by Fabrizio Bocca
The Wikipedia profile of Francesco Totti is available in 105 world languages and dialects, including Pampango (Central Philippines), although it is pretty brief it states: “Francesco Totti (mibait 27 Septiembri 1976) metung yang Italianung talapamyalung football a mamyalung antimong forward para king club a Serie A Roma.” Not much of a definition, but we get the general idea. Some may sneer that he is only a phenomenon from inside the GRA, the Great Ring Road that surrounds Italy’s capital, but Totti is perhaps the singular most recognized Roman since Julius Caesar, but now its time to hang up his boots.
That is not just a simple saying or cliché, its an ancient sacred rite. Roman gladiators, having saved their skins and won their freedom, hung up their swords on the wall of the Hercules temple. Francesco likes to play the gladiator, he even has a gladiator tattooed on his arm, but more than an offering to Hercules it is a simple tribute to Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” – “At my signal unleash hell’ –, which for better or worse changed all Roman iconography. Now the centre of Rome is full of “gladiators”, with their cigarettes, their sunglasses, their trainers, their plastic swords and armour.
But here it is; the gladiator, the football god, says goodbye: somehow everything fits. Now Francesco could hang up his boots - size 42, like Messi and Ronaldinho - in those sacred places, on the threshold of his home, the tunnel of the Olimpico stadium, the entrance to the "Fulvio Bernardini" training centre in Trigoria, or from the rear view mirror of his Ferrari; demonstrating the importance of his feet to the history of football. That’s it, it’s over, he’s gone. At least 33 years of football pitches (24 in Italy’s top division, Seria A), from the dusty fields of the Roman suburbs that he visited with SMIT (the team from Santa Maria in Trastevere, a much older team than even Roma) to the greatest stadiums in the world: the Olimpico, San Siro, the Bernabeu, Old Trafford, the Olympiastadion in Berlin: not always winning and sometimes even getting thrashed, matches made even more grotesque thanks to his presence. Beating or humiliating Totti has always been something to boast about. It is a great place to finish: Zoff, Romario, Roberto Carlos, Costacurta, Maldini, Zanetti, Giggs and Del Piero also retired at the age 40 or even later. Sir Stanley Matthews carried on to the age of 50 but that was another era. It is as though Totti waited until he became a kind of senator, a now distinguished, wise and mature gentleman, very different from the strutting Roman lad who appeared on the Italian football scene in 1993, before saying his final goodbye and changing his life completely. He would have liked to play football forever, but “Forever Young” is just a Bob Dylan song, and Francesco has dragged it out a bit too long.
Totti made history, and not only in the world of football. With Roma and Italy he played alongside many great players, some were crazy and wild (Cassano), some extraordinary champions (Batistuta), some old-school club chairmen (Franco Sensi), some real characters (Ciarrapico), coaches of steel (Capello) and others more fragile (Luis Enrique), a proper team captain Fracassa (Garcia), with men of power, politicians from the right and left, mayors, communication gurus, singers, artists of every kind, and show biz personalities, male and female. And even popes. The current pope shares his name, something that causes a great deal of confusion in Rome.
Totti has spent 24 years at the centre of a Felliniesque circus. Antonello Venditti and Totti: the singer of Roma’s anthem “Grazie Roma”, and the 2001 Seria A champion, drew bigger crowds to the Circus Maximus than the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. A parliamentary assistant to the Senate, Carlo Zampa, known as The Voice, screamed at every one of his goals on Roman radio and TV stations. Drawing out that one syllable word gol into the microphone for half a minute, almost harder than scoring the goal; afterwards, weeping and repeating crazy phrases, such as: “In your face, in your face.” And paraphrasing former prime minister Andreotti: “Totti exhausts those who do not have him.” Meanwhile, the legendary Paolo Cento, known as Er Piotta, a former far-left extremist, now a serious, law-abiding citizen, followed him devotedly up until his very last away game. Time moves on for everybody.
