My Perfect 10: Francesco Totti

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Playmakers Week continues with blogger James Horncastle's take on the often misunderstood Roman hero

Life could have been so different for Francesco Totti. “If I hadn’t been a footballer, I would have liked to have become a petrol pump assistant,” he said. “When I was little, it was wonderful to smell the petrol fumes and see those guys handle so much money.” Admittedly one does sometimes have to wonder whether those fumes ever went to the young Totti’s head.

But back at the family home in via Vetulonia, a leafy street in the well-to-do San Giovanni quarter of Rome, his imagination stretched to another more popular walk of life, the posters of Giuseppe Giannini and Bruno Conti on his bedroom walls, Er Principe and Marazico, serving as the inspiration behind who he is today. “As a child I slept with a ball instead of a teddy bear,” Totti would later reveal, adding yet more romance to his little Roman fairy tale.

Totti would of course make the very first steps towards emulating his heroes at local clubs Fortitudo, SMIT Trastevere and Lodigiani, before coming to the attention of Roma’s scouts Aldo Maldera and Gildo Giannini, the father of Giuseppe, who would tell Totti: “You remind me of my son.”

If that wasn’t twee enough, just when Roma thought they had him in the bag, Lodigiani received a bid from Lazio and one in excess of 100 million lire from Milan. Legend has it Totti’s mother Fiorella asked him who he wanted to play for, to which ‘Checco’ apparently replied: “Never for Lazio, I want Roma.” And the rest is history.

Rome’s prodigal son would make his debut aged 16 on March 28, 1993, which, if you think history has a tendency to repeat itself, was a sign of sorts, as the only man to do it earlier was Amedeo Amadei, the striker known to Romans as Er Fornaretto or The Baker’s Boy. Born in Frascati, Amadei was the first homegrown talisman to wow the crowds at Roma’s hallowed Campo Testaccio and he would inspire the Giallorossi to their first ever Scudetto in 1942. To success starved Roma fans, it was naturally taken as an omen. 

Carlo Mazzone, a charismatic Trasteverino, who had made his name playing for Roma in the 1950s, would take the young Totti under his wing, using him carefully, but above all protecting him from the expectations of the fans and the press. 

“For me he was like a second father because he taught me a lot,” Totti explained. “Above all, in that moment of development, in passing from the Primavera to the first team. Being Roman and a coach of experience, he understood what had to be done and he managed me as he should.” 

Totti would score his first goal for Roma under Mazzone against Foggia. “I had dreamt many times of that moment, trying to come up with a way to celebrate,” he recalled. “Instead, after I scored I didn’t know what to do. When I got home, the only thing I thought about was being hungry, so I went out with my brother and got an ice cream.”

Roma rewarded him with a professional contract worth around 60m lire a season and a Volkswagen Golf, which he could only drive when accompanied by his team-mate Fabio Petruzzi. But what’s forgotten is that Totti was very nearly driven out of the capital by Mazzone’s successor, the Argentine Carlos Bianchi.

Waiting in the wings were Sampdoria, who had him in mind to eventually replace Roberto Mancini. “Bianchi hated the Romans and above all me because I was young,” Totti revealed. “In 1996 I almost had an agreement with Sampdoria. I would have gone on loan once the market opened and I went through a few difficult days. My head was already in Genoa.” 

Il vento di pomentino, the westerly wind, which Romans believe warms the heart and dulls the mind, perhaps eased Totti’s sensitivity. It also swept away Bianchi and brought with it Nils Liedholm and then Zdenek Zeman, the outspoken chain-smoking Czech wedded to the purest form of fluid attacking football. Some years later, Zeman was asked to name the three best Italian players in circulation. He simply replied: “Totti, Totti and Totti.”

Having finally been handed the No 10 shirt that he had coveted since his childhood, Totti thrived. Er Pupone was given unlimited freedom of expression. Zeman asked him to play out of position on the left-hand side of an attacking trident with a license to cut into the middle. Totti would carry out those orders to the letter, showing an oft-ignored tactical astuteness, finding the net 25 times in two years, a real breakthrough for him, while Roma would also finish top scorers in back-to-back seasons, albeit without winning anything again. 

The full scale of Totti’s genius was now coming to the fore. Just as Cruyff had his turn and Maradona the ruleta, Totti produced his own signature move, one that would distinguish him among the great football minds of his generation. Er Cucchiaio – a slight Romanisation of the Italian word for spoon – is a lob of teasing brilliance, its delivery coming in the biggest games like the Euro 2000 semi-final, its perfection coming in a 5-1 victory over Lazio and of course against Inter.

Much to the chagrin of some Italians, particularly in the North, Totti was becoming a cultural icon. Every time he scored with Er Cucchiaio, Totti was subconsciously popularising Rome’s dialect, something he would be mocked for using, but also something he would cleverly turn to his advantage, releasing a number of joke books in Roman, the proceeds of which went to charity.

“They tease me for my accent, for my ways, for some swear words,” Totti said. “If Valentino Rossi says it, with his dialect, everyone laughs. If I say it, I am a yob, an ignoramus, a hick. Perhaps people don’t like it that an important footballer plays in Rome and not elsewhere. Football’s power isn’t exclusively in the North, but the music is always the same: we Romans are spoilt, lazy and bullies. They can think what they like. I was born Roman and Romanista. And I will die that way.”

