Every so often, the fact that I write here comes up in real-world conversations, which usually go something like this:
Acquaintance: So, is it a blog or like a real website?
Me: Sort of both, like a blog-website hybrid. We have a lot of editorial features, a database of professional photographs, and corporate overlords, yet we're rife with hyperbole and grammatical errors.
Acquaintance: So what it's about?
Me: It's dedicated to one team, Roma
Acquaintance: That's cool, are they any good?
Me: (varying amounts of silence, shame, and scheming up an appropriate yet believable lie)... well, they usually do alright, but they got this one guy, Totti; he's pretty much the reason anyone follows them
Acquaintance: Oh yeah, who is he?
Me: Well, you might know him better as Fernando Toe-tea
Acquaintance: Oh yeah, I think I know him. What's he like?
This is usually the point where, being an American, I try and draw some parallel between Francesco Totti and established stars from any of North America's four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA or, to a far lesser extent ((sorry Canada)), the NHL). While I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of reverence paid to Totti by Taylor Twellman and the rest of the ESPN crew during last week's MLS All-Star game, the praise still seemed somewhat scattered and lacking in relevance to the casual fan.
And, since you've found your way here, I can only presume you're familiar with Totti, but indulge me while I try and Americanize Francesco Totti for the layman.
WARNING: If you care little about North American sports or are offended by the notion of comparing Totti to anyone, feel free to skip down to the comments and GIF your life away.
This is the sort of unfortunate position in which the sport of soccer finds itself within the American landscape; it's gained an incredible amount of traction over the past twenty years, yet most discussions about its success and its greatest exhibitors are still laced with comparisons to the familiar. It may make some purists cringe, but it's a necessary evil, I'll even admit to using this tactic in the nascent days of my fandom.
Truth be told, I've been sitting on this piece for a few weeks, not really knowing where to go with it or who, if anyone, would appreciate it, but something about ESPN's coverage of the match, and in particular the attention paid to Totti's still underappreciated skill set, stuck with me. As far as we've come (for the North Americans among us) in our understanding of the game, your average fan still seems to lack the innate understanding of what makes someone like Francesco Totti so exceptional, both for what he's done on the pitch and what he means to the people of Rome, resulting in the subsequent comparisons. If Francesco Totti is discrete mathematics and the American soccer fan is a college freshman, it's all about relating the material.
So, because of that and simply because of the respect I have for Totti and the other names herein, I present to you, the uninitiated fan, Francesco Totti's nearest North American Comparables.
For this exercise, the players paralleled in this piece are active players, have spent their entire careers in one city, and are unquestionably among their games elite. I'll save it for the end, but for the shrewd among you, you will notice one glaring difference that puts Totti above comparison.
At the end of the day, I could really only find two fitting comparisons, so let's take a look at the runners-up:
"Football's" Francesco Totti: Tom Brady
Wikipedia is great for many things, chief among them finding a somewhat reasonable answer as to why Americans refer to a game known for throwing as ‘football', but I digress.
There is really no debate. Despite the American media machine, soccer remains the world's most popular sport. But if we're narrowing the discussion to the world's most popular and successful league, strong arguments can be made for the NFL. Granted, the English Premier League and Formula One could also lay stake to that claim, but the NFL's mastery of modern media and the game's glove-like fit for broadcast television gives it an enviable edge, one which reaches beyond North America.
Even though the league itself is nearly 100 years old and replete with its own legends, as far as the game's contemporary stars, there is really only one man who meets our criteria (one career, one city, legend status), Tom Brady. Had it not been for Peyton Manning's move to Denver, he would've been a lock, but Brady it is.
Brady has the accomplishments, permanent residency, and love of the fans to make a solid comparison, so where does he fall short?
Well, part of what makes Totti's career so spectacular is that he's lived up to the hype. Unlike Brady, who, as you may or may not know, was not destined for stardom, Totti's career has been watched with hawk-like intensity since day one; he's had no reprieve. As a sixth-round pick, little was expected of Brady, so everything he's done over the past 13 years has been gravy. And while the Boston media can make for a hostile working environment, Patriots fans don't surround their practice field and bombard it with all manner of projectiles when the team struggles. Advantage (albeit in a strange way) Totti.
