On a recent Monday afternoon, Roma and Italy playmaker Francesco Totti was out about town, enjoying his day off with his girlfriend, Maria Mazza.
As the couple were driving down Via Cristoforo Colombo, a major traffic artery that heads southwards and out of Rome, their car, an Opel Corsa driven by Maria, was knocked off the road by a larger car.
Both Totti and his girlfriend were unharmed in the incident, which provoked only minor damage to their vehicle. Had it happened to anyone else, the car would have been pulled off the grass verge and back on to the road in minutes.
Totti, of course, is not anyone else. Within minutes, curious drivers slowing down to gawp at the accident had recognised the footballer. Before long, the entire Cristoforo Colombo was blocked as Totti was beseiged by enthusiastic fans.
After a while, traffic police bowed to the inevitable and shut off the road for an hour to allow the fans to disperse and Totti to get his girlfriend’s car out of the ditch and go on about his business.
These days, it is difficult to ignore Francesco Totti. Elected Player of the Year by his colleagues last October, offered a mega-contract by Roma that makes him among the best-paid footballers in the world, the subject of a weekly satirical sketch on prime-time TV, Totti has become the new standard bearer of Italian soccer.
By the way, he is, of course, also the captain of the current Italian League leaders, Roma.
Roma fans who believe that their time has finally come round again, 18 years after they last lifted the Italian title, look to Totti as the talented talisman who, along with such as Argentinian striker Gabriel Batistuta, can guarantee that success. Not just the Roma fans, but also the entire Italian football community agrees that Totti finally came of age last summer, when his performances, not to say goalscoring, were an important part of that tremendous Italian run all the way to the Euro 2000 Final and just 20 seconds short of the title.
After Euro 2000, Italian fans expect Totti to continue to deliver on his promise at the 2002 World Cup finals. More pressingly, however, after Euro 2000, Roma fans expect Totti’s new-found consistency and sense of responsibility to prove a major factor in Roma’s bid to win the title.
“This is a terrific moment for me,” Totti said recently. “When I’m out and about and meet people, I get a sense of their excitement and I’m proud and honoured to be the captain of this Roma.
Recently, your correspondent was out at Roma’s Trigoria training ground for a series of TV interviews with players. As we waited with the crew by the club swimming pool, the silence of a mild, sunny Roman morning was interrupted by someone leaning out of a club house window and shouting “bastardi, bastardi”, a word that needs no translation.
Looking round, it became clear that the loud mouth belonged to none other than Totti. Furthermore, the object of his imprecations soon became clear. Out on one of the faraway pitches, a group of newly-arrived players wearing the familiar light blue of Roma’s loathed cross-town rivals, Lazio, had arrived.
These were indeed Lazio players, members of the youth team who had arrived for that afternoon’s youth team derby (Derby della Primavera) against Roma.
If Totti’s now thoroughly established international career (20 caps, 4 goals at press time) has the 2002 World Cup finals as its next major moment on the world stage, the player himself would be the first to admit that winning the title with Roma is a much more urgent requirement.
“I’ve said it all along. This could be my year,” he states. “Having had a good Euro 2000 has done my morale a lot of good. We want to pull it off this season.”
And so say all the Roma fans.
by Paddy Agnew
*This is an extract from a full-length profile of Francesco Totti. The unedited version is available in the current issue (March 2001) of World Soccer.