Why Francesco Totti Must Be Included in Italy's World Cup Squad

Colin O'BrienContributor IApril 16, 2014

Roma forward Francesco Totti walks past the project for the new Roma soccer stadium, at Rome's Capitol Hill, Wednesday March 26, 2014. Three-time Serie A champion Roma has revealed plans to build a new privately financed stadium on the outskirts of the Italian capital. Labeled
Alessandra Tarantino

Statistically, there have only been a handful of Italian players better than Francesco Totti in Serie A this season.

Whoscored.com ranks him behind only Giorgio Chiellini, Alessandro Lucarelli, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Giuseppe Rossi and Alessandro Diamanti in terms of overall average contribution to their respective teams. 

On that evidence alone, the Roma captain deserves consideration for a place in Cesare Prandelli's Italy World Cup squad. He's missed some of the season through injury, but when fit, he's been invaluable to Rudi Garcia and the Giallorossi.

Totti has bagged seven goals and nine assists so far this term, having started just under half of his side's games. He's also been man of the match four times and probably deserved the accolade more often. 

It's easy to find fault with the Roman, of course. People have been doing that for years. He isn't scoring as often as he did under Luciano Spalletti, and he's old enough to be Mattia Destro's father.

There's also always been a difficulty in the anglophone world in understanding just what his role is in the team.

The fantasista is something that's ingrained in Italian football culture, but the freedom that the role allows and requires, coupled with its resistance to easy definition, leaves it vulnerable to being disregarded as superfluous, a place preferred by only the most shiftless and apathetic. 

The irony of calling players such as Totti lethargic is that nothing is lazier than than that interpretation. The No. 10 is a creative role and as such necessitates freedom and a degree of trust that managers would never afford to other players.

Someone such as Totti—possessed of rare skill, an ability to read the game and blow it apart with a quick pass or an unlikely shot—when used correctly becomes a focal point for the team and an instrument of magnification for his team-mates. 

Gervinho and Destro never seem as potent without the Roma captain on the pitch, and while it's difficult to pinpoint sometimes exactly what he does, pay close attention and the 37-year-old's genius becomes readily apparent. 

Totti creates space for other players and can carve a margin for himself that wouldn't be possible for another player. He's not the league's fastest player, but he never was nor tried to be—he covers distance with his passing rather than his legs, and few footballers in any era have been as capable of concocting an unlikely delivery as him. 

He can be an extra creative spark in a team too heavily reliant on Pirlo. Should the two be fit, they can dovetail wonderfully, as they did under Marcello Lippi. And if the Juventus midfielder gets injured or just needs resting, than his friend from Rome can carry the burden of conceiving chances in a more advanced role.

Prandelli will have been watching closely how quickly Totti adapted to his new manager's style. It's not always the case, but after a certain age most players struggle adapting to new roles or a significant change of pace. Roma have had a string of different managers during the captain's tenure, and he's never failed to quickly carve out a crucial role for himself.

He's played attacking midfielder, support striker, false nine, centre-forward, wide-forward and roaming No. 10—all to great effect. He's the league's second top scorer, behind only the great Silvio Piola of the 1930s, even though he's always been better at setting up goals than he has been at finishing them. 

When Italy last lifted the World Cup, Totti played the tournament with an injury and an ankle full of metal. And he still made FIFA's 23-man all-star squad.

He wasn't at his best then, but he was still better than most, assisted in more goals than anyone else. And when he stepped up to take Italy's last-minute penalty to win the game against Australia, the cool head and deep-rooted confidence in his own abilities made that most terrifying of spot-kicks look almost like a training-ground formality.

The forward positions will be foremost on Prandelli's mind right now. His defence will be among the best at the tournament. His midfield, blessed with the likes of De Rossi and Pirlo, won't cause him much concern either. 

Up front, things get riskier. Mario Balotelli is perhaps the Azzurri's biggest talent, but he also has the potential to be their biggest weakness. He could win them the tournament, but if anyone is going to have a catastrophically bad game or lose his head and get sent off, it's the Milan forward. 

Giuseppe Rossi is always an injury risk and even now is struggling back to match fitness after another set-back brought him down in the middle of an incredible run of form for Fiorentina.

Dani Osvaldo is more temperamental than Balotelli and far less talented. Emanuele Giaccherini is struggling to impress at a Sunderland side that looks set to be relegated. Stephan El Shaarawy has hardly played a game all season and hasn't looked his best in even longer.

Alberto Gilardino deserves a mention, but it's a huge stretch to suggest that the Genoa striker is a better option than Totti, even if he is six years his junior. Alessandro Diamanti has played, scored and assisted less. 

Destro deserves a place based on his current form and who better to partner him than his club captain, the man who plays behind him and has so often teed him up this season? 

Totti doesn't have to play every game, and after the efforts that others have put in to get Italy to the World Cup, he shouldn't expect to get an easy start.

But Prandelli needs options, and alternatives rarely come better than a man who is both one of the league's current top performers and one of Italian football's all-time greats.