Arrivederci, il Gladiatore: an ode to Francesco Totti

Illustration by  Jonny Ellis

Illustration by Jonny Ellis

I came to football late in life. My dad was never a football man – brought up near Glasgow during the ‘60s and ‘70s, he could never see beyond the violence, tribalism and terrace bigotry that so dogged the ‘beautiful game’ in that place and time.

It could easily have been the same for me. I grew up with the newly-minted Premier League era – with billionaire owners, corporate sponsorship, tabloid sex scandals and institutional corruption. It was enough to make me resistant to football for years. But one player showed me that a footballer’s boot can be a paintbrush as well as a cudgel, and that beyond the rampant corporatisation of football was a sport still capable of magic.

That man was Francesco Totti.

Totti’s senior Roma career began when I was just four years old, and by the time I was old enough to appreciate him he was already something of a veteran. The 2006/07 season was arguably Totti’s finest. Totti turned 30 that year (I turned 18), and despite passing a milestone that sees many offensive players go off the boil, the Italian forward topped the Serie A table for both goals and assists – as well as scooping the league’s goal of the year award for a magnificent volley scored from an impossible angle away at Sampdoria. Earlier that year, Totti made the team of the tournament as Italy swept to World Cup victory in Germany.

And yet, part of Totti’s appeal is that he’s never been a player measured in personal honours and cold statistics alone. His Roma side could arguably have won more – his 25-year affiliation with the capital club has brought in just one Serie A title and two Coppa Italia – but despite the talent to seek greater glory elsewhere, Totti has remained a one-club player. This year, he retired a Roma legend. There will be no money-spinning season in China, nor a long, slow goodbye in the retirement home of MLS. He finished his career where it all began: at the Stadio Olympico.

Totti is Roma and Roma is Totti. They will find him all but impossible to replace on the pitch, but his indelible affiliation with the Giallorossi will see him stay on behind the scenes as a club Director. That one-club mentality is part of what makes Totti such an iconic figure, but there’s more. Even as a young player, there was something that set Roma’s captain apart. In an era that valued athleticism and pace above practically all else, Totti was a measured, considered presence on the ball. He’s always had the speed of thought and foot to outwit the game’s very best, coupled with the vision and confidence to slow the game down when necessary. Even in his 40s, he seemed to exist in a pocket of space all his own, where a burst of electric pace or upper body strength simply isn’t necessary.

Totti has excelled in practically every forward position during his Roma career – on the left wing, as a centre-forward, as a second striker, a false nine and a playmaker. Few attacking players can equal his positional and tactical versatility. And then there are the goals. Totti was such an accomplished finisher, he was able to make the lob or cucchiaio – perhaps the most technically challenging finish of all – his calling card, routinely chipping some of the best goalkeepers in Europe (including that unforgettable 30-yard effort against Lazio in the Derby Della Capitale). But Totti was capable of more conventional strikes, too – his personal showreel boasts goals of every variety. In 2013, there was a winner against Juventus that was dispatched from the edge of the area with such ferocity that it practically tore the net off its stanchions. There were two spectacular free-kicks in a single game – the second leg of a domestic cup final against Milan. There was a left-footed volley against Udinese that would have taken two goalkeepers to stop. In total, there have been 316 career goals for club and country.

All that and Totti was never an out-and-out goalscorer. He was so much more than that. As Roma’s creator-in-chief, Totti has chalked up well over 100 career assists – many of them sublime. Here was a player just as likely to scoop the ball artfully over the defence for an onrushing attacker than play a simple ball along the deck, or to lay off a first-time, backheel through-ball rather than wait to bring the ball under his control. It’s this improvisational creativity and eye for the unexpected that made Totti one of the world’s most exciting players for a quarter of a century.

Totti’s retirement will create a vacuum in world football. This is a player who spanned the eras of Riquelme and Pires, Messi and Ronaldo – but as the modern game continues to focus on fast, powerful, athletic all-rounders, cerebral, technical geniuses like Totti have become endangered species. Now, as we contemplate il Gladiatore's retirement from the beautiful game, reliving the highlights of his 25-year professional career is like falling in love with football all over again.

- Louis Rossi