Italian football really does have a thing for one club men.
It does it better than anyone else, perhaps it’s the socio-economic differences between cities and regions that still exist in Italy that have faded in much older countries. Or maybe the much less boring and academic answer is that loyalty simply runs in the veins.
It’s refreshing to see that in an age of journeymen and transfer fees in the hundreds of millions, that players can still stay at the same club for decades. Some players endear themselves to a club enough that they are given a nickname by fans or media to immortalise them in the club’s history.
Fabio Cannavaro was the Wall of Berlin (Il Muro di Berlino).
Our next entrant to the Icons in Italy series was given five nicknames. That doesn’t mean he was five times the player, but there were certainly few more elegant. Francesco Totti, ‘L’Ottavo Re di Roma’ (the eighth king of Rome) must be joint top with Maradona for influencing their cities more so than any other players.
Born: 27 September 1976
Teams: Apps (Goals)
Roma 786 (307)
Italy 58 (9)
Football or Petrol
Growing up, Totti had two loves in his life, football and petrol. He adored the smell of the fumes so much, he once said if he wasn’t a footballer, his dream job would have been a petrol pump assistant. Thankfully for us, his love for football fuelled (sorry) him to pursue a career in it.
At 13 years old, his mother refused a deal for him to join AC Milan’s youth setup, and stay in his home city. We can only imagine how different his career would’ve been up north, but now we know where he inherited his loyalty to his city from.
Totti made his senior debut in March 1993, in a 2-0 victory against Brescia. By 1994 he secured his place in the first team by adapting his position to a more influential second striker. Totti didn’t flourish quite yet, as the team struggled under manager Carlos Bianchi. The young starlet almost left the club on loan, but after Bianchi left the club and was replaced by Zdenek Zeman, Totti then really started to become the main man.
Captain of Rome, Enemy of Lazio
1998 would prove to be a great year. No, it’s not another Kylian Mbappe joke, it was a year that set Totti up to become the icon of Rome he is today. His adaptability was a key strength of his game, particularly in his later years. But, in the 1997/98 season he was asked to play as second striker, number ten and on the left-wing, and smashed it in every position.
He scored 13 league goals that season, and was unlucky not to be called up to Italy’s World Cup squad. Despite being disappointment at international level, Roma knew how to cheer him up, and he was awarded the captain’s armband the next season. At 22, he became the youngest ever captain in Serie A.
His love for his city was matched only by one other thing – how much he loves to annoy Lazio fans.
Totti kick-started his famous celebrations in April 1999, after scoring in the Rome Derby, he lifted up his shirt to reveal “I’ve purged you guys again”, after he assisted and scored in the previous derby which ended 3-3.
At the end of the 1998-98 season he was awarded Serie A Young Player of the Year, and after years of instability followed by top-four finishes, it was time for Roma to challenge for the Scudetto.
With Totti playing number ten behind a strike partnership of Vincenzo Montella and Gabriel Bastistuta, and Fabio Capello as manager, Roma were deadly in the 2000-01 season.
Playing a 3-4-1-2 formation, Roma played a free-flowing, attacking football the rest of the league couldn’t deal with. The least surprising statistic of that season is Roma finishing top scorers, with 68 goals, and Totti scoring 13 of them. Roma had lead the league most of the season, and heading in to the final match against Parma, they needed a simple home win to secure only their third Serie A title. In true Roma fashion that season, they dominated. A 3-1 win with Totti, Montella and Bastistuta scoring was the perfect end to a perfect season, as Roma won the title.
Totti was invincible, winning Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year in 2000 and 2001, also winning Serie A Footballer of the Year in 2000.
Already a Roma legend at 25, Totti matured in these years to the graceful, technically superb footballer he was.
It’s important to remember that while he was a great goal-scorer, Totti was also one of the best playmakers in the world at that time. His technique was so beautiful, he could hit first-time balls any distance across the pitch with pin-point accuracy. He could drop deep, pick the ball up from midfield and drive at defences before slipping in a perfectly-weighted through ball. In a career that lasted until he was 40, we forget that Totti was also an incredibly hard-working player in his prime, and probably could have scored many more goals in his career had he not helped out so much defensively.
When he did score, however, it was usually a thing of beauty. He started his trademark habit of chipping goalkeepers for fun as his goal record increased, hitting 20 goals in the 2003-04 season.
Gianluigi Buffon said of Totti’s scoring ability:
“Some of his goals against me were so wonderful that I would have been ruining a masterpiece had I managed to save them.”
Bionic Totti and the World Cup
The two seasons before the 2006 World Cup, Totti was transitioned yet again, this time to lone striker. Even so, he could never shake the playmaker in him and often played as a false nine. In February 2006 disaster struck as he fractured his left fibula and was a major doubt for the World Cup.
A metal plate was attached and Totti recovered by May, however, more surgery was required to remove the plate which would mean another short spell injured. The doctors decided to keep the plate in and hope it would not affect his game, which meant he could potentially join the squad for the World Cup. Much of the Italian media had written Totti off for making the squad that summer, having not played for three months. But, Italy manager Marcello Lippi encouraged Totti to recover and guaranteed him a World Cup spot if he was fit.
Totti didn’t need to be told twice, and made the 23-man squad.
Despite being short on fitness, he was determined not to let injuries take away from his international career in a similar way to Marco Van Basten. Instead, he played all seven games in the tournament with the metal still screwed in his ankle. What is even more remarkable is that he finished with the highest number of assists in the tournament as Italy won the competition. It was a super-human feat to play the minutes Totti managed and deserved his place in the World Cup All-Star squad.
You would think then, after the effort for his country, that Totti would have the plates removed and enjoy a well-earned rest as he recovered on the injury list.
The King of Rome returned for the 2006-07 season and scored 32 goals and 15 assists in all competitions, including a personal record of 26 goals in Serie A as Roma won the Coppa Italia two years in a row.
In the years that followed, Totti suffered several injuries including a torn ACL, and never reached the goal-scoring heights of the 2006-07 season again. That didn’t stop him breaking records almost every season.
He overtook Amedeo Amadei as Roma’s all-time top goalscorer in 2009 with his 175th goal for the club. In these years Roma often struggled at the start of the season and transitioned through different managers. They finished runner-up more often than not in the league and Coppa Italia.
As the era of Juventus dominance began, Totti never got close to another Scudetto.
He transitioned back into a playmaker in his twilight years, as well as destroying previous records. Totti retired at the end of the 2016-17 season, and currently holds some records that won’t be broken for a very long time. Now a director at Roma, Francesco Totti is one of our true Icons in Italy.
Roma All-Time Top Goalscorer: 307
Roma All-Time Top Appearances: 786
Oldest Champions League Goalscorer: 38 years 54 days
Serie A Youngest-Ever Captain: 22 years 34 days
Most Goals for a Single Club in Serie A: 250
Second-Most Goals in Serie A: 250