Sunday, April 06, 2008

On Football - No. 14 : Francesco Totti

And so we come to that thorniest, most awkward of questions: what exactly defines a great football player?
Is it purely down to skill, to the ability to manipulate the ball, to make it do your bidding? Is it some physical gift - the stamina to run back and forth, tackling and passing, for two hours, the pace to outsprint athletes faster than most people will ever dream of being after a flying ball, the strength to barge giants off their feet, the spring to leap and hang in the air? Is it some combination of all these gifts? Or is it defined purely by success? Great players win things. They drive their teams to win matches, to win trophies, cups, leagues. A truly great player enforces his will on a team, on a game, on a season. He wins things. Doesn't he?

There has always been some question over the status of Francesco Totti. It is taken for granted that he is a good player. Outrageously skillful, with vision and cunning, it would be foolish to deny his natural talent. But in Italy - and most especially in Rome - he is regarded as just about the equal of any player on earth, as one of the best in the World, a true modern great. The rest of Europe is not quite so sure. There are a few reasons for this. Totti has never really performed effectively enough on the biggest stages for some. He has been to a couple of World Cups, to European Championships, without ever making too great an impression, some say. Others would query his temperament. He is prone to lashing out if things aren't going his way, and also likely to drop out of games if his team is up against it. He is neither the perfect playmaker, ala Zidane, nor an outright goalscoring centre-forward. Teams have to play around him, critics would suggest. He can't adapt.

Well, to all this I say: Totti is a great player, worthy of comparison to the greats of the modern game. Loyalty to his home town club has served to make his talent seem smaller than it is - he has often been held back by the restrictions of the team at A.S. Roma. When playing alongside colleagues of the right calibre, Totti has delivered the goods, scoring and creating goals and crucially, winning trophies. Roma won Serie A under Fabio Capello, when Totti was given Batistuta and Emerson as team-mates, and he could express himself, safe in the knowledge that some of his own side were on a similar wavelength. Under Spaletti, Roma are a force in Europe, Italian Cup Winners, and Totti has won the Golden Boot as Europe's top goalscorer. The question of what he might have accomplished had he moved to Madrid or Milan is an intriguing one, but irrelevant to the issue of his quality as a player. He has proven that already, in Rome.

Perhaps part of the issue is that his gifts are quite so extravagant. He can do everything well - he dribbles at pace with disguise, the ability to drop the shoulder always an instant away. He is two footed, and his passing and shooting with each foot is frequently extraordinary. He excels at the rapid interplay around the opposition box, quick passes with the out-step, backheels and drag-backs. And he is a fantastic finisher, often scoring the most spectacular, unlikely goals:

He is particularly adept at what Italians call the "cucchiaio" - the chip. This is a compilation formed entirely of clips of Totti sending perfectly dinked balls over the despairing grasps of goalkeepers from all areas around the penalty box. He often takes penalties the same way, and it is as if he feels no pressure, taking a penalty in the 2000 Semi-final shootout with Holland in Amsterdam before a Dutch crowd just that way. And scoring.

But what I most like about Totti is his imagination and his vision. The fact that he scores so many inventive goals testifies to the latter, and his range of passing and prompting is evidence of the former. Having begun life as an orthodox "trequarista" or playmaker, he has been reinvented at Roma in the last two seasons in Spaletti's new tactical formation. He now plays up front, often as a lone striker. But Roma's midfield is full of players who burst forward when they break with the ball, and the effect allows them to join Totti in attack, prompting him to play his perfect little through balls to the feet of his onrushing midfielders. He drops deep to control the play but also roams in the opposition half, dragging defenders in his wake, leaving space for his team to exploit. Or, if he sees an opportunity, Totti can go it alone, either by shooting or trying to trick his way into the box:

It was in this system that Totti scored 26 goals for Roma in the 06/07 Season. He seems to have improved with age, his football intelligence and experience giving him maturity and perhaps better decision-making than in his youth. He is now Roma's highest ever goalscorer and holds the record number of appearances for the club. In modern European football, only Raul and Del Piero, Totti's great rival in the Italian National team, really compare in terms of long-term service to one club. His standing in Italy is perhaps unmatched - he won Italian footballer of the year 5 times between 2000 and 2007. It was a near National state of emergency when he was injured in the last few weeks of the 2005/06 Season in the run-up to the World Cup. He was considered vital to his country's chances of success in the tournament, since Italy lacked another attacker of similar creativity and brilliance. He had an operation which required the insertion of metal plates, yet made it, only semi-fit, to the World Cup, where he played a fleetingly crucial role in Italy's triumph.

His Italian career probably explains why he is regarded with such ambivalence outside Italy. He ousted Del Piero from the role of first choice playmaker in the qualifying campaign for the 2000 European Championships, and was perhaps the Azurri's best player in the tournament itself. Then in the second round match with South Korea at the 2002 world Cup, with so much riding on his performance, Totti was sent off. Italy went out. At Euro 2004, when he was again under great pressure to perform and frustrated with his marking, he lashed out and spat at Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen, and was banned for three games. Without him, Italy's attack malfunctioned badly, and they again went out. His role at the 2006 tournament went some way to redemption, but he subsequently retired from International football to concentrate on Roma.

Disgracefully, he has never won either the FIFA World Player of the Year award, or the Ballon D'Or. But they don't define greatness, or even quantify it. Only what he does on the pitch does that, really. And he does amazing things on the pitch:



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