Growing up in England throughout the 90's and early 00's, there was something about Italian footballers that made them seem almost untouchable. The English Premier League was hugely respected but there were certain players that you just knew would never end up on these shores. For me, Italy has a rich history of developing some fantastic talent and I feel lucky that I grew up watching the likes of Del Piero, Cannavaro, Buffon and Pirlo. That golden generation are coming towards the very end of their careers, or have already retired, but one man still clings on, even at 40 years old.
There aren't too many players who are classed as a 'one club man' these days. In fact, unless you support a club who currently has one on their books, the chances are you might struggle to immediately think of one off the top of your head. Ryan Giggs is a very famous example in the British game from years gone by and I think many people thought that Steven Gerrard would follow that same pattern before the bright lights of LA came calling. Francesco Totti is a one club man, joining the Roma youth team aged 13 years old, he has committed 27 years of service to their cause. Cynics might say that he has sacrificed personal success by committing so heavily to the club he adores.
Being an icon at a club as big as Roma is something that many young footballers will dream of. To achieve this becomes much more tough as players start to be offered more money elsewhere, managers change every season and agents whisper in a player's ear. In modern day football, playing your whole career at Real Madrid or Barcelona, like Andres Iniesta for example, would be a fantastic career choice. You would play with the best players in the world, win countless trophies and earn a substantial amount of money. Being an icon for a club like Roma, who are still huge by the way, has seen Totti forfeit the opportunities that a player of his talent could, and should, have had.
One must look at the UEFA Champions League as a particular disappointment for Totti as he has never been further than the quarter finals. He hasn't even been guaranteed entry into the tournament every season as Roma's form has gone up and down throughout his career. In fact, Totti has only played in the Champions League in nine seasons, 24 years after breaking into the Roma first team. He has spent more campaigns competing in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, which he has also never won, than the glitz and glamour of the Champions League. Francesco Totti has never played in a European final, or even a semi final for that matter. How many world class players can you say that about?
OK so he hasn't had the best time in Europe, but they are very tough competitions and plenty of other top players do not have Champions League winners medals. Surely his trophy cabinet is still bulging with all the domestic honours that he has won with Roma right? Unfortunately not. Totti has just one Serie A winners medal from the 2000/01 season when a Gabriel Batistuta inspired team won the league by two points. With two Coppa Italia victories in 2007 and 2008 and two Super Cup titles in 2001 and 2007, that brings the winners medal tally of Totti to five during his 27 years with Roma. Yes he has been a one club man but how many titles has he sacrificed by becoming that club legend?
The wider debate here must be whether he was ever as good as people thought. Did he stay at Roma because no other big clubs ever wanted to tempt him away? Did he turn down transfers to other clubs because he either wasn't game for a new challenge or thought Roma would match his ambition? Is it possible to question that ambition, as most world class players are driven by wanting to play with the best players and win as many trophies as possible. Totti has rarely experienced glory in his career and that seems strange for someone of his talent. There will always be those who feel that being a one club man is admirable and shows a great love and respect for a club. The fans will eat that up all day long, they adopt these players and look upon them as family. The player almost becomes as big as the club in the eyes of the fans and they will stand by them come what may.
The fan's feelings towards Totti were made as clear as ever in 2016 after he publicly criticised the manager, Luciano Spalletti, for not giving him enough game time since recovering from injury. Totti was kept out of the team as a result, a decision which did not please the fans. This was evident in his next appearance for the club when he came on from the bench to a standing ovation. Roma have become a club, who in all likelihood, would be just fine without the declining talent of Totti in the team but no chairman or manager would kick him out of the club. It would be more trouble than it is worth. As a result, you now have a 40 year old Totti, a shadow of his former self, making cameo appearances from the bench for one of the biggest clubs in Europe, not because the manager needs him but because the fans do.
Of course, Totti has enjoyed other success in his long career. He was a huge part of Marcello Lippi's Italy team that won the 2006 World Cup and was also named on Ballon D'or shortlists throughout his prime. His international career however was not all a bed of roses and that could well be a contributing factor as to why many footballing figures in Great Britain (see televised debate between Hoddle, Venables and Souness about Totti) never saw him as a real world class player.
2006 aside, his career in an Italy shirt was actually bordering on woeful. He only managed nine goals in his international career in 58 caps, that is only two goals more than Emile Heskey scored for England and a poor return for someone with that much talent playing in a top national side. The Italian found himself criticised by the media in his home country because of his performances in the 2002 World Cup. He received a red card against South Korea as Italy famously crashed out of the tournament in the second round to the joint hosts. Totti went onto cause more disappointment for Italy fans in Euro 2004 when he famously spat at Christian Poulsen in the opening match of the tournament and didn't make another appearance.
Totti has endured 21 managers during his time in a Roma shirt and I do wonder whether the highs of his career are enough to outweigh the lows. A World Cup, a Serie A title and a few domestic cup winners medals is likely what Totti will have in his trophy cabinet when he finally retires. Does that make up for 2002 and 2004 in an Italy shirt and his general lack of goals? Does it also make up for the many years where he has been absent from the Champions League and the fact that he has never been further than a quarter final in European competition? In his hey day, he was a shining light in some very good Roma teams but was he as gifted as Del Piero for example? I will let you decide because for me the jury is still out and Francesco Totti remains a conundrum that I just cannot solve.
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