**Reader John Silver emailed me with what was originally a written discussion that transformed into, as he called it, "a bloody pamphlet". A very good pamphlet that he touched up for a post which I'm more than happy to pass on to you. Enjoy.**
It is a safe bet to say that no Italian player has caused as much controversy and dissent in the last thirty years, at least within the confines of Italy, as Francesco Totti. There have been players accused of playing dirty, others of being overrated; but the kind of polarity that Totti has inspired, with a part of the Italian public labeling him as a peerless champion and another part as a hyped-up provincial player, is nonpareil in the peninsula.
On account of the potency of this controversy, then, a clear and elaborate defence of Totti was very much called for. I make no mystery of my Romanista faith (though I do wish to underline that this is subordinated to my devotion towards the Azzurri); if that is enough for you to dismiss my arguments apriori, then stop reading now. Otherwise, this article wishes to clear some of the confusion on why he is considered, by myself as well as others, to be nothing less than the single best Italian player of the last thirty years alongside Baggio, and one of Europe's (if not the world's) best ten over the same time-span. (I confess to being unfamiliar with football prior to the 1980s, so I shall leave the comparisons with Rivera, Riva, Facchetti, and other great players before that date to someone who was born before I was).
To understand why he is rated so high, though, it is important to understand the differences between European (and especially Mediterranean) and South-American styles of football first. Allow me to begin from this question.
Generally speaking, we have been educated to recognise the Brazilian game as the highest expression of the sport. It is a style of football based on flair, rhythm and swing; a real Brazilian does not control the ball as much as dance with it. Seeing someone like Ronaldinho at his best means witnessing something more than just 'dribbling.' For his are not feet, but butterflies, which flicker around the ball and occasionally settle on it with the grace of something weighing under the gram. It is an hypnotic, galvanising, delicious style to witness; it is the scrawled signature on Picasso's booklet when you translate it onto the greens of a stadium. This is the style of football which has become synonymous with quality all over the world. (Argentinean style of play is an important variant in the South American style, but we do not have the space to go into that as well).
Mediterranean style of play, and especially Italian 'fantasia,' is something different. It is not based on infusing the ball with speed, nor even on making it dance. It's about making it disappear. In Brazil, a defence will be outplayed; in England, it will be outrun; in Italy, it will be outwitted. Where the register of Brazilian play is spatial (what you can do with and within the given square of territory that the defence concedes), that of fantasia is entirely temporal: it's about exploiting an instant, the nook between the play which has been begun and its most logical continuation, to suddenly revert the cards on the table, crack all offensive and defensive schemas, and abruptly change the situation from its current scenario into something completely different.
To give a concrete example, here is a fantastic goal of the Brazilian style, by Ronaldinho:
Spectacular technique, wonderful choreography - a pirouette which almost belongs to a capoeira dance. Now here's an analogous goal of the Mediterranean style, by Roberto Baggio:
Markedly less glamorous, of course. But the difference between these goals is exemplary. Baggio's piece of technique is not based on speed or athleticism, but on the sudden twist of scenario, produced in the space of a thunder-flash: it looked like he was going to shoot or stop, and all of a sudden he's running down a left diagonal as if he had received a direct pass which never left the ground. Complete reversal, and before either goalie or defenders even realise the situation has changed, he's clear for the goal.
Now let's get to Totti.
I've seen a wealth of Youtube clips on the guy, and I don't think many of them express what is really best in him. Part of the problem is that fantasia is very difficult to capture, precisely because it only comes in flashes rather than in sustained spectacle. Another problem is that these clips often focus on the goals, which are only a part of Totti's repertoire, and not nearly the full story. The man is born as a 'trequartista,' a free-roaming player acting as a bridge between midfield and offence (though he has proved capable of playing successfully in virtually all offensive positions). As such, his best asset is his vision and passing. Totti is capable of creating chances from anywhere, with anyone. Balls which appear completely static and inoffensive suddenly disappear from their square of play (typical fantasia) and find themselves millimetrically placed at the feet of a striker no-one even knew was there. Furthermore, this is all done first-touch, disallowing even for the breathing time which playmakers usually exploit to find a team-mate and read the situation. The result of mixing such an accuracy with the instance of fantasia is a game which plays like this:
This kind of play doesn't make Totti dangerous in and of himself as much as it upgrades the entire team to a smoother, far more ductile style of play. Let me adduce an example from his performance in the final of the Euro 2000 (which earned him the award for Man of the Match, over people like Zidane and an explosive Henry). No need to watch the whole video, just the first goal, first fifty seconds. It was not scored by Totti, but it did start from an unpredictable back-heel pass of his which completely split open the French defence, opening the way for the cross which led to the goal.
