BY LORENZO MALATERRA
Tickets sold out weeks ago; no one in the city wants to miss this event, unless they are of the other persuasion. On May 28th, AS Roma will play Genoa, marking the very last match of Francesco Totti, the undisputed symbol of the capital’s team for almost three decades and one of modern football’s few remaining legends to still be playing.
A great celebration is planned at Stadio Olimpico, but it takes two to tango and it looks like the current coach of AS Roma, Luciano Spalletti, is not that eager to dance with Totti. “Sometimes I have penalized Francesco and I am sorry for this, but I decide the line up with the idea to win games”; these were the words of Roma’s coach on the eve of the game against Chievo Verona, the penultimate fixture of the season.
The last two years have been quite disappointing for the captain: only 13 appearances last year and just 16 so far this year, with only 378 minutes played – a mere 23 minutes on average for each match.
First under the French coach Rudi Garcia, and now under the tough Tuscan, Spalletti (he took Garcia’s place from 14 January 2016), Totti has not been given too many opportunities to play in the first team. Reasonable, you might say, for a professional footballer who turned 40 on 27 September 2016. The fact is that we are not talking about a normal player: Totti has been the captain of AS Roma since 1998, 5 times awarded the title of Best Italian Player and twice as Best Serie A Player; and, in 2004, included by FIFA on the list of the 125 greatest living football players selected with the help of Pelè. Er Pupone, the big baby as he is called by fans, is the symbol of the club since he made his debut in Serie A in 1993 at the tender age of 16. The early guardian of his career was Serbian coach Vujadin Boskov who, in his one and only year in the Italian capital, caught a glimpse of the immense potential of the young Roman boy.
But it was under three years of coaching by Carlo Mazzone that Totti started shining and proving his pure talent on calcio’s biggest stage.
Later with innovative coach Zdenek Zeman, Totti started improving and maturing, both tactically and physically, taking on more and more responsibilities within the team. However, to general disappointment, the then Italy national team boss, Cesare Maldini, did not call up Totti for the 1998 World Cup in France: his debut for the Azzurri happened in the Euro 2000 qualifying match against Switzerland soon after. Totti took the field in the second half of the 2-0 victory, where another 90s football legend, Alessandro Del Piero, starred scoring twice.
Totti hogged the back pages of the sport newspapers at Euro 2000, displaying a mix of steady nerves, ability and recklessness when scoring a ‘Panenka’ during the penalty shootout win in the semi-final against Netherlands.
The year after, Totti achieved his dream of winning the Serie A title with his beloved club. Rome was at his feet, at least the side who did not support Lazio.
Roma fans granted him the status of undisputed leader of the squad and talisman, his background as a genuine Roman and lifelong supporter making him almost untouchable in their eyes.
However, Totti’s personality soon overflowed away from the football field: his wedding with the showgirl and TV host Ilary Blasi was aired on television, and the couple, referred to as the Italian Beckhams, often appear in gossip magazines.
Also in his spare time, Totti has published 8 (eight!) books, and is no stranger to publicity; he has made many appearances on the small screen and can be seen in adverts for everything from cars to lottery tickets. Thanks to his innate simpatico, he is still one of the most loved players both at home and abroad.
Even the unofficial anthem of the Azzurri during the victorious 2006 World Cup campaign, the White Stripes hit Seven Nation Army, has been made famous by Totti, who admitted that he could not get it out of his head after he heard it from Belgian supporters after Club Brugge scored the equaliser against Roma during a UEFA cup tie in early 2006.
Soon, Roman fans started chanting it after every Roma goal in all the stadiums they visited, and shortly afterwards, Italian supporters started singing it during that glorious summer in Germany.
If the past is shimmering, the present and the future are not that bright: the newly hired director of football Monchi, formerly of Sevilla, has immediately made it clear that this season is Totti’s last as a player at the Stadio Olimpico and that next year he will serve the club as a director. What Monchi does not understand is that Francesco is still keen on playing and has no intention to retire, at least not for a while yet.
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks that offers have been forthcoming from Turkey (Antalyaspor), USA (Miami FC) and Switzerland (FC Sion), but so far no comment has been made by Totti.
Whatever his decision will be, either to continue playing football in exotic championships around the world or starting his new career as a director, Roma fans only want to give him the farewell he deserves for his great contribution to the city and the game.
The image of him benched at San Siro during the match against AC Milan two weeks ago, with rival supporters displaying a banner in his honour, wishing for him to take the field so they could pay the merited homage was, when all is said and done, what football is all about: pure emotion.
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