People tend to do and say things they don’t mean at the annual office Christmas Party. Francesco Totti is no different. As his teammates got into the festive mood at the Museum of 21st Century Art on Wednesday night, he was pulled to one side by Sky Italia and asked if he had ever thought about leaving Roma. “Yes, I’ve thought about it, especially recently,” he sighed. “If things continue this way, I’ll keep thinking about it.”
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Totti’s comments predictably caused a sensation. Yet this was different from the sulk he pulled in September.
Back then, Roma’s captain appeared to be having some difficulty coming to terms with the new project that was being implemented at the club following its takeover by the American entrepreneur Thomas Di Benedetto. The respect Totti had quite reasonably requested in an open letter to Il Corriere dello Sport during the summer was, in his opinion, lacking.
By the numbers: Francesco Totti
Totti’s contributions to Roma give him license to demand a bit more respect. Having spent his whole career with the Giallorossi, the 35-year-old attacker is the club’s all-time leader in appearances (481) and goals scored (207). (Photo credit: Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Goals by competition
Roma’s general manager Franco Baldini, then still based in England (where he was working for the FA), had told La Repubblica Totti was “lazy”. His comment was interpreted wrongly by many as a criticism of his attitude to training and playing rather than a recommendation that he be more careful about letting people in his entourage use, abuse and profit from his name.
Aggrieved, Totti’s humor wasn’t improved when new coach Luis Enrique left him on the bench for the first leg of a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava. He was introduced too late in the second leg and Roma crashed out of the competition. The next day, Totti arrived at Trigoria, the club’s training ground, wearing a t-shirt on which the word “Enough” was written.
Roma’s director of sport Walter Sabatini waded in to defuse the situation, but did so by making it clear to Totti that no player, even one of his stature, is bigger than the club, and if he treated not playing as “being put on trial” or “being subjected to aggression” then he risked “killing the team.”
Since then, Totti has, with a few exceptions, kept quiet. True, a muscle tear in October consigned him to the sidelines for five games. But on his return to fitness, when he was left out of the starting XI, he did as Sabatini advised and wore “a smile inside and outside, so as not to distract the young players.”
Wednesday night’s comments were another distraction. This time, however, they were met with understanding and compassion from those around him. “I am not talking about the club, the coach or my teammates,” he explained. “I am only upset at hearing some of the things Roma fans have said about me.”
So what had gone on? Totti has had his differences with the club’s supporters in the past. In January 2005, he was hit by an object thrown from the stands in a Coppa Italia tie between Roma and Siena. And in September 2009, the shirt he threw into the crowd after a 1-0 win at home to Fiorentina was sensationally “refused” and thrown back. “I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “I was really hurt by it.”
The latest incident happened after Monday’s 1-1 draw with Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico. Totti, starting only his sixth game of the campaign and still without a goal in Serie A since May 22, had a chance to win the match from the penalty spot but saw his effort saved by Gigi Buffon.
The next day, Totti was shopping in the city centre when he was apparently confronted by three or four individuals, one of whom was said to be wearing a Roma scarf. It’s unclear whether they approached him on foot or pulled alongside him on their mopeds. “Enough, you’re finished, let it go,” they reportedly said. “Football is no longer for you… You’re no good anymore.”
The insults stung Totti, but he could live with them. After all, he has had to endure them throughout his career. What really angered and shook him up though was that this occurred while he was out with his kids, Cristian and Chanel, and it frightened them. A line had been crossed. No one, it seems, is untouchable.
Writing in La Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday, Luigi Garlando described this as Roma’s “Et tu, Brute?” moment when the Emperor Julius Caesar realizes that his friend has betrayed him and is there with a group of senators to kill him. Garlando went further, contrasting how Turin, with its history of administration and production rationally decides whether a player like Alessandro Del Piero deserves his status as a legend, and if the sums add up it’s as simple as that, he is afforded respect. “In Imperial Rome,” he adds, “it’s another world. It’s visceral and bloody, passions and violent feelings. It’s heart.”
There is certainly some truth to that theory. Rome is like few other places on earth in the way it feels football. There’s a daily paper, Il Romanista, devoted exclusively to one club; a national sports broadsheet, Il Corriere dello Sport, based in the city, three radio stations that talk solely about Roma and half a dozen local TV channels that give air-time to shows which pore over everything no matter how big nor small at the Stadio Olimpico. The chatter is constant. The intensity is relentless.
But, as former Roma captain Giuseppe Giannini said this week, the treatment Totti received at the hands of an admittedly small section of fans is not unique to the city of Rome. There are ingrates elsewhere too. “Football is like this,” he told Il Romanista. “It’s enough to look at what happened to Paolo Maldini on his retirement at Milan. The same went on with Beppe Bergomi at Inter. We’re talking about players who were talismanic figures at their clubs.”
And yet Giannini also expressed reservations about the way Totti had acted. “I understand his rashness because it can happen that you react like he did with that outburst. At the same time I am surprised that a player or should I say a man of his experience has wanted to give any importance to an incident like that.”
Giannini has a point of course.
When Totti released a statement at the end of the Christmas Party to say: “I was misinterpreted. I am staying at Roma,” it didn’t change the headlines the following morning. Whether that was calculated or not is up for debate. What it did do was make Roma and the football community rally around him.
“To have a go at Totti is a disgrace” Buffon scoffed. His thoughts were shared by the great Gigi Riva. “The fans should be thanking him for the rest of their lives,” he said. Even Saro Fiorello, the popular entertainer, tweeted: “Hurrah for Totti. He’s right. Do you know what he should say to those who once cheered him and now criticize him? Piss off.”
While some Roma supporters may feel the game has passed Francesco Totti, the Golden Boy’s league goal production has remained consistent over the last four seasons – always between 13 and 15 following his 26-goal season in 2006-07.
Roma Points (Serie A)
The relationship football fans have with their idols is curious. Players like Totti, one-club men, born and bred in the city, captaining the team they supported as a boy to a Scudetto, are so rare. They’re damned if they leave – and Totti could well have done for Sampdoria in 1996, then Milan in 2004 and Real Madrid in 2005. And they’re damned if they don’t.
“In football we forget everything in a hurry,” wrote Furio Zara in Il Corriere dello Sport. “We say: You were a talisman, were you, a symbol, eh? What are you now?” At 35, Totti is still a player with something to give Roma. Fifteen of his 261 goals for the club came last season, and if he hasn’t opened his account in the current campaign it’s partly because of injury and the fact he is playing 20 meters further away from goal.
To chastise him for having a penalty saved is ridiculous. Of the 72 he has taken in his career, Totti has scored 57, a conversion rate of 79%. Anyway, the only players who miss them are the ones who have the guts to take them in the first place.
“You don’t judge a player on these little details,” sang Francesco De Gregori. You judge them on their courage, their altruism and their fantasia. The word ‘altruism’ sticks out when discussing Totti. He has frequently repeated: “If I’m Roma’s problem, I’ll leave.”
Yet some still feel he wields too much clout in the dressing room. With that in mind, it perhaps bears remembering what Daniele De Rossi also said on Wednesday night. “Contrary to what is believed on the outside, we have a lot less influence than you think. We don’t have special powers.” You can take that with a pinch of salt, if you like, but there’s also probably something in it.
Looking ahead, Roma travel to play Napoli on Sunday. “Totti will take the next penalty,” Enrique revealed in his pre-match press conference. Should the referee point to the spot, Totti certainly won’t hesitate. If he scores he will of course do his famous ciuccio celebration when he sucks his thumb. Only this time, Totti won’t be sulking but smiling.