(Please note: this feature originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe today! 6 issues for £19)
“He’s a little t***, that Totti. I can’t see what all the fuss is about.” It’s certainly not the worst thing Ron Atkinson ever said, but it must be the most vacuous. Still, Big Ron’s mind was probably elsewhere, as he followed this priceless morsel at the 2002 World Cup – his last tournament as an ITV pundit – with the words: “Are there any sandwiches? I’m starving.”
Yet the former Manchester United and Aston Villa manager is far from alone in English football’s mistrust of Francesco Totti. Fast-forward almost a decade and Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and Graeme Souness – who displays his anti-Totti badge with the unflinching pride of a Victoria Cross recipient – combined to damn the Roma forward with the faintest of praise after scoring the winner in a 2010 Champions League group game against Bayern Munich. “He’s never been accused of being a workaholic,” smirked Souness. “Yeah, he’s got talent, but you know my thoughts on him.”
Hoddle took up the baton. “No, he’s not top drawer. He’d have moved on if he was. Someone would’ve come and got him.”
“Glenn’s right,” concluded Venables. “He has been a luxury.”
The wider British football public has long made snap judgements on Totti, largely based on little more than a handful of performances – a Champions League quarter-final here, a World Cup game there. He is a riddle we can’t be bothered to untangle, with four major honours (a Serie A title, two Coppas Italia and one World Cup) at which we scoff.
It comes down to a lack of knowledge. All most Brits know about the 39-year-old is his extreme longevity and unbroken 26 years at Roma since joining as a 13-year-old in 1989. He has never left his boyhood club – we’re talking about a seventh generation Roman here – and, therefore, never got beyond the last eight of the Champions League or finished higher than fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting.
On the continent, he’s revered as a paragon of loyalty. When Roma played Barcelona in a pre-season friendly, Lionel Messi demanded both Totti’s shirt and a picture, uploading the snap to Instagram with the caption: “A great! What a phenomenon!!” It got 1.8 million likes.
Cold, hard statistics back up the continental belief over the British one. Only Silvio Piola, in a bygone goal-hanging era, has scored more Serie A goals than Totti. He’s a five-time Italian footballer of the year. He won the European Golden Boot in 2007. And, of course, he won the World Cup in 2006.
Totti will be nearly 40 at the end of the season. As Il Re di Roma (‘The King of Rome’) approaches what may be his curtain call, FourFourTwo asks the coaches, former team-mates and fans why this gladiator of European football is so revered abroad, yet so mistrusted and misunderstood here.
Why does Francesco Totti matter? What makes him tick? How has he endured so long in the Eternal City? And can he score the 30 goals he requires to overhaul Silvio Piola’s all-time Serie A goalscoring record?
“I only touched the ball a couple of times – I was too excited and too happy”
“Go on, put the boy on.” Vujadin Boskov turned his gaze from Sinisa Mihajlovic, the busy midfielder offering his coach advice about substitutes, to a blond 16-year-old sat wide-eyed on the Roma bench a few seats away. The Giallorossi were 2-0 up with five minutes to go against Brescia, a disappointing season all but over in late March 1993.
“Warm up so you can go on straight away,” said Boskov to the boy, who was sat next to promising 22-year-old striker Roberto Muzzi. Yet he did nothing.
“Look,” huffed Muzzi, “he’s talking to you. Off you go.”
Later, the youngster recalled what happened next: “I went out, warmed up for 10 seconds and went on. I only touched the ball a couple of times – I was too excited and too happy.”
Francesco Totti had achieved a childhood dream, something he’s gone on to do more than 750 times since: play for Roma’s first team.
Imagining that moment a decade earlier, Totti perfected his dribbling up and down the Via Vetulonia, a tight street due south of the basilicas, coliseums and theatres that litter Rome’s ancient city centre. It’s a curious working-class mixture of Latin-red walls and post-war yellowish apartment blocks; a place nicknamed ‘tower-block Rome’, where everyone knows everyone.
Born to bank clerk father Lorenzo and housewife Fiorella, Totti always stood out. At nine months, he could walk. By four, after watching countless matches on the television in the family’s cramped apartment, his talent was already prodigious.
Once, on a family holiday to coastal seaside town Torvaianica, half an hour or so from central Rome, the infant Totti strolled down the beach with his father. Enzo asked a group of eight-year-olds if his son could join in. “He’s too small,” they insisted. “He might hurt himself.” Totti Sr insisted and the tiny four-year-old, wearing red shorts and a white shirt with the No.4 on the back, danced around children twice his age, leaving them open-mouthed.
