Latin poetry, gigantic murals and spoons. Tim Wade takes a look at the stranger tributes to Francesco Totti.
Professors of ancient literature do not normally make a habit of commenting on football. When it comes to Francesco Totti, however, all things are possible. Slightly before the AS Roma legend’s retirement last year, a Latin ode appeared in bookstores entitled The Spoon of God: Cochlear Dei:
The heavenly gods give eternal glory to Di Stefano and to Messi, to Casillas, Socrates, Zico, Eusebio, Careca and Maradona… however, in these last one hundred years, there hasn’t been any player equal to you, O Francesco. Even the pope wanted to take the name of Totti.
Echoing the classical poets Horace and Virgil, its author, Walter Lapini, a professor at the University of Genova, praised the player to the skies. Indeed, few people have attracted hyperbole like Totti. John Arne Riise called him “the closest thing to a god on a football team,” no doubt echoing the sentiments of fans down the years.
Even his retirement couldn’t end it. Mimmo Ferretti argued forIl Messaggero that he wasn’t even leaving:
Goodbye, they say. But what goodbye: when there is a before and there isn’t even an after. There is only an infinite present… It wasn’t the last game of Totti and it never will be the last because The Captain will continue to play in the heart of his people.
Likewise, despite the fact that he wouldn’t kick a ball in Roma’s triumphant comeback against Barcelona this year, a mural still appeared depicting the multimillionaire Totti in the garb of St Francis of Assisi, doves and all.
But what is this St Francis really giving? Clichés about ‘passionate’ Italians or ultra-fans don’t explain the sheer resonance of the player across the city, cutting across differences of class, gender and politics. His retirement, in the words of the actress Sabrina Ferilli, “doesn’t undermine one bit the force of Totti… He closes a precious moment for all for us, of belonging, of sharing, of joy, of disappointment. He is a very strong means of emotional concentration.”
Totti could not exist outside of Rome. In the Eternal City he is a gladiator, wolf, emperor or god. But past and present always blend in peculiar ways. The former Roma captain, Giuseppe Giannini, watching the player on a lap of honour, commented that “he seemed to me the gladiator of the film when he walks in the wheat field before he dies.” Part warrior, part Russell Crowe, Totti’s life has always been a balance between celebrity interest and religious fervour, joke and myth.
Totti could not exist outside of Rome. In the Eternal City he is a gladiator, wolf, emperor or god.
In Roman shops, various bits of Totti memorabilia can be bought. Alongside shirts and figurines, my favourite is a little book containing 101 Pills of Wisdom from the man. It collects phrases from across his career and is presumably intended to be carried around by the believer and consulted at regular intervals.
In his own words, Totti was a prodigy in the many senses of the word. Unsurprisingly he outshines the older, local kids with whom he plays. When they chose teams, he recalls, it would often come down to a decision between the ball or the young Totti. But after he nutmegs a few of them, everyone would shout: “redo the teams, redo the teams, the little kid is too good!”
He is also ahead of his time in other aspects. During a radio interview towards the end of his career he volunteers the information (with next-to-no prompting): “I had sex for the first time at twelve with a girl by the name of Simone, on the beaches of Tropea. But I didn’t understand a thing!”
As brags go, this is pretty transparent. It is important, on the other hand, for the image of man and masculinity he projects. Not just better, but effortlessly so, almost to the point of ridiculous. He didn’t even need to understand what it was, to get some. Poor Simone.
It is this blend of genius and joke that typifies many of the stories surrounding Totti. He has never shied away from portraying himself as an idiot. He admits to having only read a single book (conveniently entitled The Little Prince). Indeed, his ignorance has spawned a genre of jokes (barzellette) that play on his stupidity, including one about his library burning down, to which Totti exclaims in horror: ‘But I hadn’t finished colouring in the second one!’
The success of such quips has been remarkable. They were even collected into a book and sold for charity. But as Andrea Tallarita wrote, “a ‘Totti joke’ is only laterally about the player – it’s actually about Romans and their culture as a whole.” Both a joke for outsiders at the supposed ignorance of Romans, and a defensive source of pride for the city’s inhabitants.
One suspects, however, that the jokes also mask darker, personal realities. Being seen as a man-child has often been invoked as a shield when his behaviour has got him into trouble. But there is also more than a whiff of overcompensation about it as well. Signed at thirteen, and debuted at sixteen, Totti was propelled into a hyper-masculine environment. Prior to that, he and his parents appear to have worried about how much he was growing. His doctors even started calling him ‘the gnome’. Swaggering along the beach he may have been, but he was also, he admits, praying every night to grow a little taller.
And so, to spoons. Of course, the spoon is not really a spoon. It’s what we would call a chip, flick or scoop that Totti trademarked throughout his career.
The most legendary came in the semi-final of the 2000 European Championships against Holland. As the story goes, Totti is standing on the halfway line discussing things with Luigi Di Biagio and Paolo Maldini:
Totti: … but you saw how large [Edwin van der Sar] is?
Di Biagio: Ah, you’re encouraging me like this?
Totti: Don’t worry, now I’ll do a spoon.
Maldini: But what, are you mad? We are in the semi-finals of the euros!
Totti proceeded to score with a delicate chip over the helpless Van der Sar. Paolo Maldini missed. “To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good,” the Roma star later opined. “And I don’t think I’m crazy.”
Like everything with the player, this isn’t simply taken as evidence of his prodigious footballing talent, but takes on a deeper significance. Walter Lapini, who named his Latin ode after the incident, explained the spoon as:
a challenge, a bet, courage. Above all courage, because if you make a mistake, you don’t only do damage, but you also sink into ridicule, all your career remains marked by it. To take penalties in that way, there was a style of life, a Weltanschauung. It was the rejection of banality, the desire to transcend the mediocrity of the norm. Humanity has advanced thanks to the ‘spoonmen.’
Perhaps so, but it has certainly had less impressive outings, including on Rome’s billboards in 2011, with the player kneeling, head raised upwards and cradling a large, silver spoon. Sadly, no gelato was on offer. Instead, the ‘miracle’ Totti appeared to be hailing was the price of football coverage on Sky Sports. At €29/month, some Italians may have considered it less than a godsend.
Others too, have felt the lure of Totti’s image. Nike portrayed the captain amongst a throng of ancient Romans dressed in AS Roma kit when they promoted a set of golden boots in the captain’s honour. Pepsi and Fiat have both enticed him to appear in their ads. Even his wedding was broadcast on Italian national TV, albeit the proceeds went to charity.
Part warrior, part Russell Crowe, Totti’s life has always been a balance between celebrity interest and religious fervour, joke and myth.
That said, the captain’s image would not have lasted as well if it was not resistant to these commercial pressures. On the day of his last game, a mural was put up in one of the capital’s centri sociali (social centres). The centres are a product of left-wing activism in the 1980s, where abandoned buildings were taken over and repurposed for the community. Villaggio Globale, who run techno nights and sit next to a fairtrade café and carboot sale, are not about big business. And yet, their mural portrayed Totti in his number 10 shirt, besides a series of broken classical columns, a common motif on graves and memorials in the city. “There is only one captain,” it reads.
It remains to be seen whether Totti’s myth will endure. One threat is the authorities. AS Roma fans have noted of late that new murals are frequently painted over. They also require frequent attention. The most famous of the depictions, in the Monti area, has been vandalised regularly, presumably by fans of the city’s other club, Lazio.
One potential guardian of the flame could be Francesco’s son, who is currently on the books at Roma. The elder Totti, however, has sensibly played such talk down. “The name,” he said recently, “is too heavy.”