Most of all, Totti represented the men and women of Rome, without distinction of sex, age or religion: doormen, clerks, greengrocers, bakers, van drivers, shopkeepers, workmen, bricklayers, nurses, bus drivers, truck drivers, street cleaners, postal workers, teachers, engineers, scientists, writers, men of culture and intellectuals. All adoring Totti fans. Honest and respectable people, but also muggers, pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. Chinese, Moroccans, Senegalese and Filipinos who now speak the Roman dialect: all second generation Totti fans. The human cocktail shaker of a marvellous and decadent capital, that ranges from Fellini’s Roma to Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, encircled by the “Sacro Gra” (the Great Ring Road), the true boundary of the Tottian empire. Beyond lies the unknown and the enemy.
In other words, Totti is global, like his “Number Ten” shirt, but in a very Roman way. Totti comes from these people. He is one of them. He is Roman and proletarian like them. Always playing for the same team, a true and absolute love. Perhaps also somewhat unreal and absurd.
Dozens of FM and Web radios have reported the last twenty years of Totti day by day. The hard-core fans have filled stadiums, travelling millions of miles to go see him play, whether Los Angeles or Australia. Totti was their poison and their paradise. They all tried to have a piece of him, to make him their own. To physically take something, maybe a shirt, an autograph, a photo – a holy relic to carry in the wallet. To take him home and put him in a golden cage: “How I wish I could take a walk in the centre of Rome,” he said. Thousands of children have been put in Totti’s arms and blessed, children who are now adults and can say, “He held me.”
Totti plunged into football with the label of coatto – a member of the ancient urban under-class, who were often forced into domicilio coatto, a kind of internal exile. It is now used without offense and refers to millions in Rome, including judges, notaries, doctors and lawyers. The Roman coatto is rooted in his local community, hanging around the local bar, almost always riding a souped-up scooter, vulgar, gesticulating wildly, using theatrical expressions, a character from a film by Walter Verdone. Rome is full of the radical chic who become shamelessly and proudly coatti when they talk about Totti, repeating his gestures, his dribbling, his goals, his facial and verbal expressions.
Because Totti is unique, not just a lethal free kick, a caressed football, an inch perfect pass, a lobbed penalty, a heel and a toe (“the heel and toe, heel and toe,” Spalletti repeated irritatedly before leaving Rome the first time, lamenting some of his stars’ tendency to show off their skills). Totti was Italian football’s vaudeville star: his thumb in his mouth, the ball under his shirt after the goal, a selfie with an iPhone after the goal in the Lazio derby, his face in the TV camera filming the fans, the t-shirts “I punished you again” (April 11, 1999, after what was considered the best goal ever scored in a derby) dedicated to Lazio, and “you’re unique” dedicated to his wife Ilary (March 10, 2002), and those fingers raised in front of Lippi and the Juventus fans as he left the pitch, and mouthed “Four, now go home...” after Rome’s 4-0 victory (February 8, 2004).
Arrogant, cheeky, brash. The derby was his favourite stage. Totti’s lobbed penalty at the Van der Saar stadium (June 29, 2000, Europe, Italy-Holland) announced to a stunned Di Biagio and Maldini with the famous “Mo’ je faccio er cucchiaio” – Now I’m just gonna lob him – has become iconic, like Alberto’s Sordi’s raspberry and rude gesture in “I Vitelloni”: “Workers? Take that!”. Totti brings together the passion of an Oscar winning composer Nicola Piovani and that of Tommaso Zanello, the rapper known as “Er Piotta “, whose video for the song Supercafone.
(1999, 3.5 million views on You Tube), opens with him playing a butcher wearing a “I’ve punished you again” t-shirt. In Rome’s bars and clubs Totti sparked a sub-culture: Zoro, alias Diego Bianchi and Johnny Palomba, producing the surreal chronicles of “Kansas City 1927” on Facebook in the days of Luis Enrique, reaching enormous numbers by talking about Totti and Roma. In the belief that “being on the left and being a Roma fan” is part of the same existential suffering. Zeropregi, another web personality, signs his tweets with “I swear on Totti”. Johnny Palomba, a mysterious writer, centres his Cinepartite, accounts of football matches written like old-fashioned newsreels, around Totti. “And here he is again, entering the centre circle, the eternal red and yellow spring, the beating heart of the Urbe, the third wolf triplet.” Ascanio Celestini, a writer and a great fan of Roma, tells a joke where St. Peter is playing football and complains that Jesus Christ may be able to walk on water, but refuses to let Totti take the penalties and free kicks, missing them all. “Miracles? The problem is that this guy thinks he’s Totti.”
The Totti phenomenon soon became huge. Totti doesn’t have fans, he has a People, il popolo giallorosso,”the red and yellow people”, giving this idea of a movement, of a city, almost a nation. With a leader, obviously. All Carlo Zampa’s stadium announcements began with “Popolo giallorosso!” An object of idolatry and modern paganism, the Totti phenomenon became distorted into “Totti-ism” which is the denial of reason, an unquestioning, unthinking, sick faith, often unbearable. Totti-ism brings “isms” to football, the first of many: Mourinhism, Delpierismo, Lippyism, Guardiolism, Contism, Sarrismo, and so on. Aberrations of the football faith.
Totti has scored hundreds of goals and played in dozens of extraordinary games, but his most popular video on YouTube is the one where he settled a score with Balotelli, who had called him a has-been, Totti chases him and kicks him from behind (2010): 11.5 million views.The foul was inexcusable, yet thousands still said, “well done.” Totti played on the world’s biggest stages but it was always as if he was playing street rules football. When he spat at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen in 2004, the lawyer Giulia Buongiorno, flew straight from defending former prime minister Andreotti to Portugal to defend him. Anything for Totti..
Totti’s face ended up on Rome’s bus tickets, a privilege only reserved for him, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Like most Romans he has a gift for sarcasm and jokes: he famously said “When I lose, I stay in Rome: you, go back to Monchengladbach.” But aside from his innate sarcasm and the brashness, he is a good-natured lad, loved, generous, lending his image to social campaigns, promoting charities and child protection, and a UNICEF ambassador. He is a good son, god-fearing, making the sign of the cross twice when he comes onto the pitch. He is the conscience of the city that is increasingly harsh, poisonous, contradictory and less and less welcoming. In the poor suburbs on the outskirts of the city, they invoke Totti in times of need.
He is complex and media savvy. TV host Maurizio Costanzo is a key figure in his communication strategy it was he who proposed the idea to publish self-mocking books of Totti jokes. The first edition alone sold 800,000 copies and the royalties all went to charity. Totti’s wedding to Ilary Blasi (2005) was broadcast live on the Italian news channel, Sky Tg 24, as was her 40th birthday party, with countless screams of envy from those not on the guest list. Totti’s various advertising campaigns – for betting sites, telephone companies and cars – alone or with Ilary or fellow footballer Gattuso, were a great success generating increased sales. His jokes were again self-mocking: “How did Internet do yesterday?”.
Totti represents the average man, successful because of his innate talent and his good nature, he is one of the people. With his wife Ilary, Francesco creates the same feeling that drew Italy to popular TV couples like Sandra Mondaini and Raimondo Vianello, Bice Valori and Paolo Panelli. Not only on the football pitch but also on the TV screen, Totti is gold.
For the first time, the Totti phenomenon perfectly embodied today’s football, which is always anti something and anti everything. Totti is Totti because he is anti-Lazio, anti-Juventus, anti-Inter, anti-Milan. It is an exasperated confrontation, which on the general level has poisoned football. The rest of Italy often paid him back with the same coin, while recognising his greatness and leadership. The Bologna ultras, in one of the final games of the long twilight of his career, screamed “Roman piece of shit” throughout the match, then all stood up and applauded him for two minutes - him alone - when he walked onto the pitch after the match.
Boskov, Mazzone, Carlos Bianchi, Liedholm, Sella, Zeman, Capello, Prandelli, Voeller, Delneri, Conti, Ranieri, Montella, Luis Enrique, Andreazzoli, Garcia, Spalletti at Roma. Then Maldini, Zoff, Trapattoni, and Lippi in the national team. His managers were fortunate enough to have a total, ingenious, player on their hands, who had no position because he was simultaneously midfielder, attacking midfielder, playmaker, striker and false 9. In short, quite the anarchist. Too much so for some. The coach who liked him most was Mazzone: the one who did not understand anything was Carlos Bianchi. The one that gave him the most was Zeman (who when asked who were the top five footballers in Italy once replied, “Totti, Totti , Totti, Totti and Totti.) The one who expected the most from him was Lippi, and the one with whom he clashed most fiercely was Spalletti, who thought he should handle the twilight of his career. Among his many pronouncements on Totti, there was one that stuck out: “Between Totti and myself it is clear that I am destined to lose.”
As a striker, Totti is the heir to Valentino Mazzola. But his direct predecessor was Giuseppe Giannini, “The Prince”, whose father Gildo discovered Totti and convinced club chairman Viola to invest in him in the early 1990’s. The number 10 shirt put him straight into the Pantheon of the greats: Meazza, Rivera, Mazzola, Antognoni, Baggio, Del Piero and Zola. In the early years, Totti’s mother refused to accept a briefcase stuffed with 150 million lire from Milan, in order to avoid diverting a career whose path was clear from the start. Even at Porta Metronia they knew they were dealing with a phenomenon. Francesco was and had to become a Roman champion. One of the greats, but he could not leave, not even beyond the GRA. Totti was not the greatest of them all – in the last twenty years, Roberto Baggio was better than him – but no one has dominated the new millennium like him, no one has had such a big part, no one has become a pop icon like him. Not even Baggio. In a football where everything is measured by championships, cups and Ballon D’ors, Totti cannot go down in history as a winner. Totti has won little, too little with the club he has given his life to, but he did win the World Cup. And it was one of the rare moments in which Totti belonged to everyone and not just Rome (or half of Rome). Like many of the greats - Gigi Riva for Sardinians, for example – winning is almost irrelevant. He is a flag, an identity, a political party. He could have gone to Real Madrid or Milan and won what was denied him at Roma, but his strength was his loyalty. Rome and Roma were the cradle of his happiness.
When Totti made his debut in Serie A on March 28, 1993, football tickets in Italy were still being paid for in lire (the Curva Nord and Sud cost 10-15 thousand lire), the Craxi scandal was raging in parliament. Berlusconi was already chairman of that incredible and fabulously rich Milan that won everything and has now been sold to the Chinese but had not yet “entered the ring” and become prime minister. Arrigo Sacchi had left Milan and was managing the national team.
Totti has been part of a third of the lives of a lot of people in football. Then they called him “il Pupone”, the Big Baby. Now that he is going, Totti – known by all simply as “The Captain” – can quietly and serenely readopt the nickname that embarrassed him and that he asked people to stop using, but branded a footballer like no other. “Il Pupone” was invented by Mimmo Ferretti, a Roman journalist acquainted with many footballers, as soon as the boy emerged from the youth team, where he was already a little star, launched first by Boskov and then Mazzone. The inspiration was the Steno film Un giorno in Pretura (1953), in which Nando Mericoni, known as the American (Alberto Sordi), appears in front of the praetor (Peppino De Filippo) because he was found naked in the streets of Rome after swimming in a stream and losing his clothes. They had been picked up by a watchman (the renowned Renato Bonifazi), who then left. “Because my wife had had a PUPONE!”
The wonderful Varenne was an extraordinary trotter that won all the most important races of his time. He was based in Tor di Valle in Rome, the hippodromo that was later abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, and is to be the site of the new Roma stadium. He was nicknamed “Il Capitano” in honour of Totti. But Totti is still and always will be “Il Pupone”.
Francesco Totti has been the subject of dozens of books, biographies, essays, manuals, theses, short films, videos and operettas. “Zero a Zero” a docu-film by Paolo Geremei tells the story of three young men who played in the youth squad with Totti, but didn’t make it, hampered by injury, choices good and bad and broken knees. There is one central theme: he made it and I didn’t, an eternal regret, a “I still think about it” that eats away at you and never goes away. The god Hercules – the one with the nails in the wall of his temple – wanted it that way: he picked them and then he rejected them, and kept only Totti.
Francesco Totti was born 27 September 1976 in Roma, in via Vetulonia, in the Porta Metronia district. His old house was less than a kilometre away from that of Roman actor and icon Alberto Sordi.