The Roma forward is back in form – and sparking debate over an international return.
What a difference a goal makes. Or, in the case of Francesco Totti, what a difference three goals make. Back on the pitch in late November for Roma’s home game against Bari – following a 49-day absence since scoring both Roma goals in a 2-1 home win over Napoli – il capitano claimed all three goals in the space of just 28 minutes in a convincing 3-1 victory.
In this World Cup season, Totti’s hat-trick was all that was required to restart speculation that, come May, Italy coach Marcello Lippi will decide to call up the 33-year-old for the finals in South Africa.
Totti’s form this season is certainly impressive. He currently lies joint-second in the Serie A goalscoring chart (behind Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale) on nine goals, while his hat-trick against Bari was his third this season, following trebles against Slovak side Kosice and Belgian club Gent in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. With 187 Serie A goals to his name, Totti is currently at seventh in the all-time scorers’ list.
Certainly, his goals against Bari would give anyone pause for thought. In particular, the third goal – a long-range, left-foot drive from a prohibitive angle – was the sort of strike which prompted Roma’s experienced coach Claudio Ranieri to exclaim: “But that was a goal just out of this world. I found myself shouting out: ‘How in the name of the devil did he do it?’”
One week later, talking at the launch of his new website, Totti confirmed that even if he has not played for Italy since winning the World Cup Final against France in Berlin three years ago, a dramatic late return cannot be excluded.
“I have an excellent relationship with Lippi,” he said. “When it gets to April, May time I will talk to him and we’ll see what my state of fitness is. I meet all the old Italy team-mates when I play against them and my impression is that all the team veterans would like to see me return.”
Another player for whom a goal – or in his case, two – could yet make a fundamental difference is Milan striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who appeared for the last six minutes of their game away to Catania. Despite dominating possession, Milan had been resolutely shut out by a very dour and defensive Catania. However, the 26-year-old Huntelaar combined brilliantly with veteran Pippo Inzaghi to score twice in time added-on to win the game 2-0 and move Milan into second place in Serie A, admittedly a full seven points behind champions and runaway leaders, city rivals, Internazionale.
If Totti’s third goal against Bari was good, so too was Huntelaar’s second goal against Catania, as the Dutchman chipped Catania’s Argentinian goalkeeper Mariano Andujar from the edge of the area.
In the space of six minutes, Huntelaar bounced from being a £12million ex-Real Madrid also-ran, who was due to be offloaded during the January transfer window, to one of the brightest hopes for the rest of Milan’s season. With compatriot Clarence Seedorf, Brazilian master Ronaldinho and English veteran David Beckham (back on loan from Los Angeles Galaxy) to lay on the supplies for the front men, it may turn out that the Catania game did indeed represent an all-important watershed in Hunterlaar’s Milan experience.
In truth, though, it is Inter who are making all the headlines. Indeed, so dominant do they appear on the home front, they seem to need to create internal problems all of their own to enliven matters for themselves. At least, that is one unkind explanation for the tensions between the club’s talented striker Mario Balotelli and coach Jose Mourinho.
In the build-up to Inter’s game away to Juventus at the beginning of December, Mourinho seemed keen to discipline his talented attacker, ordering him to train with the reserve team, allegedly as punishment for a lack of punctuality at training. When Mourinho left the 19-year-old out of the side for Inter’s 1-0 home win over Fiorentina in late November, the Portuguese coach became annoyed with the excessive media attention to the “dropping” of the striker, asking Sky Italia viewers just who was Balotelli to merit such attention.
The point about Balotelli, however, is that not only is he a talented player but, unwittingly, he has also become an iconic one too. In the build-up to the Juventus game, there was endless speculation that the match might have to be “suspended” if Balotelli were to (again) become the object of racist abuse from the Juventus fans.
Balotelli was born to a Ghanian couple but adopted at the age of three by the Balotelli family from Bagnolo Mella, near Brescia. Since his arrival on the big time, he has occasionally been the object of racist abuse from opposing fans.
The first serious incident came last April when Juventus were forced to play a Serie A game behind closed doors by way of punishment for their fans’ chants at Balotelli during their home game against Inter. It seems that the better Balotelli plays, the more he annoys some opposing fans.
At the time he showed a deal of common sense, dismissing the chants and commenting: “I’m more Italian than those idiots.”
However, by late November, the Balotelli “problem” was back. On one crazy weekend, the young Inter striker managed to attract ugly chants at two different matches being played hundreds of miles apart. At Inter’s away game with Bologna and, even more perversely, during Juve’s home match with Udinese, he was once again the object of abuse: “Se saltelli/Muore Balotelli” (if you jump up and down, then Balotelli dies).
Juventus picked up a fine – this time a rather derisory £17,000 – but any hope that the minority of Juventus fans responsible for the chants might have learned their lesson seemed to go out the window when Juventus travelled to Bordeaux for their next game, a midweek Champions League tie which saw the Old Lady roundly beaten 2-0. As the teams warmed up prior to that game, the “saltelli/Balotelli” chant started up again.
Experienced players like Livorno striker Cristiano Lucarelli and Milan midfielder Seedorf have argued that the issue has been blown out of proportion. Both men suggest that the chants are not racist but merely the expression of football fan rivalry.
Lucarelli, who is Italian and white, says he has been abused for 15 years in Italy because of his well-known leftist political sympathies.
Holland international Seedorf, who is black and was born in Surinam, says Italy “is not a racist country”, adding that Balotelli could help himself and others by avoiding a tendency to provocative gestures – he stuck his tongue out at the Juventus fans in Turin last April, for example.
Like Totti’s potential Italy recall and Huntelaar’s new-found confidence, one suspects that this will be a story that will run and run.