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One Club Man: The Roman Passion of Francesco Totti

Francesco Totti
Francesco Totti brought down the curtain on a glorious career
Vikram Shah
CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 02 Jun 2017, 12:30 IST
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From a certain, sufficiently zoomed-out view on Google Maps, what we know as continental Europe appears almost leonine - a haphazard beast advancing towards the sensation of Russia. The republics of the former Soviet Union at the head - with the Baltics forming an unlikely mane. Its hefty shoulders begin at Poland and its big belly contains the nations that once formed parts of the great gilded Empire of the Hapsburgs.

The Low Countries supplement mighty Germany and France to bring up a thick rear facing London (sorry, couldn't resist), from which is attached - and this demands a huge leap of the imagination  - the bushy tail of the Iberian Peninsula. And there are its two front legs - the first tapering off into a Turkey-shaped foot, an Oriental paw resting on the old Levant and a second shorter one - almost as if the European lion is limping - trailing off into the Greek Islands.

Its hind legs follow almost as an afterthought - the boot of Italy and the mysterious islands of Sardinia and Corsica. Shaped like a boot, the hind-legs of this tottering lion, it is no wonder that football - beloved Calcio – is the passion of all Italia.

Italy, the name is enough to conjure up reveries sitting at an office desk in drab London or fusty Frankfurt. Just a short flight away lies a life imagined to be lived at slow speed - pasta della nonna, pastel buildings overlooking a piazza where they all know each other, an espresso while perusing the Corriere dello Sport, dulce far niente, sweet idleness under the sun, sweetly poisoning the dreams of English and Teutonic romantics.

This idea of a summer in Roma, the Eternal City, made up of neighbourhoods like little villages, with names rolling beautifully, impossibly, off the tongue - Testaccio, Travestere, Termini. Cold and gloomy London is the grime, sunny Rome the glory.

In this idea of life in Roma, young men and women live with their parents much into adulthood. At home on Sundays, after church, they all argue and gesticulate and roll their eyes but come together to say grace at the table before digging into the ragu. In the evenings, after the nap, they all troop down to the grandparents' a block away and watch the football.

Then, dinner at a family-owned restaurant, the one that has been around since the time that nanna was a young girl, skipping about those cobbled streets, putting out the washing on the balcony, in the same manner, she did that morning.

This is how it all appears to the outsider, anyway. I have been to Rome only once, for a few days more than 10 years ago, and that too for the obligatory prowl around the dregs of antiquity. Glimpses of everyday Rome were caught only from behind the windows of a coach - Vespas careening through traffic snarls on the big Vias, homeless kids tramping on the banks of a parched Tiber, mounds of rubbish lying forgotten on street corners and crumbling buildings with the paint peeling off - romance for the outsider, civic crises for the residents.

Rome and King Totti

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Totti Roma
Totti brought home the Serie A in 2001 – the only time Roma have won it in the last 35 years

Living in Belgium as an exchange student in 2014, I got to know a few Roman students - Rome is broken, they said, nothing works, but at the end of the day, it is home. Just like it is for Francesco Totti.

Convenient indeed to lapse into reductionist markers of a city, nation, continent - but what other tools does the casual fan and tourist have? And surely it is easier to condone in the case of Totti, a man whose identity - in his own admission and life choices - is so inextricably linked to the city of his birth.

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His mother, the fearsome Fiorella, has often appeared in his story as the exemplar of Italian motherhood, devout in Roma's dual religions of Catholicism and Calcio. There were many father figures in the early years - Guido Gianinni (signed him), Carlo Mazonne (handed him his first start), Giuseppe Gianinni (Guido's son, and Totti's predecessor as the Roma No. 10) - and Totti was comfortably ensconced in the tight Roman circle that forms around precocious city footballers, benevolent elders always ready to dispense advice on matters ranging from training techniques to vehicle choices.

Over the years, several managers have been forced to contend with the cult of Totti. He almost left for Sampdoria under the reign of Carlos Bianchi, the Argentinian he accused of being biased against Romans.

Capello, the manager under whom he had his most glorious hour - winning his only Scudetto in 2001 - famously told him off in the presence of his teammates for being a slacker on the training pitch, an accusation that has followed him throughout his career and no doubt contributed to the indifference of the English and German football establishments to his charms.

