Francesco Totti, Italy’s most beloved footballer, is in bed in a German castle reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
A stern German matron enters.
The blond Totti, known as “il bello” despite his froglike face, makes eyes at her. She serves him German sausage.

It’s an advertisement on Italian television promoting the World Cup, which you wouldn’t have thought was necessary. Happily the ad remains relevant: whereas England’s Wayne Rooney has got injured just in time to miss the tournament, Totti has recovered just in time to make it. On Sunday he should play for his club, Roma, against Treviso, his first match since breaking an ankle in February.
In theory, he could then win the World Cup for an excellent Italian team, but he probably won’t – Totti is both brilliant footballer and born loser.

Footballers transcend stardom and become folk heroes when they incarnate a certain idea a people has of itself. Totti is Rome. He was born in a lower-middle- class Roman neighbourhood 29 years ago, into an Italian family so traditional that his mother was forever ironing his football kit. He supported AS Roma from the terraces or as a ballboy, and dreamed of becoming a pump attendant. “I liked the petrol smell and the fat wallet those guys pulled out after filling the tank,”
he explained to the magazine Johan.

Instead, aged 16, he descended on to the Stadio Olimpico’s turf to become Roma’s midfield fantasista. Studying him on a series of freezing Roman evenings this winter, I was mesmerised by his pass. Totti plays with his head up, always in balance. He sees the furthest pass first and can hit it first touch with the inside or outside of either foot, or with either heel: as a footballer he is six-footed. When he runs, which is rare, he does so slowly, propelling himself from his heels while leaning backwards. Yet he can shed a marker with one clever step.

Totti could have joined any club. Instead he has chosen to segue into glamorous middle age with Roma, where his teammates misinterpret his passes. He has only ever won one Italian championship. “I’m a Roman and a Romanista. That’s a status of the soul,” he explains in Roman dialect (Totti rarely speaks Italian). He has mastered Roman rhetoric, complete with bastardised representations of ancient Rome: the gladiator tattooed on his arm, the comparisons with Caesar. He tells his teammates in the national team: “You are you but I come from Rome.”

The young crowd at the Olimpico comes chiefly for him. In pirated or official Totti replica shirts they sing, in dialect, about a platonic version of Roma in which other players don’t exist and there is only Totti now and for ever.
The love extends beyond the stadium. One local couple got divorced after the husband refused to remove a portrait of Totti from above the marital bed, where it hung in the spot previously occupied by the crucified Christ.

Outside Rome, Totti’s lack of intellect invites derision. So many Totti jokes exist that in 2003 he himself collected them into a book. An example: “The three hardest years for Totti? Class one of elementary school.” The book topped the Italian bestseller list and Totti donated all proceeds to charity. In the Catholic tradition of almsgiving, this clinched his popularity.

Like Alan Shearer at Newcastle, Totti is a throwback: the footballer as homeboy, as fan, who never leaves his local club. We all miss those days.
In truth, Totti’s devotion to Rome – like Shearer’s to Newcastle – shows a lack of ambition. In Rome he can coast, lauded for odd moments of brilliance.
He doesn’t need to win anything.
He usually flops in big matches.

Last November Totti spent the days before the Roma-Juventus match saying nasty things about Juve’s manager, Fabio Capello, a Roman old boy. Asked to respond, Capello said he wanted to take the opportunity to congratulate Totti on the birth of his son. On the night, Juve hammered Roma 4-1 and among the Turinese athletes endlessly whizzing past him Totti looked chubby. He eventually lost himself in feuds: his lack of professionalism includes a bad temper. The contrast was obvious. Totti’s Roma is defined by an attitude, like the cheeky kid in the playground, whereas Juventus don’t bother with talk. They just win.

Totti experiences top-class football only when playing for Italy. Usually he is shown up. He excelled in his first tournament, Euro 2000, but his Italian team contrived to lose the final after leading France with only two minutes left. At the World Cup of 2002 he was sent off for diving when Italy went out to South Korea. At Euro 2004 he was sent off for spitting in Italy’s first match and didn’t play again.

Yet he remains beloved. His injury in February was almost as big news as his wedding to a television personality, broadcast live on national television. The Italian news media – or what passes as such in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy – maintained a vigil outside the hospital. Berlusconi himself, then on the campaign trail, visited Totti’s bedside.

A week after the injury Roma played Lazio in the Roman derby. Behind the Olimpico’s fence, amid Roma’s hardcore fans, was Totti. After Roma won, the other fans hammered him on the head as per local ritual.

His absence didn’t hurt the national team. Without him Italy thrashed Holland 3-1 and Germany 4-1. When Totti is away, the Italians are freed from the obligation to run every attack through him and can move forward fast.

Yet he will play at the World Cup.
It is his last dabble with top-class football before he retires from the national team. He wants personal glory too: he often dreams he is presenting the golden ball for European footballer of the year to himself. He probably never will. But then Totti’s popularity has nothing to do with winning things.

Get alerts on Europe when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article