Few recall just how close Francesco Totti came to missing the 2006 World Cup and how crucial he was to winning it, writes Giancarlo Rinaldi.
We feared he might be finished before he hit 30. The slings and arrows suffered by a player of his skills and style in Serie A appeared to have taken their toll. There was a genuine risk that a talisman of Marcello Lippi’s Italy side would be watching the World Cup from his armchair.
The events that unfolded in February 2006 put his participation in serious danger. A thumping tackle from behind - like so many he had suffered before - from Empoli’s Richard Vanigli saw the Roma skipper fall and twist his ankle horribly. He grabbed his leg with a grimace of pain and the dreadful diagnosis he feared would not be long in coming: a broken leg with a long period of recuperation required.
“It’s a serious injury, he’ll need two or three months to recover,” said the surgeon who operated on the Giallorossi star. “We’ve put eight screws in to stabilise the fibula. But we have a timetable to get him back for the World Cup, we are optimistic.”
A nation - or at least those who held the Roma man in high regard - held its breath. Even if he could recover in time, could he possibly be match fit in time for the competition in Germany? The Azzurri studied their other options in case they would have to do without his services.
With drive and determination, however, he made huge and remarkably speedy strides towards recovery and would make his return to action within the three-month target set by doctors. It was late in the season, however, so some questioned whether he should be called up in such precarious condition and with so little time to prepare. Lippi was not among their number and took his lucky mascot with him regardless of what others might think.
And what an inspired decision it would prove to be. Totti would be used judiciously throughout the tournament, but to great effect. His influence on the Azzurri’s progress increased steadily throughout the competition, as he featured at some point in all seven of their games. It was certainly one in the eye for those who doubted him. It was, moreover, a credit to the professionalism and dedication he showed in fighting back from such a serious setback.
His crowning glory was, probably, as a substitute in a gruelling match with Australia in the Round of 16. All square at 0-0, the match went into extra-time when Italy won a controversial penalty for a foul on Fabio Grosso. It seemed to take a lifetime for the kick to be taken, but Totti kept his cool to slot home the match-winning goal. There is still a delirious piece of Chinese commentary on the internet if you care to search it out. The close-up of his steely blue eyes in the moments leading up to the spot-kick remains an iconic image of that World Cup.
That result helped to give the Azzurri the conviction they could go on and win the tournament and they duly did so, with their comeback kid a key component. The picture of him giving the World Cup trophy a little kiss after the winning penalty shootout in the Final with France showed how much it meant to him. All the hours he had put in and all the pain he had gone through had been worth it.
“I can only say thank you to Lippi,” Totti said afterwards. “He was the first one to believe in my recovery and I thanked him personally for that. This group of players has always supported me, especially through this recent tough spell. When you are part of a group like that, you can’t even get angry about being substituted in a World Cup Final.”
He was coy about his future with the national team after the tournament ended, but the Final turned out to be the last game he would play in the colours of his country. He decided to focus on his club duties in order to prolong his playing career and avoid putting his body at risk of further injury. There was a school of thought that he might return to action when Lippi returned for a second spell in charge in 2008, but that never quite happened.
It left Totti with a record of nine goals from 58 appearances which does not sound like an awful lot for a man of his abilities. Others with less talent have scored more times or played more matches. But not an awful lot of them have a World Cup winner’s medal for a pure protagonist’s role.
His passion, poise and precision were vital elements in bringing international football’s ultimate prize to Italian soil for the fourth time. It’s easy to forget the uphill struggle he faced in just getting onto the pitch, never mind playing. Those who still carp and criticise his qualities to this day would do well to remember that.
Gallery – Francesco Totti returned from a broken left leg and strained ankle ligaments to lift the World Cup with Italy in 2006.