Francesco Totti

Totti, the Last Gladiator

The most misunderstood aspect about Francesco Totti, explains Andrea Tallarita, is also what makes him truly unique.

What do you not know about Francesco Totti, the greatest Italian footballer since Roberto Baggio? What are you not seeing, when you scroll through those endless lists of passes and goals on YouTube? Concealed under the shadow of his own myth, Er Bimbo de Oro developed the profile of a complicated footballer, one whose playing style is directly and uniquely linked to his relationship with the city of Rome. And yet the story of this relationship remains largely untold, or at best misunderstood.

Unquestionably a precocious talent, the kid from Porta Metronia was quick to magnetise the affection of the Romanisti. Even in his teens he possessed a technical versatility that seemed rather ahead of its time, and so it seemed natural that his early nicknames should frame him first and foremost as a child: Er Bimbo de Oro (the Golden Boy), Er Pupone (the Big Kid). These monikers in fact foreshadowed the role that Rome would increasingly come to play in the player's life, as an over-sized, over-protective, intangible parent figure. Francesco is Rome's protectorate, and not its protector.

This relationship started, in fairness, as a legitimate reflex reaction. The capital's modern culture, in Italy, is often and unfairly connoted with ignorance and base vulgarity. And Totti stood out not only for his feats on the field but for his thick Romanesco accent and dialect outside of it. In the notoriously unforgiving environment of football fandom, it was inevitable that he'd be stereotyped as the dumb, brutish, ignorant Roman.

These stereotypes grew to such a point that they actually developed into a quasi-mythical dimension. The story of the famous 'Totti jokes', in which the captain usually comes across as a dummy, and which are entirely built on puns based on the Roman dialect, would be worthy of its own article. Suffice it to say that what started as a national quip (and an unflattering one, at that) eventually ended up investing Francesco with a unique cultural status.

To put it simply, Totti has become the Roman Everyman of Italian culture. Nowadays a 'Totti joke' is only laterally about the player – it's actually about Romans and their culture as a whole. And in this sense it's fair to say that the 40-year-old really did turn into a symbol of his city, in a way that probably no footballer in the history of the sport ever did.

Now, Rome and the Romans wouldn't have allowed for a derogatory stereotype to be turned into a symbol, were it not for the fundamental paradox that this player embodied. What was most remarkable about the Pupone's style of play was (and remains) that it is in fact diametrically opposed to his reputation.

More so than any of his contemporaries except perhaps Zinedine Zidane, Totti's game was aristocracy in motion. The elegance and finesse of his chipped goal against Lazio in March 2002 stands in stark contrast to the dubious taste of his celebration in April 1999, when he showed the Laziali a shirt that read 'Vi ho purgato ancora' ('I purged you again').

Understanding the figure and heritage of Francesco Totti hinges on understanding this unusual aesthetic symmetry. No other Italian could have uttered the crude Romanesco metaphor 'Mo je faccio er cucchiaio' ('Now I'm giving this guy the spoon') followed immediately by that delicate, indelible Euro 2000 Panenka in the penalties against Holland.

If only on the football field, Totti allowed Rome to be herself, and simultaneously to be noble, lofty, graceful. Hence the enthusiasm with which the city embraced him, and the extraordinary collective power that the Romans mustered in his defence.

Many said that gathering the Totti jokes into a book and publishing them for charity was a brilliant marketing operation on the part of the player. But Il Capitano didn't come up with the idea, he went along with it. The move itself was ordained from behind the scenes, by the forces of the Pupone's great mother – Rome itself.

Nor would it be the last time. Instead of taking greater control of his public figure over time, Totti remained a Pupone (a child) of Rome throughout. His media appearances increased dramatically, but they got more and more staged, culminating in 2005 in a bombastic, televised wedding to Roman show-girl and TV host Ilary Blasi. Romans crowded the event and even city mayor Walter Veltroni was at the ceremony. After the World Cup in 2006, Totti shot a whole series of humorous ads (often alongside Gennaro Gattuso) in which he renovated his profile as that of a coarse but profoundly loveable ignoramus.

Totti's status as a 'symbol of Rome' was not only established, but flipped from an indirect insult into his biggest selling point, by a process that was mostly out of Francesco's hands. It was as though the city itself – its institutions, its public and political figures, its private businesses, its undercover agents, its cultures and subcultures and counter-cultures – had worked to protect its precious Bimbo de Oro.

Romantic as this may sound, it is perhaps Rome alone that kept a radiant but highly undisciplined talent like Totti from straying into darkness. Other no less volatile prodigies like Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli had no such safety nets, and they ended up as orphans in the world of football. The She-Wolf saved and nurtured Francesco, exactly the way she did with Romulus in the myth.

The upset of this, of course, is that this supremely gifted player never grew into his shoes outside of the city. Instead, Totti closed himself into his shell, fancied at times that the entire world was at war against him. He had numerous fallings-out with teammates, colleagues and Coaches, from the spat with Fabio Cannavaro in 2007 to his disagreements with Luciano Spalletti this year. They were often poorly handled through the media, proving (again) that the Bimbo de Oro didn't do too well in public appearances, when left to his own devices.

The Press conference in which Totti announced his retirement from international football saw him sporting a brash tattoo of a Roman legionary on his arm – in full view, like a statement – and complaining about the unfair treatment he received from the public. People hated him, he claimed, because he was a Roman. Even though this was the same reason people loved him.

A symbol in spite of himself, Totti was born to play football without being born to be a footballer. He had neither the character nor the guile to interpret his role, and yet for this very reason, none of the cold-bloodedness and cynicism that ferried his predecessor Baggio away to Juventus (or, in more recent history, Gonzalo Higuain).

In an age of virtual identities in which comedians transform into preachers, singers become actors, and millionaires are elected Presidents, Totti is guilty of having been only himself, a good-hearted kid from Rome with the Ninth Symphony stuck in his feet. And maybe that's why his people can't stop loving him, even now, in the autumn of the wolf.