In his 760 games - and counting - for Roma, Francesco Totti has proven himself adept in several different roles. Gaby McKay salutes his versatility.
It was Vujadin Boskov who gave Er Pupone his debut, replacing Ruggiero Rizzitelli in a 2-0 win at Brescia in 1992, but Totti first came to prominence playing as a second striker under Carlo Mazzone.
“At that time I liked providing goals for my teammates,” Totti explained to Roma’s official website in 2015. “My job was to set up as many goals for them as possible. I enjoyed setting them up more than I did scoring myself.” His first goal for the Giallorossi arrived against Foggia on the first day of the 1994-95 season, with Totti taking advantage of his deeper role to run onto a knock-down and finish with his left foot.
However, the youngster scored just 11 Serie A goals in three seasons, and was even almost sold to Sampdoria by Carlos Bianchi. “If I had gone, I wouldn’t have come back” Totti later told La Gazzetta dello Sport. Fortunately for him and his club, the first revolution of his nascent career was just around the corner.
The summer of 1997 saw the arrival at Trigoria of Zdenek Zeman, the chain-smoking Czech Coach who had led Foggia from Serie C to the brink of Europe with his all-out attacking style. “If you score 90 goals,” the tactician once said “you shouldn’t worry about how many you concede.”
Zeman stuck rigidly to an ultra-offensive 4-3-3 and Totti was deployed on the left, given licence to cut-in on his right foot and run at the opposition goal. It was a sign of Zeman’s trust that the 21-year-old was handed the number 10 shirt and Er Pupone immediately repaid that faith, hitting double figures for the first time in his career with 13 Serie A goals as Roma finished fourth.
The results of both his new role and the attacking style of the team were clearly visible. A Week 8 trip to Bari brought one of the best goals of Totti’s career, ghosting in from the left-wing to meet Damiano Tommasi’s cross with a scorching volley. Week 27 saw him outpace the Parma defence to score one of his trademark chips on his left-foot, three weeks later he twisted inside the Sampdoria backline to score with his right.
In Zeman’s first two seasons with the Giallorossi, Totti hit 30 goals and was made Serie A’s youngest-ever captain, and the Czech retains huge affection for his protege. “Who are the five best Italian players?” Zeman was once asked. His reponse? “Totti. Totti. Totti. Totti. Totti."
Despite a fifth-place finish in 1998-99, Zeman was replaced by Fabio Capello, but Totti the goalscorer had been born.
Capello, it is fair to say, doesn’t quite share the swashbuckling approach of Zeman, and his arrival brought another change of role. At 5ft 11 and having worked hard to gain muscle and stamina in Capello’s first season, the 24-year-old Francesco had become a lot more physically imposing by the 2000-01 campaign.
Totti’s greatest rival both domestically and internationally throughout his career was arguably the Juventus forward Alessandro Del Piero, with the pair tussling for Scudetti and an Italy starting shirt. In a later spell at Juventus, Capello would frequently bench Del Piero in favour of the more muscular David Trezeguet and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Totti had no such problems.
Played in a trequartista role, Totti was tasked with providing the artistry which would complement the power of Gabriel Batistuta and the hard work of Marco Delvecchio - Vincenzo Montella would force his way into the team in the second half of the season, having initially been considered too small and weak by the Coach.
“He thinks fast and knows what the striker wants because he’s also one himself,” Batistuta explained to Four Four Two earlier this year. “He used to dummy defenders, break, accelerate, dribble. He made my knees ache!”
With Totti loading the bullets, Batistuta hit 20 Serie A goals, Montella notching 14 and Totti himself weighing-in with 13. Totti captained his beloved club to the Scudetto - pipping Juventus and Del Piero in the process.
Despite Totti maintaining his excellent goalscoring record thereafter - including a then-best tally of 20 in the 2003-2004 season - his relationship with Capello became strained. The Coach left to join Juventus in the summer of 2004, and the Giallorossi slumped to eighth, despite Totti’s 15 goals. After Rudi Voller, Ezio Sella, Luigi Del Neri and Bruno Conti couldn’t turn things around, a Coach called Luciano Spalletti arrived from Udinese.
Gallery – A number of Coaches have taken on the task of managing Francesco Totti with mixed results.
– A number of Coaches have taken on the task of managing Francesco Totti with mixed results.