Francesco Totti: end is nigh for The Golden Boy of Rome

Giallorossi’s greatest ever no longer untouchable after 25 years with boyhood club

With three minutes to go in last week's Roma v Real Madrid Champions League tie, Roma coach Luciano Spalletti opted to bring on 39-year-old club icon Francesco Totti as a substitute for Italian international Alessandro Florenzi. In the press box, the move was greeted with a certain irony.

Roma were losing 2-0. This had been a game in which they had played well, up to a point, but in which Portuguese ace Cristiano Ronaldo had worked a one-man demolition job, scoring Real's first goal and inspiring much of Real's second half dominance. We concluded that this was merely a small homage for the ageing local hero, a rare chance for the fans to see the legendary No. 10 play. Even at his very best, Totti would have had little chance of making an impact on this game, in just four or five minutes

So it proved as Totti’s contribution was limited to a few bland, square passes. The point about Totti is that, after a good seasonal start, he has been ruled out by injury for four months since late September. Thus far, he has played in just five Serie A games, whilst his brief run-out against Real Madrid has been his only Champions League appearance all season.

And then came the Holocaust. Last Saturday, speaking prior to Roma’s Sunday night home game against Palermo, coach Spalletti sprang the surprise that Totti would be in the starting eleven. Unfortunately for him, Totti at that very same moment was giving a poolside interview to Italian state TV in which he complained that “he would have liked a bit more respect from the club”.


The implication was clear. I would like to play, rather than sit on the bench. Remarkably, Totti even wants to play on next season (he will be 40 in September). When Spalletti watched the Totti TV interview on Saturday night, he was not much pleased. With the team shut away at the club’s Trigoria training centre, outside Rome, Spalletti summoned Totti to his office early on Sunday morning. He was told he would not be playing against Palermo after all.

For Totti and for some of the Roma fans, the shock was devastating. It has to be remembered that Totti is that rare bird in the modern game, a player whose 25 year long first class career has been played at only one club, AS Roma. He first joined Roma in 1989 at the age of 12.

Winner of the 2006 World Cup, winner of the 2001 Serie A league title, the second highest Serie A goalscorer of all time, third on the all time Serie A appearances (with 593 games), Totti is clearly nothing if not a walking national monument. On top of that, via his charity work, his TV ads, his regular clever soundbites, he has through the years shown himself to be an intelligent footballer and one, what is more, with an exemplary on-and-off-the-field record. In the eyes of some fans, it was an act of sacrilege to send Mr. Goody Two Shoes, Mr. Roma Twinkletoes home.

In the eyes of most professionals, however, the time has come. Former Irish assistant coach Marco Tardelli said this week that he had told Totti to retire months ago. He was just one of many football professionals who said the same thing. Even a majority of fans, polled on Sky Italia TV on Sunday, argued that Totti, this time, was in the wrong and that coach Spalletti was entitled to his seargant-major like hardline.

The point, of course, is that there is often nothing worse in a top level sportsperson’s life than the moment when the curtain begins to come down on a glorious career. That is one of the eternal truths of competitive sports, a moment when most of us feel only sympathy for the great player. Decline and Fall, Twilight of the Gods, Endgame, GameOver, name your end of career cliché and rest assured it has been used in Italy in the last few days.

Speaking to the Irish Times at the beginning of the season, Roma director Mauro Baldissoni said that, so concentrated was Totti on continuing to play this season, that the club and player had yet to sit down and plot a post-player career for him. It would seem that that time has now come.

One thing is for sure. Despite all the fuss of the last week, Roma and Totti are unlikely to go different ways. In many ways, they both need one another. Totti’s whole being is as a Roma footballer whilst Roma will never have a better, more “shirt-selling” international ambassador.

Totti, too, has long enjoyed some very special treatment at Roma. When French coach Rudi Garcia (sacked last November) first arrived at Roma three years ago, he was astonished to find that out at Trigoria there was a special office for a guy called Vito Scala, personal trainer and physio for Totti but also a fully paid-up club employee.

Scala’s office, he said, was a sort of museum to Totti, decorated with photos, posters, team shirts and shirts of other famous players against whom Totti had played. Garcia reflected on the peculiarity of a club which pays one guy to look after just one player, concluding that Totti was “untouchable”. “Far be it from me to think of dropping him”, he said...Sounds like his successor, Spalletti, has other ideas.