5 – Francesco Totti
All fantasisti need to possess elevated skills in a variety of fields, from passing and dribbling to shooting, and so it is said of all fantasisti that they are versatile football players. Francesco Totti probably transcends that category among the fantasisti to become the universal football player. There is simply no figure in Italian history that has covered and excelled at as many roles and positions as Er Bimbo de Oro, from his beginnings as offensive midfielder to his evolution as half-wing, seconda punta and trequartista. As of 2006, Totti’s career has effectively embraced every position conceivable from the midfield upwards since he was deployed as prima punta – a mutation into pure poacher which saw Totti snatch, on the first season, the title of Capocannoniere and the Golden Boot award for the most prolific forward in Europe with 26 goals in Serie A alone. These individual awards seem fitting in retrospect since the Roman captain has a tendency of being first at everything he does. In the list of the 100 most prolific goal-scorers in Serie A, Totti holds the first position among players still active (ninth and rising among the all-time) even while being the youngest among the first 50. Since the inception of the Oscar del Calcio in 1997 by the AIC (Associazione Italiana Calciatori), a prize meant to reward the best footballers in Serie A and assigned by the players themselves, Totti has won more titles than any other footballer of his generation, being selected as the Best Italian five times and the Best Player twice.
Totti’s repertoire is clearly very vast. His arsenal of shots is terrifying for precision, potency and versatility, equally dangerous from short-range, long-range, dead-ball, first-touch or aerial situations, left-foot and right-foot indiscriminately. His game is smattered with back-heels and chipped balls which are a delight to watch, but the skills which truly earn him the place he holds on this list are those in passing. If Roberto Baggio has the greatest one-on-one skills ever produced by the peninsula, then Totti has the greatest vision. The man is gifted with a pitch so accurate and imaginative that it humbles all competitors from his own generation and which even past ages struggle to reproduce – arguably the best first-touch player in the history of the game. The precision of the pass is coupled with a tactical vision capable of prying open some of the toughest backlines in Serie A, and the sight of all defensive schemas being cracked apart by a soft brush of foot upon ball has a poetic quality to it which is found nowhere outside of Italy. It is a strange thing to say of an athlete, but Totti’s game has a gentleness to it, a kindness which almost belies the tremendous sleight of hand his presence can award to a team. For Totti is, first and foremost, an authentic team player – over and beyond the individual skills which he brings to the table, the man represents a tactical engine in the kin of Socrates, Zidane or Kaka, capable of upgrading an entire team to a superior style of play. When the Roman captain is on the pitch, football changes – it is almost as if the game flowed spontaneously and the tactics became superfluous. When he is not, as Roma and the Azzurri repeatedly found and are still finding out, everything becomes grey and more sluggish. No Totti no party, as the dictum goes, and save the Martini for the next fantasista.
Totti is the symbol of the AS Roma team and without doubt the best footballer ever to have played for them. Like other names on this list, he has spent the entirety of his career with his home team and will go down in history as their greatest captain. While Totti is a lesser leader than some of his colleagues due to his short temper and susceptibility to pressure (hardly an example for his teammates), he also deserves special merit for having been loyal not to a giant like Milan and Juventus but to a team of much more modest means and ambitions like Roma. In this, Totti is closer to someone like Riva with Cagliari than to Maldini with Milan. His much-maligned international career saw him reaching two major finals in four tournaments, including a World Cup victory as a starter (all the more impressive since he reached both his global events after major injuries). That is more than most players on this list can stake a claim to. If it may be said that Italy has produced three great fantasisti so far, with Rivera as the first and Baggio as the best, then Totti must certainly stand as the most pure. His game is the cleanest avatar for Mediterranean football that has ever subsisted, unsullied by the tides of South-American styles of play and never twisted by the pressures of sheer physicality imposed by the Serie A defensive game. In this its significance is almost cultural – it is the symbolic rise of Europe’s head face to the imposing Brazilian and Argentinean pressures, the assertion of an aestheticism of football which has nothing to envy face to that of any other school. The cleanest style in Italian football, and the most crystalline offender in its history, should be remembered for nothing less than that.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time