Nobody has shaped Totti’s life quite like mum Fiorella, whose motto is: “You have to be serene and clean on the inside.” Often compared to the working-class characters portrayed by noted Italian stage actress Anna Magnani, she raised Francesco and his older brother Riccardo with a strong Catholic ethos. At one point she even took in Francesco’s future Roma team-mate and Italy international Antonio Cassano, in an effort to temper the playboy striker’s famously errant ways.
“I was also a bit of a crook,” recalled Totti. “I used to steal footballs. In the summer we would play all afternoon until sunset. Often, before going home, I took the ball, played it cool, and took off. I had a real collection. I gave them all back in the end. I wasn’t the best at school but I always paid attention and was well behaved, because of Mama.”
This is a character whose career feels predestined. The imposing Fiorella watched over her son’s studies, took him to training – at first Fortitudo, then Smit Trastevere and finally Lodigiani from 10 until 13 – and kept him on the straight and narrow. Sundays were spent going to mass, looking after ailing grandparents and playing cards around the dining table with the extended family.
“His family was a determining factor,” said Totti’s Lodigiani coach Emidio Neroni. “Enzo and Fiorella were there, but discreet, transmitting fundamental humility and seriousness. At 10, Francesco was tiny and fast. You could tell he was a natural talent. The challenge was not to hone his gifts, but to guide him in the right way. He had football in his DNA. He played dumb: he seemed to go missing. Then suddenly he would score.”
Soon, tongues were wagging about Rome’s brightest prospect in generations. Milan were interested, so were Juventus and, impossibly, so were Lazio. The Tottis, Giallorossi for decades, were having none of it and Fiorella marched into Lodigiani’s Trigoria training ground.
“Lodigiani,” remembers Gildo Giannini, who was then in charge of the Giallorosso youth system, “had already promised Totti to Lazio, but his mum Fiorella came to me demanding that Roma took him. I didn’t need much convincing – we already knew about him – and I got Lodigiani to sell him to us.”
Within a month, Totti was playing (illegally) two age groups above for the under-15s. He dedicated himself to being a Roma footballer, acting as a ball boy during the second leg of the 1991 UEFA Cup Final against Inter.
Still existing on a diet of bread, Nutella, margherita pizza and chips (hence the Rome dialect nickname Er Pupone – ‘the Big Baby’), the 15-year-old helped the under-17 side win a Scudetto later that year.
“I only had him for a month before he went to play for the U20s,” coach Ezio Sella tells FFT. “He immediately got my attention. You never see a player this young able to do such special things. From his first training session, I knew I had a legend in the making. He created things out of nothing. I just told him to never feel as if he’s made it, because everyone kept lauding him. Over time he’s proven this over and over again.”
Sella recalls that U17 title victory over Milan in 1991 like it was yesterday: “He hurdled every bad tackle, no matter how much they tried to stop him. Remember this is a team who had tried to sign him on more than one occasion. I played him as both a central midfielder and a forward, and he created both of the goals in a 2-0 win.
“He was the best player I’ve ever coached. He needed no technical coaching – that would’ve been a waste of time.”
Totti’s under-20s coach, Luciano Spinosi, will never forget the first time he saw his protégé play during pre-season. “After 10 minutes, I called Roma’s sporting director Giorgio Perinetti, telling him to never let this champion leave the club,” Spinosi tells FFT. “The way he hit the ball was like no one else. I’ve seen lots of young footballers, but he was special. He dragged the whole team with him. I just had to tell him to play. I had never seen a 16-year-old like this. He made my job easier.”
It was during an under-20 game in March 1993 against Ascoli that Totti’s world changed. With the first team about to depart for Brescia, head coach Boskov made the late decision to bring a 16-year-old Totti along for the ride. Fresh from scoring twice, he was substituted at half-time and got on the coach.
The following day came Mihajlovic, Boskov and the debut. He replaced Ruggiero Rizzitelli, an Italian international and Roma legend nicknamed ‘Rizzi-gol’ by the Giallorossi.
“We all expected his debut that day,” Rizzitelli tells FFT. “Many youngsters trained with the first team, but Totti was different. You don’t see many kids nutmeg a first-team player in training. But he had a huge personality to go with his talent. I told him to be calm and enjoy [his debut]. It’s only football. In a funny way, I’m proud that I was the guy who let Totti play for the first time. Every year someone calls me just to talk about that Brescia vs Roma game!”
