were world-class talents whose gifts tallied with the standing of their teams: the pair won a combined 20 league titles and seven European Cups at Milan and Manchester United.
That was never the case with Totti, who could have moved elsewhere for more medals and more money. Real Madrid tried to lure him away in 2004 and Totti appeared to have had his head turned, but eventually he chose to stay in his home town. Many believe he actually had no intention of leaving the club and was instead using the Spaniards’ interest to force the Giallorossi hierarchy into improving the squad. As former boss Spalletti once remarked: “It would be easier to move the Colosseum out of Rome.”
Fellow homegrown Roma fan Daniele De Rossi – who has been called Il Capitano Futuro for years but the 32-year-old midfielder may only actually enjoy a couple of seasons with the armband, given Totti’s permanence – and Alessandro Florenzi will continue to provide a link between the terraces and the pitch, but it is difficult to imagine the team from the eternal city without their eternal No.10.
It would be easier to move the Colosseum out of Rome
Roma have struggled to find a long-term successor for Totti on the pitch, too. While that is partly because of his astonishing durability, it is a worry that Rudi Garcia’s side can still appear so reliant on a 38-year-old. Totti made 36 appearances in all competitions last season, and although Miralem Pjanic is a wonderfully creative midfielder, Roma often miss the captain’s attacking invention and subtlety if he’s absent. He’s clearly not the player he once was, but his game-changing interventions still invariably prove decisive.
The capital club may be among the favourites to lift the Scudetto this season, but it should be remembered that they finished 17 points behind champions Juventus in each of the last two campaigns.
Heading into the start of the season, Juve look as strong as ever despite some high-profile departures, Inter and Milan have strengthened, and Napoli, Lazio and even Fiorentina are hoping to be there or thereabouts in the race for the Champions League places come May.
It’ll be tough for Totti to win that elusive second title in what could be his final year as a professional. For a player of his ability and standing, one Scudetto and two Coppa Italias is scant return on a 22-year career.
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Yet he has no regrets. When asked in 2007 why he had not moved on to win more silverware, Totti replied: “Because I grew up playing for Roma and I want to die playing for Roma.” This is a man who as a teenager reportedly turned down Lazio at the age of 12 because he could not face wearing the shirt of Roma’s bitter rivals.
That ambition to die in a maroon shirt may be pushing it, but a new contract might yet come his way, allowing Totti to fulfil his previously expressed desire to continue playing until his 40th birthday. Nevertheless, the end is now very much on the horizon for this most extraordinary of youth products - the Roma supporter who only ever had eyes for Roma. And if this is to be his final campaign as a professional, all football fans should sit back and enjoy the spectacle. After all, we might never again see another quite like Francesco Totti. All hail the King of Rome.