For those of you that have just come back from a week-long trip to the Moon, Roma beat Inter on Saturday night. Mirko Vucinic was the Giallorossi’s manna from heaven, with his injury time shocker finally kick-starting the season for Claudio Ranieri by helping to defeat the current champions. However, this is Roma and it would be far too straightforward if this was all smiles and happiness reverberating off the Stadio Olimpico. Instead, we have a new controversy brewing and one that could completely destabilise the dynamic of the entire club for that matter. Again, for those who just hopped off the space shuttle, Francesco Totti was the player to make room for hero Vucinic, substituted for the third time in six games.
Francesco Totti has been the face of Roma for nearly 15 years, a Roman to the backbone – if ever there was one – who has only ever played at his hometown club. He is the team captain, a role model, a Scudetto winner, a world champion and arguably one of the best Italian players of all time. He left the Stadio Olimpico before the end of the game against the Nerazzurri, failed to shake hands with the Coach and headed straight for the changing room after being hauled off. The team won without him and celebrated without him as the final whistle blew. The most important player at the club was nowhere to be seen at the end of the most important match of the season so far. Maybe, what we are subtly attempting to suggest here at Club Focus is that we might just be witnessing the final days of the Francesco Totti era.
Nothing is forever and all good things do come to an end. Er Pupone is 34 years old, his body has taken its fair share of punishment and he has undoubtedly slowed down over the last 2 or 3 seasons. His international retirement – at the end of the 2006 World Cup – has allowed him to play some outstanding football and he has continued to score many goals since the Berlin victory. Nonetheless, his advancing years have now made him very much ‘substitutable’ – if any such word exists – while Claudio Ranieri, who has indeed some first-hand experience in such matters (ask any Juventus fan), is clearly showing that he is not a tactician overly concerned with symbols and icons. He was not afraid to drop the idolised Alessandro Del Piero whilst coaching the Bianconeri and it appears he is not going to spend many sleepless nights by doing the same to the golden boy of Rome. The weekend victory proved how right he was, that when it comes to the good of the team, he must make the best decisions possible, regardless of reputations.
If only it was as simple as that. Totti is admired and adored by fans, players and by anyone who has any connection to the club. If you think something is white and he says it’s black, you will find most supporters happy to agree with him. He is the first player talking to the Ultras, reporters and TV channels when they want comment. When he is injured, half of Rome will not sleep for fear of him missing the next match. His picture hangs on walls and his face is always the first to appear on all AS Roma websites. If Totti’s empire is starting to crumble, it is unlikely this will happen quietly and painlessly. He was clearly angry at being substituted, so much so, he petulantly insisted on leaving the ground under cover of darkness, whilst his adoring fans and team-mates battled to earn a stunning victory over their fierce rivals. These are not the actions of a team leader who is happy with his current lot.
Totti and Ranieri have since discussed the situation. Totti is reported to have explained to the Coach how his actions on Saturday night were mostly due to his own poor performance and his inability to play a more decisive role during the match. More crucially, however, he also asked if the current trend of his number being held aloft on the electronic board was likely to be a regular occurrence. He feels his fitness is still adequate for a full 90 minutes of football. Ranieri reassured him that he wanted someone with pace to stretch the Inter defence but he was also rather quick to confirm he still believes in his captain and his unique technical ability. The conversation ended in a cordial handshake and it appears, for the time being at least, Francesco will accept whatever is best for Roma.
Fans should hope this situation does not overshadow the football and that the team continues to play well and win matches. At the same time, it should also be clear to them that these wins might, more often than not, be achieved without the influence of their erstwhile invincible champion so frequently compared to a true Roman gladiator.