Good article on Totti

Roma’s Francesco Totti matures into one of the finest 30-somethings

The Roma talisman’s talents are strangely unappreciated in England but, at 37, his genius is still making an impact

Sean Ingle

Not so long ago much of the English commentariat was unsure whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a show pony or simply pony. Eight successive league titles in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain mattered little. Nor did a YouTube highlights reel of such Wachowskian fantasy it could have doubled as a Matrix audition. The debate about Zlatan was dominated by this: could he do it against the English? The assumption, despite evidence to the contrary – a glorious backheel winner against England in 2004 ; a punchy double in Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal in 2010 – was no. Then Ibrahimovic thumped four past Roy Hodgson’s men last November and, grudgingly, people looked past the intergalactic ego and sub-Steven Seagal ponytail.

There used to be similar putdowns of Xavi, the unassuming fairground operator of Barcelona’s carousel. Then came death by a thousand passes, and a haul of 14 trophies in four years under Pep Guardiola. Now we all recognise Xavi for what he is: one of the greats of his generation. Perhaps any generation.

Which, by elimination, leaves Francesco Totti as football’s most enduring Marmite test, splitting opinions like he does defences. At least, that is, in England. In Italy he is less Marmite, more a maturing Brunello di Montalcino , the appreciation of his talents deepening with age. As Giovanni Trapattoni puts it: “There is only one Van Gogh and only one Totti.”

Earlier this month, days after Totti’s 37th birthday, Italy’s manager, Cesare Prandelli, reignited a smouldering debate on whether, seven years after he retired from international football, Roma’s Caesar might return to the national team.

“Totti is in fantastic form,” said Prandelli. “If the World Cup was around the corner, I would absolutely call him up. But we will evaluate his condition one month prior to the tournament.” Prandelli’s praise is just. This season Totti has three goals and six assists from eight Serie A matches, all of which Roma have won. And while he hobbled off during Friday’s 2-0 victory over Napoli, he remains a lodestar.

More than 12 years after Roma’s last scudetto, talk of another is no longer so easy to dismiss. And nor, surely, are Totti’s achievements. When you judge him by the bricks and mortar of his trade – goals and assists – he stands higher than most. In 543 Serie A matches he has scored 230 goals, second on the all-time list behind Silvio Piola on 290. His total of 130 assists is not too shabby either. Totti’s goal ratio of one every 2.35 games is also better than most great Italian No10s in Serie A’s near-history, including Alessandro Del Piero (208 goals in 513 games), Gianfranco Zola (134 goals in 400 games) and Roberto Mancini (156 goals in 541 matches).

Only Roberto Baggio (221 goals in 448 games) has scored more frequently. Even more strikingly, Totti has scored more than 100 league goals since turning 30, a figure few in history can match.

Alan Shearer scored 84 Premier League goals in six seasons after hitting football’s slow-burn version of Logan’s Run. Baggio bagged 80. Looking further back, Jimmy Greaves scored 13 top-flight goals in his 30s – 13 more than George Best. Longevity and consistency over two decades must count for something.

There’s more. Since 27 September 2006, when Totti turned 30, he is ranked in the top 15 players across the major European leagues in both goals and assists. Only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney can boast that. It is also worth noting that since the start of 2010-11, when Gareth Bale burst into Europe’s wider consciousness, Totti’s scoring and shot figures are almost identical to the Welshman’s.

Opta’s data shows they both have 38 league goals, although the Italian’s shooting accuracy (52.1% compared with 50.88%) and shot-to-goals conversion rate (15.97% v 13.43%) are marginally better. Not bad for a man in his mid-30s.

Yet some remain unconvinced. The puzzle is why. Sure, he dives a bit, but he is hardly alone in committing that sin. You can’t call him a flat-track bully, given his goals don’t discriminate by team. And he is hardly a big-game bottler either: he was man of the match in the Euro 2000 final, where Italy were pickpocketed by France, and was named in the team of the tournament.

And while Totti is not regarded as central to Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph – the consequence of a rush-job convalescence from injury – he still topped the assist table and was named in Fifa’s 23-man squad after excelling as a substitute against Australia and playing significant roles against Ukraine and in the wonderful semi-final win against Germany.

Even now, despite his talents inevitably fading with age, there are regular demonstrations of genius away from raw metrics such as goals and assists. It helps to watch Totti in the flesh. Then you truly appreciate his ability to find space in rush-hour traffic, thread eye-of-a-needle passes and make the match’s current flow through him.

Perhaps we would view Totti differently if he had joined Real Madrid, as planned, in 2004. Then he would surely have trophies to match his talent. Instead he leaves us with something more intangible: a loyalty, a club, an identity. Receiving fortnightly hosannas to his genius from the city of his birth is surely compensation enough.