Amongst a history of bloodshed and conflict, perhaps the most fascinating insight into Roman history was their entertainment.
Gladiator battles with slaves and prisoners armed to the hilt, fighting to the death in front of baying crowds eager for blood. Not enough drama or danger? Throw some lions in to raise the stakes. A poor soul left maimed but not yet swept by the hand of death? The emperor will decide whether they are spared; thumbs up or thumbs down. The magnificent amphitheatre structures would become arenas of brutal glorified murder, reflecting the fine line between entertainment and the ultimate sacrifice.
Very rarely does football cross into the realms of life and death. Instead, it becomes a metaphor; the importance it stakes for people makes it feel like it is everything.
A supporter watches their team within their own amphitheatre. Defeat, however noble, feels like the world is collapsing around them. Victory, and the dance with the defeat that comes with it, is invigorating.
Some clubs know this dance better than others, with the line between failure and success ever-changing, yet never under control. Some entertainers may leave uncertain shores in search for power, where success is a choice and not a battle. Others remain, dedicating their life to bringing glory to those that gave them a chance.
Were gladiators alive today, fighting to keep their head above ground and to satisfy those that watched them, Francesco Totti would be the noblest of them all.
Roma’s One Club Gladiator
To eulogise about Totti’s relationship with Roma, one must make sure they do not paint a picture of a lowly club holding on to a player of significant influence. While they finished tenth in Serie A in the season Totti made his debut (1992/93), over the 24 years that followed, until Totti retired in 2017, Roma would only fall once below tenth, and mostly hover between second and fifth. Roma’s greatest achievement with their one-club man was clinching the Serie A league title in the season of the millennium, in 2000/01.
What narrative must instead be peddled is that this was still a team that could never secure itself beyond the season it was in, be it through managerial turnover, poor performance, or simply the increasing strength of other sides in Italy. One thing that was secure, however, was that Totti would endure all with them.
Totti is described in Italy as a trequartista. The English tend to turn their nose up at similar phrases that extend beyond the black and white of ‘midfielder’ or ‘forward’. It is a footballing non-binary term, part of a collective of European expressions that some refuse to digest.
It sums Roma’s modern-day gladiator up perfectly. Trequartista translates as ‘three quarters’ and refers to a player’s positioning between lines. Forward of the midfield yet regressed from the strikers.
In Italy, managers often deploy a three-man defence, and a Catenaccio system including a ‘libero’ behind the defensive line. A Trequartista makes use of the space found on the other side of the opposition defence to the libero, just behind opposing midfields.
Therefore, Totti’s role was to link play, from the functional midfield to the attack. It would require vision, anticipation of forward runs, and the width of advancing full-backs to assist such linking. Totti had all three at his disposal.
YouTube is awash with compilation videos of Totti. Most feature an array of flicks and backheels to divert the ball from its intended path. Receive the ball from midfielder with back to goal, touch it with the outside of the boot, and into the striker. It looks great in such a video, with a sepia filter and dramatic orchestra behind it. While there was so much more to his play, it does showcase his use of space and spatial awareness.
Backing into one of the centre-backs or central midfielders, he occupies their attention to allow one of the strikers to arc a run and anticipate his deft touch. One such striking teammate was the great Gabriel Batistuta; an icon of 1990’s Serie A. Gabigol’s runs in behind opposition centre-backs were fed by the poked through balls of Totti. In Roma’s Scudetto winning year, Batistuta scored 20 league goals. A feature of this season was his relationship with Totti, alongside strike partner Vicenzo Montella.
With Totti sitting behind the lithe and quick Argentine, and the more physical Montella, Totti acted as a human pinball machine, moving the ball into either frontman before receiving it back. By this point, the other striker (mostly Batstuta) has seen the give-and-go and is peeling off the defender for Totti to find. This is often dressed as a dinked ball over the last man for Batistuta to volley home. The speed of interchange allows the other forward to move while the centre-backs are ball-watching and focused on Totti’s movement.
Totti’s is not a game of numerous touches and dazzling trickery. Instead, he facilitates the abilities of those around him. Most with the pedigree and legacy of Totti are remembered for their elegance and swoon-appeal, particularly one so revered by his fans. Yet, to watch him isn’t to appeal to the heart, nor does one gasp like watching footage of his Italy teammate, Alessandro del Piero. In fact, it is hard to really gauge just what it is about watching Totti that’s so fascinating. He receives the ball and touches it onto a teammate, sometimes in the same sweep of his boot. Over and over, and over.
Granted, some linking passes are sublime, bordering on ridiculous. On the rare occasion he receives the ball in his half, Totti anticipates the run of one of the forwards, or most likely Cafu on the right-wing, and launches a volleyed pass while facing the other way. It happens too frequently for it to be a fluke or elaborate trickery. Totti executes this pass in so many versions of Tyrian purple and gold that it becomes commonplace.
