Francesco Totti: “In my time, football was about love. Today is more business’ | Rome
An hour after starting a conversation that ranged from childhood TV favorites and retirement challenges to reflecting on fate and the âwhat ifâ moments that defined a career, I stumble upon a topic. that Francesco Totti considers taboo. It was enough to wonder if he would let his 15-year-old son Cristian beat him on the pinball machine.
“No!” he exclaims, staring at me with disbelieving eyes on the other end of our Zoom call. âThings must be earned, not given! “
What other mindset can we expect from a man who has stayed his entire career at a club, refusing opportunities to win and earn more elsewhere? Totti made his senior debut with Roma in 1992 and played there for a quarter of a century, retiring in 2017 with over 300 goals to his name.
He has been hailed by Diego Maradona as “the best player I have ever seen”, but in all these years of club football, Totti has won just one Serie A title, supplemented by a pair of Coppa wins. Italia and two more in the Supercoppa – the competition from Italy. between the champions of the league and the cup. It’s no secret that he wished he could earn more.
“But sitting here now thinking about regrets – ‘I could have done this, I could have said that’ – that’s not how I am,” Totti insists. “I did the best I could and took everything in it.”
Claiming even a Scudetto for the team of your childhood, in the city where you were born, is special. Totti once said that a Scudetto in Rome is worth 10 in another city. Roma have won Serie A three times in their 94-year history.
In his autobiography, newly published in English under the title Gladiator, Totti remembers how the 2001 title celebrations lasted all summer and beyond. For him it was an even higher peak than his other great career triumph, winning the World Cup with Italy in 2006.
âThey call me crazy and can’t take it,â Totti writes in the book. âBecause obviously the World Cup is the pinnacle of any career, but that’s more the case for those who win. [titles] every year, like [Juventus players], only for those who hardly ever win. For us the best thing is the Scudetto, and my biggest gripe is that we didn’t win at least a second.
This is the perspective of a footballer who was also a fan – a Romanist and, perhaps more essentially, a Roman. âThe city where you were born is still the most beautiful,â he says. âIt’s true for everyone – the place you come from has a different appeal. Even though Rome, for me, is truly the most beautiful city in the worldâ¦ In the end, we are all equal. Some more, some less.
Totti is what Italians call a bandiera – a footballer whose attachment to his club is such that he becomes a âflagâ, a living symbol. As money has poured into the game and freedom of movement has increased over the years since the Bosman ruling of 1995, they have become increasingly scarce.
âI started at different times. Different football, âsays Totti. âFootball made of love, affection towards the fans. Playing for the team that I have always supported, it was much easier for me to make that choice. Twenty-five years on a team is no small feat, and as a captain, being one of the most important players you always have to be up to the task. But making a comparison between my time and today is difficult. Today, it’s more business. You go where you can make more money. And that’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Hearing Totti explain it, you’d think he retired four decades ago, not four years ago. He too had the opportunity to follow the treasury. When Real Madrid made their last attempt to sign him in 2006, he recalled a contract offer that allegedly made him the highest paid player in the world.
It was one of three times Totti’s career and life could have taken a different direction. He defines them as his “Sliding Doors” moments, after the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film, of which he was a big fan.
It was first of all an opportunity to join Milan’s youth system at 12, when their sporting director, Ariedo Braida, showed up at his family’s doorstep – before the big clubs in Rome demonstrated a such interest. Next came the 1996-97 season, when Roma hired a manager, Carlos Bianchi, who wanted to sign Jari Litmanen to take Totti’s place. Last came the big offer from Madrid.
Reading the book, I got the impression that the first set of sliding doors was the one Totti could have passed through the most easily. The decision to say no to Milan was taken together with his parents, who followed the advice of a friend of the Italian Football Federation.
Milan had just won Serie A, and for Totti it was “the most exciting team I have ever seen, the only one I dreamed of playing for”. If his parents had thought that a check for 150 million lire (â¬ 75,000) was too good to be refused, would it have ended up in red and black?
“Honestly no. Decisions were always made by me, with my own head. Your parents will often give you advice. And it’s fair to listen to them. But ultimately, being so young, I knew I had time and a future ahead of me.
Madrid was another matter. Totti was nearing his 30th birthday in the summer of 2006, and even as the newly crowned world champion he knew some opportunities would not be there forever. They had tried to sign him five years ago, but at the time, the Giallorossi had rejected their advances without waiting to see how he felt.
“Of course I thought about it,” Totti says. âLet’s say there were quite a few days when we had one foot in and one foot out. Then I said, often and sincerely, that the choice to stay with Roma was made with the heart. In those times when you feel like this, you can’t go away.
More than at any other point in our conversation, Totti seems to choose his words deliberately, clear his throat, and take a moment to think about how he wants to phrase a thought. “But certainly, looking back, thinking about saying no to Real Madrid, a little doubt remains.
âReal Madrid were the only other team I could have played for. The only team it could have been, I think. An experience in a different country could have been something beautiful for everyone. For my family. For me â¦”
With perfectly imperfect timing, that thought is interrupted by a wobbly internet connection. When he returns, that hint of melancholy is gone. Totti is back to remind me, and perhaps himself, that his decisions were always his. âWhen you make a choice with your own head, it can never be a bad choice. You do not think ?
More than once, Totti returns to the word “destination– fate – as he evokes these pivotal moments in his life and career. He is not fatalistic. âThere is a fate awaiting us, but you still have to go out and claim it,â he said. âYou live from day to day, you live what is in front of you. But step by step you understand that there are things waiting for you.
It’s a worldview surprisingly similar to what her former Italian teammate Gigi Buffon presented to me in another interview. Totti laughs when I point it out. They have been friends since they met while playing for Italy’s Under-14s. For Totti, it was a shared journey. Although they lived in different parts of the country and played for different teams, âwe grew up on the same streetâ.
Buffon is still resisting coming out of retirement, returning this summer to play for his first club, Parma, in Serie B. For all that Totti resists at the word “regret” there is an unshakeable feeling he wishes he had found. a similar autonomy to define the end of his playing career.
In Totti’s account, Roma informed him that his time was up casually, asking him ahead of a game against Lazio in spring 2017 if he wanted to say a few words before his last derby. For someone who finds such clarity in taking ownership of the decisions they made on their own, this loss of autonomy was hard to accept.
âYou never really want to stop,â Totti says, perhaps subconsciously making his own experience universal. âHonestly, I didn’t take it well at the start. But, little by little, I made myself understand that it was the right thing.
There is no sadness, Totti insists, about the club’s failure to bring him back into another role, although it may be a matter of semantics. âIt certainly doesn’t make me happy, because I’ve always put Roma first and foremost and everyone. But, like I said before, it’s fate, I thinkâ¦ Then, if they were to call me someday, we would have to discuss things and see.
Right now, it’s focused on the sports counseling it started, with branches for player scouting and talent management. âThe main objective at the moment is to find promising young players. I don’t know if it will be easy, but I will try with whatever I have to be successful.
The question of whether he will seek to impart his wisdom to young players is met with a flurry of noses. “No class !” He insists. âThere are things that you have in you, or you will have a hard time reaching a certain level. Of course, with determination, envy, sacrifice, you can achieve certain goals. But to be a talent, you have to have that in you. You cannot work to become a talent.
We come back to fate, and maybe even to my question about the pinball machine. My follow-up remark that Cristian would take more advantage of a possible victory to know that his father had not gone easily meets a smile. “We’ll see,” Totti said, with the easy air of a man who doesn’t expect to be dethroned anytime soon. âHope for him!
Gladiator by Francesco Totti is published by deCoubertin Books and is now available. Order a copy here.