Francesco Totti: The King of Rome finally says goodbye
A 16-year-old briefly threatens to spoil Totti Day as Roma’s greatest exits stage left
Francesco Totti made his final appearance for Roma against Genoa on Sunday. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
Francesco Totti tried to raise a smile. Striding out on to the Stadio Olimpico pitch for a farewell address at the end of his last-ever match for Roma, he shushed the home crowd and then teased that staying quiet “ought to be easy for you”.
Some fans chuckled. More of them sobbed. The tears had been flowing from before kick-off – Totti confessed that crying has been a daily occurrence in his own household of late – but by now it seemed there was not a dry eye left in the house.
“You know I’m a man of few words,” he continued, but Totti had prepared some for this occasion. At the start he was not sure if he would be capable of reading out the letter he had written for his supporters, suggesting his daughter might have to take over. But, in the end, he made it through.
“Do you know that feeling of being a kid, and dreaming about something beautiful, but then your mum wakes you up to go to school when you only wanted to carry on sleeping?” he asked. “You try to hold on to the thread of the story you were caught up in, but you can’t do it. This time it’s not a dream. It’s real life.”
What a life it has been so far. Totti has, at different times, fired Roma to a Scudetto, won a World Cup with Italy and earned a European Golden Shoe. Only Paolo Maldini has played more than his 619 Serie A games. Only Silvio Piola can trump his 250 goals in that league.
There will always be those who insist on pointing out that he could have won more, could have pushed his limits further by moving elsewhere. But how could a few measly medals ever mean more than doing all this in the service of your boyhood club? Sunday’s pre-game choreography in the Curva Sud declared that “Totti is Roma”. It is still hard to imagine the two of them apart.
And what other city would have thrown a retirement party like this one? Totti Day had the feel of a public festival in Rome, buses commandeered to display a “Thanks Captain” message in lieu of their destination, while fans flocked to take their photo with “selfie statues” commissioned by Corriere dello Sport. Planes trailed messages of support overhead.
Inside the Stadio Olimpico, it felt as though we had gone back in time. Average attendances for Roma’s home games this season have hovered around the 33,000 mark, but this clash with Genoa was sold out long in advance. To hear the roar that greeted Totti’s introduction by the stadium PA before kick-off was to remember how this place used to feel on an almost weekly basis back when his career began.
He was not in the starting XI on Sunday. Roma still needed one more win to be certain of second place, and with it a direct route to the Champions League group stage. The prize money on offer was too important to the club’s financial plans to be overlooked for sentiment’s sake.
And if anyone presumed Genoa had come along just to play a supporting role in these festivities, then they would be quickly disabused of that thought. The visitors took the lead in the third minute, through a 16-year-old named Pietro Pellegri. He was born in 2001 – the same year Totti won his Scudetto.
Edin Dzeko soon grabbed an equaliser, but Roma frittered away chances to get their noses in front before half-time. In the stands, fans fretted. Would Totti’s introduction be delayed if the result stayed in the balance?
Apparently not. Roma’s iconic No10 was sent on with just under 10 minutes played in the second half. The scores were still level and, in truth, his arrival did cost the hosts some momentum. Totti replaced Mohamed Salah, whose pace and directness had unsettled the Genoa defence. Now the buildup play became slower, more ponderous. At times he dropped so deep that he seemed to be playing in midfield.
There were glimpses of class to admire. One moment Totti was taming a high ball over his shoulder with a first-time pass, the next shifting the ball effortlessly between his left and right feet before slipping a through-ball between two defenders. He completed one pass off the back of his shoulders. Totti might have had an assist in the 69th minute, when he floated a 40-yard ball over the defence for Stephan El Shaarawy – whose close-range header was saved by Eugenio Lamanna at close range. And perhaps he would have had a goal of his own in the 75th, had Daniele De Rossi not beaten him to a loose ball inside Genoa’s penalty area, driving it into the bottom corner.
There was a flash of frustration on Totti’s face as his team-mates ran to celebrate under the Curva, although he got over it in time to join them. It felt as though a baton had been passed. De Rossi was known through the early part of his career in Rome as “Capitan Futuro” – the Future Captain. At last, it was his turn to lead.
Genoa, though, still had no interest in narratives. They equalised through Darko Lazovic, then very nearly took the lead when the same player struck the post. With Napoli romping towards a comfortable win at Sampdoria, Roma were set to fall to third.
It was not Totti who rode to their rescue, but another substitute with a name that rhymes. In the 90th minute, Diego Perotti pounced on Edin Dzeko’s knock-down for the winner. The Stadio Olimpico erupted with joy.
The tears would follow soon afterwards. Totti was granted a guard of honour by his team-mates, took a slow lap of the stadium and gave his final address. Cynics might scoff at the melodrama, but beneath the pageantry lay something that most of us can relate to: that feeling of a happy chapter of life ending, of saying goodbye to the familiar and stepping into the unknown.
We still do not know, officially, what Totti will do next. Perhaps he has not decided yet, either. There is a deal on the table for him to become a director of Roma, but many have suggested that he will end his status as a one-club man by jetting out to America for a season with Miami FC.
At one point during his post-game monologue, he admitted candidly that “I’m afraid.” No wonder. For 28 of his 40 years on this planet, Totti has spent his days doing the same thing: kicking a ball around with his Roma team-mates. He quite literally does not know what another life might look like.
What we do know is that Serie A will not be the same without him, a player whom Diego Maradona described as “the best I have ever seen”. A man of few words, but many goals. The inimitable Francesco Totti.