On a recent Monday afternoon, Roma and Italy playmaker Francesco Totti was out about town, enjoying his day off with his girlfriend, Maria Mazza. As the couple were driving down Via Cristoforo Colombo, a major traffic artery that heads southwards and out of Rome, their car, an Opel Corsa driven by Maria, was knocked off the road by a larger car.
Both Totti and his girlfriend were unharmed in the incident, which provoked only minor damage to their vehicle. Had it happened to anyone else, the car would have been pulled off the grass verge and back on to the road in minutes. Totti, of course, is not anyone else. Within minutes, curious drivers slowing dawn to gawp at the accident had recognised the footballer. Before long, the entire Cristoforo Colombo was blocked as Totti was besieged by enthusiastic fans. After a while, traffic police bowed to the inevitable and shut off the road for an hour to allow the fans to disperse and Totti to get his girlfriend's car out of the ditch and go on about his business.
These days, it is difficult to ignore Francesco Totti. Elected Player of the Year by his colleagues last October, offered a mega-contract by Roma that makes him among the best-paid footballers in the world, the subject of a weekly satirical sketch on prime-time TV, Totti has become the new standard bearer of Italian soccer. By the way, he is, of course, also the captain of the current Italian League leaders, Roma.
Roma fans who believe that their time has finally come round again, 18 years after they last lifted the Italian title, look to Totti as the talented talisman who, along with such as Argentinian striker Gabriel Batistuta, can guarantee that success. Not just the Roma fans, but also the entire Italian football community agrees that Totti finally came of age last summer, when his performances, not to say goalscoring, were an important part of that tremendous Italian run all the way to the Euro 2000 Final and just 20 seconds short of the title.
Many commentators point to that dramatic Rotterdam loss to France as one of Totti's finest moments. That was a match which contained at least one moment sure to linger long in the collective Italian memory, namely the moment when he delivered a cheeky but skilful back-heel to send Gianluca Pessotto down the right for the cross which Marco Delvecchio knocked away to give Italy what seemed the winning goal. That back-heel was merely the best highlight of an impressive, commanding performance, while it also announced, loud and clear, that 24-year-old Totti, for years labelled one of the 'great promises' of Italian soccer, had finally begun to deliver.
Eighteen months of polemics prior to Euro 2000 regarding Totti's ideal position (striker or playmaker) in Dino Zoff's Italian team had served some point. For the next seven or eight seasons, it would seem, Italy coaches are going to have to take Totti into consideration - be it as a pure striker or as a playmaker.
After Euro 2000, Italian fans expect Totti to continue to deliver on his promise at the 2002 World Cup finals. More pressingly, however, after Euro 2000, Roma fans expect Totti's new-found consistency and sense of responsibility to prove a major factor in Roma's bid to win the title.
"This is a terrific moment for me," Totti said recently. "When I'm out and about and meet people, I get a sense of their excitement and I'm proud and honoured to be the captain of this Roma.
"We're in front at the moment and we'll do all we can to stay there, even if we know that there's still a very long way to go: I tell you this, though this Roma is a team with its feet on the ground, humble. We've all got a huge thirst for success. The team is full of class players, but if things are going well for us at the moment, the secret is to be found in our hunger for title success."
This would appear to be Totti's moment. His star is in the ascendant at the very moment that previous standard bearers such as Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero are in decline, with the former playing out his days at little Brescia at the age of 34, and with the latter still unable to regain the brilliance of three seasons ago.
The point does not seem to to have been lost on Roma, who have agreed a sumptuous new contract which will guarantee Totti over £18million in after tax salary between now and June 2005. Starting at an annual £3.25m, Totti's salary will go up by £300,000 every year between now and 2005. That annual salary includes a clause allowing Roma to market and merchandise the Totti image, an image that one TV show ('Le lene') has already turned into a comic success by displaying the Roma captain as an 'ultra' fan who sleeps in a Roma shirt, in a bed with Roma blankets and in a bedroom whose walls are plastered with Roma posters. To some extent, the caricature is accurate. Totti is indeed a passionate Romanista, someone who grew up In a family of Roma supporters and who was first taken to the Olympic stadium by his uncle.
Recently, your correspondent was out at Roma's Trigona training ground for a series of TV interviews with players. As we waited with the crew by the club swimming pool, the silence of a mild, sunny Roman morning was interrupted by someone leaning out of a club house window and shouting "bastardi, bastardi", a word that needs no translation. Looking round, it became clear that the loud mouth belonged to none other than Totti. Furthermore, the object of his imprecations, soon became clear. Out on one of the faraway pitches, a group of newly-arrived players wearing the famed light blue of Roma's loathed cross town rivals, Lazio, had arrived. These were indeed Lazio players, members of the youth team who had arrived for that afternoon's youth team derby (Derby della Primavera) against Roma. For a romanista like Totti, it requires only the sight of a light-blue shirt to set him off. His jocular welcome for the young Lazio players served to remind them that they were visiting 'enemy' territory.
Bought by Roma from the Rome-based Third Division side, Lodtganl (from under the noses of arch-rivals Lazio), Totti moved rapidly from the role of Olympic stadium ballboy to star of the youth team. By March 1993, he was making his first-class debut in a 2-0 Serie A home win against Brescia, at the age of only 16 and launched by that canny expert, Yugoslav coach Vujadin Boskov.
Throughout much of the rest of the 1990s as Roma went through a series of coaches, from Boskov to Carlo Mazzone to Argentinian Carlos Bianchi to Czech Zdenek. Zeman and, finally, to current coach, Fabio Capello, the fortunes of both Roma and Totti fluctuated. Despite his enormous talent, Totti was considered too 'moody', too inconsistent to merit a place in the national team. While Roma struggled - remember, they last won a significant trophy when lifting the Italian Cup in 1991 -Totti, too, was in relative difficulty.
Not for nothing, his international debut (in a 2-0 European Championship qualifying win against Switzerland at Udine in November 1998) came at a time when the foundations for the current Roma revival had been laid by Zeman. Ironically, too, his arrival in the national team came just a matter of days before Del Piero injured himself so seriously (cruciate ligaments in his left knee) in late November 1998 that he has never quite looked the same player since. One star steps on to the roundabout and another steps off.
If Totti's now thoroughly established international career (20 caps, 4 goals at press time) has the 2002 World Cup finals as its next major moment on the world stage, the player himself would be the first to admit that winning the title with Roma is a much more urgent requirement.
"I've said it all along. This could be my year," he states. "Having had a good Euro 2000 has done my morale a lot of good. We want to pull it off this season."
And so say all the Roma fans.
This article originally featured in the March 2001 edition of World Soccer.
Picture credit to Cristiano Corsini.