A Roman soldier forever

Despite being offered many lucrative deals, Italian ace Francesco Totti has stayed loyal to AS Roma

A Roman soldier forever

Armed with spray cans, the vandals last descended on Via della Madonna dei Monti, a dead-end alley not far from the Colosseum, about six months ago. They come to this corner of Rome quite often, according to the street’s weary residents. They are sick of seeing their walls daubed with slogans, but they are resigned to it now.

The mural at the end of the street is the problem. Some come to restore it, and then others return to deface it. Every time, each group adds a couple of inflammatory, insulting messages to the patchwork of tags that surrounds it. It goes on and on, an apparently eternal battle in the middle of the Eternal City.

Even when the mural is disfigured, though, anyone with even a fleeting interest in Italian soccer can recognise whom it depicts. That silhouette — one arm raised to the sky, the taped wrist and tapered torso — is so familiar that it bleeds through even the strongest aerosol blast.

Francesco Totti cannot be brushed off or sprayed away. AS Roma’s eternal captain is not so much etched onto the walls of his city as scoured into its very fabric. He is burned into its soul.

Totti, Roman born and bred, Roma to his core, has never hidden how much Rome means to him. “It is my family, my friends, the people I love,” he said a few years ago, when asked why he had stayed at Roma. “It is the sea, the mountains, the monuments.”

He has not been short of opportunities: AC Milan and Real Madrid, to name but two, have made concerted attempts to coax him away in the 23 years since he first appeared as a cherubic teenager in the yellow and red colors of the team he supported as a child.

He could not bring himself to leave. “I am fortunate to have only worn one shirt in my career,” Totti, 40, said in a recent interview. “It is something that is fundamental to me. It is something I have always wanted, to be one of these few who wear only one shirt, a fan and a player of the same team.”

During his apparently endless twilight — and despite the delicate politics between Rome’s two clubs, Roma and Lazio, as demonstrated in the continuing struggle on the Via della Madonna dei Monti — the city has done what it can to reward that loyalty, to reciprocate his affection.

A few years ago, the street artist Lucamaleonte was commissioned to compose an officially sanctioned mural in the sleepy San Giovanni district. Totti grew up here, in an apartment on Via Vetulonia. He went to school a few streets away, on Via Pascoli.

He was not the best student — “he was only good for one thing, and that was football,” one teacher said — and in a city divided along partisan lines, it is not the ideal recruiting tool for the school to be so indelibly connected to a resolutely Roma idol.

That city officials pushed the mural through anyway is an indication of how much Totti means; the work was part of a series depicting iconic figures in Rome’s modern history. The mural is still there, covering an entire wall, three stories high, unscathed by the unwanted attentions of Lazio supporters. Totti belongs not just to Roma, but also to Rome. In return, there is a corner of the city that will always belong to him.

It is that relationship that has kept him going, long after many assumed his career would have run its course. Totti made his debut for Roma at 16 in 1993. He has played nearly 800 times for Roma and scored 306 goals. He regularly plays alongside team-mates not born when he first entered Serie A.

Most of Totti’s peers, the pillars of his generation, have fallen by the wayside. He was part of the Italy of Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta and Christian Vieri, and the Serie A of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Gabriel Batistuta. A couple of peers — Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo — linger on, but in less physically demanding positions or less mentally draining places. Only Totti remains.

“It is a love for both Roma and for football,” he said when asked what has sustained him. “I have married both of those things. Football, to me, is a passion, more than a game. It is everything. But more than anything, it is love for Roma. I have always been Roma. There has never been anything else.

“I keep on playing because I still enjoy it. I still have that passion. I want to come to training, to be with my colleagues, with the rest of the players. And I will keep going as long as it makes me happy.”

How long that will be is a matter of almost constant speculation. He is adamant that he is “not thinking” about life after soccer. He admits that he feels 40 “numerically, psychologically, but not physically,” but talks of “refining little things” in training, of his belief that he “can always improve.” He has not given up on his one unrequited ambition: making Roma champion of Europe.“Never say never,” he said.

Everyone knows, though, that at some point, sooner rather than later, the curtain will fall.

And for soccer, it will be the dawn of a new era. Even Totti sees himself as an echo of another age, a remnant of a time when aesthetes took priority over athletes. Of all the players who have passed through Roma in Totti’s 23 years, the two who stand out most to him were Antonio Cassano and Vincent Candela, a French defender, because they were “both technicians.”

It is also a side of soccer he fears is increasingly being lost in the sport’s thirst for tumult. It is telling that Totti’s most precious memories date back quite some way. He cited a goal against Sampdoria as his best, “a left-foot volley that showcased all of my characteristics,” and a back-heel against Werder Bremen, “back when I was very young,” as his favorite assist.

The one player he wishes he had called a team-mate is not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but Ronaldo — Il Fenomeno, as the Italians call him. Totti calls Ronaldo a “player for history,” and he is, in more ways than one.

One day, the same will be said of Totti. Not just because of his style, but also because of his story: for the way he played and where he played it. Steven Gerrard has retired, and Ryan Giggs, too. Xavi Hernández is drifting to the end in Qatar. Totti is the last of what he calls the “tifosi-giocatori,” the fans who became players, the hometown heroes.

“I would like to think that in the youth teams there is someone who can do what I have done, what Daniele De Rossi is doing, and stay here for as long as possible,” Totti said, referring to his longtime Roma team-mate. “But it is hard, in modern soccer.”

It has not always been easy for him. “There is more pressure, more responsibility, because I am Roman,” Totti said.

He would not, though, have had it any other way. It is the only thing he ever wanted. “Just to wear this shirt,” he said. “That is the only thing.” His shirt, and his city, marked indelibly for 23 years, a legacy that can never be erased.

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