Of course, Totti’s Romanità, his innate Roman-ness, would be constantly brought up as his star reached its ascendancy in the Capello years when Roma won only the third Scudetto in their 74-year history. To put that achievement into some kind of perspective, imagine - as lame as it may seen - not just playing for the team you have always supported, but dragging them to a title as their captain and playmaker-in-chief with the responsibility of an entire city on your shoulders, ending an 18-year drought in the process.

“It was my dream, I realised it,” Totti said in the dressing room after Roma’s Scudetto-clinching 3-1 victory over Parma at the Stadio Olimpico. 

Looking back on what it was like to coach him, Capello said: “Only Gigi Riva could kick the ball like him in Italy. But only with his left foot. Totti can use both feet and can hit the ball in several ways. Such champions can shoot 10 times per match and eight of them are aimed on target, while five are very dangerous and can turn into a goal. Totti’s shooting qualities are unique and they will stay intact for life.” 

Totti would finish just fifth in the voting for the Ballon d’Or in 2001, his highest ever ranking, which doesn’t seem commensurate with his achievements as a footballer. When he won the Golden Boot in 2007, he came just 10th. A few months beforehand Pelé had said: “Totti is the best player in the world. He has just been a little unlucky in the past.” The implication was relatively straightforward: had Totti accepted offers to join Real Madrid in 2002 or Milan in 2003, he would have enjoyed greater recognition on a global level. He would have won more, too. 

If you look at Totti’s contemporaries, be they David Beckham at Manchester United, Raul at Real Madrid or Alessandro Del Piero in particular at Juventus, all three have always played alongside other great players, the common denominator being Zinedine Zidane. Totti never had a Zinedine Zidane at Roma, never mind a Luis Figo - his success was a solo effort, a one-man orchestra. That much was shown when Sky Italia negotiated Roma’s TV rights at the beginning of the decade, inserting a clause that demanded an immediate review of the €65m a season they agreed to pay the club should Totti ever leave.

Instead, just like Paolo Maldini and Italy’s other notable one-club men like Boniperti, Antognoni, Riva and Rivera, he stayed at Roma, and that’s not all of course. Totti didn’t just become the club’s all-time leader in appearances and goals; he also reinvented himself in the process.

December 18, 2005 was a cold winter’s day on which Luciano Spalletti travelled to Sampdoria with a problem. He didn’t have any strikers and out of necessity had to line up six midfielders and no orthodox centre-forward. The avant-garde 4-6-0 was born with who else but Totti playing in the most advanced position.

Roma didn’t win that day, they drew playing very well, but the novelty of the system and Totti’s tactical nous meant they would taste victory in each of their next 11 games, a Serie A record.

This was Totti reloaded. “Before I preferred playing behind the strikers,” he said. “I almost liked making assists more than I did scoring. But when I became a sort of centre-forward, I discovered that I like scoring goals. And now I don’t want to stop.” Since moving into that position aged 30, Totti has averaged 21 goals a season, a staggering amount in a league that is still considered a super power.

One can only imagine how many goals he would have scored if he had started his career playing in that role.  “If I was playing today, I’d be like Totti, who’s become an out-and-out striker,” said French legend Michel Platini. “There aren’t any No 10s in the old playmaker role anyway.”

Whether that’s true or not, Francesco has certainly added another layer of complexity to the final third, operating neither as a No 10 or a No 9, but as a 9 and a half. “It’s clear that Totti is one of the few players who doesn’t have a substitute because there is nobody around who plays like him,” reasoned Marcello Lippi. “There are no alternatives for Totti. No one else can play Totti’s position.”

It’s really of little wonder then that Lippi was prepared to wait for him when he suffered a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments just four months before the 2006 World Cup. He may not have performed at the same level as at Euro 2000 on account of his rush back to fitness, nor has winning the World Cup diminished the image of him spitting at Christian Poulsen, but Totti’s playing attributes shouldn’t be up for debate.

In terms of fantasia, it’s true, the 33-year-old has his peers, others can hit wonderful passes on the turn a la Totti, but where he is unique is in his much-underrated ability to protect the ball. This blog has struggled to find that doggedness, often misinterpreted as petulance, in other playmakers for whom physique du role means being more butterfly than bulldog.

Defining what constitutes a playmaker certainly isn’t easy. Francesco is emblematic of that ambiguity. Whatever his faults, Totti somehow manages to transcend the game itself. When I moved to Rome, I was struck by a comment of Zeman’s who recalled arriving in the city from Palermo. “Like in ancient history,” he said. “For every real Roman, you have an adopted one, who is immediately integrated and made to feel Roman as well.”

Sentimental as it may sound, I learnt a lot about what it means to be Roman from Totti, the good and the bad. That doesn’t mean I’m about to reveal a “Sei Unica” T-Shirt like he did for Ilary Blasi after scoring in the derby, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Roma without Totti would be like Rome without the Coliseum.

More from James Horncastle

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