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What makes the Roma captain special? Where to begin?

88_04_Totti

Illustration for by Jeffrey Decoster for Eight by Eight

Born and raised in the Appio-Latino district of south Rome, he’s been Roma’s captain for 16 years. He was a Euro 2000 finalist and a 2006 World Cup winner, making the Best XI selections at both tournaments despite playing the latter with metal pins in his ankle. He’s won the Golden Shoe and the Golden Foot, been named Italian footballer of the year five times and Serie A player of the year twice. And he’s scored 235 league goals in 561 games—second only to Silvio Piola and the only player to reach anywhere near that total at a single club. That makes him one of the greatest strikers ever to play in Italy, even though he’s not a striker.

Given his debut as a 16-year-old by legendary Serbian coach Vujadin Boškov in a 2-0 win away against Brescia, Totti properly burst onto the scene during Zdeněk Zeman’s first spell at the club in the late 1990s, playing wide on the left. Then, under Fabio Capello, he became the paradigm of a No. 10 in attacking midfield, before transforming into the archetype of the false nine under Luciano Spalletti. Lionel Messi has since made the role his own, but it was Totti who (re)invented it for the modern era. He’s what the Italians call a fantasista—a fantasist, and a player with the power to realize fantasy.

For the fans, Totti remains the reference point. He’s one of their own, the Bimbo d’Oro who grew up watching the great 1980s side that won a memorable Scudetto and played his first seasons alongside another hometown hero, Giuseppe Giannini, who by the ’90s was the last surviving remnant of glory.

Totti captained the unforgettable Scudetto-winning side during the halcyon days of Franco Sensi, then stood firm during the unforgivable mess that followed under Sensi’s daughter, Rosella. Now in the autumn of his career, he’s leading the club into its new American-owned era, and though it would have seemed impossible just a few short seasons ago, he might become the only Roma player to ever win the league twice with the club.

But players like Totti aren’t about titles. They evoke the kind of visceral emotion that eludes even the most successful. The languid way he collects the ball, sucking defenders in like moths to a flame with a crooked half-smirk before chipping the flailing, desperate keeper or laying it off with a backheel to a teammate only he sees, isn’t just a joy to watch. It’s a mnemonic in motion that snaps you back to your senses and to what you already know: Football is supposed to be beautiful.

There’s an audacious, almost reckless quality to Totti’s genius— reckless not because he tries what he cannot execute but because he attempts what his teammates sometimes fail to understand. He’s consistently among Europe’s best at key passes, through balls, and assists—but by comparison his completed pass statistics are woeful. Not for him the straightforward ball. Those are for everyone else. Totti exists for moments of magic.

He’s played against Zidane, against Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, against Ronaldo (both the joyful original and the preening Portuguese) and Ibrahimović and Kaká, and held his own. He’s spent more than two decades roaming the turf of the Olimpico, while all the greats around him have been traded and then tossed away.

Through it all, he’s stayed remarkably grounded. The city’s restaurants are littered with pictures of him smiling with the owners or a group of fans, and whenever one of Rome’s myriad football talk-radio stations discusses the latest calcio bad boy, Totti’s held up as the example of a good guy who hasn’t forgotten his roots. Earlier in his career, people outside Rome made fun of him for not seeming overly intelligent in interviews—in Italy, to speak a local dialect is to open yourself up to snobbery and ridicule—but he got the last laugh by compiling the jokes and publishing them himself in two volumes, both best sellers, donating the proceeds to charity.

Players like him, happy with their lot, proud to play for a club they love and mindful of what they mean to the fans who make that possible, are too rare. They’re a heady tonic against the grimy rapaciousness that is modern football and a reminder of what we’ve lost in the rush to commoditize everything.

The sport’s lamentable drive to become little more than a stock market in shorts has left many people suspicious of anyone who doesn’t just follow the money and the trophies. There’s a twisted strain of McCarthyism at work, where players who don’t conform are outed and put on trial. Zlatan Ibrahimović, a one-man cultural phenomenon so enjoyable to watch that he should be protected by UNESCO, is derided for never playing in England, the undisputed home of the richest—and therefore greatest—league in the world. Messi, a diminutive demigod with the ball, is lauded in one breath and, in the next, questioned by hackneyed, haggard commentators with the old cliché, “Could he do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?” As if getting soaked in Staffordshire is the only true measure by which you can gauge talent.

Totti endured the same. He was scared of the big time. He could have gone to Real. Maybe even the Premier League, if he’d been able to hack the weather. But you know these continentals. When trying to lure Daniele De Rossi to Manchester City, Roberto Mancini—a Laziale, even now— used Totti as a cautionary tale, warning the midfielder he could end up a great player who never won anything, like his old friend in Rome who just resigned himself to being a hero to the huddled masses.

To someone from the city, of course, those masses mean more than Manchester ever could. And in the northern-centric world of Italian football, wrestling even one Scudetto away from Milan or Turin is nothing short of a masterpiece, never to be forgotten. But Totti’s victories come every second Sunday at the Olimpico, when the cavernous old ground resonates with the sound of his name, the chants of “C’è solo un capitano” spilling over the brim of the bowl and into the Roman air. His has been a unique career, an exceptional exception in giallorosso, and it isn’t over yet.
So: Love him for his commitment to his boyhood club. Love him for his almost unparalleled long-term consistency. Love him for his slouched socks or his trademark lob, the cucchiaio that terrifies keepers and titillates crowds. Whatever your reason, just love him. Because we’ll be a long while waiting on another.

This article originally appeared in issue 04. Subscriptions and single issues are available now in our shop.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • David Joseph says:

    Great piece. Someone finally got it right about Totti. He is a unique genius. He is an artist. A magician. But more than that, he passed on the riches of Madrid. He said no to a massive case of trophies to stay with his beloved Roma through it all. And he chose for his name to live eternal among the people of Rome when it could just as easily have lived alongside Pele, Messi, Maradona, and Zidane’s. That’s greatness.

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