June 26, 2006. Italy are playing Australia in the World Cup Round of 16. It’s already into stoppages, and a man is carrying the nerves of an entire nation on his shoulders. As he's waiting for the referee to blow the whistle, a cameraman zooms in on his green eyes, coldly staring at an indefinite spot before him. It was like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, a duel to the death.
While every Italian is nervously wondering whether he would dare do it again, the whistle comes. Italy's Number 10 coolly makes his run and violently slots the match-winning penalty in the top left corner of the goal. The Azzurri advance to the next stage, in the nick of time.
Unlike many were fearing (or secretly hoping), that day Francesco Totti decided not to dare take the notorious penalty that had almost become a trademark ever since the 2000 European Championship.
On that occasion, young Totti's nerve-racking 'cucchiaio' had first made everybody gasp in fear, then smile in amazement. In hindsight, that moment looks like a sneak peek into his future career in the National team: brilliant, with a pinch of recklessness.
Francesco's duty as an Azzurro lasted only eight years, which is a relatively short time if we consider both his longevity as a footballer and that of his teammates from the same generation.
After six years in the youth National team, Totti made his first appearance for Italy's senior squad in late 1998, under Dino Zoff. Despite being rarely included in the starting XI in the build-up to Euro 2000, Francesco managed to find his place once the tournament came around.
As a 24-year-old debutant in an international tournament, that summer Er Pupone scored two goals and a cold-blooded penalty, besides being included in the Team of the Tournament and winning The Man of the Match award in the Final against France.
Arguably, that would be one of Totti's very best moments as an Azzurro. In fact, while he was rightfully turning into a legend at his boyhood club Roma, he often struggled to find the same consistency when playing for the National team.
For different reasons, and in a different way, both of the tournaments that followed would be experiences to forget for Francesco. Despite starting every game for the Azzurri at the 2002 World Cup, Francesco played below expectations and even picked up a controversial red card in the last match against South Korea.
Only two years later, Totti's European Championship would last 90 minutes, as a cameraman captured him spitting towards midfielder Christian Poulsen in the opening match against Denmark. After the picture started circulating on every media outlet, he received a three-game ban, abruptly ending his participation in the tournament.
Once again, one of the world's best footballers had failed to step up for his country. Everybody knew what a talented athlete he was, and despite a series of disappointing performances, only a fool would have not included him in the National team. Thankfully, newly appointed manager Marcello Lippi was not a fool, and he strongly relied on Totti’s talent throughout the qualifying stage of the 2006 World Cup.
Just four months before the tournament, however, Totti suffered a gruesome injury that saw him miss almost the entire second part of the season. Until the very last moment doctors weren't sure whether he would be fully fit for the World Cup, but Lippi decided to take him regardless.
That summer in Germany, the grown man previously known as Er Pupone (the big kid) played his very last matches for the Italian National team. He started every game but one, he picked up only one yellow card across seven games and, more importantly, he scored a decisive penalty and produced four assists to his teammates.
But most importantly, this time around he managed to put his hands on the World Cup, the most prestigious trophy in football and possibly his greatest career accomplishment. After that night in Berlin, he retired from international duty, once and for all.
Francesco Totti's spell as an Azzurro was surely not the most memorable, the longest, nor the least controversial. But despite all this, and scoring relatively few goals for his country, Er Pupone produced some unforgettable moments of history wearing that iconic shirt.
The witty smile after the 'cucchiaio', the maturity and the concentration against Australia, that hilarious, intimate moment with the trophy during the on-pitch celebrations... These are only some of the reasons why yet another one of football's greats will be forever linked to the history of the Italian National team.
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