ll Gladiatore: Why Francesco Totti embodies the AS Roma shirt

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“I am fortunate to have only worn one shirt in my career. It is something that is fundamental to me. It is something I have always wanted: to be one of these few who wear only one shirt – a fan and a player of the same team.”

There are one-club men, and then there’s Francesco Totti.

Er Bimbo de Oro (The Golden Boy), L’Ottavo Re di Roma (The Eighth King of Rome), Il Capitano (The Captain), and Il Gladiatore (The Gladiator) were all nicknames bestowed upon Roma’s leading scorer during a remarkable 23-year career with his club. They go some way to explaining the phenomenon of a player who not only embodied the shirt, but embodied the city of Rome.

To appreciate Totti’s significance to Romanisti (Roma supporters) and the city itself, you must understand that the rest of Italy looks down upon Rome and its citizens. ”In Rome you have a hard time paying a postal order, getting admitted to a hospital or finding a museum open,” former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi said in the 80s. Roman citizens are seen as ignorant and vulgar and Totti, with his thick Romanesco accent, is the subject of a bizarre sub-genre of ‘Totti jokes’ built on puns around the Roman dialect with the city’s most famous son the punchline.

So Totti, who was raised in Porta Metronia and grew up idolising former Roma captain Giuseppe Giannini, is someone the city could rally around and hold up as a sporting deity. “He is not only the King of Rome, but of the world,” former Roma coach Luis Enrique said.

A Romanisti long before he pulled on the iconic carmine red and golden yellow jersey, it could all have been so different. In 1989, rivals Lazio had an agreement to sign a young Totti from Lodigiani. The story goes that Totti’s mother, Fiorella, refused to let her son move north to join Milan as a youngster. Had it not been for the intervention of Gildo Giannini, a youth coach at Roma, Totti could have joined I Biancocelesti.

It was a lucky escape. When Totti finally hung up his boots at the end of the 2016/17 season, he had won Serie A, two Coppa Italias and two Supercoppa Italianas. His modest medal collection is dwarfed by his roll of personal honours. As well as being Il Lupi’s leading scorer and appearance maker, he is the second-highest scorer in Italian league history and the sixth-highest scoring Italian in all competitions. No-one has scored more Serie A goals for a single club while he’s the youngest captain in the league’s history and, conversely, the oldest scorer in the UEFA Champions League.

On October 31, 1998, Totti succeeded another Roma legend, defender Aldair, to become captain. He hadn’t long surpassed 100 appearances when he became the leader of Zdeněk Zeman’s side in name as well as spirit. A symbol for all those in the curva – the local boy done good, a proper Roman gladiator who bled for the shirt.

Totti finished the 1997/98 campaign with 14 strikes in all competitions – including his first in the Derby della Capitale against Lazio – the first time he’d hit double figures. Over the next 13 seasons he repeated the feat in all but one. The 2006/07 campaign was his personal piece de resistance, netting 25 times in Serie A and 32 in total to be named Capocannoniere (top scorer) in Italy’s top flight for the first and only time in his remarkable career.

For all the goals, Totti only lifted the Scudetto once. But, in his own words, “Winning one league title at Roma, to me, is worth winning ten at Juventus or Real Madrid.” If 2006/07 was his personal annus mirabilis then 2000/01 was Roma’s. Coached by Fabio Capello and powered by the goals of Gabriel ‘Batigol’ Batistuta, Il Lupi finished two points ahead of Juventus to clinch just their third Scudetto and their first since 1983.

Batistuta, a €36.2million signing from Fiorentina, spearheaded the team with 21 goals in all competitions. But Totti weighed in with 16 to supplement the attacking talents of the Argentine and Vincenzo Montella. Going into the final round of the season, Roma still needed something to secure the title. All three forwards netted, but it was Totti who got the ball rolling to kickstart the title celebrations.

That triumph did not pave the way for future successes. Still, Totti remained loyal to his club, reportedly rejecting advances from Real Madrid, among others.

Honours at club level largely eluded Totti but, on the international front, he lifted the greatest prize of them all – the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He was also part of the side beaten six years prior by France in the UEFA European Championship final. But Totti never quite enjoyed the same acclaim for the Azzurri as he did for his beloved Roma and, in 2007, retired from international football. Viewed as the heir to the great Roberto Baggio, successive national team coaches failed to fit Totti into the side; he quit with just 58 caps to his name.

Proud Italian though Totti is, he is a far prouder Roman and he can list the great and the good of football as fans. When Roma and Barcelona met in a pre-season friendly in 2015, none other than Lionel Messi asked to swap shirts, later posting a picture of the pair captioned: “A great! What a phenomenon!!”

Yet for all his achievements, Totti was looked down upon – particularly by English pundits and audiences who caught only glimpses of him in Europe – but that only fed the narrative of Romans being downtrodden by the rest of Italy. Totti was a fan who got to live out every supporters’ dream and excel at it – for 26 unbroken years.

“Roma,” said Totti. “Come before everything else.”