Long read: Francesco Totti – Rome's greatest son who never got the love he deserved
(Please note: this feature originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!)
“He’s a little t***, that Totti. I can’t see what all the fuss is about.” It’s certainly not the worst thing Ron Atkinson ever said, but it must be the most vacuous. Still, Big Ron’s mind was probably elsewhere, as he followed this priceless morsel at the 2002 World Cup – his last tournament as an ITV pundit – with the words: “Are there any sandwiches? I’m starving.”
Yet the former Manchester United and Aston Villa manager is far from alone in English football’s mistrust of Francesco Totti. Fast-forward almost a decade and Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and Graeme Souness – who displays his anti-Totti badge with the unflinching pride of a Victoria Cross recipient – combined to damn the Roma forward with the faintest of praise after scoring the winner in a 2010 Champions League group game against Bayern Munich. “He’s never been accused of being a workaholic,” smirked Souness. “Yeah, he’s got talent, but you know my thoughts on him.”
Hoddle took up the baton. “No, he’s not top drawer. He’d have moved on if he was. Someone would’ve come and got him.”
“Glenn’s right,” concluded Venables. “He has been a luxury.”
The wider British football public has long made snap judgements on Totti, largely based on little more than a handful of performances – a Champions League quarter-final here, a World Cup game there. He is a riddle we can’t be bothered to untangle, with four major honours (a Serie A title, two Coppas Italia and one World Cup) at which we scoff.
It comes down to a lack of knowledge. All most Brits know about the 39-year-old is his extreme longevity and unbroken 26 years at Roma since joining as a 13-year-old in 1989. He has never left his boyhood club – we’re talking about a seventh generation Roman here – and, therefore, never got beyond the last eight of the Champions League or finished higher than fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting.
On the continent, he’s revered as a paragon of loyalty. When Roma played Barcelona in a pre-season friendly, Lionel Messi demanded both Totti’s shirt and a picture, uploading the snap to Instagram with the caption: “A great! What a phenomenon!!” It got 1.8 million likes.
Cold, hard statistics back up the continental belief over the British one. Only Silvio Piola, in a bygone goal-hanging era, has scored more Serie A goals than Totti. He’s a five-time Italian footballer of the year. He won the European Golden Boot in 2007. And, of course, he won the World Cup in 2006.
Totti will be nearly 40 at the end of the season. As Il Re di Roma (‘The King of Rome’) approaches what may be his curtain call, FourFourTwo asks the coaches, former team-mates and fans why this gladiator of European football is so revered abroad, yet so mistrusted and misunderstood here.
Why does Francesco Totti matter? What makes him tick? How has he endured so long in the Eternal City? And can he score the 30 goals he requires to overhaul Silvio Piola’s all-time Serie A goalscoring record?
“I only touched the ball a couple of times – I was too excited and too happy”
Totti Sr insisted and the tiny four-year-old, wearing red shorts and a white shirt with the No.4 on the back, danced around children twice his age, leaving them open-mouthed
“Go on, put the boy on.” Vujadin Boskov turned his gaze from Sinisa Mihajlovic, the busy midfielder offering his coach advice about substitutes, to a blond 16-year-old sat wide-eyed on the Roma bench a few seats away. The Giallorossi were 2-0 up with five minutes to go against Brescia, a disappointing season all but over in late March 1993.
“Warm up so you can go on straight away,” said Boskov to the boy, who was sat next to promising 22-year-old striker Roberto Muzzi. Yet he did nothing.
“Look,” huffed Muzzi, “he’s talking to you. Off you go.”
Later, the youngster recalled what happened next: “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.”
Francesco Totti had achieved a childhood dream, something he’s gone on to do more than 750 times since: play for Roma’s first team.
Imagining that moment a decade earlier, Totti perfected his dribbling up and down the Via Vetulonia, a tight street due south of the basilicas, coliseums and theatres that litter Rome’s ancient city centre. It’s a curious working-class mixture of Latin-red walls and post-war yellowish apartment blocks; a place nicknamed ‘tower-block Rome’, where everyone knows everyone.
Born to bank clerk father Lorenzo and housewife Fiorella, Totti always stood out. At nine months, he could walk. By four, after watching countless matches on the television in the family’s cramped apartment, his talent was already prodigious.
Once, on a family holiday to coastal seaside town Torvaianica, half an hour or so from central Rome, the infant Totti strolled down the beach with his father. Enzo asked a group of eight-year-olds if his son could join in. “He’s too small,” they insisted. “He might hurt himself.” Totti Sr insisted and the tiny four-year-old, wearing red shorts and a white shirt with the No.4 on the back, danced around children twice his age, leaving them open-mouthed.
Nobody has shaped Totti’s life quite like mum Fiorella, whose motto is: “You have to be serene and clean on the inside.” Often compared to the working-class characters portrayed by noted Italian stage actress Anna Magnani, she raised Francesco and his older brother Riccardo with a strong Catholic ethos. At one point she even took in Francesco’s future Roma team-mate and Italy international Antonio Cassano, in an effort to temper the playboy striker’s famously errant ways.
“I was also a bit of a crook,” recalled Totti. “I used to steal footballs. In the summer we would play all afternoon until sunset. Often, before going home, I took the ball, played it cool, and took off. I had a real collection. I gave them all back in the end. I wasn’t the best at school but I always paid attention and was well behaved, because of Mama.”
This is a character whose career feels predestined. The imposing Fiorella watched over her son’s studies, took him to training – at first Fortitudo, then Smit Trastevere and finally Lodigiani from 10 until 13 – and kept him on the straight and narrow. Sundays were spent going to mass, looking after ailing grandparents and playing cards around the dining table with the extended family.
“His family was a determining factor,” said Totti’s Lodigiani coach Emidio Neroni. “Enzo and Fiorella were there, but discreet, transmitting fundamental humility and seriousness. At 10, Francesco was tiny and fast. You could tell he was a natural talent. The challenge was not to hone his gifts, but to guide him in the right way. He had football in his DNA. He played dumb: he seemed to go missing. Then suddenly he would score.”
Soon, tongues were wagging about Rome’s brightest prospect in generations. Milan were interested, so were Juventus and, impossibly, so were Lazio. The Tottis, Giallorossi for decades, were having none of it and Fiorella marched into Lodigiani’s Trigoria training ground.
“Lodigiani,” remembers Gildo Giannini, who was then in charge of the Giallorosso youth system, “had already promised Totti to Lazio, but his mum Fiorella came to me demanding that Roma took him. I didn’t need much convincing – we already knew about him – and I got Lodigiani to sell him to us.”
Within a month, Totti was playing (illegally) two age groups above for the under-15s. He dedicated himself to being a Roma footballer, acting as a ball boy during the second leg of the 1991 UEFA Cup Final against Inter.
I had never seen a 16-year-old like this. He made my job easier
Still existing on a diet of bread, Nutella, margherita pizza and chips (hence the Rome dialect nickname Er Pupone – ‘the Big Baby’), the 15-year-old helped the under-17 side win a Scudetto later that year.
“I only had him for a month before he went to play for the U20s,” coach Ezio Sella tells FFT. “He immediately got my attention. You never see a player this young able to do such special things. From his first training session, I knew I had a legend in the making. He created things out of nothing. I just told him to never feel as if he’s made it, because everyone kept lauding him. Over time he’s proven this over and over again.”
Sella recalls that U17 title victory over Milan in 1991 like it was yesterday: “He hurdled every bad tackle, no matter how much they tried to stop him. Remember this is a team who had tried to sign him on more than one occasion. I played him as both a central midfielder and a forward, and he created both of the goals in a 2-0 win.
“He was the best player I’ve ever coached. He needed no technical coaching – that would’ve been a waste of time.”
Totti’s under-20s coach, Luciano Spinosi, will never forget the first time he saw his protégé play during pre-season. “After 10 minutes, I called Roma’s sporting director Giorgio Perinetti, telling him to never let this champion leave the club,” Spinosi tells FFT. “The way he hit the ball was like no one else. I’ve seen lots of young footballers, but he was special. He dragged the whole team with him. I just had to tell him to play. I had never seen a 16-year-old like this. He made my job easier.”
It was during an under-20 game in March 1993 against Ascoli that Totti’s world changed. With the first team about to depart for Brescia, head coach Boskov made the late decision to bring a 16-year-old Totti along for the ride. Fresh from scoring twice, he was substituted at half-time and got on the coach.
The following day came Mihajlovic, Boskov and the debut. He replaced Ruggiero Rizzitelli, an Italian international and Roma legend nicknamed ‘Rizzi-gol’ by the Giallorossi.
“We all expected his debut that day,” Rizzitelli tells FFT. “Many youngsters trained with the first team, but Totti was different. You don’t see many kids nutmeg a first-team player in training. But he had a huge personality to go with his talent. I told him to be calm and enjoy [his debut]. It’s only football. In a funny way, I’m proud that I was the guy who let Totti play for the first time. Every year someone calls me just to talk about that Brescia vs Roma game!”