This is exactly what fantasia is about. And it is notable that Totti can make such passes not only from any position of the pitch, but also with any part of his body that he pleases: header, back-heel, chest, or aerial:
As for Totti's goals, there is some disagreement around them too. When discussing his best goal, most people would settle for something 'conventional' like this:
It's not the only goal he scored starting from midfield, but the only truly notable thing in it, for me, is its conclusion: the 'cucchiaio' (spoon) or chipped ball is, along with the back-heel, Totti's specialty. And aptly so: it is an elegant, highly witty kind of shot, a classic expression of fantasia when done correctly. However, if I were to call Totti's best goal, I think I'd settle for this one:
Like Baggio's, this goal is not immediately spectacular, at least not in the Brazilian sense of the word. But the coefficient of difficulty is 10/10. Left-footed first-touch air volley from an impossible position; note in the replay the spin that the ball takes, curving around and behind the goalkeeper, who was otherwise covering the whole net. This shot has everything: power, accuracy, class, confidence, wit. And it's pure fantasia, because who in the world would expect a player in that position to go for the goal, much less to score? In a lock-down scenario, where all offensive movements were breaking against the wall of a closed Sampdoria defence, a random cross with resignation written all over it is suddenly turned into a goal. Dazzling, if you ask me.
And emblematic. In this goal we find a summary of what exactly makes Totti so unique: he is the highest expression of a style of play which can be considered the European response to the Brazilian Jogo. He is not just another Romario or another Ronaldo. He is in his own league; a player of extraordinary purity. He is Europe lifting its head and telling South America, we can play football as well as you do, with no need to imitate you; we have our own style, and it's second to none. A style which has become so trademark in Italian football that it's actually starting to influence Brazilian players as well: Kaka is so fabulous precisely because he can bring together elements of Italian fantasia and Brazilian Jogo. A style which has evolved in the battlegrounds of the most powerful defensive school in the world, where even the Jogo finds its wings broken before it can fly. (This is due to the second important element of Italian football along with fantasia: 'furbizia,' or astuteness, an attribute as sophisticated and significant as fantasia and which is normally reduced to 'cheating' by foreigners who do not understand it. There is much to be said on the subject, but this is not the subject of our article).
Finally, it's at least worth mentioning Totti's personal history as a man who never abandoned his club, despite offers from much richer venues and occasional awful seasons which saw Roma on the brink of relegation. With a part of the Italian public, he holds the status of undoubted legend. Abroad he is less renown, mainly due to his lack of international exposure: Roma has been out of the Champions League for many years, and of the four international tournaments he took part in, two world cups he reached after major injuries (winning one nonetheless), in one Euro he was only allowed to play one game due to his spitting incident, and the only one he could play fully and in full health (Euro 2000) he led his team to the final and would have won that too if Alessandro Del Piero hadn't wasted all of his fantastic assists in front of Barthez.
Those who watch Totti playing today should overlook his lack of speed and reluctance to dribble (these skills have subsided with age, alas). What's worth looking for, instead, is the instant - the quick lightning - the sudden pass, and the direction the ball takes. Not the protracted parable of the game-construction, but the tremor before flight. If he's in form, more often than not these will surprise.
Let me leave you with two conclusive videos. The first just wishes to give an example of Totti's free-kick taking, which I haven't mentioned anywhere else, and which would be a shame to forget for a player who, in terms of versatility and completeness, is second only to Zidane.
The second is the only extensive video on Youtube which, I think, does justice to Totti's vision: a collection of his assists and passing skills. Many of them are taken with his back to the receiver, from half the pitch away, without even looking. The pass at 1:04 is, I think, the most insane assist I've ever seen in football. Backwards first-touch back-heel pass on an air ball running at God knows what speed without turning his head, and it lands square on Cassano's chest (who goes on to score that - a magnificent goal). 1:04 to 1:19. Insane. In addition, the collection of his assists also includes the fabulous ones from the final of Euro 2000. Go from 3:44 to 4:23 to see why he was nominated man of the match (and why Alessandro Del Piero doesn't have a very special place in my heart, to put it euphemistically).
No better conclusion to this article can be found than this video. Let the images speak a thousand words, then: