MILAN, Italy, Sep 26 – As hard as he tries, Roma coach Luciano Spalletti is unlikely to convince fans this week that Francesco Totti is just another player for the Serie A giants.
On Tuesday Totti turns 40 and the one-club man who is in his 25th and likely last season with the ‘Giallorossi’ (Yellow and Reds) is still, when he gets the chance, producing the magic.
“For me, he’s been the top player in Italy for the past 25 years,” said Sinisa Mihajlovic, whose Torino side upset Totti’s pre-birthday party celebrations by beating Roma 3-1 in Turin on Sunday.
“He’s one of the best ever. It’s amazing to see what he can still do with a ball.”
Known as the ‘Golden Boy’ as a precociously-gifted teen, and revered as the ‘King of Rome’ throughout a storied career that saw Totti, if not his underachieving club, rise to the top, fans expect a fairytale ending this season.
It is over 23 years since Totti made his Roma debut in the final minutes of a 2-0 win at Brescia in March 1993.
And his latest milestone serves as a reminder of how Totti has evolved, adapted to and excelled in a changing game during some of the wonder years of Italy’s top flight.
“He is an example for us all and someone we all look up to,” said Cristiano Ronaldo last February as Real Madrid prepared to face Roma in the Champions League.
“If you play at the level he does, it’s good for him, for football and also for the children, because we give them the idea that football has no limits.”
When Totti took the captain’s armband from Brazilian defender Aldair under pioneering Czech coach Zdenek Zeman in 1998, he had answered his calling.
Two seasons later, he helped end Roma’s 18-year wait for the Serie A title, in 2001. When Roma weren’t winning, he was stunning rivals with an astonising array of ball skills and goals.
– Time machine –
Totti has “purged” bitter city rivals Lazio on more than one occasion, goaded other rivals with equally provocative messages on T-shirts and, last year, hit the headlines after celebrating a brace against Lazio by running to the ‘Curva Sud’ and using a telephone to take a ‘selfie’ with thousands of fans in the background.
Totti is unlikely to challenge Silvio Piola’s all-time Serie A record of 274 league goals, which included over 100 for Lazio.
Two days before his birthday, Totti hit his 250th league goal, beating Joe Hart for the second time in two years having scored the leveller in a 1-1 draw against Manchester City in 2015 to become the oldest scorer in the Champions League at 38 and three days.
Even Roma’s stoic coach Spalletti, who has battled to remind everyone that Totti is “one of many Roma players”, had to doff his cap.
“I want four or five Tottis in this team,” Spalletti said after he came off the bench to provide an assist for Dzeko and then score the winner from the spot in a dramatic, rain-delayed 3-2 win over Sampdoria last week.
“If I don’t play him, people get annoyed at me but I want to produce another player like him. One great player is not enough.”
As expected, Totti raced to the Curva Sud, ripped off his shirt and was mobbed by the entire Roma bench as he milked the applause.
“That was the first time I felt afraid of taking a penalty,” said Totti. “You just can’t afford to miss under the Curva!”
It was just one of many positive contributions Totti, who has scored six times in his last 11 league games, has made this campaign.
He started his first Roma league game since September 2015 last week at Crotone and repaid Spalletti’s faith by sending Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko on his way to his first brace of the season, and a 4-0 win, with a cheeky lob that completely wrong-footed the Crotone back line.
“His intuition is phenomenal,” gushed Crotone coach Nicola.
As Roma prepare for Totti’s party this week, fans will be constantly reminded of Totti’s achievements in the game.
Although Spalletti won’t stay at the party for long, because “the rest of the squad won’t be happy when I show up”, the Roma coach will honour his invitation.
He said: “I can’t buy him a time machine but that shows what I think of him.”