"As I have said, I'm now looking at 20-year-olds to see what they can provide, but Totti is different...We are obliged to keep him under consideration for as long as he continues to play like a kid. If we qualify for the World Cup then I'll take a look at what shape Totti is in."
Cesare Prandelli, when assessing the prospect of Francesco Totti returning to the national fold, uttered three seemingly innocuous phrases that perfectly encapsulate why a 36 year old man would even be considered for such an esteemed position: different, kid, and shape.
As a Roma fan, I'll presume you know, both intrinsically and extrinsically, what makes Francesco Totti different, so there's no need to expound upon that any further. The last two phrases, kid and shape, heretofore referred to as age and fitness (they sound more scientific, after all) are really the paramount concerns in any discussion of Totti donning the Azzurri in Brazil 2014.
Totti's performances the past few seasons leave little doubt to the man's ability, even as he creeps closer to his fourth decade on earth, so the benefits he would bring to Gli Azzurri are obvious. However, with Roma's grand ambitions and Totti's own pursuit of Silvio Piola in mind, there are a myriad of reasons why Totti might respectfully refuse an Azzurri call. So let's take a quick, somewhat dispassionate and slightly objective look at the pros and cons of Totti suiting up for La Nazionale.
Before we delve into that, however, let's take a quick look at Totti's Azzurri career.
Surprisingly, Totti has only 58 caps to his name, though part of that can be attributed to his somewhat early retirement from the international game, walking away from the Azzurri a few months shy of his 30th birthday, following the 2006 World Cup. However, across those 58 appearances, Totti has logged nearly 4,000 minutes, scoring nine goals.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Totti's international career was the 2006 World Cup, in which Totti scored one crucial goal, which you might remember. Although that was Totti's lone goal, he did log a tournament leading four assists and ripped off 22 shots, fourth most in the tournament. Not surprisingly, Totti was named to the World Cup All-Star squad; a fitting end to Totti's international career.
Onto the debate...
This could also simply be called, "Why Prandelli Should Want Totti". Reputation and recognition places many athletes in positions of prestige well beyond their actual levels productivity, but a quick look at this season's statistics shows this is not the case with Totti.
Francesco, even at 36, can still find the back of the net with the best of them. Totti's 11 goals ranks 9th in Serie A, but when the parameters are narrowed to Italians, Totti comes in fourth, ranking behind only Stephan El Shaarawy, Antonio DiNatale, and Giampolo Pazzini, only one of whom, El Shaarawy, made the cut for the Brazil friendly earlier this week.
That Totti has been able to stave off the ravages of time is nothing new to Roma fans, and, quite frankly, nothing short of a miracle. Using age 30 as a purely arbitrary tipping point for professional athletes, look at Totti's goal scoring record (all competitions) since he turned 30 in the 2006-2007 season: 31, 16, 15, 15, 17, 8, 11 (through week 29).
The outlier in that group, the 31 goals from the '06-'07 season, came during the false nine days of Luciano Spalletti and netted Totti Europe's Golden Boot, so no one, no matter how Giallorossi their blood may be, would expect a repeat of that lofty total. What's interesting to note, and also indicative of Totti's brilliance, utility, and versatility, is that his post-30 scoring binge has come under six managers, caretaker or otherwise (Spalletti, Ranieri, Montella, Enrique, Zeman and Andreazzoli), each of whom used Totti in both slightly and severely different fashions.
This season alone, Totti, under both Zeman's forward-at-all-costs approach and Andreazzoli's more measured attack, has scored goals as a left forward, center forward, and attacking midfielder. With Prandelli being tight lipped about his formation versus Brazil (written before the match), and having utilized everything from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, gerrymandering a formation to suit Totti's ability isn't necessary, as he's shown an ability to flourish in a variety of tactical approaches.
That Totti is even within sniffing distance of Serie A's all-time scoring throne is a testament to his footballing vintage, as much of his career was spent in midfield, where his true gift to the game, his unparalleled vision, creativity and overall offensive tact, is best displayed. But when you take into account that 45% of his league goals have come after the age of 30, you marvel at his longevity and wonder how much closer he'd be to Piola had he been utilized as an attacker earlier in his career.
Nevertheless, Totti's playmaking ability and creativity has always been his hallmark. Recently we've seen Totti cross the previously uncharted waters of the 1,000th backheel, including this piece of St. Patrick's Day sorcery, which will surely be added to Totti's playmaking archives. While those are truly the stuff of legend, it almost does Totti a disservice, as his flash also comes with function.
Totti's 10 assists this term are second only to Marek Hamsik's 11, making him Serie A's Italian leader in assists. Totti is also the only player in Italy, and one of a handful in Europe, with 10+ goals and 10 + assists. Totti's is also averaging three key passes per match (which is simply another way to say ‘chances created'), second only to Andrea Pirlo, while his 55.6 passes per match ranks him seventh among actual Italians plying their trade in Serie A this season. Furthermore, Totti has hit upon 42 of his 83 long balls, which is best in the league, regardless of player nationality.
Point being, Totti's playmaking and passing ability are adroit as ever. Totti is not only heavily involved in Roma's passing game, he is the fulcrum upon which it operates; possessing equal ability to start, synchronize, spark, adapt and finish an attack.
Imagine how he could incorporate those innate and seemingly superhuman abilities alongside Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli, and El Shaarawy, among others, and it becomes quite clear why Prandelli would want to take Totti to Rio with him. Looking at the lack of creativity the Azzurri suffered in South Africa, and the calls for Totti become more obvious.
Since you're here, I'm assuming you already knew Totti was good and deserving of Azzurri Emeritus status, so what's the drawback?
I may run the risk of having my allegiance to the team and man questioned by this next statement, but Francesco Totti is not without his faults, chief among them is his penchant for losing possession. I'll grant you that part of this is a function of his role in the offense, as his sheer rate of touches and passing naturally lends itself to a fair amount of turnovers, but Totti's 377 turnovers/dispossessions is the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues.
Now, when you're talking about the scope of a 38 week domestic season, these dispossessions don't matter much beyond the minute in which they occur, as they are mere distractions in a much longer story. However, in a setting as compressed and intense as the World Cup, where every possession and every fleeting moment dictates who flourishes and who flounders, these moments of indiscretion resonate for years, lifting and deflating the hopes of millions.
So, should he return to the fold, does Totti have carte blanche-can he be Totti or would Prandelli insist on some measure of restraint? Would he merely be an add-on or would his Roman prominence carry over to La Nazionale? It's an interesting wrinkle to this debate, one which we'll tackle momentarily.
Granted, knocking any facet of Totti's game, on a Roma blog no less, is purely nitpicking, by and large, the question of Totti returning to the Azzurri is mainly a matter of fitness and age. Even though Totti has astounded football fans, Giallorossi or otherwise, with his performances the past several years, the fact remains he is 36 and will be 37 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around-which begs the question, exactly how much life is left in those legs?
Furthermore, given his stated aims of pursuing Piola's scoring record, chasing the ever elusive Champions League title and simply surviving long enough to play in Roma's new grounds, would Totti risk his health to help Italy win its fifth World Cup? Given that Totti has already been to the apex of the global game, it's a legitimate question to ask.
While this debate might ultimately prove to be academic, should it come to fruition, there are practical concerns with which Cesare Prandelli must deal. Obviously, there is no tournament more important and pressure packed than the World Cup, where every minute, every tactical decision and every substitution is a matter of life and death. So the manner in which Prandelli would deploy a 37-year old player of any repute, let alone one as lauded as Totti, is a matter of concern, for both the man and nation.
So this debate isn't really about what Totti can bring to the Azzurri, as his domestic record proves he is still one of the nation's best, but rather how would Prandelli utilize those immense talents. Keep in mind that, by next summer Totti will have another full Serie A and hopefully European season's worth of miles on his legs, so playing 90 minutes under the South American
summer sun might not benefit Totti's long term Roman goals, nor the Azzurri at large.
So would Totti, as perhaps a 20-25 minute player, still provide value for Prandelli's 2014 World Cup squad? Again, one must factor in the pressure and scope of the World Cup; injuries and suspensions happen, making the fitness and utility of the available subs of paramount importance. So, can Prandelli use a precious bench spot on a part time player, no matter how glorious his resume may be? Would Totti even be amenable to such a reduced role?
Somewhat ironically, the pressure and minute-by-minute significance of the World Cup might actually bend the debate in Totti's favor. Provided he could manage his squad rotation effectively enough, having a game changing ace-in-the-hole like Francesco Totti could swing the momentum of a match in Italy's favor in a matter of seconds, giving Prandelli further reason to persuade Totti out of retirement.
The bottom line is, 15 minutes of Francesco Totti is an asset which no other nation possesses and any fleeting moment of brilliance he might provide could be enough to capture Italy's fifth crown.
Assuming Prandelli understands the benefits Totti can still provide to the national team, at the end of the day, this decision is Totti's and Totti's alone. He's made no secret of his desire to play past 40, to surpass Silvio Piola's 274 Serie A goals, to ring in Roma's new stadium and to chase Champions League glory. Committing to the 2014 World Cup squad adds further stress to his aging legs, where every minute logged for country might be one less for club.
So really the only question that matters is what does Totti hold more dear-rescuing the Azzurri or taking his last shots at Roman glory?
My best guess: Totti is satisfied with how his international career ended and chooses to spend his remaining professional days pursuing Piola, while hopefully experiencing some much deserved domestic and European success.