FRANCESCO TOTTI WAS THE ETERNAL PLAYER IN THE ETERNAL CITY
Words: Sam Diss
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Editor's Note: This piece was originally written in 2016, at the start of what would be Francesco Totti's final season, and appeared in Issue 5 of MUNDIAL.
“He is a phenomenon. A rare player. It seems as if when he was born, the heavenly father said: 'Go down there and play football and that’s it’.”—Gigi Riva, legendary Italian striker
Eighty-three minutes have gone in the semifinal of Euro 2000. Italy are playing against tournament hosts Holland in their cathedral, the Amsterdam ArenA, and the score’s stuck at nil–nil. Italy are a man down, thanks to a second yellow for Gianluca Zambrotta. Francesco Totti enters, replacing Udinese midfielder Stefano Fiore—an instantly forgotten footballer in navy-and-silver Valsport Era boots.
Quite a lot of pressure then, Francesco. Pressure that Holland have been steadily cranking up for the whole match. Two missed penalties, Bergkamp pulling strings, Bergkamp hitting posts, Barcelona’s gleaming Patrick Kluivert giving statuesque Italian defender Alessandro Nesta, Emperor Augustus of the eighteen-yard box, the runaround.
Pressure they survive for ninety minutes. Still nil–nil. Minutes ninety through 120 come and go. Nothing. The gravity of the occasion descends on the players, and the game arrives at football’s pearly gates, the penalty shootout. Italy’s Francesco Toldo and Holland’s Edwin van der Sar take it in turns to play Saint Peter.
Referee Markus Merk blows his whistle to start the duels. Luigi di Biagio and Gianluca Pessotto score. Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam miss. Francesco Totti goes next.
Francesco Totti, 24-years-old, white headband tying up dirty blond hair. Fresh, perfect skin. He can’t be a footballer, not with those cheekbones. He wouldn’t last one half against Coventry, your dad shouts, at him, at you, at the screen, a black-grey 32-inch Panasonic. Your mum shouts back at him to be quiet. She’s only watched the last forty-five minutes of the game, and she’s engrossed. Francesco Totti, the mums’ favourite. A hush over the living room. A hush over the Amsterdam ArenA. Edwin van der Sar is in nets—stringy arms, stringy legs, black eyes; a long, thin face and a long, thin nose, like an Oxford academic. He revs up the crowd, beating his huge hands together, two massive butterfly wings whipping the Dutch fans into a hurricane. He stares down the man in front of him. Francesco Totti looks only at the ball. Francesco Totti runs up—one, two, three, four, five steps—and dinks it over the keeper and into the net. He drops to a knee and pumps a fist to the sky.
That fateful day, when it was his turn to take a penalty, Totti turned to his teammates and calmly said “Mo je faccio er cucchiaio”. The line later became the title of his autobiography: “I’m going to chip him now”.
That there were kicks left in that shootout barely mattered. Everyone knew that the game was over as soon as the ball impudently danced off Totti’s black Nike Zoom Airs. You just don’t do that in games of this magnitude. That it came off made it genius; if it hadn’t, that would’ve been the end of Francesco, and it likely would’ve robbed us of what has become considered as one of the all-time great international performances, in the final of Euro 2000 against reigning World Cup winners France.
It was the tournament where everyone fell in love with Francesco Totti and many never stopped. He could do everything. He had moments of liquid grace and stumbling, comic brilliance, falling over the ball mid-Cruyff turn while somehow keeping it totally under his spell. There were delicacies of technique—deft nutmegs, slalom runs—and then there were the goals. He was an ice-cold finisher and a scorer of ecstatic drives. Two goals immediately come to mind, but there are countless more: the left-foot volley versus Sampdoria in 2006—a ball chipped into Totti at the far left edge of the area, hit first time to masterly effect past a goalkeeper who could only stand and watch, bringing even the Sampdoria fans to their feet in celebration. Or the screamer with his right versus Juventus—a free kick breaking to him at the edge of the box, Totti hit the ball so straight and pure and with such power into the top corner that the ball looks like a ball of light, a shooting star, on pixelated rewatches, as it flies past a diving Gianluigi Buffon.
In his passing, he had the vision of Xavi and the daring of Steven Gerrard—back-heels, flicks, and mad, driving, seventy-yard passes that split teams in half. In an age of pass-completion statistics and pragmatism, Totti would dare to dream, and he’d pull it off more often than not. There were times when he could do no wrong, and there were times when he could do no right but would plough on anyway until those sweeping, outside-of-the-boot switches of play started picking up again. He was brave. He was irrepressible even when out-of-form. At the time of writing, in his twenty-four years in Roma’s first team, in his 746 games in all competitions, Francesco Totti has scored 300 goals, and his influence has been crucial to a thousand more. He’s inspired young men to become playmakers from the streets of Toxteth West to the hills of Monte Mario.
There’s a reason why everyone loves playmakers. They’re the string-pullers, the plush-seated Mafia dons, the master conductors. There’s a touch of romance to it all. But what about what’s going on upstairs? Maybe the inside of a playmaker’s head is a mess of wires and cogs, like taking the back off a fine Swiss watch. Or maybe there’s nothing at all. Socrates—the philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer—said that when poets produce truly great works, they do not do it through knowledge or mastery, but through divine inspiration performed in a state similar to a kind of madness. But that was ages ago. Is the creative mind really created unconsciously?
Paolo Di Canio once said of his Derby della Capitale rival: “If you tell Totti there are tensions in the Middle East, he'll assume that a fight has broken out on the right side of midfield”. Totti is a man renowned by Italian fans for his stupidity, with a number of joke books published at his expense. His simple interviews have become the stuff of legend, his dull eyes and heavy Roman accent playing out to Italian audiences in the same way we watch Wayne Rooney’s stumble through sentences like he does defences. Totti, like Rooney, is an uneducated boy from a working-class neighbourhood who knows nothing but football. From an early age, there was the ball, and there was the factory floor. They weighed them both up and went for what suited best.
Unlike Rooney, however, Totti has a wiliness that operates outside the city walls of Book Smarts. Italian football is about politics, and few know how to weave through scandal better than Totti, the Teflon Don. Even when, unprovoked, he tells stunned reporters about his first sexual experience in a packed press conference “I was twelve when I made love for the first time. In Tropea, with a Roman girl who was seventeen-years-old.” barely a smudge has come against his name. He’s stayed almost entirely dirt-free in his twenty-four years in professional football while playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs in a league where teams being relegated for match-fixing is looked at like a red card for a professional foul. He’s always managed to manipulate things to his advantage—even the joke books came with a Totti co-sign, and the profits went to UNICEF. In 2009, he sent messages of inspiration to the youth of Iran, delivered in Farsi, during the Iranian national election. He’s a boy from Porta Metronia, the ancient, dirt-poor city limits of Rome, who grew up to be a playmaker on the pitch and a playmaker off it, too.
“He is one of the last real Number 10s.”—Roberto Baggio
When you consider how many people throw around terms like “Number 10”, borrow words like “trequartista”, talk of playing “in the hole”, there are very few players worthy of the role in the modern game. Have you ever stopped to think about what goes into making a world-class playmaker?
It’s up there with one of the most arrogant roles in sport. It’s football’s equivalent of the fluid, counterpunching boxer, the tennis maverick, the snooker genius. Snooker requires you to slip Euclid a tenner and become a master of geometry. It also requires you to take your cue and dominate the laws of physics and the realms of psychology in a natty blue-purple velvet waistcoat surrounded by hushed dads in The Crucible. It’s like you’ve got to be an engineer and an artist all at once. And do it on the television. Tennis is like snooker only someone’s hitting the ball back to you, and it requires stamina, strength, and millisecond reactions. It forces you to make shots that, sometimes, seem literally impossible. The boxer needs to do all that only someone is standing in front of you trying to punch your fucking lights out.