“I almost didn’t want him to be discovered, because at 17 you can lose your head”
Over the following 18 months, Totti gradually gained first-team experience under Carlo Mazzone, a fellow Roman who is also responsible for converting Andrea Pirlo into a deep-lying playmaker. Ten minutes here, half an hour there. Theirs was and remains very much a father-son relationship – Totti looking up to his coach with wonder, Mazzone sheltering his precocious young talent from Rome’s harsh glare.
“I gave my staff a hard-nosed order,” says Mazzone. “Woe betide anyone who puts out the word that this Totti is so good. We all know what Rome is like, don’t we? I didn’t want anyone to ruin his development.
“I admit I guarded Francesco and his talent rather jealously. I almost didn’t want him to be discovered, because at 17 years old, especially in Rome, you can soon lose your head. I tried to protect him.”
The denouement to Totti’s first start, a man-of-the-match display against Sampdoria in February 1994, is illustrative of Mazzone’s plan. “Go and take your shower, kid,” he whispered to his adoptive son. “I’ll speak to them.” It’s little wonder that Totti wrote the foreword to Mazzone’s 2010 autobiography.
Six months later came Totti’s first Roma goal: a low, left-footed strike against Foggia on the opening day of the 1994/95 season. Er Pupone celebrated by going out for ice cream with big brother Riccardo, but what made it even more special was another familial connection. “My uncle had promised me a mountain bike,” Totti later recalled. “I wanted one, and perhaps I could have bought it without waiting for the goal, but I chased thinking of the bike. Having an objective has always helped me since then. It’s like I’m running towards something.”
Firebrand mother Fiorella, Mazzone the second father, his uncle-inspired first Roma goal – but what of his adopted Roma big brother? Nicknamed Il Principe (‘the Prince’), Giuseppe Giannini – whose father Gildo had signed Totti in 1989 – was Roma’s No.10 and playmaking star. English fans might recall him from Italia 90, where he impressed in the shadow of Roberto Baggio. Totti still cites inheriting his hero’s famous shirt as one of his proudest moments in football.
“He stood out straight away,” Giannini, who played 436 games for Roma and made 47 appearances for Italy, tells FFT. “Everything seemed so easy for him. What he’s done for Italian football cannot be underestimated. He is the best we’ve had.
“He was my room-mate. I saw in him a younger version of me, because he did the same things I did a few years previously. He tried to learn a lot from the other guys. I genuinely feel like his older brother. I knew his mum Fiorella well, too. I remember when he was looking for his first car: Francesco wanted a Volkswagen Golf GTI and his parents were worried and called me. I told them that my first car was a Mercedes!”
Family and a sense of belonging: intertwining themes in the Francesco Totti story.
In January 1997 a disillusioned Totti was set to leave Roma for Sampdoria
Soon, however, that sense of belonging was gone. After three promising but trophyless seasons, Mazzone was sacked in the summer of 1996 and Totti’s hero Giannini, winding down his career, left for Austrian side Sturm Graz. His de facto father and big brother had departed in a matter of weeks, replaced by Argentine head coach Carlos Bianchi.
Totti’s relationship with El Bozo (‘Bozo the Clown’) was strained from the start. Mazzone – a charismatic, avuncular born-and-bred Roman – had indulged Totti’s occasional love of the high life and less-than-extensive effort in training because of his extreme talent, but his successor at the Stadio Olimpico hated the club’s newfound symbol. Frequently dropped, and denied the No.10 shirt he so craved after Giannini’s departure, Totti became disillusioned and by January 1997 was set to leave for Sampdoria on an initial loan. Spurs were also interested in the 20-year-old.
“Bianchi couldn’t bear Romans and above all me, because I was young,” Totti later claimed. “Can you believe that in small-sided games he would line up ‘Romans against non-Romans’? My head was already in Genoa, and if I had gone, I wouldn’t have come back.”
Whether it was il vento di ponentino – the ‘west wind’ Romans believe warms the heart and dulls the mind – or just a love affair that couldn’t die, Totti remained. By April, with Roma languishing in the bottom half in Serie A, Bianchi gave chairman Franco Sensi a ‘Totti or me’ ultimatum. There was only ever going to be one winner.
Bianchi’s replacement in 1997/98 was the chain-smoking attacking nut Zdenek Zeman, the man who definitively put the ring on the Totti-Roma finger. Totti was immediately given the No.10 shirt and within a year was captain – at 22, the youngest in Serie A history.
