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Totti’s Grail

How the King of Rome overcame injury to help his nation lift the sport’s most coveted trophy

Italian Football Federation Trophies And Memorabilia Are Displayed In Palermo
All that glitters is gold.
Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

The Injury

On February 9th, 2006, A.S. Roma hosted Empoli F.C. at the Stadio Olimpico. Looking for a tenth consecutive win under Luciano Spalletti, Roma came into the match in fine form despite a slow start of the season, nipping at the heels of 4th place Fiorentina. Moreover, with captain Francesco Totti tallying 15 goals and a handful of assists, the Giallorossi looked likely to steal away all three points in Tuscany. And they did, equaling the consecutive win record set by Juventus; however, what was not expected was the egregious loss of their most influential player.

In the eleventh minute, Empoli defender, Richard Vanigli, lunged at Totti from behind, catching him on the achilles and sending the number 10 into an awkward, backwards fall. When the ankle everted, the collective heart of Roma missed a beat. A cry of agony from Totti did not quell the fears of those who watched in horror. When Francesco was unable to walk off the pitch, covering his face as he was stretchered away, it was clear the injury was serious.

A fracture in his tibia along with severe ligament damage would require ten screws to stabilize the bone, not to mention 33 stitches to properly mend the incisions. More alarming was his estimated time of recovery, between two and three months, leaving his eligibility for the 2006 World Cup in doubt. Despite the consequences of such an injury, Totti remained cheerful and confident of a speedy recovery.

“He joked that his son Cristian will take his place for Roma against Lazio next Sunday,” said Spalletti.

Italy coach, Marcelo Lippi, remained optimistic as well, knowing that the Roma captain was irreplaceable. The tactician from Viareggio needed a healthy Totti as the trequarista in his 4-3-1-2, slotted behind Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni. Without Totti, the system would have to change.

After a successful surgery, Francesco began an accelerated rehabilitation plan. Many believed the Roman would return to action in time, yet there was uncertainty whether he’d be fully fit to participate on the world’s largest stage. Even Lippi remained cautious about the playmaker’s stability, claiming, “he [will] go up against opponents that won't have much regard for him.” Yet, still, Totti was adamant, almost certain, that he would participate.

May 11th, almost exactly two months after the injury, Il Gladiatore returned to the pitch as a substitute in Roma’s 3-1 Coppa Italia loss to Inter Milan. While he hardly made an impact in the fixture, his mere presence meant wonders for the Italian national team. Totti had recovered just in time for Germany.

World Cup 2006

With fierce determination and a metal-plated ankle, Francesco Totti stepped onto the pitch at the Niedersachsenstadion (then blandly named FIFA World Cup Stadium), tallying 56 minutes and an assist to Andrea Pirlo for Italy’s first goal of the tournament. In the Azzurri’s second group stage match against the USA, Totti was sacrificed after 35 minutes due the early expulsion of Daniele De Rossi who ferociously elbowed the United States’s Golden Boy, Brian Mcbride. However, Er Pupone returned in the following fixture against the Czech Republic, providing a corner-kick assist to defender, Marco Materazzi. Undefeated, Italy claimed top spot in Group E, setting up a round of sixteen matchup against underdogs, Australia.

The knockout stage game against the Socceroos proved anything but an easy task for the Italians. After a barrage of missed chances, and stellar goalkeeping from Mark Schwarzer, Marco Materazzi was shown a direct red for a two-footed challenge. As expected, the momentum shifted in Australia's favor who used the extra man advantage to dominate possession. Still, Gianluigi Buffon was mostly untested while his defense remained stout. The game moved into injury time frenetically at nil nil. It wasn’t until the 95th minute when everything changed. Galloping into the box, a weary Fabio Grosso was taken down, and in controversial fashion, referee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, pointed to the spot.

After what many believed to be mediocre performances in the group stage, and still visibly hampered by injury, Francesco Totti, stepped up for what would be the most profound penalty kick of his career. His eyes, cool steel, portrayed a man at a climactic moment. Millions watched as the cameras closed in on those eyes. Eyes of focus. Eyes of determination. A paradox of fire and ice. It was as if the road to recovery lead him to this juncture. Sink the ball and never look back.

A rocket to the upper left corner would seal the game, booking the Azzurri a flight to Hamburg for a quarterfinal tie with Ukraine.

The game winner against Australia reinvigorated Totti, seemingly inspiring his performances to come. In Hamburg, the playmaker was involved in the first two goals, providing a backboard pass for Zambrotta’s left-footed zinger and lofting a perfect assist to Luca Toni for the second. Italy would ease past Ukraine 3-0, with Francesco finding his form in his preferred roaming position. However, Italy’s toughest test was still to come against powerhouse and favorite, Germany, in the semi-finals.

As host nation, Germany were favorites going into the semi-final fixture. With the stadium behind them and a squad stacked with talent, the Germans started the match in fiery fashion, testing Buffon early and often. Yet, Italy fought back, hitting the post twice before Andrea Pirlo slotted a refined, no-look pass to Fabio Grosso who put the Azzurri in front with a left-footed curler. What followed was an iconic celebration of disbelief with Totti joining in with a hilarious bottle toss into the crowd (see: Totti’s Top 5 Celebrations). But comedy aside, Totti would contribute in the second goal with an easy through ball to Gilardino that sparked Alessandro Del Piero’s cry-inducing finish. To the sadness of all German fans, Italy shutout the host nation, taking their vigor onto the last stage: a final against France.

Anecdotal aside: As an 18 year old, I watched this pass, convinced that I just witnessed magic.

The 2006 World Cup Final would go down as the craziest, intense, dramatic, blood-pumping, heart-wrenching game of recent memory. A match that had it all: cheeky PKs, monstrous headers, post-rattles, flair, heroes, villains, twists-of-fate, head-butts, red cards, and so much more. Yet, somewhat anti-climatically, Francesco Totti had a quite game to his standards. Yes, he provided his usual precise passes, providing a pinpoint cross to Fabio Cannavaro whose header went blocked in front of goal. But for whatever reason, his style of play did not suit this match. Lippi, opting for a more defensive approach, subbed on Roma’s Future Captain, Daniele De Rossi, in what can only be described at this moment as dramatic foreshadowing. Totti would not participate in the the legendary PKs which saw Italy overcome France 5-3.

The Legacy

Italy’s 2006 World Cup performance was extraordinary. Looking back at the games, one does not have to over-analyze to see that Lippi had inspirited his squad from the beginning. From defense to attack, the Azzurri squad of 2006 was far from elite, yet their effort and winning mentality allowed them to surpass stronger squads. And yes, they had Pirlo and Totti orchestrating the game with magic. How they fought out victories was remarkable. Specifically, Francesco Totti’s rise to form proved a vital component to the team’s success. If he had missed that PK, who knows if the Italians would have been able to hold on against Australia. Moreover, in the semi-final against Germany, fans witnessed a classic Totti performance, complete with flicks, through-passes, and the aforementioned bicycle-pass.

As planned, Totti retired from the national team after raising the world cup. It would be his greatest achievement as a player, alongside his solitary scudetto with Roma. Although he would flirt with an Azzurri return for years to come, he never took the bait from wanting coaches. Surely, he knew he could never recapture the glory of 2006. When looking back at all the obstacles in his way, fans will remember the Eternal Captain’s road to victory with Italy as a testament of his will. Not only did he participate in the tournament at less than 100%, but he also was a vital component in the team’s success. While Giallorossi fans would have loved for the King of Rome to hold a champions league cup, the FIFA World Cup Trophy will forever be Francesco Totti’s greatest accomplishment.