Now take the playmaker. Here you’ve got a guy who needs to take into account the variables of twenty-one other men buzzing around him at pace—in random movement at worst, a kind of drunken sequence at best—and fit a thread through a barely thread-sized eye of a needle that also happens to be moving towards you at speed with intent on causing you harm. All of that has to happen instantly. Now try doing that at seventy minutes with legs like beaten lead. Now try doing that at eighty minutes, ninety, with thirty-nine years of muscular torment and dedication running through your body like hydrochloric acid.
Even at twenty-eight, lining up a free kick against Inter Milan ten, years ago last autumn, Totti had to face it with the weight of a team, a manager, a city, a Pope, seventy-two thousand fans in the stadium, millions more at home, weighing on his tired shoulders sheathed in clay-red and burnt-orange. Sixty minutes into a game that makes no sense to the modern eye—shots fly from strange angles; the classic din of seventy-thousand shouting Romans echoing around the old stadium; Esteban Cambiasso has hair and scores a goal—and Roma are 3–1 down after getting the first goal. Totti, hair slicked wet with October rain into anime strands across his forehead and temples, Diadora’s elastic, Art-Deco kit pulled tight across thin biceps that only just about fill out the white captain’s armband, has the ball at his feet thirty-five metres from Francesco Toldo, his international teammate and domestic rival, one of the best goalkeepers of his generation. The eye blinks, and the ball streams through the air like ribbon and past the keeper. Totti’s team-mates run quickly to the ball to restart the game, invigorated by genius, they come back to draw 3–3, but nobody comes to marvel at Totti right away, a man who’s just scored his 100th Serie A goal. He just turns to the Stadio Olimpico’s south stand, the Curva Sud, and salutes the Roma Ultras, their flares and their flags, and kisses his ring finger.
A quick Google tells us that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Think of Ronnie O’Sullivan snapping through a 147 with unconscious ease, swagger in his step, a hushed awe from an audience who’ve just seen the implausible; think Roger Federer hitting a cross-court backhand winner on the stretch into an unreturnable inch-wide section of grass on Centre Court and making it look like child’s play; think Sugar Ray Leonard letting a Marvellous Marvin Hagler—the meanest man on the planet—hook swing past him by a hair’s breadth without ever breaking sweat, his face a picture of calm, the huge tungsten lights of old Madison Square Garden beating down on him. Being Francesco Totti ain’t easy, but you’d never know it. Not now, aged thirty-nine with a body that is damned to atrophy his talent, and not then, aged twenty-four, staring down Zidane, Vieira, Deschamps, Thuram, Blanc and Desailly for the Euro 2000 final in Feyenoord’s stadium, De Kuip in Rotterdam.
Dino Zoff’s Kappa-clad Azzurri had finally regained some of the prestige that had been pissed away in the six years since Roberto Baggio blazed over against Taffarel in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl at USA ‘94. The embers of Serie A’s glorious run as unquestioned Best League in the World—the talk of playgrounds from Tufnell Park to Tuscany—had finally gone cold but the team retained a wealth of talent. Talent combined with an instinctive, back-of-the-brain favour from neutral fans longing for a return to the glory days can be a potent thing. The only trouble was that they were coming up against the team rightly ranked best in the world.
But Zoff had Totti. Left out of the team for the semifinal after a stellar debut tournament for the national side, the final was the perfect stage for a player of this quality, of this style. Patrick Vieira and Didier Deschamps were brilliant players—imperious, powerful, smart—and they gave you no room to breathe. But it was just enough for Totti to work his magic, kitted in all white, dressed like an angel.
But it’s not enough. He loses and Italy lose, and Italy the team and Italy the country fall into a pit of despair. Totti is man of the match but watching it now, it’s so notable how average he plays. The ball bounces off his shins, off his knee; he’s bullied by the players around him, forced too far down the pitch, forced into the no-man’s-land between Alessandro Del Piero and the ardent trenches of the Italian defence. He’s isolated and inefficient and wildly inaccurate with his passing, but he keeps going. Maybe it’s his hair—flicking and flowing hair that gives the effect of hard-work even without it—but Totti never stops working. He never stops trying to make something happen. It’s that scene in Monty Python with the dark knight cut to shreds “It’s just a flesh wound!” and never giving up. That pathetic nobility. That reckless search for glory. But it’s not enough.
