Can Francesco Totti Surpass Silvio Piola's Scoring Record?

Paolo Bruno

At age 36, Francesco Totti turned in one of his finest seasons ever, pushing him to second place on Serie A's all-time scoring list. With 48 goals standing between him and history, we examine Totti's pursuit of Silvio Piola's scoring mark.

This season, despite the mediocre spot in the table, was a banner year for Francesco Totti. Barely a month into the season, Totti celebrated his 36th birthday with a goal against Sampdoria, his 216th career goal in Serie A, tying him for third all-time with Giuseppe Meazza and Jose Altafini. But Totti wouldn't stop there, finishing the 2012-2013 season as the second most prolific scorer in league history, behind only Silvio Piola, placing an historic record within the realm of possibility.

Before we delve into Totti's pursuit of Piola's Serie A scoring record, a quick look at Totti's 2012-2013 season, which was truly remarkable for any player, let alone one on the wrong side of 35.

Totti totaled 12 goals and 12 assists, showing equal grace for scoring and creating, adding a unique balance to an already spectacular season. Weighing those numbers against Roma's 71 league goals gives Totti a 34% share of the Roman offense-far and away the club leader in that respect. Rather than being a figurehead, Totti remains as integral to Roma's plan of attack, both facilitating and finishing, as ever.

Furthermore, by reaching double digits in goals and assists, Totti placed himself in select company. Across Europe's five major leagues, Totti was one of only 14 men to achieve this unique feat. Joining Totti in this club are such luminaries as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery. It takes a unique talent to master this alchemy of scoring and creating, and for Totti to do so at damn near 40-years old is, quite frankly, astonishing.

In addition to leading the club in assists, Er Pupone paced Roma in total passes, passes per game, key passes, accurate crosses, shots per game and fouls draw per game. Which is just a pragmatic and long winded way of saying Totti is as important to this club as ever, in nearly every facet of the game. But go ahead and read that list again, he lead the club in each of those categories-not tied, not second, but lead. At age 36.

League wide, his 12 goals was tied for sixth in Italy, while his 12 assists trailed only Marek Hamsik's 14. His 3.6 shots per game placed him fifth in Serie A, while his 102 key passes led the league, and his 3.1 fouls drawn per match was good for fourth.

Quite simply, at age 36, Francesco Totti remains one of Italy and Europe's finest offensive talents. Put him up front and he'll lead you in scoring, drop him a bit deeper and watch him orchestrate your attack with intuition and excellence. Or do what Zeman and Andreazzoli did this term, do both and watch him do the rare double-double, going for over 10 goals and 10 assists.

The words that follow will attempt to describe the likelihood of Totti achieving league history, but they're merely a mask--the man is living history. No player has ever meant more to one team in Italian football, and I'd dare say all of sport. So his final tally is really immaterial to the measure of the man and his importance to his club.

But since you're worshipping at the Chiesa di Totti, you already knew that.

Pursuing Piola

Back to the task at hand, assessing Totti's chances of catching Silvio Piola. Totti himself has claimed that, had he been a forward much earlier in his career, he would have already surpassed 300 goals. Given what he's doing at his age, particularly considering the amount of touches he takes and punishment he receives, and his general importance to all things Roma, I wouldn't put it past him.

But here we are at the close of the 2012-2013 season, one in which Totti, yet again, staved off the ravages of time and further cemented his legacy as one of the game's all-time greats. By bagging a dozen goals, Totti pushed his career mark to 227, placing him 47 behind Piola's record 274 Serie A goals, not a small amount, by any means. Remember, this isn't La Liga, the guys wearing different colored clothes will actually try and stop you from scoring.

So, before we figure out if Totti stands a realistic chance at eclipsing Piola's mark, let's take a look at Totti's cohorts in the 200 goal scorers club, in reverse order.

For each player, we have chosen their age 30 season as a purely arbitrary tipping point, past which a player should start declining. Also included are the years in which they appeared in Serie A, total league goals, percentage of matches in which they scored, and number of times they eclipsed the 20 goal mark, which is usually the bare minimum one needs to be Capocannoniere*

*Totals include only goals in Serie A, with the exception of Meazza, due to some historical and professional football vagaries that occurred during WWII.

**With respect to the age-30 cutoff, the goals scored begin with the season in which the player turned 30. For example Totti turned 30 in 2006, so the data starts with the '05-'06 season, even though he didn't actually turn 30 until the following season-it was difficult to calculate the exact total after each players actual 30th birthday, particularly with the deceased, so bear with me**

Okay, ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen I would imagine), without further ado, your Serie A 200 Goal Scorer Club.

Roberto Baggio (1985-2004)
  • 205 Goals
  • Scored in 45% of matches
  • 84 goals after age 30 over 189 appearances
  • Scored 20+ goals twice
Jose Altafini (1958-1976)
  • 216 goals
  • Scored in 47% of matches
  • 66 goals after age 30 over 193 appearances
  • Scored 20+ goals four times
Giuseppe Meazza (1927-1974)
  • 216 goals
  • Scored in 59% of matches
  • 30 goals after age 30 over 115 appearances (this includes figures from Non-Serie A competitions during WWII)
  • Scored 20+ goals eight times
Gunnar Nordhal (1948-1958)
  • 225 goals
  • Scored in 77% of matches
  • 174 goals after age 30, over 202 appearances
  • Scored 20+ goals seven times
Francesco Totti (1993-Present)
  • 227 goals
  • Scored in 42% of matches
  • 117 goals after age 30, over 224 appearances.
  • Scored 20+ goals twice
Silvio Piola (1929-1954)
  • 274 goals
  • Scored in 51% of matches
  • 101 Serie A goals after age 30, over 205 appearances
  • Scored 20+ four times

Scoring After Age-30

As I mentioned, choosing age 30 was really an arbitrary choice, but it's a safe measure for scoring prolificacy in the latter stages of a player's career. As we can see, Totti trails only Nordahl in this regard, who, it should be noted, was an absolute goal scoring freak. Nordahl exceeded 20 goals in all but two of his ten Serie A seasons; no small feat when you consider he was already 28 years old he debuted for Milan in 1948. Piola was the only one of this group to play past 40, scoring 14 goals in 34 appearances, more on that momentarily.

With the exception of Meazza, all the 200+ goal scorers played in excess of 180 matches after the age of 30. The table below shows the number of goals scored before and after age 30, their post-age 30 scoring rate, their career scoring rate and concludes with the percentage of their career goals scored after age 30.

Basically a side-by-side comparison of their scoring efficiency and frequency after age 30.

Player

Goals before 30

Goals after 30

Post 30 Scoring Rate

Career Scoring Rate

% of goals after 30

Baggio

121

84

44%

45%

41%

Altafini

150

66

34%

47%

31%

Meazza

186

30

26%

59%

14%

Nordahl

51

174

86%

77%

77%

Totti

110

117

52%

42%

52%

Piola

173

101

49%

51%

37%

A few things stick out when you look at that table (assuming my math is correct, fingers crossed). First, like I mentioned, Gunnar Nordahl was a goal scoring machine. The Swede scored 174 Serie A goals after the age of 30, scoring in 86% of those matches...amazing. When all was said and done, Nordahl scored in an absurd 77% of his career matches. He's an outlier in nearly every respect, scoring more goals and at a greater rate after he reached 30 than the decade before. Consider him the 20th century version of Ibra, minus the rampant mercenaryism (that's a science term).

Besides Nordahl, every other player on this list saw their total goals and scoring rate decrease after age 30, except Totti, who, so far, has seven more goals after age 30 than he did before, not to mention scoring with greater frequency (10% higher).

While we're here, some random Totti goal scoring facts:

  • 65 goals under Spalletti
  • 33 goals under Zeman
  • 8 goals under Enrique

Needless to say, Totti's pursuit of Piola is dependent on managerial tactics and philosophy. So the impending managerial decision could help or hinder Totti's pursuit of Piola in large measure.

Scoring After Age-36

To contextualize the preceding numbers and this pursuit in general, we'll look at Nordahl, Piola and Totti, using those same figures, but instead limit the focus to goals scored after age 36. Again, and purely because we did so for the age-30 seasons, the numbers are from the calendar year in which they turned 36, i.e. Nordahl turned 36 in 1957, so the numbers start with the 1956-1957 season...accurate per match totals are hard to find from that era-again, cut me some slack.

On to it...

Nordahl after age 36 (1956-57, 1957-58)
  • 34 matches, 15 goals
Totti after age 36 (2011-12, 2012-13)
  • 61 matches, 20 goals
Piola after age 36 (1948-49 through 1953-54)
  • 155 matches, 70 goals

This is really where Piola separates himself from the pack, playing until he was nearly 41 years old and scoring in 45% of his matches after the age of 36. Piola retired following the 1953-1954 season, at the conclusion of which he was 40 years old, several months shy of his 41st birthday. If nothing else, Totti's pursuit of him should shine a light on what a spectacular player Silvio Piola was.

Using Piola's career arch as a guidepost, it's the next four-to-five seasons that will truly test Totti's temerity and simple desire to pursue this record.

So far, Totti has scored in 33% of his matches since 2006, the year in which he turned 30. Should Totti follow the Piola path, he'd retire in May of 2017, being 40 years old at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, several months shy of his 41st birthday. That gives Francesco four more seasons to catch Piola, during which he must score 47 goals. This equals a pace of roughly 12 per year, a total which he's exceeded every year, save one, since 2002-2003, thank you very much, Luis Enrique-as you'll recall, Totti only scored 8 times during the Spaniard's lone season at the helm.

Predicting the Future-Is It Likely?

Viewing the post-30 scoring record of Serie A's 200+ goal scoring club, Totti, along with Nordahl, is the only player to score in greater number and at a higher rate after age 30 than before. So far, Totti's endurance and exuberance for the game certainly bode well in this historic pursuit.

But, as they say, what's past is prologue, what's present is paramount. The real key to Totti's pursuit of Piola is how he'll manage the next four seasons. For Piola, this longevity was really the key to reaching 274 goals, as he played five full seasons and part of a sixth, scoring 25% (70 goals) of his career total after age 36. Including the 20 goals he's already scored since 2006, Totti would need to match Piola's post-36 scoring percentage (as part of his career total), as the 47 goals needed to tie Piola would also constitute 25% of Totti's projected 274.

More than being able to score, any prediction about Totti's chances of catching Piola must be predicated upon actually appearing in matches. Since both Piola and Totti were born in September, (two days apart, actually) and since Totti just completed his age 36 season, we can use the percentage of matches Piola appeared in from his actual 37th birthday through his retirement at the end of the 1953-1954 season to gauge what percentage of matches Totti will need to appear in over that same span.

Piola, born September 27, 1913, appeared in 102 of a possible 152 matches between the 1950-51 and 1953-54 seasons, or 67% of the league matches over that span, roughly 26 matches per season. So, moving forward, if Totti were to maintain Piola's post age-37 appearance rate of 67%, he would have to make his 102 appearances before the close of the 2016-2017 season.

In order to pass Piola's 274 goals, Totti would need, should he match Piola's appearance rate, 48 goals in 102 matches, meaning he would have to score in 47% of those matches. Now here is where it gets sticky, having appeared in 34 of 38 matches this season, he's off to a good start in that respect. However, his 12 goals over those 34 matches means he scored in "only" 35% of his matches, which is in no way sufficient to bag those 48 goals in 102 matches-again, these numbers use Piola's appearance and goal scoring rates after age 37 as the benchmark.

Let's take a leap of faith and assume Totti appears in 75% of league matches over the next four seasons, that's 114 of a possible 152 matches, meaning he would need to score in 42% of those matches to get the 48 goals needed to pass Piola-a higher rate than he managed this season, but less than his overall post-30 scoring rate of 52%.

However, let's say worse comes to worst and Totti maintains his 2012-2013 scoring rate (35%) for the remainder of his career. Using this figure, Totti would need to appear in 137 matches to reach Piola's mark, which, laid out over four seasons, means Totti would need to appear in 90% of league matches between 2013-14 and 2016-17. That's approximately 34 appearances per season, which, though he managed it this year, he hadn't done since 2006.

So, to reiterate: scoring in 35% of his matches, Totti would need 137 appearances to tie Piola.

Now, follow me here-if Totti appears in 67% of his matches after age 37 like Piola did, we're talking about 204 possible matches, which measures out to slightly over five seasons, pushing his career into the 2017-2018 season; at the conclusion of which Totti will be four months shy of his 42nd birthday, which would make him Serie A's oldest ever non-defensive outfield player. Ironically, the oldest non-defensive outfield player is, in fact, Piola, aged 40 in March of 1954. Also Ironically, Totti was one of the youngest players to ever make their debut in the league, at age 16 in March of 1993.

Basically, what we're talking about here is this: if Totti maintains his current scoring rate (35%), while equaling Piola's rate of appearances (67%), the record would fall in the 2017-2018 season when Totti will be nearly 42 years old.

Now What?

Even though Totti's career has taken on a new life after age 30, and really since Spalletti came to town, the requirements to pass Piola in the next four to five years are really superhuman and quite literally unprecedented.

For his part, Totti admits it will be difficult to catch Piola, but he's also expressed a desire to play until age 40, which would be three more full seasons. At his current scoring rate, that would leave him roughly seven or eight goals shy of Piola's record.

There are just so many factors at play here: the manager(s) now and in the near future, how far up the pitch he plays, whether or not he takes penalties and free kicks, the quality of the squad, injuries and many more.

But even though I've dedicated nearly 3,000 words to this and you've invested time out of your busy day, the determining factor rests within the man himself. Does Totti truly want this?

Would a seven or eight goal deficit be sufficient motivation for him to hang on through his early 40s? Does he value the record enough to possibly damage his legacy, sticking around chasing goals for the sheer sake of passing a record?

While these concerns are seemingly innocuous, they are critical to the pursuit of this record, and ultimately only one man can answer them.

At the end of the day, Francesco Totti does not need this record to validate his career. He has done nearly everything a footballer can do-from scoring titles, to Italian Footballer of the Year, to Serie A Football of the Year, World Cup All-Star, Scudetto winner and World Cup Champion; there is precious little missing from this man's resume. Being Serie A's all-time leading goal scorer is merely another accolade among a host of impressive feats.

Based on those achievements, his sheer talent, and his unbridled love and dedication to the people and city of Roma, Francesco Totti will go down as the Eternal City's most lauded son.

For that, there is but one record holder.

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