Il Gladiatore, Francesco Totti: A Tribute to The Last of Football’s Titans

A tribute to Italian legend Francesco Totti, the last of football’s gladiators.

Supernova (noun): An astronomical event that occurs during the last stellar evolutionary phase of a massive star’s life, whose dramatic and catastrophic destruction is marked by one final titanic explosion. This causes the sudden appearance of a new “bright” star.

March 28th, 1993. La Palma, Spain. Astronomer F. Garcia’s sangria must’ve tasted that extra bit sweeter as he detected the first and the last supernova, code name SN 1993J, on Messier 81, an erstwhile popular exploratory galaxy. Hundreds of miles away, in Rome, Vujadin Buskov looked over to his bench and ordered a 16-year-old blonde-haired midfielder to warm up. Two minutes later, Stadio Olympico clapped on Francesco Totti for the first time. If Supernova was a football career, it would be his.

 

The term “heyday” can be loosely thrown around at times to signify any sort of purple patch in history. It would, however, aptly describe the state of Italian football in 1993. Failure at the last hurdle in consecutive World Cups notwithstanding, their domestic football had reached its zenith. The world’s best, bar Johann Cruyff and his Barcelona dream team, were in Italy. Five of the top seven Balon d’Or nominees from 1993 were playing for Italian teams. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team were the benchmark for excellence in the early nineties. Winning the European Cup twice in succession in 1990 and 1991, they had conquered all and sundry in Europe. Sacchi had since left, but Fabio Cappello had taken over and a stellar rebuilding job was already under way. His Milan would duly beat Cruyff’s Barcelona a year later in the Champions League final.

 

Today, as an anonymous looking Milan languish in 7th position on the Serie A table, a full 25 points behind league-leaders Juventus, you start to realise how long back 1993 was. When the last evolutionary phase began in the life of the massive star that was Italian football in the 21st century, Alex Ferguson was yet to win a Premier League title at Manchester United. We’ll come to the final titanic explosion in a bit.

The Weight Of Legacy

Legacy is an all-encompassing term. When moments in time take the proportion of larger-than-life events, they change everything in their radius. By the time Helenio Herrera was done with his Internazionale stint, he had forever changed the legacy of Italian football in the 20th century. “Catenaccio” was football’s “Eureka”, a term that not only stuck to a concept, but also stood the test of time and evolution of colloquial language. When a historian draws out an Italian dream team, the first words he will write will invariably be either Baresi or Maldini. The next ones would be Claudio Gentile and Buffon. It’s a travesty, if you will, that the country has produced some everlasting forwards, and yet they’re almost an afterthought.

 

In popular memory, Francesco Totti’s greatest legacy will be his fierce loyalty to his home, his family, his city and its club, AS Roma. There are many men who have graced European football with unending loyalty towards their teams, yet the phrase “one-club” doesn’t really fit any of them as much as it works for Totti. Success, or the lack of it, goes a long way in explaining that. Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs have multiple cupboards dedicated to the titles and trophies they won during their careers. John Terry and Steven Gerrard might not have their volume, but certainly, have the breadth of everything there is to win in club football. Totti has one Scudetto, two Copa Italias and a World Cup.

 

Rome And Her Gladiators

With a history of civilisation spanning across 2500 years, Rome’s moniker of “eternal city” is well-earned. From imperial empires to hundreds of republican generations, the forefathers of the city have seen it all. In the middle of the city stands the Colosseum, the symbol of theatre, executions and gladiatorial contests, accommodating around 60,000 people. People have come and people have died inside this large cauldron, and it stands still, almost to tell every visitor the story of its grandeur. Rome is home to Michelangelo, known among the masses as the greatest artist during his time, and one of the greatest to have ever picked up a brush. Rome houses the Pope inside a walled enclave called the Vatican City. Its mythical aura has lent itself as a focal point for history, religion and art.

 

 

Speaking of art, there probably isn’t a greater advertisement of the Roman empire and its culture of warriors than Ridley Scott’s epic, Gladiator. Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius dedicates his life to his family, his mentor and Rome. He dreams of a free life, but is unmoved in his pursuit when called upon. As easy as it is to use the narrative of this movie and supplement it with Francesco Totti’s image of a gladiator, the similarity is staggering even when seen through objective glasses. The central theme of Maximus and Totti’s lives are identical: “To serve Rome.” And the Romans never showed hesitation in bestowing the nickname “Il Gladiatore” on their favourite son.

 

Over the course of 24 years playing Serie A football for this club, Totti has won but one Scudetto. For a man of his talent and pedigree, the growth of his bank accounts and medal cupboards should’ve been similar to the pace of his daisy-cutters which left the best of goalkeepers gasping for thin air. There is no club under the sun who had the money and stature but didn’t try going for him some time or the other. From Manchester United during their late 90s peak to Real Madrid at the middle of Florentino Perez’s galactico reign, they all came for him. But like Maximus did every time he went to battle, Totti would bow to his soil. He lost friends, mentors, indulgent managers and firebrand coaches, all to the chase of gold. Roma’s red was the only color which concerned him.
“I’ve seen much of the world. It is brutal, cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”
– Maximus (Gladiator, 2000)

Imperfection

Francesco Totti wasn’t the perfect footballer, and he never pretended to be one. He was never one for extra effort during the training sessions; entering the realm of football as an established prodigy has its cons. There was a suspect temper to go with an otherwise anarchic mindset. After a point in his career, Rome, AS Roma and Stadio Olympico belonged to him, and unfortunately for a lot of managers, Totti was well aware of it. Throughout his career, his reputation as a difficult nut to crack has sometimes preceded him. Ransom would be too strong a word, but he’s not been afraid to flex his muscles whenever the atmosphere between him and the manager/board have crossed his realms of acceptable. If it meant seeing one more panenka penalty in a semi-final penalty shoot-out, it was worthwhile to indulge him. Yet, for every time he’s ever walked out on the pitch, you couldn’t fault him for professionalism.

“One day, a whole host of Roma supporters will be able to say: ‘For more than 20 years I saw Totti play.’ I’ll be one of them and I will add: ‘I even coached him twice”
– Zdeněk Zeman
Over the last few seasons, his impact and involvement has been peripheral. Like a true great of the game, and someone well aware of his legacy, Totti has accepted it without too much fuss.

 

 

In an act of borderline blasphemy, Totti’s never found a huge fan following in England. They are not amused by the lack of old-school hard graft he puts in. If Martin Luther King was still alive, his next dream would have been to see the English get over their obsession with “industry over flair”.
English champions Manchester City were facing Roma in the Champions League in September, 2014. Their social media folks saw an opportunity for some banter, and let out a tweet which spoke of how none of Totti’s 300 odd career goals had come in England.

 

Twenty-three minutes it took the 38 year old man. It’s easy to spew nonsense masquerading as banter, it is a much harder ask to know who to direct it towards.

Francesco Totti: The Supernova

Where were we? Oh yes. Catastrophic destruction and one final explosion.

Francesco Totti
Francesco Totti, World Cup 2006
Rocked to its foundations by yet another Calciopoli scandal in 2006, Italian football has been in a state of a freefall since. The year was also one where Italian football from the 90s had its big moment: the World Cup in Germany. The world-champion team was almost entirely made up of players who had begun their professional career in the nineties. Coming back from an injury sustained four months prior, and hardly in a state fit for the rigours of World Cup football, Totti topped the assist charts with four to his name, and scored a pressure penalty against Australia to put Italy into the semi-finals.

 

 

 Supernova was indeed a football career, and it was his. Arrivederci, Francesco.

 

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.