Francesco Totti was never a reflection of Italian culture, politics or society. His political opinions are bland. His career told us little about the country he spent his life in, or the city he ruled over. His private life was always stable and happy.
With Totti, it really was all about football.
Totti was a one-off, a freak of nature. In 25 years in the tough world of Serie A, he has rarely suffered a serious injury. He played in a series of positions—wing, classic No. 10, striker—and never looked out of position in any of them.
Everyone talks about the huge number of goals, 250 and counting. But there have also been well over 100 assists in those 25 seasons and over 700 games. Much is made, and rightly so, about Totti’s loyalty, his one-club-for-life mentality, his-one-Scudetto-in-Rome-counts-for-10-anywhere-else ideology. But this often leads to us forgetting what a wonderful, unrepeatable, aesthetically beautiful player Totti has been.
Let’s not talk about the off-field stuff—the taunting of Lazio, the "derby of the dead child" and the close relationship with the ultras, the spitting and the kicking of Mario Balotelli, the referees who have arguably cost Roma at least a couple of titles, the long periods spent warming the bench in the last two seasons, punctured by moments of superstardom.
Let’s instead talk about what has happened on the pitch. Here is my list of the 10 most important moments from Totti’s long and extraordinary career (and not just with Roma, but also with Italy).
1. Kaiserslautern, June 26, 2006
Italy were playing Australia, and they didn’t look like scoring, and they were down to 10 men. Then the surprise package of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Fabio Grosso, went on a mazy and stuttering run. He fell over Lucas Neill’s leg and back. It wasn’t a penalty. But the referee gave it. It was the 92nd minute. There were about 10 seconds to go until extra time.
Totti stepped up. Penalties (despite what was about to happen) had never been his strong point. In one season, he missed six. Yet, he has still scored 86 in his entire career. But that day, the blood in his veins was like ice. The ball flew into the corner. Totti didn’t have a great World Cup (although he provided four assists) but that moment sealed his place in the history of the national team.
2. Rotterdam, July 2, 2000
It ended in defeat, but this was Totti’s best tournament. In the Euro 2000 final, against a star-studded France side, he brought the best out of some journeymen players. In the 55th minute, Totti’s brilliant no-look backheel pass set free the right-back Gianluca Pessotto, who crossed for Marco Delvecchio to score.
Italy held the lead until the dying seconds, when Sylvain Wiltord’s bobbling shot just beat Francesco Toldo’s hand to equalise. You know the rest. And I haven’t even mentioned Totti’s "er cucchiaio" (“the spoon”) penalty against the Netherlands.
3. Milan, May 31, 2003
Milan. Another defeat. But Totti was magnificent. Two scorching free-kicks in the 56th and 64th minutes were not enough to win the Italian Cup, but they were unforgettable goals. For a moment, a miracle comeback seemed possible. But the night ended with anger at the referee and chaos on the pitch.
4. Milan, October 26, 2005
Totti loves the San Siro. Many people’s all-time Totti favourite came here. It all started in his own half, and then turned into a ridiculous combination of dribbles and flicks, before ending with the most sumptuous of sumptuous chips, the ball floating way over Julio Cesar’s head into the goal. Poetry. The Inter fans applauded.
5. Rome, December 10, 2000
Er Puppone’s only Scudetto. It would later become a time of parties, murals and memories, to be followed in the 21st century by eight second places (some of them close, some of them not). There were lots of memorable moments in that season, but Totti’s barnstorming volley against Udinese was one of the best.
6. Rome, March 10, 2002
The Derby against Lazio. The most violent, important and tense in Italy? Totti loves it. Has anyone ever seen him look even a little bit nervous? This one was legendary 5-1 triumph for Roma. And it contained a delicious variation of the Totti chip, from outside the area, floated into the top corner. He purged them again.
7. Rome, September 4, 1994
Early Totti. Very early. His first goal in Serie A and at the Stadio Olimpico. A nice, clean strike into the corner against Foggia. Silvio Berlusconi had just been elected for the first time. Some players he now comes up against hadn’t even been born. Giuseppe Giannini, "The Prince," was still playing for Roma. Totti was just 17.
8. Rome, December 1, 2002
Flicks, backheels and chipped passes. No-look assists. Dozens of them. A series of team-mates have feasted off Totti’s invention during his time at Roma. One player he understood immediately was Antonio Cassano, who Totti called the best he ever played with, according to Corriere dello Sport (via Football Italia). They appeared to be able to read each other’s movements. It was beautiful, while it lasted.
Take, for example, Cassano’s goal against Juventus in December 2002. Totti’s instinctive curving flick sent a blond-maned Cassano through on goal. But he still had Gianluigi Buffon to beat. A double dribble, and then the ball got stuck in his feet, but he still managed to score. The game finished 2-2, but that goal and assist lived longer in the memory.
9. Rome, January 6, 2002
Double dribbling. The ball seems stuck to one foot, then the other. Defenders are falling all over the place. And then there is the commentator. “He dribbled past them all. He dribbled past them all. Six or seven. The Goalkeeper. Photographers. The post.”
10. Rome, April 20, 2016
Late Totti. Super-sub. In recent years Totti has been increasingly seen on the bench, looking none too happy to be there. But there were still moments of high drama in the few minutes he was allowed at the end of games.
In this one, he was called upon as a last resort, with Rome losing 2-1 at home to Torino. Twenty-two seconds later, he scored, an opportunist touch from a cross. In the 89th minute, Roma were awarded a somewhat generous penalty. Of course, Totti took it and scored. His game within a game had lasted three minutes and transformed it.
A fan in the stadium burst into tears.
At the age of 40, Totti's dream of a fairytale Serie A title to close his career never came to pass. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. There is the World Cup, the solitary Scudetto, and all those incredible goals, assists and touches—and all for one team.
Totti achieved an exalted and unique status at his one and only club, his club for life, his home, his stadium, his city (or part of his city, let's not forget that there are also the anti-Tottis, the haters, those ripe to be laughed at, the Laziali).
For many seasons, Totti was more important than the club itself, or any passing manager. Totti's final season was something of a humiliating one. He spent most of it on the bench, gazing with a fixed-eye stare at the pitch, staying professional, not making any comments to the press. It was a disciplined performance of suffering—a long and agonising move towards obscurity and retirement, lit up by the occasional minutes that Roma boss Luciano Spalletti gave him.
The final season, for the first time, Totti did not make a difference. Roma were good—occasionally very good—but Totti was a bit-part player, a side-show, a luxury reserve. His role as super-sub last season was not repeated.
Spalletti had to manage his long goodbye with dignity and without damaging the team, or its prospects. It wasn't easy. When Totti was given just a few minutes at the end of Roma’s doomed Europa League tie against Lyon, many fans were outraged. They saw the substitution itself as an insult to their hero.
Who was Spalletti in comparison with The Gladiator, with the Totti-God himself? Nobody.
Even when he was not playing. Even when he was no longer a footballer, Totti was still the centre of attention. His obstinance in staying even to warm the bench (surely he could have gone to a provincial team like Roberto Baggio and become a star all over again?) was a desperate attempt to rage against the inevitable dying of the light, even for a player who could still do more than most from a standing position, without moving anything apart from his leg.
But Spalletti knew that a top team could not seriously consider buying a 40-year-old playmaker, even a genius one. Totti was a passenger. And deep down, even he knew this was true. The plan was surely to win one more Scudetto, or a European trophy. But another second place—yet another second place—was always the most likely outcome.
Totti is not going out at the top, but as a small cog in a talented machine. His intense love for the game, for his team, and for his stadium has kept him going far too long. Like a punch-drunk boxer who won’t take the count.
Totti kept training, putting on his kit every week and sitting on that infernal bench. And then it was all over. All that was left was one last lap of honour and a final wave to the curva.
The king of Rome is dead. Long live the king.