We could also throw in the fact that Brady has never had to spurn the advances of more moneyed competitors--there was no Real Madrid tempting him with the promise of playing with a legion of stars. He never faced Rosemary's (sporting) choice: loyalty versus success. Granted, the competitive structure of the league has something to do with this--as the NFL's modus operandi is parity--but you get what I'm saying, for Brady, remaining true to his town and enjoying sustained success were never mutually exclusive.
So while he's spent his whole career in New England and is very close to breaking records of his own, he is not our American Francesco.
Close, Tom, very close, but you ain't no Totti.
Hockey's Totti: Um....Someone Help Me Here
While I played the game from a young age, the NHL's pitiful media presence has placed it in the furthest reaches of my mind, so perhaps some of our Canadian readership can chime in below. Certainly, Mario Lemieux is an apt comparison; he's got perhaps the greatest resume this side of Wayne Gretzky, he spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, eventually buying the club and saving the team from an ignominious move to Kansas City, but he retired years ago, so he's not eligible. But I still love you, Mario, and I think you were better than The Great One.
We could've gone with Jarome Iginla. He was born in Alberta and spent his entire career with Calgary until he was traded to the aforementioned Penguins, so he's off the mark. Ditto for Daniel Alfredsson, who is no longer a one-team man. Jason Spezza has spent his whole career in Ottawa, but comparatively speaking, he's not on Totti's level. Though, again, thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that he was a baby model. I don't think Totti can even claim that.
So, sticking with the Pittsburgh theme, we're left with Sidney Crosby (can you guess which NHL team I follow yet?) But he's only 26 and has a lot of career ahead of him, so should we revisit this in 10 years, he might be the guy. I could probably also throw Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Steve Stamkos, or Jonathan Toews into that mix. But Crosby is the only Totti-like player on that list. In fact, now that I think of it, it's a damn good comparison. The casual fan would look at both their goal totals and think, ‘Meh, that's good, but not great', but they both possess such an innate understanding of the game that their true talent rests within their ability to make others look great.
But when it comes to hockey, at least in terms of my limited contemporary knowledge, there is no Totti on skates, at least not yet.
So, if you've stuck with me thus far, and you're ever confronted with this task yourself, I present to you Francesco Totti's closest American counterparts. Both of these men entered their respective sports with outlandish expectations, with greatness being the minimally acceptable outcome. Yet, somehow they have exceeded those expectations, capturing individual and team honors along the way, cementing their status among the game's elite, and endearing themselves to the one city they've called home through it all.
Baseball's Francesco Totti: Derek Jeter
If any city in the world can exceed the riotous atmosphere of Rome, surely it's New York City, the place Derek Jeter has called home since 1995. So, in this regard, Totti and Jeter are on an even keel.
If you're not a baseball aficionado, you're probably not terribly familiar with the MLB draft. Occurring every June, MLB's 30 teams draft (literally) thousands of players, so the fact that Jeter was taken sixth overall is no small feat. From a young age, the man was expected to be a building block for the Yankees, a franchise whose history is virtually unparalleled in all of sports, who suddenly found themselves looking to erase a decade of futility. Here we are 18 years, three thousand hits, and five championships later, and it's safe to say that Jeter has not disappointed. Simply put, he is one of the greatest players of his generation.
There might even be one area in which Jeter exceeds Totti. We all love Roma, of course, but their history pales in comparison to the Yankees. Roma have captured the scudetto on only three occasions. The Yankees? 27 World Series titles. No contest in this regard, success for the Yankees is part of the job description not a happy coincidence. So while they both maintained the same sort of prominence within their respective clubs and among their fans, globally speaking, being a New York Yankee means a lot more than playing for A.S. Roma.