It would not be entirely unfair to say that he has been mollycoddled by all Rome (even Lazio fans have come to admit a grudging admiration for the all-time high scorer in the Derby Della Capitale) - adored, forgiven, wept for. Rome has always loved a king, and Totti even had the luxury of talent. But to suggest - as some Milanese newspapers and the English football press did - that Totti was nothing but a showboater grown fat on the indulgent love of coarse Romans would be going too far.

It is no secret that Madrid would have loved to have him in 2004, and again, he was quite close to leaving. Again, he chose to stay. The numbers speak for themselves - the second-highest goalscorer in Serie A history and he didn't even play as an out and out striker for most of his career.

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His former coach Zdenk Zeman - who had two stints at Roma - preferred to play him on the left-wing where he had more space to run into and who maintains that young Totti was primarily a playmaker. Spaletti had him rove in the centre as a False Nine, encouraging him to drive into the box and cause trouble. Fittingly, Spaletti once likened him to the animal that is central to the founding myth of his city: "Bringing Francesco closer to the box is like putting the wolf close to the chicken coop: he always finds the space to create terror."

It was a wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the twins who are said to have founded the city of Rome, it is yet another wolf that provided in the Stadio Olimpico. In the later years, from 2011-onwards, when the legs had begun to somewhat trail like Italy's in the European lion, he played the classic trequartista - in the more conventional manner of those that wear the No. 10 - looking to open the game up from midfield.

In recent years, much has been made about the death of the playmaker. As the game has tended to become more physical, the emphasis on training grounds is on strength and endurance. 'Parking the bus' has increasingly emerged as a favoured tactic and the tireless defensive-minded midfielder has come to be lauded as the player that wins championships (think N'Golo Kante).

In the English game, at least, the death knell has sounded for a player of the ilk of Riquelme, the sort of languorous, cushioned-ball playmaker so feted in Latin football cultures. I remain ignorant of what the Spanish or Italian press makes of the dirges for their fantasistas and trequartistas but I am inclined to believe that those cultures will always have a place for the sort of "luxury playmaker" that Totti came to represent.

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It is in their blood, the cheeky trickery begins - and is cheered on - in the piazzas and plaças all over Italy, Spain and Latin America. I remember a pick-up game I once participated in the Plaça del Sol in the Gracia district of Barcelona. Twelve or thirteen-year-olds nutmegging and dink passing at will to the shouts of “ Olé” from their parents sipping wine on the cafe tables lining the square.

And nothing quite typifies how this spirit lives in Totti than his mastery of the cucchiaio, the delicate chip shot that the Italians have come to call after the spoon, referring to the trajectory of the ball once it is chipped.

No, he did not reserve it just for the penalty - he took this delightful Panenka to open play and repeatedly regaled us with the most impetuous of goal scoring dinks. There are a number of his cucchiaio compilations on YouTube but my favourite is the one that left Julio Cesar stranded in a 3-2 win against Inter at the San Siro in 2005.

The maestro received the ball in the final third of the attacking half on the left. Evading a tackle by skipping over it, he cuts in unchallenged, smoothly, and as he approaches the box - surely he has already spotted Cesar off his line - arms fluid and paddling like a swimmer in the deep, calm sea, a gladiator beckoning, mocking the beast in his own lair, he imperiously lifts the underside of the ball in a half-motion that is threat, action and death all at once and watches it sail over a clueless Inter defence and into the net.

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In that cucchiaio - what appears as a little afterthought, maybe, for a bit of fun, let me just dink it over the keeper for all those times these snooty Northerners mocked my Romanisco accent - lies the entire fantasy of Rome for someone like me looking in from the outside  – the last puff of a careless cigarette discarded on the cobblestone as a date approaches, her half-pleading-without-really-meaning-it bastas as she is kissed with gentle nicotine lips, and a walk to the tratoria in the dying light, young and free and without a care in the world.

As the cricket-writer and novelist Rahul Bhattacharya once wrote, "Life can be staid, why not revel in the magical."

Speaking of kisses, Totti was once asked what he felt more strongly for: his first Serie A goal or his first kiss. His response is of the man who first put on the club shirt as a 16-year old boy all those years ago. "You have your first kiss because you see others kissing – you are not transmitting passion or love. The goal, however, you have already dreamed  of."

Yes, maybe he couldn't do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke but who wants Stoke when you are the king of sun-dappled Rome.

Also read: What next for Luis Enrique?

Published 02 Jun 2017, 10:24 IST
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