Serie A: AS Roma grapple with Francesco Totti dilemma
MILAN (Reuters) - Francesco Totti is such a big part of AS Roma that Rudi Garcia, the club's coach at the time, wondered whether the talismanic playmaker was more important to the city than the Pope.
Playing his 24th season at his only professional club, where he has scored 300 competitive goals, Totti seemed to feel that he would be allowed to carry on playing as long as he wanted.
The 39-year-old predicted last month that he would continue playing for another two years but recent events suggest he has become an awkward presence for coach Luciano Spalletti and raised the uncomfortable question of whether he is bigger than the club.
Totti, who has played under 16 different coaches at Roma, complained in a television interview on Saturday about his lack of playing time. In response, the forward was left out of the squad for Sunday's game against Palermo and watched it from the stands.
Totti was greeted with applause while Spalletti was jeered but, away from the Stadio Olimpico, opinions were almost equally divided. In an online survey by La Reppublica, 47 percent of those taking part said Totti was right and 50 percent sided with Spalletti.
Opinions divided on Totti and Spalletti
"If I were Totti, I would have stopped playing last year when I was still decisive and an integral part of the team," said former Italy striker Gianluca Vialli in a programme on Foxsports Italia.
Former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli sympathised with Spalletti.
"I understand perfectly the decision of the coach," he wrote in a column for the website Calciomercato.com
"You can be the most important player, the captain, but certain types of behaviour are not acceptable. Even more serious is the role of the club which has shown an incredible inaction in addressing the issue."
The experiences of players like Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti and Alessandro Del Piero, who like Totti had long careers with the same Italian clubs have shown that football has little sentiment for even the most loyal players.
Totti's teammates showed they could do perfectly well without him as they hammered the Sicilians 5-0 for their fifth league win in a row on Sunday, keeping them in contention for a Champions League place next season.
Spalletti's predecessor Garcia managed the delicate situation with great dexterity. The Frenchman seemed to have the knack for knowing the best time to field Totti who showed that the still had the ability to deliver a killer pass or devastating free kick.
"I want to win at least one title with my captain," said Garcia.
But Totti suffered a thigh injury in October, missed three months and, by the time he had recovered, Roma had been in and out of a crisis, Spalletti had taken over and rejigged the team.
"We've basically asked Spalletti to win games and to improve the team and he's doing that very well," general manager Mauro Baldirossi said.
"We have to let him make whatever assessments he sees fit."