Further cementing his case as the American Totti, Jeter ranks among the best to ever don the Yankee pinstripes. Jeter is the Yankees' all-time leader in games played, at-bats, stolen bases, and hits while ranking second in doubles, third in runs, ninth in home runs, and seventh in runs batted in. And, given that we're talking about The Yankees, these are extraordinary feats, as they've played host to many of baseball's greatest players.
But, as great as he might be, one of the best in the past 20-30 years, he doesn't rank among baseball's all-time elites. He'll surely be in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but are his feats, as impressive as they are, on level pegging with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, or Babe Ruth?
Jeter is a great player, easily one of the best of his generation and one of the best in the history of his franchise, but unlike Totti, no one would dare say he's the greatest ever.
One man, one ball, one bat. Baseball is beautiful in its simplicity, but if you've ever watched a single inning of the game, it's pretty evident that there is a clear distinction between hitters and pitchers. So, when discussing all-time greats, comparing pitchers to hitters isn't really a valid exercise, and, for a variety of reasons, the most lionized players are usually the ones handling the bat.
This next man's sport is a bit different. Ostensibly, everyone has the same role and the same opportunities. However, the role stature plays in what one can and cannot do and what is expected therein makes general comparisons a bit tougher. But make no mistake, he is the greatest ever at his position...
Basketball's Francesco Totti: Tim Duncan
Duncan, perhaps one of the most lauded college basketball players ever, was the clear cut number one choice of the 1997 NBA Draft. Basketball, much like baseball, but on a much smaller scale, utilizes a draft to incorporate amateurs into its ranks, and Duncan was the top choice this particular year.
Where Duncan falls short of Totti and Jeter was really beyond his control due to the draft paradigm (players have no control over who selects them). San Antonio, Texas, is a lovely and historic American city, but it's not Rome, and it damn sure isn't New York City. So in this respect, Duncan hasn't had to deal with the same level of media or fan scrutiny as Jeter or Totti, but he has remained loyal to the club and fans of San Antonio, even resisting the beck and calls of teams more flush with cash.
Despite that, there is one area in which he blows past Jeter and approaches the rarified air occupied by Totti; his place among the game's ultra-elite. Duncan, since day one, has been his club's best player and one of the league's marquee names. In his 17-year career (so far), Duncan has won four NBA titles, two NBA MVPs, three NBA Finals MVPs, made the All-Star team 14 times, was First Team All-NBA 10 times (which is a fancy way of saying that, among all the league's players, he was the best at his position), and was among the league's five best defenders on eight occasions. The list is long and lustrous, but any way you slice it, Duncan's legacy is above reproach.
On any given court, you have players ranging from a shade under six feet tall to men exhibiting the grandest of pituitary peculiarities. Given this huge range of size and the impact it has on a player's role, comparisons across all positions and eras are tough; one can't expect Duncan to stack up to Michael Jordan, their physical gifts and roles within the game are simply too different, but when we're talking about power forwards, there is no debate, Duncan is the best. Ever. No player at this position has had the same combination of offensive efficiency, defensive prowess, rebounding, shot-blocking, and a general understanding of how the game works as Duncan.
And when the discussion moves to basketball's greatest players, regardless of era or position, Duncan is assuredly in the top 10-20; really, he's done all that one can do in the game, but he's not the greatest.
So let's run it back:
Jeter: one city-one career, legendary numbers, pressure from day one, great but not the greatest
Duncan: one city-one career, legendary numbers, pressure from day one, greatest ever at his position, but not the best to ever play his game.
Totti: A Cut Above the Rest
We know the story all too well. Born and bred in Rome, 200+ goals, 100+ assists 1,000+ backheels, one Scudetto, two Coppa Italias, several Serie A and Italian Footballer of the year awards, and one glistening World Cup trophy.
So what makes Totti so special? Why is he beyond comparison?
Well, not only is he the modern standard bearer for all that is Rome, Totti is the epitome of Italian football, exhibiting all the skill, creativity, and heart of his forebears while leaving an unapproachable legacy for all who follow.
But despite being the greatest Italian to ever play the game, it's what he means to the city of Rome that puts his legacy beyond comparison. If you'll permit me to plagiarize myself, here is what I said about Daniele De Rossi last November, all of which applies to Totti x10:
He's Roman, plain and simple. If you don't understand why that matters, then you are missing a crucial element, and some would say benefit, of being a Roma fan. The emotional bond between the club and its fans, particularly in the 21st century, is what sets it apart from the ever-corporatized face of the sport. Part of it rests with the clubs embodiment of the city: its history, its colors, its passions and its people, which is precisely why born and bred Romans like De Rossi mean so much to the fans--they're the personification of that intangible, unspoken romance that is Rome. He represents, in style and substance and without even uttering a word, all the reasons Romans consider themselves a cut above the rest. You can't really explain why the location of his birth matters; you just know that it does....a lot.
Now take the emotion and irrationality that surrounds De Rossi discussions and wrap it in a Totti-sized shell, and its prominence and profundity grow tenfold. How many among us are Roma fans because of him? Hell, how many of us even know of the club's existence purely because of him?
And it doesn't end there; given the global spread of the game, we can debate ceaselessly about who is the best ever, regardless of nationality, locality, or achievements. It could be Pele, could be Beckenbauer, could be Best.
But when we're talking about Italians, the matter is clear. Francesco Totti is Italian football.
That his resume isn't more lustrous is a testament to why he means so much to Romans. That his numbers, as ridiculous as they are, aren't more so is a credit to his commitment to a team concept, to his willingness and ability to adapt his game to the preference and abilities of his teammates and managers. If he were a more selfish man, insistent upon being the sole focus of offense rather than its facilitator, he would have surpassed 300 goals by now. Had he forsaken his birthplace, he'd be swimming in medals.
But, no matter how you measure him, he is the best Italian to ever play the game. Put simply, no Italian has ever exhibited as vast a skill set and with such supremacy as Francesco Totti. No matter where he's played or what role he's had thrust upon him, he's excelled, and he's done it all over a 20+ year career, the best of which we may have just witnessed.
If football were a more statistically driven sport, we could quantify his greatness in simple terms, but as it stands now, he is within shouting distance of being the game's best scorer, he was at once one of the youngest and oldest outfield players ever, and this coming season, he'll have the most appearances of any non-keeper or defender in Serie A history. And while the assist has only recently come en vogue as a calculated stat, you can rest assured no one has 200+ goals and 100+ assists. When you talk about all these numbers, keep this in mind as well: for as great as he is, Totti was never the biggest or the fastest on the pitch.
I could keep going, but it's probably an easier exercise to say what Totti cannot do, and while comparing football players from generation to generation and league to league is an academic debate (there are simply too many variables from nation to nation and decade-to-decade, in terms of medical advances, financial means, tactical preferences, etc. to make viable comparisons), few could argue that Totti does not belong in the discussion as one the greatest to ever grace the pitch.
But has any man on that list ever meant as much to the people who sing his praises? Have any of them succeeded for so long and in such a volatile atmosphere as Totti? Have any of them placed loyalty above material gain time and time again?
As I try to wrap this up, I'm faced with the nearly impossible task of describing what makes Totti so special, what his career, his legacy, and his mere existence mean to the people and city of Rome. Words will never do this relationship justice because it's not about words; it's about a bond between a man and a city, a city that, for all intents and purposes, should be the center of power, finance, and of football in Italy.
But it's not, nor has it ever been, but they've had this one thing. One thing that they could hold in the face of the northern elite; one thing that was truly theirs, one thing that represented the struggles and successes of the city, one thing that could intrinsically understand why a city that's existed since time immemorial would feel inferior to anyone. This one thing knows why Roma is special, why she's persisted for millennia, and why she can't be measured by material gains.
This one thing is the embodiment of that city, of that identity crisis, and of that indomitable sense of pride.
This one thing is Francesco Totti, and for that, there is no comparison.
(So you've had the American perspective, but is there a Francesco Totti in the world of cricket? Australian Rules Football? Curling? Gaelic Football? Share your comparisons below)