AS Roma's Francesco Totti: Serie A's Greatest Ever Player
Francesco Totti has long been assured his place in the pantheon of all-time Italian greats but his recent run of record-breaking exploits must make him Italy’s most-talented post-war player.
There has been a rich array of talent down through the decades that could vie for the honour: Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Gigi Riva, Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola, Roberto Mancini and Gianluigi Buffon.
What a list to savour; just reading the names aloud is like perusing the most voluminous Italian menu but finally one dish stands out above the rest and that is the King of Rome, Francesco Totti.
It is hard to believe that Roma’s talismanic figure is still tearing through defences nigh on two decades since he made his debut as a 16-year-old in the dying minutes of a league match at Brescia.
Having won every domestic honour with his beloved Roma as well as a World Cup winners medal in 2006, this season has seen Totti ascent to the peak of the Italian game on a personal level.
Having recently become the second all-time top goalscorer in Serie A on 226 goals - he has Silvio Piola’s 274 record in his sights over the next four years - the 36-year-old is also ninth in the all-time Serie A appearances along with Rivera, with 527 matches under his belt.
Totti has also scored 20 free-kicks in Serie A which puts him in all-time fourth place, with the player who scored on that Brescia debut for the then youngster, Sinisia Mihajolvic, leading the way on 28 goals from dead-ball situations.
Then there are the thousand-plus trademark back heels and his own copyrighted Er Chucchaio - the teasing chip first unveiled in the penalty shoot-out against Holland at Euro 2000 and immortalized forever in the 5-1 thumping of the old city rival Lazio and the hated northerners, Internazionale.
They are snapshots of a life at the sharp end of the most brutal and unrelenting defending in world football but above all they are iconic images that the Roman Giallorossi followers at least have embraced as the freedom of expression that permeates every nock and cranny of the Capital.
Caput Mundi is what Romans have always known their city - capital of the world - and for the modern-day citizens Totti’s deeds retain a lingering feeling that is no better place to be than the Olimpico on a match day when Er Pupone is in full flight.
It is like Rome on a spring day when Er Ponentino wind eases the soul and warms the heart - and Totti is as beloved as the soothing breeze from the west.
A Roman who has popularised the city’s dialect with his every touch and each time he opens his mouth - il capitano rubs it into the north that there is only one capital.
His allegiance to the city and Roma have long been recorded into local folklore. When asked by his mother if he wanted to play for Roma or Lazio the reply was simply: “Only Roma.” There have been the T-shirts taunting Lazio and even his red cards have been applauded off the pitch.
His legendary proclamation: “I am a Roman and a Romanista. I will live and die that way” has been inked into the skin of many of the tifosi who pack the Curva Sud.
It is this feeling of loyalty that saw him turn down reported moves to that bastion of northern power AC Milan and Silvio Berlusconi’s trophy-laden club and to Real Madrid where untold riches awaited both on and off the pitch.
He has also had to repel those from within the club who felt he was becoming too powerful. Where the Carlo Mazzone - born in the winding turns of the Trastevere area to Totti’s leafier Porto San Giovanni district - had nourished the raw talent and nurtured the feeling of being a Roman, the Argentine Carlos Bianchi arrived with hatred for the rising star in his veins.
But Totti was no latter-day Coriolanus who turned his back on the city only to return to attempt to bring it to its knees in an act of vengeance, and it was his tormentor who was driven out. Luis Enrique would also find to his cost that attempting to banish a local hero would only lead to the road of his own ruin.
With each slight Totti became more and more of a monumental figure for the fans and even Zdenek Zeman was not harangued for failing to win anything when he was asked who are the best three Italian players and replied: “Totti, Totti and Totti.”
It was the venerable Czech who handed Totti the number 10 shirt but it was Fabio Capello who understood that only giving the player the unlimited freedom to thrive all over the pitch that Roma would finally land their second league title.
It was as captain and playmaker that Capello left Totti to drive the team to the Holy Grail after a 74-year wait and sparked a summer-long party than would have impressed the Caesars - and when Capello spirited himself into the night to take the helm at the enemy of Juventus it was Totti who voiced the betrayal.
He was not playing to the gallery to curry favour but only tapping into his Roman-ness: the same deep-seated love of Roma that once encouraged the youth team ahead of a derby match when he shouted “Laziale vattene” (Lazio clear off) from an open window as the Lazio team bus arrived at Roma’s Trigoria training ground.
Former Roma medical officer Mario Bozzi tells a story that took place on a greater stage - the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid - that encapsulates what Totti and Roma mean to each other.
It was Capello’s side who were facing Real Madrid in the Champions League and Bozzo remembers that the tension was rising in the dressing room but that Totti was standing on the steps at the end of the tunnel with a towel wrapped round his waist, gazing up at the stands.
Capello, according to Bozzi, was on edge and just as his ire was about to spill over the captain entered and calmly and turned to the coach for what was no more than a whispered rally cry: “Calm down, we cannot start until I lead the team out.” He did so and scored in the bear-pit of the Bernabeu in a 1-1 draw.
This week the plaudits have arrived from all over the world to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his dream of playing for Roma coming true and of course Totti’s first thoughts were for the club and his birthright when he said: “Time has flown because I have done everything with passion – a passion for Roma and being a Roman.”