Francesco Totti – A Timeless Romance in Rome
Rome: a city of wonder and lore. This was the axis of civilization at a time of might and myth. This was the city where Caesar the monarch witnessed feats of glory at the Colosseum. The city where Michelangelo would weave so much of his wizardry. Many famous church shrines adorn the city, around 900 of them in fact! But from that medieval era, emerged a new time.
Today, Italy is not a world superpower. But the culture and craftsmanship stand testament to a glorious time. Italians continue to love engaging in sporting feats of bravery and skill. The Colosseum’s ring then, now a football turf. And one of their sons had a bit of all the old Rome. Caesar’s leadership and authority, Michelangelo’s fluid artistry, and a gentle, unflinching loyalty to his subjects like a god. This is the story of Rome’s Gladiator, Francesco Totti.
The meteoric rise
Totti joined Roma at the tender age of 13 from Lodigiani. He was adjudged the best player in the Giovanissimi (ages 11 to 14) category and started flying up the ranks. He went on to feature for the Allievi (ages 15 to 17), before reaching the Primavera (under 19). By 1993, the rising star had managed to break into the first team. While most teens around the world were ringing in the 90’s with television, portable gadgets, and the latest fashion trends, here was one was living a life even he himself could not have imagined.
By 1998, the winds of leadership were about to reach the young man. Aldair, a Brazilian centre-back, was Roma’s captain at the time. Aldair would go on to be a hallowed figure in his own right, retiring ultimately in 2003 with 436 appearances for the club. At the start of the 1998/99 campaign, Aldair decided to anoint a new leader.
Aldair, like his successor would go on to put the club’s interests always before his personal stake. At a time when he wasn’t getting any younger, Aldair wanted the club to have a dynamic leader, leading them week in, week out on the pitch. While he himself would go on to spend five more years at the club, he was not a fixture in the side. In modern football, there has been many a case of ‘acting captains’ and ‘official captains’. The classic case of the vocal, charismatic character leading the side regularly, while the veteran carrying the official title of captain spends half his time on the bench or physio table. Aldair was desperate for Roma to avoid this limbo. Who else then, but the talent every fan adored?
Aldair says, “I was 33 and was already incredibly proud to have become the first Brazilian captain in Roma’s history. I felt like I was giving the armband to that little Roma fan who gives everything and more on the pitch – so I did it to encourage him, to push him. I told him, ‘Now is your moment, and you will wear this responsibility because you are Roma. Now go and show the world who you are’.”
One can sense the effect the words must have had on Totti. To be a shining young star all at 22 was one thing, but to be captain and beacon of light for the club of his heart another. Aldair said something that speaks volumes of the fledgling sensation’s footballing abilities. “You are incredible, Francesco. To play alongside you is an honor.” Thus occurred the gentle transfer of power, and the continuation of the Roman legacy. The years ahead would elevate him from a talented darling of his home city to a revered figure across the legions of football fans the world over.
The king of all the land
As captain, his single greatest achievement with Roma was to win the Scudetto at the start of the millennium, in the 2000/01 campaign. Roma’s Gladiator captain laid the sparkle dust on a remarkable side, featuring the likes of Aldair, Cafu, Vincenzo Montella, Walter Samuel, and Gabriel Batistuta. Under the tutelage of coach Fabio Capello, Rome was once again the seat of the king. A king who brought great wealth to his adoring public.
Totti was comfortable playing both in a play maker and a striking role. His goals and assists from these areas were crucial to his side’s victories. His goalkeeper, Francesco Antonioli, would go on to exclaim of his skipper,
“It’s hard to find words to describe Il Capitano. A No.10 of exceptional talent who reads the game at least half an hour before everyone else. His game was perhaps more instinctive in the Scudetto-winning season than is it now, and his contribution of goals and assists was fundamental to our success.”
It had been a whirlwind rise to the top, and now the whole of Italy could feel the energy and endeavor from Roma’s leader. It would also be the last time Roma lifted the Scudetto. Capello remarked years later, “Totti, AS Roma, and I could have won more. In 2002, we played a bad game against Venezia and we lost the second title. There was a different kind of competition at that time. Several teams were competing for the victory and the gap between them was just 3 points.” As the table duly shows, even in 2000/01, the gap between Roma, the table-toppers (75 points) and Juventus in second was a mere two points. Lazio followed a further four points behind Juventus.
Leading the legions
As the years rolled by, Roma would watch their Milan counterparts claim glory not just at home, but also in Europe. There was the eventual emergence of Juventus as a force significantly greater than the rest. Yet their captain would stay loyal to the end, through thick and thin.
The numbers showcasing his exploits are well documented. He would go on to rack up 250 Serie A goals, the second-highest of any player. He would go on to taste success in the Coppa Italia, as well as at the World Cup with the National Team in 2006. Yet, what of that fiendishly difficult to master quality, leadership?
Totti remarked, “There is no secret to being a successful leader. The most important thing is to understand the group and respect your coach and teammates. It’s also useful to be available to everyone and stay humble, even in your highest moments.“
This approach seems to have endowed Totti with staying power. As the composition of Roma’s side continued to evolve and change, his devotion to the cause never wavered. And of course, that the goals and assists kept flowing helped as well. Seeing every level of the club allowed him to be a man of the organisation, not just the team. He was also inspirational and revered by the club’s fan base. This meant he did not have to be a fire and thunder type leader, like Roy Keane or Patrick Viera. He could walk into a room and command respect, by the dint of his work. He made himself accessible to every level of the club, not just the first team. As Lucas Digne remarked in 2016, “He helps young players, of course. He talks to everybody.”
Totti had his hot-headed moments on the field. But as a leader, he was assertive rather than aggressive. So what of his legacy? With his retirement as a player in 2017, he left behind a trail of glorious feats and inspiring leadership. But the story with Roma had not quite reached its last chapter.
The ultimate sacrifice: cementing immortality
Totti had agreed to take on a technical director role, shortly after retirement. He worked under James Pallotta, Roma’s owner. In June 2019, close to two years after taking up the role, he announced at a heavily attended press conference, “I never had the chance to express myself. They never involved me. The first year that can happen but by the second [year] I understood what they wanted to do.. They knew of my desire to offer a lot to this squad but they never wanted it. They kept me out of everything. It’s a day that I hoped never would have come.”
He finished with a painful remark, that seems to highlight how deep the rift between him and the ownership runs.”This is far worse than retiring as a player. Leaving Roma is like dying. I feel like it’d be better if I died.”
Bad ownership and mismanagement have become commonplace at many clubs. So has the omission of club legends from various aspects of decision making. But does this sour incident have to cloud Totti’s image? In a career defined by 25 years of simply doing what was best for the club rather than himself, he yet again did so. He chose to walk away, rather than continue being part of a regime tearing down what he had toiled for. The owners today may not be those in power tomorrow, but Francesco Totti will always hold one thing in AS Roma that nobody else can – a place in the heart of every fan that is unshakable.
By Anirudh Madhavan
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