“Actually, I wasn’t the one to choose him as a captain; the team did, after a vote,” Zeman tells FFT. “Our Brazilian centre-back Aldair had more votes, but didn’t want the responsibility. In that moment, the players recognised Francesco as their leader. He was and still is very calm – almost introverted. He might not be a dressing room shouter, but he’s the perfect leader for Roma out on the pitch.”
Totti responded brilliantly, scoring 30 goals and providing 26 assists in two seasons under Zeman, the Giallorossi finishing fourth and fifth. One of the 30 was Totti’s first cucchiaio ‘spoon’ lob, in November 1997 against a young Gianluigi Buffon’s Parma. More would follow.
YOU ASK THE QUESTIONS… Gianluigi Buffon: You have to be a real masochist to play in goal – and a bit perverse
“Zeman wants me to entertain,” he said at the time. “People go to the stadium for the spectacle, not just to see us win. Entertaining is an honour and a responsibility. It pushes me to try to produce a piece of skill, like the lob at Parma.”
Or his Panenka penalty a few years later in the Euro 2000 semi-final against Holland, an effort of such breathtaking confidence it stunned Edwin van der Sar in the Dutch goal. It was no coincidence Totti had started the match on the bench; his penalty was a representation of his dissatisfaction with coach Dino Zoff. Though Italy lost the ensuing final to France, Totti was man of the match.
The Zeman era at Roma was the first to show Totti’s adaptability. He spent two years not as a classic No.10, but on the left of a zonal front three. And there you were, thinking he’s a luxury playmaker capable only of playing as a genuine No.10…
“From the side, he could cut inside much easier than as a centre-forward,” Zeman tells FFT. “The opposition foul him so much playing centrally, it was too dangerous. He never complained about the position, because where I played him he was more in the action.”
It was also under Zeman that Totti, with an 81st-minute equaliser in November 1998, first did what no other player has done more often: score in the Rome derby.
“That was one of the two most beautiful things I’ve experienced as a Giallorosso,” Roma fan Guglielmo Casalini tells FFT. “We went 1-0 up, but Lazio came back to lead 3-1, then missed a penalty, and we went down to 10 men. Then Totti, who’d been outstanding throughout, equalised and Marco Delvecchio could even have won it for us.”
Casalini’s other most beautiful moment? That would come three years later, in June 2001, against Parma at the Stadio Olimpico: Roma’s third Serie A title, and first for 18 years.
The team that future England coach Fabio Capello assembled was formidable, boasting Cafu, Walter Samuel and Aldair in defence, Hidetoshi Nakata and Emerson in midfield and Totti, Vincenzo Montella and top scorer Gabriel Batistuta – a trident that scored 47 of Roma’s 68 Serie A goals in 2000/01 – in attack.
“He knows everything,” Batigol tells FFT. “He’s the best strike partner I have ever played with. He thinks fast and knows what the striker wants because he’s also one himself. That’s a big advantage. Nobody enjoys an assist like Francesco. He used to dummy defenders, break, accelerate, dribble – it was indecipherable for them and for me. He made my knees ache!”
Unsurprisingly, a 13-goal Totti was voted footballer of the year, utterly unburdened by either the weight of history or his own talismanic status. Still only 24, with Antonio Cassano and a teenage Daniele De Rossi waiting in the wings, this Roma team should have dominated Serie A.
Yet the marriage between Totti and Capello was destined for divorce. Both of them were too headstrong, too opinionated, too convinced they were ultimately responsible for that Scudetto, for any lasting union. The austere coach and anarchic talent tolerated each other, but it descended into petty bickering. The captain usually started it but his coach would always retort, once saying: “Here, you have to decide whether you’re a Totti fan or a Roma fan.”
The definitive rupture came halfway through the 2003/04 campaign, which was Capello’s last in Rome. Capello tore into Totti in front of the whole team, calling him a slacker who never tried in training. The press were the first to know and coach blamed captain, while captain blamed coach for not being flexible enough to fit both himself and Cassano in the same team.
He and Capello have since made up, but Totti is far from the easiest player to manage. During Luis Enrique’s solitary season with Roma in 2011/12, the current Barcelona boss struggled to deal with Il Capitone’s personality ruling above all others. Yet, without that campaign, Enrique wouldn’t have dealt with Lionel Messi’s mini-tantrum in January 2015 before los Cules swept to a Treble six months later.