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The Greatest Serie A Players: Francesco Totti

There are a number of one-club men throughout football history who, over the course of their careers, built a lifelong affinity with a shirt, a badge, worshipped by their adoring fans.

But in Francesco Totti’s case, the story is a little different.

When you consider the likes of Paolo Maldini or Ryan Giggs, they won countless trophies with their clubs; a combined seven Champions Leagues – where else would they go? Where was the incentive to not be a one-club man?

Totti wouldn’t win those trophies, but Roma was in his blood. A seventh generation Roman, his grandfather was a Roma fan, his father was a Roma fan. Totti’s life was mapped out before he was even born.

Naturally, as a dazzling youngster, the offers from established clubs came calling. Aged 13, representatives from Milan wanted to sign Totti up, and were reportedly willing to pay over £100,000. Totti’s mother took that one, and gave a firm, but polite "no". Growing up in Rome, you’re either red or blue: Roma or Lazio. Totti’s mother had taught him a lesson that would stay with him throughout his professional career: that family and home are the most important things in your life.

Totti’s story could have panned out differently, however. Totti’s youth team had agreed to sell him to Lazio. Thankfully, Roma intervened. The idea of Totti playing in the blue of Lazio – whose players he used to insert upside down in his sticker book as a child – is unthinkable.

Aged 16, Totti would make his Roma debut. Coming on in the dying stages with the side 2-0 up against Brescia. He would only have a couple of touches, but to come on in the red of Roma was a source of immense pride; for his father, for his late grandfather, for himself.

Little did he know that was just the start of one of football’s great love stories.

Before rising to prominence, new head coach Carlo Mazzone gave strict orders to his staff not to let word get out about what a talent they had on their hands. Growing up in Rome, already part of the first team at the tender age of 17, Mazzone felt there was a chance Totti’s head could be turned and that his career could come off the tracks.

His third season saw more game time – 11 Serie A starts with 10 more off the bench. He started the first game of the season against Foggia, where he’d score his first Roma goal. Finding space in the area, Totti latched onto a knockdown, hammering a left-footed drive into the bottom corner. The celebration was akin to a slightly – only slightly – more low-key Marco Tardelli.

The 1996-97 season saw the arrival of Carlos Bianchi, who had Totti in and out of the team. So much so Totti was close to moving to Sampdoria on loan in January. Totti stayed, Bianchi didn’t.

Zdenek Zeman arrived the following summer, and deployed Totti on the left wing; the thinking being he’d be more involved in the game by finding more space out wide. The move paid dividends as Totti would hit double figures for goals in 1997/98 and 1998/99, even becoming Roma’s captain at the age of 22. He was establishing himself as one of Serie A’s best players, making the most assists and winning Young Footballer of the Year in 1999.

However, despite personal success, Roma missed out on the Champions League, and Zeman was replaced by Fabio Capello, who was tasked with bringing the title to Rome.

The title arrived in Rome at the end of Capello’s first season – albeit the blue half – as Roma only won one of their final 10 games to finish outside the Champions League places again. Totti however, was named Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year and Serie A Footballer of the Year. He would then guide Italy to the Euro 2000 final, after scoring a Panenka in the shoot-out against Netherlands.

The Panenka was planned well in advance. Having pulled it off in training, Totti had told – warned – his team-mates that if he got the opportunity to do it in a game, he would. The idea was laughed off; Italy had endured a miserable record in penalty shoot-outs since 1990, losing in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups on penalties. A Panenka in the semi-finals of Euro 2000 bordered insanity to his team-mates.

If he was anxious about the prospect of taking a penalty, Totti had backed himself into a corner, and if anything, it proved to be a wonderful trick of psychology. He’d be forced into the Panenka, lest he be known as all talk. The notion of scoring a regular penalty was worse than missing with a Panenka.

He quietly announced it when his turn came. His team-mates thought he was crazy, Luigi Di Biagio quietly told him no, then realising he couldn’t alert the Dutch to anything untoward, had to quietly let Totti do his thing. Sure enough, he did, and Italy knocked the Netherlands out.

The final was perhaps Totti’s finest hour. At his imperious best, operating in a free role, Totti showed craft and guile, technique and tenacity. He registered neither either a goal nor assist in the final, but his back heel allowed Gianluca Pessotto to pick out Marco Delvecchio to give Italy the lead.

He’d then lay on more chances, and but for wasteful Italian finishing, he’d have had an international winners’ medal six years before he eventually did. Despite losing the final in the most heart-breaking fashion, Totti was named Man of the Match.

Back with Roma, the following season saw Gabriel Batistuta, Walter Samuel and Emerson arrive as the Giallorossi snatched the title away from their rivals. Totti, aged 24, was a champion.

With his vision, reading of the game and ability to pick a pass, Totti had been granted a free role under Capello which was a great success. The 20 goals of Gabriel Batistuta of course played a large part, and after that season, the goals were hard to replicate.

Across Roma’s next 15 seasons, only two players bettered Batistuta’s tally – Vincenzo Montella (21) in 2004/05 and Totti himself (26) in 2006/07.

The remainder of Capello’s stint in Rome would bring two more Serie A runners-up finishes, but no more Scudetti.

His continued excellence, combined with Roma’s perilous financial situation, left Totti at a crossroads in 2004.

By the age of 27, Totti had just one major trophy to his name, despite a number of individual awards. He’d twice won Serie A Footballer of the Year – including in 2003, when Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved won the Ballon d’Or – and won Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year four times.

And that is when Real Madrid came knocking.

President Florentino Perez wanted to make Totti his latest Galactico, and was reportedly prepared to make him the world’s best-paid player.

Ultimately, the bond with Rome was too strong. In Totti’s own words:

People ask me, why spend your whole life in Rome? Rome is my family, my friends, the people that I love. Rome is the sea, the mountains, the monuments. Rome, of course, is the Romans.

Rome is the yellow and red. Rome, to me, is the world. This club, this city, has been my life.

It was then that Totti could see the rest of his career mapped out: he wouldn’t have the glory of his contemporaries, but would be respected by Italians, and revered by Romans.

It wouldn’t all be glorious failure for Totti, though. In 2006 he would acquire something that only 445 men in history have been given: a World Cup winners’ medal. The following two seasons he would win the Coppa Italia as Roma enjoyed something of a resurgence under Luciano Spalletti.

Like many footballers who reach the age of 30, Totti’s best days were behind him. But the way he adapted to the increasingly physical game – despite admitting he preferred the more tactical and technical side of things – was testament to his conditioning, his footballing brain and of course, his footballing ability. His first season as a 30-year-old would see him win the European Golden Shoe, ousting the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Didier Drogba.

As the game evolved, Totti evolved with it. Almost half of his 307 Roma goals came after his 30th birthday. To score 100 goals after turning 30 is remarkable; 150 is saved for the very elite.

It’s easy to look at Totti’s career and his achievements – World Cup winner, Serie A winner, one-club man, Serie A’s second highest goalscorer, and so much more – and believe he led a charmed life, adored from debut to retirement. But adoration outside of Rome was hard to come by for a long time.

Romans are often looked down upon by those from Italy’s more metropolitan north, and stereotyped as lazy.

Indeed, Totti received occasional criticism for being lazy and as well as his occasional acts of petulance – only the take-no-prisoners Paolo Montero has received more straight reds than Totti in Serie A history. He was even mocked for his intelligence and accent.

To the untrained, non-Italian ear, an interview with Totti will likely sound similar to that of any other Italian footballer, but Totti was frequently the butt of jokes for his accent, Romanesque dialect, and perceived lack of intelligence.

Totti got ahead of the game and published a book of all the jokes he’d heard at his expense, splitting half the profits between UNICEF, for whom Totti is an ambassador, and a Roman charity.

One such gag was of an exchange regarding a recent holiday:

Bartender: "What did you do on your vacation?"
Totti: "I went water-skiing"
Bartender: "Was it good?"
Totti: "No! I couldn’t find a downhill lake."

But for every joke about Totti’s intelligence, there are two stories about what he meant to Roma fans.

It may be best summed up by a prison visit he recounted in his autobiography. When waiting to take photos with the inmates, Totti noted one who was much more agitated to get a picture before everyone else.

When quizzed on it by Totti, the inmate confessed that he’d finished his sentence a week ago, but found out about Totti’s visit, and told the warden that if he wasn’t allowed to stay an extra week to get a picture with Il Capitano, he’d get himself sent back to prison.

The best bit? That his girlfriend had been waiting for him on the outside for three years.

It’s an adoration reserved for a special few footballers. An adoration that would have been undoubtedly diluted had Totti pursued that move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2004.

A look at that Real Madrid team, with Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Raul and the rest of the Galacticos and one wonders what might have been. But Real – who won one Champions League and two La Liga titles in six years – weren’t lacking in superstars, and even the arrival of Totti, arguably at the peak of his powers, wouldn’t necessarily have guaranteed more success.

On top of that, as Totti said himself, "winning one league title at Roma, to me, is worth winning 10 at Juventus or Real Madrid."

It’s the mindset of a man who sacrificed the glory of trophies for the adulation of Rome.

And in the Eternal City, Totti is immortal.

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