Italy's Francesco Totti: The Last of the Gladiators

By Alexander Smoltczyk

Francesco Totti isn't just any old footballer. He's Italy Incarnate.

A few miles off the highway ringing Rome is a prayerful pit stop, the Shrine of Divine Love. Alongside photos of horrific but miraculously nonfatal car crashes, the dented motorcycle helmets of survivors, and trophies offered up by victorious teams, there hangs the framed, number 10 shirt of a sinner.

TOTTI.

It's a lily-white shirt, now sullied with sweat and spit. No one wants to see it. No one wants to know. It once belonged to Italy's sporting saint turned penitent. "I beg forgiveness, Most Holy Virgin of Divine Love," reads a scribbled note. "Never forsake me. Your Francesco."

The date: June 14, 2004. The place: Dom Afonso Henriques Stadium in Guimaraes, Portugal; the match against Denmark in the group stages of the European Championships. The time: the 48th minute. The sin against God and football: Francesco Totti, Italy's number 10, the gladiator, worshipped as the Emperor of Rome, spits in the face of opponent Christian Poulsen.

Not once, but three times. Like a geyser. Old Faceful. All caught on camera. For each outrage UEFA suspends Rome's ruler for one match.

"A trick film!" Totti protested at first. "That's not the real Francesco; that was somebody else out there."

Then he apologized - but it was too late. He had brought shame upon his country. And his team. And himself.

"Totti, the spitting camel!" The headlines still ringing in his ears, Totti slunk off to his Roman confessor, Don Fernando Altieri. He asked the priest to take the shirt to the Blessed Virgin, but promised not to set foot in the sacred shrine until he had been cleansed. Purged by victory. After the World Cup.

Italy last claimed the trophy in 1982. Five tournaments and six European championships later, the Squadra Azzurra has nothing to show for their efforts, except a laundry list of missed opportunities. The gods of Serie A had been forced to skulk home from Korea like lepers. And then from Portugal, topping off the longest dry spell in the history of Italian football. It was all too horrible for words.

As consolation, Italy's influential football quarterly Linea Bianca, White Line, wrote an article about the fate of the Boston Red Sox, the baseball team that went 86 years without winning the World Series.

It wasn't the Denmark match alone that mattered. And it wasn't just Totti's temper tantrum of macho denial for all the world to see. It went much deeper, to Italy's angst about not being taken seriously. The Pinocchio complex of a boy who continually says, "Everything's going to work out because we are the best," but is secretly plagued by the fear of being everyone's dummy.

The Pinocchio complex not only clouds the country's foreign policy, but also lurks deep inside every Italian dandy with a greased-back ducktail. And since June 14, 2004, at least, it has hung like a curse over the proud Azzurri. For Totti isn't any old player. Totti is Italy.

When Iraqi insurgents kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena in February 2005, thousands marched through the streets, draping their compatriot's portrait with flags at the local piazza. Francesco Totti ran onto the playing field that Sunday wearing a white T-shirt that read "Free Giuliana."

Although many of the appeals faded, Totti's reached the captive's cell in Baghdad, via one of the hostage takers himself. "He was totally beside himself," Sgrena said later. "For he hero-worshipped Totti. And he had seen his idol in Italy demanding my release on TV."

An Iraqi kidnapper, fan of Francesco Totti from Rome, the capital of Christianity. There are Totti fan clubs in Tokyo, a Totti home page in Ankara. And Totti, not Beckham, is Robbie Williams' favorite player. At the World Economic Forum, Pelé pronounced Totti the "world's best player, even if he has had a spot of bad luck."

Totti is still the 'bambino from the burbs: good-hearted and simple-minded, but 'parculo' -- a smart aleck

For Totti, this was high praise, but he could have done without the "bad luck" bit - Pelé's code for Portugal.

This season Totti has trained like a man possessed. He has refused all interviews, and ducked the cameras. In a departure from past behavior, he simply grits his teeth when goaded by his opponents, jealous as they are. Because Totti earns more than anyone else in the league. Because he's loved like no other. Because he's Totti.

He has tortured himself to stay fit, playing his best season ever. Almost singlehandedly, he dragged Roma out of the league's nether regions and into fourth place with 10 wins in a row. The newspapers were humbled, the tifosi delirious. And then, in February, he broke his leg.

A national rehabilitation program geared spontaneously into action. The country stood vigil at his sick bed, with even Berlusconi popping in. For Totti is needed to save his country, to finally prove that Italian football can compete with the best. "Francesco is afraid of the World Cup," says Daniele Lo Monaco. Afraid of not being fit in time. And afraid of the referees. "He feels they whistle every time he gets the ball - because of the spitting incident."

It's tantamount to having a criminal record.

Daniele Lo Monaco is the Totti reporter for Il Romanista, the world's only daily devoted to a single sports club. The front page lists events since the founding of Roma. The last page hails the goodness and greatness of Rome's last emperor, tracing his lineage from the Caesars, consuls and tribunes.

Totti was born in 1976, five days after Ronaldo and two days before Shevchenko. The myth begins with the 10-month-old infant who refused to give up the ball during a summer vacation on the Adriatic. It continues with his first football trophy - as a 5-year-old. And with the 9-year-old sitting in the stands who, to the applause of the whole crowd, headed a wayward pass back onto to the pitch - to the very spot it had come from. According to the legend, the Roma shirt was destined for him, the youngest offspring in a long line of local tifosi. The tidings of the bambino with the magical feet spread far and wide.

Mother Fiorella was always on hand. Knitting by the touchline, at training sessions in Trigoria, worried that he might catch cold. If problems arose, she phoned Totti's coach: "Signore, what's going on?" Storied calls from the formidable Mamma Totti. When AC Milan tried to lure the teenager - offering private schooling, a contract and a house - Fiorella stepped in: "Francesco isn't budging an inch from Rome." Basta.

Time after time rivals dangled offers, but he chose to stay. "You are who you are. I'm a Roma boy," said Totti. But he's also a mama's boy.

"I could survive, who knows how long, without food," says Fiorella Totti, "without water, without air. But I wouldn't last a minute without my son."

  • Part 1: The Last of the Gladiators
  • Part 2
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