The presence of Cafu in that right wing-back role cannot be understated. The Brazilian revolutionised the full-back position during his time in Rome and sequentially, Milan. Cafu provided a constant out-ball to the central midfielders and for Totti in that creative slot. Having two wide aggressive full-backs in a 3-4-1-2 gave Roma the verticality they required to make space for Totti and to make use of their two strikers by having two progressive, crossing wing-backs.
The bombing runs of Cafu were fed by Totti, making use of their creative forces. In the absence of attacking central midfielders, it was this quintuplet that provided Roma’s goal threat.
The likes of Cafu and Batistuta represented the golden age of Totti’s Roma. As both departed in 2003, so did Roma’s superiority, slumping to eighth place. Two Italian Super Cups and two Italian Cups would follow in the next eight years. Not barren by any stretch, but it never recaptured the heights of that 2000/01 side. Real Madrid were sniffing around Roma’s captain, and rightly so, but he remained.
Italy’s Number Nine
Any myths surrounding Totti’s legacy emanates from his international career. A World Cup winner in 2006, he played as trequartista behind target-man, Luca Toni. However, this time he wasn’t the side’s sole central creator. Andrea Pirlo sat further back in central midfield, dictating play and tempo from deep.
In playing 4-4-1-1 as opposed to the wider, stretched system, he thrived in at Roma six years previous, and without the brilliance of an overlapping Cafu, Totti’s options and passes were cut significantly.
In the group fixture versus Ghana, Totti played behind right midfield in a 4-4-2 with two strikers in Toni and Alberto Gilardino. Yet, the two forwards never seemed alive to Totti’s passes, or able to anticipate what he wanted to do upon receiving the ball. The beauty and skill of the trequartista is the centrality and between lines positioning. Stationed wide right, Totti looked a completely different player. He still raked some fantastic passes out to opposite left-back Fabio Grosso, before being substituted on 56 minutes for a more conventional wide midfielder in Mauro Camoranesi.
This sums up Totti, the international player. The systems of the national sides of which he played rarely featured a roaming creator. Italy instead preferred two banks of four to first and foremost not give the opposition a sniff. Unable to imprint himself on that fixture against Ghana, Totti resorted to firing increasingly long-distance efforts at goal, something he also tried in the semi-final against Germany. His glowing quality was enough to leave an imprint on games for Italy and stay involved, without truly shaping the game as he would domestically with Roma.
In the semi-final he seemed more at home, playing as the deeper forward behind Toni. Totti’s beautifully weighted chips and dinks are too acute for the more cumbersome Luca ‘ball-to-feet’ Toni, leading to the majority of Roman-inspired chances dying. Yet, still it is Pirlo pulling strings from central midfield, feeding delicate passes through the spaces in the backline, not Totti.
A World Cup winner unquestionably, but Totti wasn’t the one who won Italy the World Cup. Captain and centre-back, Fabio Cannavaro, won that years’ Ballon d’Or, reflective of who the real match-winner was for Italy in the tournament, alongside Pirlo.
Francesco, A Man of the People
Nine goals in 58 international appearances, spanning eight years, for Totti. One only needs to watch Totti’s involvements during that 2006 triumph to see why he called time on his international career only a year later. Totti would command the Stadio Olimpico until 2017, becoming the oldest Champions League goalscorer three years earlier at 38. As recently as 2012/13, aged 37, he racked up 12 goals and 12 assists in a season where Roma finished sixth.
Totti’s final season saw his side finish in second place behind Juventus on the final day. Totti, holding the ball in the corner to tick down the seconds, taking the fouls that followed. Totti placed the needs of his club before any sense of personal triumph or opportunity. This is a player who won Serie A Player of the Year twice, and eleven Oscar del Calcio awards from the Italian Footballer’s Association.
Yet for all this, Totti is remembered more for Roma, than for his personal style or play. Totti brought Roma their treasured Scudetto alongside four domestic cups, all while captaining the club for 19 years. He carried them on his broad Roman shoulders, to their highest peaks and their lowest troughs.
Forever fighting amongst their rivals for a place at the top table, Totti ensured their competitiveness and relevance without giving them an era of dominance seen by those in Milan and Turin.
The spectacle of the gladiator fight is the dance with defeat. The near brushes with misery that make the victories, however infrequent they are, taste all the better. While others fell by their sword, or moved to other realms, it was Totti who stayed to fight and give Rome’s people, his people, the entertainment and spectacle they craved.
Would Roma’s fans have sacrificed Totti’s 25 years of service for more trophies? It is unlikely. It proves that even in the cut-throat climate of elite sport, still, love conquers all—Omnia vinicit amor.
Written by: Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill