March 1993 – AS Roma are 2-0 up against Brescia and a disappointing season is drawing to it’s inevitable conclusion. Roma midfielder Sinisa Mihajlovic strolls over to his manager, Vujadin Boskov, in the dugout – “Put the boy on”. Boskov turns his gaze to the blond kid and asks him to go warm up. Yet, the 16-year old kid just sits there and doesn’t move a muscle. Sitting next to him is another young talented striker, Roberto Muzzi. “Look, Francesco,” pointed Muzzi, “he’s talking to you. Off you go then.”
A few years later, the boy recalled that moment:
“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.”
That sun-baked afternoon, Francesco Totti lived his dream. Fast forward 24 years, and he’s lived it more than 750 times for his childhood club, a paragon of loyalty loved, adored and worshipped not just in Rome but almost all over the world.
Totti’s early life was shaped by his mother, Fiorella. She kept him on the straight and narrow – driving him to training and back and even though he wasn’t the brightest student at school, she made sure he showed up every day and finished his schooling education.
At the grand old age of 13, Totti has already grabbed the attention of scouts all over the country. There was talk of AC Milan being interested along with Juventus and most surprisingly of all, Lazio. Lodigiani, Totti’s club since he was 10, had promised to send him to Lazio. But Fiorella was having none of it. Theirs was a Giallorossi supporting household, decades spent between them suffering and celebrating each Roma season. Fiorella went to the AS Roma academy and told them to sign her up and they did not need much convincing. Gildo Giannini, the then Giallorossi academy head, said:
I didn’t need much convincing – we already knew about him – and I got Lodigiani to sell him to us.”
Totti was inserted into the U-15s team within a month of joining and looked at home from day one. He loved the club and he set about working himself up the ladder. Not a lot of people are aware that he was the ballboy during Roma’s second leg UEFA Cup final vs. Inter in 1991. The youth coaches loved him, he already had the talent and he was willing to put in extra hours on the training ground. Talent and hard work combined? A coach’s dream.
Totti’s U-20 coach, Luciano Spinso, highlighted in a FOurFourTwo interview how easy his job was when it came to Totti:
“After 10 minutes, I called Roma’s sporting director Giorgio Perinetti, telling him to never let this champion leave the club. 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.”
Over the years, Totti gradually gained experience under Carlo Mazzone but it was the arrival of Zdenek Zeman which put Totti on the path to stardom. Zeman, known for his no-holds barred attacking approach to football, unleashed his most potent weapon – Totti as a no. 10. In the next 2 seasons, Totti racked up 30 goals and 26 assists and one of those goals was a delightful chip over a young Parma goalkeeper named Gianluigi Buffon.
“Zeman wants me to entertain,” he said after the Parma game. “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.”
But it was ultimately the Scudetto that Roma wanted, having won it just twice in their history. The team that Fabio Capello had assembled for the 2000-01 season was a formidable one – Cafu, Walter Samuel (nicknamed “The Wall” for good reason), Nakata, Emerson, Totti, Montella and of course, Batigol – Gabriel Batistuta. Totti went on to score 13 goals in that glorious season and was voted the player of the year. Batigol was full of praise when asked about his strike partner:
“He knows everything. 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!”
With teenage prodigies Antonio Cassano and Daniele De Rossi coming through the ranks, the Roma side was set to dominate Serie A for the next few years. Sadly, Capello and Totti’s personalities were too overbearing for a dressing room and a few petty clashes later, Capello left and Roma never recaptured their league title.
Roma managed to win just one Scudetto during Totti’s career, spanning an incredible 25 seasons.
In the UK, you may not be surprised to know, Totti’s career is frowned upon from the lens of top experts. Ron Atkinson, a former Manchester United manager, went live on air with this:
“He’s a little t**, that Totti. I can’t see what all the fuss is about.”
Fast forward a few years and the lack of belief in one of the greatest Italian players remains as glaring as ever. Following a Champions League group stage game between AS Roma and Bayern Munich on Sky Sports, Graeme Souness, Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables trotted out this gem of a conversation:
Souness (smirking): “He’s never been accused of being a workaholic. Yeah, he’s got talent, but you know my thoughts on him.”
Hoddle: “No, he’s not top drawer. He’d have moved on if he was. Someone would’ve come and got him.”
Venables: “Glenn’s right. He has been a luxury.”
Luxury?! What few remember and many have forgotten is that it was Totti’s sparkling performance in a 2-1 win over Manchester United that prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to try the striker-less system at Old Trafford with Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney all interchanging positions.
We keep hearing this argument that trophies decide how great a player is – if Messi doesn’t win the World Cup or Copa America, he isn’t close to polishing Maradona’s boots in the Who’s-the-best-player-in-the-world debate.
But when it comes to Francesco Totti, and at the risk of sounding cliched, for AS Roma fans he was THE trophy. It doesn’t matter what he won and how many accolades he got (1 Scudetto, 2 Coppa Italias, World Cup winner, twice Serie A footballer of the year, 5 times Italian player of the year, Euro 2000 final man of the match, among many others), Totti should be celebrated for how he made us fans feel – bedazzled, mesmerised, awed and ultimately thankful for everything he gave us.
Totti’s celebrations have become the stuff of legend as well, especially in the gladiatorial cross-town derbies against Lazio. From the infamous ‘i ho purgato ancora’ (I’ve purged you again) tee-shirt celebration in 1999 to taking a selfie after scoring twice in a 2-2 draw with Lazio in 2015, Totti has endeared himself to the Roma fans like no one else. In 2004, he took over the TV camera and scanned the entire Stadio Olimpico through its lens. How, as a AS Roma fan, could you not fall in love with the voracious passion of this man’s love for the badge?
As soon as the final whistle went to conclude a pre-season friendly between AS Roma and FC Barcelona, Lionel Messi made a beeline towards the Roman, desperate to be the first to reach him. He demanded both his jersey and a picture with him and posted it on Instagram with the caption – “A great! What a phenomenon!!”. Just another Totti fan then, eh?
When you see the name “Totti” mentioned anywhere, think not of the trophies, but of what he meant to a city. To a sport. To a people. There are murals, posters and graffiti adorning countless walls in Rome dedicated to their son – nicknamed “Il Grande”; The King of Rome.
Grazie, capitano. Grazie.