Three years ago, during what turned out to be Francesco Totti's final season with the only club he's ever known, we asked the question: What if that wasn't the case? What if Totti wasn't a one-club man? What if he actually moved to Real Madrid in the summer of 2004?
It wasn't exactly a well-kept secret, as by some accounts Real Madrid had been chasing him since at least 2001, but in the summer of ‘04 it seemed more plausible. By that point, Totti, at only 27-years-old, was already climbing the ranks of Roma greats. Starting with the Scudetto season in ‘00-’01, Totti put together an incredible four-year run, scoring 68 goals and providing 27 assists in 138 appearances. He was, by any estimation, one of the best attacking players in the world.
However, after capturing that ‘01 title, Roma fell one point short of repeating as Italian champions the following season, then tumbled all the way down to eighth place in 2003 before finishing a distant second (nine points) to Milan in 2003-2004. Roma weren't bad, per se, but it sure seemed like Totti achieved all he could with the Giallorossi.
With several years of his physical peak left, Totti's taste for titles wasn't satiated, and that desire to win more nearly led him to the Spanish capital in the summer of ‘04:
The time I really was on the verge of leaving was for Real Madrid in 2004-05. I really was on the cusp of that transfer, it was practically all done.
I wanted to win. We’d won one Scudetto and then lost two straight afterwards. We were slowing down our progress, so I wanted us to buy champions and hire coaches to win trophies.
I saw a lot of problems. However, Franco Sensi was like a father to me and I gave him everything I possibly could.
Saddled by the Sensi's debt, Roma were no match for the northern clubs who could (and often did) outspend them without batting an eye. With no champions rushing to his aid, Roma would go only as far as Totti could take them. The weight of the club, and in essence the city itself, rested on Totti's shoulders.
No one could question his love and commitment to the club, but it was fair to ask if Roma were supporting Totti as much as he was supporting them. In that light, and considering that he delivered the club it's first Scudetto in nearly 20 years (and very nearly did back-to-back titles), could you really have faulted Totti if he left for Madrid; a club whose finances matched his talent and ambitions.
Before we delve into the finances of this move, let's just take a look at what Totti could have had with Real Madrid. The 2004-2005 La Liga season was an odd one for Real. Despite having a stacked roster, they ripped through three managers before falling four points short of Barcelona at the top of the table.
Still, despite that less than glamorous finish, this squad was oozing with talent. Throw Totti into the mix and who knows what may have happened, but check out this potential starting eleven and tell me it wouldn't have given opposing managers nightmares.
I mean, come...on! You couldn't even assemble that squad on FIFA. Sure, Zidane and Figo were a bit past it by 2004, but this team still would have had Totti, David Beckham, Michel Salgado, Roberto Carlos and Walter Samuel at or near their primes, the original Ronaldo enjoying arguably the greatest stretch of his career, a young Iker Casillas in goal and the likes of Raul and Michael Owen coming off the bench.
Totti scored 15 goals and 12 assists in 40 appearances for Roma during the 2004-2005 season, and moving to a less defensive league like La Liga, not to mention playing with that squad, it's not crazy to think Totti could have pumped 20 goals while chipping in 16 or 17 assists. His mere presence would have also afforded more rest for the aging Zidane and Figo, while his skill, touch and vision could have made life easier for Ronaldo and Michael Owen.
Totti's greatest gift was always his ability to create for others, and with that kind of talent around him, the sky was the limit. Add all that up, and it's entirely possible that Real could have closed the four-point gap over Barcelona at the top of the table.
And that was just one season. Without making too many fictional tweaks to Real's mid 2000s history, Totti would have been front and center for some ridiculously talented teams.
Let's assume that Totti stayed with Madrid for seven seasons (through the 2010-2011 season), playing at the Bernabeu until he was 33-years-old, like Figo and Zidane before him. In this reality, (in addition to the names in that lineup) Totti would have lined up along side Sergio Ramos, Robinho, Emerson, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Kaka, Xabi Alonso, Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, and Sami Khedira, among others.
That's an exhaustive list of talent, and perhaps the presence of Totti, who could play virtually any role in attack, would have prevented Madrid from investing in flame-outs like Julio Baptista or Klass Jan Huntelaar. But just imagine Totti feeding Ronaldo or Benzema with through balls, Totti and Robben and/or Kaka twisting and turning defenders in the final third, or Totti and Beckham tilting the pitch with their crosses and switches of play. These could have been some of the most entertaining teams in the history of the sport.
