It's incredible to think that Vujadin Boskov, a coach with a glittering playing career and a management trophy list that includes titles in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and on the European stage, should be so forgettable in the Italian capital.
The Serbian had won almost everywhere he'd been, including north of Rome in Genoa, where he lifted the Scudetto and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup with Sampdoria. But in the Eternal City, success eluded him. His sole achievement with the Giallorossi was to give a certain player his debut, almost 20 years ago.
In a 2-0 win away at Brescia, Boskov told a 16-year-old local boy to lace up his boots, and two decades on, he's still wearing them.
Francesco Totti has become a symbol for his hometown club like few players ever have, and in this age of internationalism and constant results-driven pressure, perhaps no one ever will again.
Today, football does far too much worshipping. Driven by 24-hour media hype and online highlight clips, by the time a half-decent player is in his early 20s, he’s been elevated to demigod.
Long-term consistency is no longer important. Sometimes, not even talent is. In the struggle to fill the perpetually expanding abyss that is today’s sports media, donkeys are praised like thoroughbreds.
Searching for the “next Messi” on Google will throw up about 192,000,000 results—all of them nonsense. What’s wrong with the one we’ve got? He’s only 25. And anyway, we’ll never get another Messi, no more than we’ll see the second coming of Maradona or Cruyff.
Every great player is a product of his age, a cultural touchstone created by his surroundings, the style of the day, the support he gets and no small amount of serendipity. An injury here or a drinking binge there and Voilà—you’re looking at Adriano and Michael Owen instead of Rivaldo and Gary Lineker.
Francesco Totti’s story is the stuff of football fairytale, even if by today's reductive, win-driven standards, it might not seem so at first.
He’s only lifted the Scudetto once, and has never been at a “big” club [for big, read English, or at least one of the top two Spanish sides]. He's never won the Champions League. He’s never even won the Ballon d’Or.
But vacuous talk of big-money moves, trophies won and individual awards all miss the point when it comes to true greatness. They're too easily quantifiable. Try as you might, you can’t count talent, or tally up ability.
God’s gifts are not something that can be explained in numbers. John O'Shea has almost as many medals as Franz Beckenbauer, after all, and while Maradona never won a Champions League, Djimi Traore did.
To appreciate a player's true worth, you must see past the medals. To know true greatness is simply to look on it. Like true love, you just know when you know.
As the Corriere dello Sport‘s Alberto Polverosi put it (in Italian, here), Totti's talent has an immense, almost reckless, natural quality. And it's been on constant show for the world to see, ever since 28 March 1993.
Call it an Indian summer, or a swan song, but this season we’re seeing a revival of one of the last great fantasisti, and football fans around the world should rejoice in that, because there's no one else like him.
He’s not the quickest, or the strongest. He’s prone to injury, and at 36, who knows what the future holds for his aging bones. Others players are less idiosyncratic, and throughout the season will be more prolific.
But his game’s never been about prolificacy, even though he’ll soon be Serie A’s second highest goalscorer after spending half his career in midfield. His gift has always been the ability to create, when no one else could.
So far this term, he's slotted as many successful through balls as Juventus' much-lauded Andrea Pirlo and Arsenal's silky Santi Cazorla—combined. His football is about invention, wonder and no small amount of genius.
Too often, modern football forgets this. In fact, it does more than that; it belittles it. In one famous attempt to lure Daniele De Rossi to Manchester City, Roberto Mancini is said to have used Roma's captain as a cautionary example. "Do you want to end up like Francesco Totti?" he asked, before adding: "a great player who never won anything?"
Roma fans who remember that rare Scudetto in 2001, or the way he played so exquisitely during the 2006 World Cup with metal bars holding his ankle together, might disagree. But they'll probably point to a hundred other personal moments, too, when Totti's brilliance brought a much-needed goal, a lift to his team and a smile.
They'll tell you he's one of the all-time greats, and they're almost certainly right. But who cares? Comparing great talent only serves to insult and cheapen their art. Totti's art has been to entertain and inspire a city for two decades and to dazzle crowds around the world. It's not every player, after all, who gets standing ovations from the opposition's fans.
No one else could replace him. Here, he’s fuoriclasse—beyond classification. He is, as the announcer in the Stadio Olimpico puts it, both the No. 10 and the No. 1.