Francesco Totti is an asshole, and an icon, and he couldn't have ignited a country-wide row this week without both those things still holding true seven months shy of his 40th birthday.
Age has blunted most of Totti's barbs but this is still a man who was kicked out of Euro 2004 for spitting in Christian Poulsen's face, who attempted to maim Mario Balotelli in a cup final for funsies, and who inspired a YouTube compilation entitled, "Francesco Totti – The Bad Side," which is exactly what you think it is. Prideful and self-important? Totti's that, too. And quick to pout and politick whenever a manager flashes the temerity to challenge his centrifugal role at AS Roma, the only club he's ever known.
Luciano Spalletti did not figure to become one of those managers. It was under Spalletti, who returned to the Roma bench last month after a seven-year absence, that Totti enjoyed his most prolific season, the 2006-2007 campaign that saw him score 26 league goals to capture the European golden boot. The 56-year-old manager prizes creativity, something Totti still has in spades when deployed in shorter bursts. As recently as Friday, Spalletti had designs on starting Totti for that weekend's match against Palermo.
Yet to date, Totti has only featured twice since Spalletti's return, each time as a substitute, with a half hour against Serie A barnacle Frosinone and a paltry three minutes (plus stoppage) in last week's Champions League defeat versus Real Madrid. The decline in minutes was inevitable for a 39-year-old who lost his pace years ago, especially with Roma on a five-match winning streak in league play due to Spalletti's over-caffeinated, speed-driven tactics.
But Totti is who he is, and instead of winding down his career with a graceful bon voyage, he has instead decided to roll the cannons across his creaking decks and start firing warning shots. With Spalletti in earshot, Totti parried a request for comment after the Madrid match with, "You want to interview me? But I don't count anymore."
The next day, he erupted in an interview that was equal parts frustration and contradiction. He said he'd never demand playing time, only to threaten to walk away on a free transfer. He characterized his relationship with Spalletti as one that "works fine for me," before claiming that they barely speak and insinuating that Spalletti was leaking stories to the press about him. Naturally, he played the respect card.
Practically speaking, this amounts to a 39-year-old failing to reconcile his becoming only peripherally important to the success of his club following a lifetime of indispensability. There is humanity in that, if not as much as there would be for someone other than Francesco Totti. Losing your form in old (soccer) age is not something worth getting especially loud over.
Except Totti is a generational figure in Italian football. He is the single greatest player ever to don a Roma shirt and the country's most skilled player since Roberto Baggio. Totti inherited the Roma armband at 21, becoming the youngest club captain of all time in Serie A. At 25, he led Roma to its first league title since 1983. Earlier this season, he scored his 300th goal across all competitions; 244 of them have come in league play, good for second-most ever.
So when Spalletti reversed course and dropped Totti for the Palermo match following the interview, the wider public opted to take the aging striker seriously. The club's fans jeered Spalletti during pre-match introductions before singing "There's only one captain" on repeat until Totti himself – dressed in street clothes, parked in the stands — acknowledged them. One-time teammate John-Arne Riise called Totti a "god" and the king of Rome, while Totti's former manager Zdenek Zeman waved off any notion of Totti's diminished importance by trumpeting everyone's long-held refrain: "Francesco Totti is Roma." A second former manager, Carlo Mazzone, lambasted Spalletti for "looking for glory." Somewhere along the way, even Lindsey Vonn felt compelled to chime in on Totti's behalf.
Idol worship alone cannot account for this many decibels being summoned in his defense. No gold medalist skiers from halfway across the globe went public in their disappointment over Alessandro Del Piero getting phased out in his final days at Juventus, just as there was no media skirmish for Paolo Maldini playing out the string at AC Milan. Inter Milan supporters, among the most vociferous within Italian football, hardly made a peep when Javier Zanetti came off the bench during his last season at the club.
The real explanation lies in what Totti represents. With Andrea Pirlo opting for the MLS golden parachute, Totti and Juventus' Gianluigi Buffon are the last vestiges of when Italy ruled as the sport's global epicenter. Totti won that Scudetto when Serie A was Europe's destination league, with heavyweight clubs routinely smashing transfer records like bats to car windshields. He was the most dynamic outfield player on the World Cup-winning side in 2006. Totti's personal decline wasn't the catalyst of the gradual watering down of the domestic league or the decade-long withering of the national side; you can blame the country's floundering economy and a squandered talent generation for that. But the wane of his skills parallels the fading fortunes of Italian football, and the same holds true in reverse: rub him out, and the most vivid link to those halcyon days gets erased.
Soccer isn't the only thing that's changed in Italy. Birth rates have plummeted so precipitously that government officials have dropped any pretense of calm, labeling the peninsula "a dying country." Immigration is the primary lifeline for population growth, and those have come with more of the fraught racial politics that have long had a place in Italian society. Italian soccer is hardly exempt from them – even now, in February, 2016.
Against this backdrop, Totti still stands as a hallmark of traditional Italian masculinity. He is the devoted son who rejected new clubs by the dozen to stay at his hometown club, near his mother. Cock your head to the right angle and his rage can – and often, has – be written off as quintessentially Roman, unafraid to be passionate and fiery. He's a lothario who lost his virginity at 12 and who married a showgirl in a wedding that was aired live on Italian national television.
And – this part's unavoidable – he is extremely Caucasian, with the sort of sharp-boned handsomeness that does not look remotely out of place alongside one of the most beautiful women in Italy.
Totti, and everything about him, could be glamorized in any context, but he is outright fetishized in a country fretting the dearth of men like him. So it makes sense that Italians everywhere would go beyond kindly refraining from eye rolls whenever Totti takes to his bully pulpit, and instead endorse his every sermon. Talent like his arrives once in a generation. And how many prodigies like Totti arrived at precisely the right moment in their country's sporting history—and as such neat canvases onto which a country's hopes and insecurities can be projected?
Those are difficult questions to confront, but nobody needs to engage them so long as Totti still pulls on his famous kit and armband. He may move more deliberately and turn in shorter shifts, but enough of the broad strokes remain to cling onto. For all his feints and flicks, Totti's single greatest trick is how long he has been able to approximate his best, lulling Rome – and by extension, Italy – into demanding he remain essential long after he reasonably ought to be.
The reckoning is imminent, however, and yanking Totti from the side so abruptly reminds everyone how jarring the end can be. For all of his good looks and for all the beauty in his game, it got ugly and, given the subject matter, it may get uglier still. Whenever Francesco Totti is involved, it seems no one would have it any other way.