Even with all that talent on the pitch, this was an odd time in Real's history, at least in terms of European success. During this fictional Totti run (2004-2011), Real made only one Champions League semi-final in 2011, where they fell to league rivals Barcelona. But who knows, could this Totti-led team have overcome Barca, setting the stage for him to win the one trophy that alluded him throughout his Roma career? Totti lifting the Champions League trophy at Wembley Stadium after vanquishing Manchester United would have been amazing.
All we can really do is speculate about this alternate reality, but the fact that he willfully ignored such an easier path to glory is part of the reason we all love him so much. As the saying goes, winning one title in Roma is like ten elsewhere.
But let's get to the heart of the matter: What would a Totti-less Roma have looked like in the mid to late 2000s? Would they have plummeted to the lower reaches of the table or soldiered on without their captain?
For the sake of this thought exercise, let's assume Totti returned to Roma for the 2011-2012 season and remained, just as he did in reality, with the club through the 2016-2017 season.
First thing we need to do is figure out just how much Roma could have fetched for Totti in the summer of 2004. Fortunately for us, the Corriere dello Sport did just that last year, when they ran through Totti's transfer values at various stages of his career.
We provided historical context to those figures, but based on the CdS’ estimates, Totti in 2004 would have been worth an eye popping €150 million; a figure that would still cause double-takes today. In reality, the most expensive transfer that summer was Didier Drogba's €28 million move from Marseilles to Chelsea (roughly €38 million in today's market).
That wasn't necessarily an outrageous figure, but the early 2000s did see its fair share of market-setting moves, most of which were orchestrated by Real Madrid. Totti's fictional teammates in this scenario, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, each made record setting moves to Real in consecutive summers, with Figo landing in Madrid for €62 million and Zizou for a whopping €77 million.
Now here is where things get interesting. Even if you remove our Roma bias, I think we can all agree Totti was superior to Figo, so Roma would easily clear sixty-million for Totti in this dark timeline.
Zidane? Well, that's a tougher comparison. By any estimation, they're two of the best attacking players of the past several decades, each possessing skill, intelligence, technique, and the uncanny ability to make other players better. However, Zizou's greater success at the club level tends to make him seem better to neutral observers, so I'm not sure Totti would have been more valuable on the 2004 transfer market.
But, Totti had one slight advantage over his would-be teammate: age. Zidane was 29-years-old when he moved to Madrid in 2001, and in this scenario, Totti would join the Galacticos at only 27-years-old (though he’d turn 28 once the season started). So, let's assume that slight edge pushed him past Zidane's €77 million price point; we should also account for the fact Real were chasing Totti for several years.
Considering all of that, not to mention that Real were fresh off an embarrassing fourth place finish the prior season, it's not crazy to think that Roma could have gotten at least €80 million for Totti in the summer of 2004, and maybe even €90 million if Sensi could have lured Roman Abramovic and Chelsea into the negotiations.
But, for the sake of argument, let's say Roma were able to leverage Madrid's poor form and their desperation for Totti into a €80 million windfall, then what? How would Roma have fared between 2004 and 2011?
Well, the first thing we should do is look at Roma's 2004-2005 squad without Totti. But remember, this was the year of three managers: Cesare Prandelli (who left before the season started to care for his ailing wife), Rudi Völler and Luigi del Neri, so they were hardly the picture of stability.
If we're being honest, that's not a terrible squad, but even with Totti, they fell all the way to eighth place. On the surface, that's not disastrous; depressing but not the end of the world. However, we must consider the context of the 2004-2005 league table. Roma may have finished eighth with 48 points, but they were only six points clear of the drop...six points. Could this squad, with Antonio Cassano leading the way, have managed those same 48 points? It's a scary thought, but without Totti's 12 goals and 10 assists, Roma could have been serious relegation candidates.
Now here comes the difficult part: forecasting what Roma would have done with the €80 million they got for Totti. The Sensi's debt likely ran deeper than that, and they wouldn't sell the club for several more years, so we'll assume they wouldn't have merely sat on that eighty million but invested some of it in finding his replacement.
Would they have gone for a play-maker or a pure goal-scorer? Invested in youth or gotten a proven product? Assuming they'd spend that €80 million within the first two summers, there was quite a bit of talent on the transfer market between 2004 and 2005 (modern transfer equivalencies per Transfermarkt):
- Didier Drogba (2004: €38 million to Chelsea)
- Wayne Rooney (2004: €37 million to Manchester United)
- Samuel Eto’o (2004: €27 million to Barcelona)
- Deco (2004: €21 million to Barcelona)
- