“We’ve got to talk about Francesco”.
When Roma President, American James Pallotta, landed in Rome this week, there was no doubt but that one priority on his busy Rome schedule would concern the club’s ageing icon, Francesco Totti.
In essence, what are we going to do with him? Totti is now 39 years of age, going on 40 next September. On top of that, a September injury has ruled him out for practically the entire season so far. He has played in just five Serie A games, whilst a three minute run-out in the dying moments of Roma’s recent 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid has been his only Champions League appearance all season.
Has the time come to call it a day? Well, there are certainly those who think so. Former Italy and Juventus champion Marco Tardelli said last week that he had told Totti to retire months ago. Ex-Milan and Croatia star Zvonimir Boban was equally outspoken, saying this week: “Totti has to understand that he can no longer play serious football. He plays at about two kilometres per hour. He is entitled to all the sympathy and support of the Roman piazza and indeed of all Italian football fans, but you cannot hide from reality. If you’re not up to it anymore, then enough is enough”
The problem here, however, is that Totti does not seem to agree. Three days after that brief run-out against Real Madrid, he gave an interview to Italian state TV in which he complained that “he would have liked a bit more respect from the club”, a comment that was basic playerspeak for “I would like to play”.
Despite his age, his injuries and his long career, Totti seems to want one final bite of the cherry, through to the end of the 2016-2017 season. For once, Totti’s timing was off when it came to that interview. For, even as he was speaking poolside at the Trigoria training centre, coach Luciano Spalletti was holding his routine pre-match press conference inside.
Spalletti took the media by surprise, announcing that Totti would be in the starting line-up for the following night’s game against Palermo. However, later that Saturday night, when Spalletti watched the Totti interview, he was not much pleased. Next morning he summoned Totti to his office. Given what you said yesterday and given your attitude, I think it is better that you go home, Francesco. You will not be playing against Palermo, after all.
For Totti and for many of his fans, the shock was devastating. Mr. Goody Two Shoes, Mr. Roma Twinkletoes had been sent home. It has to be remembered that Totti is that rare bird in the modern game, a player whose 25 year long first class career has been played at only one club, Roma. He first joined Roma in 1989 at the age of 12.
Winner of the 2006 World Cup, winner of the 2001 Serie A league title, the second highest Serie A goalscorer of all time, third on the all time Serie A appearances (with 593 games), Totti is clearly nothing if not a walking national monument. On top of that, via his charity work, his TV ads, his regular clever soundbites, he has through the years shown himself to be an intelligent footballer and one, what is more, with an exemplary off-the-field record.
On-the-field, of course, there have been “moments”. We all remember the spitting incident with Dane Christian Poulsen in a Euro 2004 first round game whilst back in 2012 he kicked the shins off Mario Balottelli in the Italian Cup Final. However, even his dearest fans never dared suggest he was perfect.
What they do suggest, though, is that he is very special. His longevity, his loyalty to Roma, the sense to which he seems the very incarnation of an irreverent flamboyance typical of the capital city and his obvious bonhomie have all made him special. You cannot just send Totti home, can you?
When French coach Rudi Garcia (sacked last November) first arrived at Roma three years ago, he was astonished to find that out at Trigoria there was a special office for a guy called Vito Scala, personal trainer and physio for Totti but also a fully paid-up club employee.
Scala’s office, he said, was a sort of museum to Totti, decorated with photos, posters, team shirts and shirts of other famous players against whom Totti had played. Garcia reflected on the peculiarity of a club which pays one guy to look after just one player, concluding that Totti was “untouchable”. “Far be it from me to think of dropping him”, he reasoned.
Unfortunately for Totti, the time has now come when the club has to think of just that. At the beginning of the season, Roma director Mauro Baldissoni told World Soccer that, so concentrated was Totti on continuing to play this season, that the club and player had yet to sit down and plot a post-player career for him. It would seem that the time has now come.
There is nothing worse in the great footballer’s career than the moment when the curtain begins to come down, a moment when most of us feel only sympathy for the player. Decline and Fall, Twilight of the Gods, Endgame, Game Over, name your end of career cliché and rest assured it has been used in Italy in the last few days.
Worse, too, for Totti is the consideration that, without him, Roma and new coach Spalletti have been staging a mini-revival. After he had been sent home, Roma went on to beat Palermo 5-0 without him. Last Saturday’s 3-1 away defeat of Empoli (in which Totti did not play) represented Roma’s sixth successive Serie A win, leaving them joint third with Fiorentina, ready for a “head to head” with the Florence club at the Olimpico next Friday.
Despite that, if reports from Trigoria are to be believed, Totti’s wish will be granted and Roma will shortly extend his contract through to 2017. How exactly he will be used next year remains to be seen. Sparingly, one imagines, and on a reduced salary. (He currently earns €2.5 million euro per annum).
One thing seems for sure. Roma and Totti are unlikely to go their different ways since they both need one another. Totti’s whole being is as a Roma footballer whilst Roma will never have a better, more “shirt-selling” international ambassador.