The loss left them haunting the international football shadowlands, with no-show performances at both World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004 threatening to end their legacy. Then came 2006. Through sheer will, bastard stubbornness, the desperate death rattle of players who were once the best of their generation and with Zinedine Zidane, the tournament’s best player, capitulating and forging his name and forehead into the annals of history, Italy won. Despite the fact that he dragged himself back from a broken fibula in the opening months of the year, an injury that many thought would curtail his career, not just his chances of making the World Cup squad, to represent his country in a major tournament once more, Totti was given little credit for the win in Germany. The tormented race against time and his own body ended in glory, but the glory was, according to the Italian commentariat, not his. It could've been a snub that tarnished a career, but Totti has never played his game for the wider consensus, domestically or internationally.
It was a steel forged in 2000 when Totti retreated from the European lowlands back to Roma with renewed purpose.
“Francesco is Roma; a new team has to be built around him.”—Giuseppe Giannini
The young Francesco idolised Giuseppe Giannini, and it’s with Il Principe, the Prince, that Totti’s story first came to life.
A superbly gifted technician, Giuseppe was an idol to the Roma fans. A controlling, decadent playmaker, the player lived up to his nickname on the pitch. He moved with grace and split defences apart with the eye of a bowman. Operating at his peak while Serie A was the greatest league in the world was no mean feat, but he pushed and pulled and breached and tormented tight, gargoyle centre backs with his keen sense of timing. La pausa, the Argentines call it. The pause. That ability to wait that extra split second for a gap to open without losing the chance. The hubris to release the ball only when the time is absolutely perfect.
In sixteen years, he played over 400 times for the giallorossi, his legend cemented into the annals of Roman history. Brief late-career sojourns to Austria and lesser Italian lights did nothing to soil his reputation, and it was natural for Totti to grow up wanting to emulate Giannini. Both of similar builds and possessing a footballing ethos that aligned like a solar eclipse, the younger playmaker would eventually succeed the man in the team, filling GG’s old number ten jersey, and surpass him in legend.
At the time, that must’ve been unthinkable. An unutterable sacrilege. That this conductor who’d guided an unfancied team from Italy’s capital through an incredibly competitive decade and a half, could be succeeded by anyone, let alone a carbon copy from within Roma’s own ranks, must’ve seemed ridiculous. For one of the unluckiest teams in Italian football, the idea that the dice might finally fall in their favour must’ve seemed like a flight of fancy. Things like this just don’t happen to AS Roma.
Despite an eighty-eight year history in which they only spent one year outside Italy’s top flight, Roma’s trophy cabinet is depressingly sparse. A peek inside the glass cabinets that lie deep in the Stadio Olimpico’s echoing catacombs is an exercise in filling in the blanks. For the twelve domestic trophies they’ve won, you need to remember the 21 other times they came runners-up, falling at the very last hurdle. In the past fifteen Serie A seasons, they’ve come second no less than eight times.
Could the continual misfortune be thanks to a cluster of Roman curse tablets lurking somewhere in the city? Defixiones carved out in stone, a curse for the final, hedonist days of old Rome, promising to make the city pay for its sins? Maybe. After all, AS Roma’s city rivals Lazio have faltered similarly in their 115-year history. Or is it just a case of good, but never quite good enough? Not so much a curse, just a kind of terminal humanity. One drop of mortal blood too many to pass into the realms of the gods.
Of his compatriot, Juventus legend and probably the greatest goalkeeper of his generation, Gianluigi Buffon said: “Totti has written the history of Italian football, with the present and the future. He is a player who cannot be doubted.” And yet we do.
There’s a certain line of thinking that maybe he was never quite genius enough. It’ll always be linked to his commitment to Roma. At once, it is the thing that deifies him and destroys his legacy. He is and has always been, a big, handsome fish in a small pond. He’ll forever be judged by that. But in the city of god, guilt is the currency. Totti loves Rome and Rome loves Totti, and that’s why he could never leave. It would not be right to god. To put those fans and that city through such torment and anguish would leave a man—any man—wracked with guilt, and Totti more than most. He owed his life to Rome, or so the club would have him believe. And it has always strangled him. For all his career’s resplendent glory, for the majesty of leading that iconic club in that iconic stadium, are you telling me that a young, fit Totti—top of his game, the world at his studs, the press praying to his rugged good looks—wouldn’t have wanted to play elsewhere? He'd threatened it, but nobody ever believed him, even when Real Madrid came close in 2004. It’s one of football’s great tragedies: however fleeting the escape, Roma had let Giannini leave, but they would not do it this time. The claws were into Francesco, and he would never abandon his post. He’d sooner die. They’d sooner kill him. That’s that old Catholic guilt, and he has only has himself to blame for a career that ran painfully low on silverware.
After the disappointment in Holland, Totti took league matters into his own hands. June 16th 2001 was the ecstatic high that only made the lows and the doldrum middles, even worse. It was a beautiful victory that he’d be condemned to never better.
Roma’s form had been all over the shop that year. Barely winning a handful of games away from Rome, they went unbeaten at home all season, their run for the title with Juventus and Lazio, their city rivals, went right to the last weekend of the season. Everyone was shattered—players, fans, physically, mentally—and Lazio, the defending champions, were first to fall away. Roma would play Parma on June 16th, the season’s very last match, and knew that a win would be enough to bring them glory.
The start of the game was nervous and twitchy, and the air was hot and filled with red smoke. At first, Roma struggled to get their slick passing game moving effectively on the dry Olimpico turf, and tough marking from the opposition meant that their outstanding forward line of Gabriel Batistuta, Vincenzo Montella, and Francesco Totti were isolated. They were playing a strong, talented Parma team despite the best cuts already sold or about to be. Their top goal scorer Hernán Crespo had departed the previous summer, and Lilian Thuram and Gianluigi Buffon were playing their last games. Combine that with Sven-Göran Eriksson having left for London in January to shag television presenters and manage the England team after nearly a decade in Italy, and somehow they were still contenders in the league. On nineteen minutes Roma clicked into gear. The ball deflected out to Vincent Candela who hit a neat cross into the box. Montella let the ball go through his legs as Francesco Totti strode onto the cross, met it perfectly, smashing it first time, watching it fly through the box and flash past Gianluigi Buffon (again), who could only stand there in disbelief (again).
After the goal, Totti peeled away from the box and ran to the corner flag. Emotion erupted from him like lava from a volcano, spewing out his eyes, every pore, his ears; sweat flying from his hair, his face contorted in relief, in ecstasy, tearing off his Lycra shirt, the clay-red of Roma swinging in his fist as he ran first to the corner flag and then, hopping the advertising hoardings, over to the Roma fans. His captain’s armband remained clasped to his arm as teammates chased after him, this man becoming bigger than a team, the moment transforming him in front of their very eyes like an absolute evolution—man as mortal, man as icon, man as god—soaking up the adulation of thousands of fans who’ve not screamed like this in a generation, Totti’s career thus far just a preamble for this very moment. Totti’s grown a foot taller now, more handsome, stronger, faster, feet like Velcro, feet like dynamite, and when he jogs back to the centre circle—no yellow card for removing his shirt for this was a simpler time—there can only be one outcome for this match, but nobody seemed to tell that to Fabio Capello, the Roma manager, even then with a face like someone carved Tommy Cooper out of granite, who was visibly shitting himself.
Vincenzo Montella, looking like a young Alain Delon, typically pounced on a rebound to make it two before half-time. Midway through the second half, Parma scored, but who cares about that? In the 78th minute, Batistuta scored his twentieth of the season and wrapped up the first (and only) scudetto of his career in typically Batigolian fashion, taking a long pass over his shoulder into his stride, cutting back across the defender and driving it past the goalkeeper before he could settle.
Cue the Roma Ultras who swarmed all over the pitch with club scarves wrapped tightly around faces, in Irn-Bru orange away shirts and bad cut-off jeans, carrying bright red flares that piss liquid fire skywards. The full works. They ran from stewards and police, they tried to rip skin-tight shirts and shorts off the bodies of players. The atmosphere had been boiling along with the temperatures, and that the edges of the 80,000 ecstatic Romans started spilling onto the field surprised no one, turning the pitch into just another part of the Curva Sud for twenty minutes before hopping back into the bubbling crowd. They were all here to see Roma win the scudetto, the Italian league title, for the first time in 18 years.
In the game’s final few minutes, with Parma passing the ball around their defence, Totti turns to the bench, to Capello, and clenches both fists and cheers. Fabio Capello is a figure of ridicule in English football. His spell in charge of the national team was dour and uneventful, and the fans and the press hated him. Despite a squad of top quality talent from a league unquestionably the best in the world, he turned out a team that played some of the most boring football ever witnessed. To Francesco Totti, Capello is a manager whose influence was crucial. He’s the man who decided this team should revolve around him.
When the ref blew the final whistle, the Parma players sprinted for the safety of the tunnel, leaving just the Roma players, the swarms of photographers, and the thousands upon thousands of Ultras to have their moment.
Watching live games on Gazzetta Football Italia on Channel 4 was a quasi-religious experience for young kids and for adults who’d grown up with just whispers of foreign domestic football punctuated by international tournaments. We instantly shouted “GOAL LAZIO!” whenever they scored, not caring that that wasn’t actually what the guy said. We did Montella celebrations in the playground. We fought over who got to be Francesco Totti.
The coverage of this game, in particular, was vibrant and important. The colours, the sounds, the football, the weird crackle of the broadcast beamed from hundreds of miles away, Peter Brackley, James Richardson, the music, the graphics—it all felt befitting of a game of this magnitude. But storm clouds lingered overhead—for us, at home, and Totti, out there. Channel 4 abandoned the coverage of the game during the pitch invasion, no longer caring enough about its once-flagship program or its (admittedly declining) audience to make room for it. We’d have to wait for the following Saturday morning to find out who won. The truth is that Serie A was no longer the draw it once was and, as with all doomed heroes, like the gunslingers of the Old West trying to outrun The New World with its motorcars and Tommy guns, Francesco Totti, a skilful six-shooter in a past life, no doubt, was the last to know.
When it's time for Totti to say goodbye—and if this season’s extended injury layoff is anything to go by, it could be very soon—what will be our lasting memories of him? Like Steven Gerrard, we’ll forget the times he wished himself away from the club he embodied, and focus on the comic book magic. The highs and lows, the cheeky celebrations—the thumb in mouth, the countless snarky slogans written in his own scruffy hand, even that fucking selfie—and the deftness of touch.
After the World Cup win in 2006 came his reinvention: the pace and agility had gone and was replaced by physical strength and a seemingly otherworldly sense of space. We look at David Silva or Iniesta as players who always seem to find space on packed pitches, but Totti would invent it out of thin air. In midfields packed tighter than Lego, he’d receive the ball with the corner of his foot and swivel—suddenly the game was totally open. He'd slip the ball through to a striker or, more and more effectively as the years wore on and Roma’s pull of new talent seemed to drain along with the league’s, score himself. The goals! The dead-eyed finishes. The skimming, skidding drivers. The chips! Madonn’, the chips. Twenty years of romance would draw the keeper’s eye, and Totti would lift the ball over him with supreme ease.
There'll always be something about Totti—the name, the player, that face, those searching eyes—that'll transport fans of a certain disposition back to a simpler time. The static, terrestrial flicker of fat television sets, the primary colour graphics, with weak tea on your granddad’s carpet, watching the smoke rising from echoing stadia, dreaming of playground screamers, playground back heels, the scattered fans lit by fire, the throbbing curva, the derbies of Milan and Turin, the derby of Rome, and Totti, Francesco Totti, in crimson and gold.
He’ll live on as a monument to flawed genius, the flawed genius of Italy, the flawed genius of Italian football. He is a monument to the desperate, beautiful genius of the game, a game where all men must one day lose and few get to choose how. Totti is the exception: a noble man in a dirty game in a dirty league playing in a position that no longer exists. Everyone who has kicked Francesco Totti will die, but he will remain the Eternal Player in the Eternal City.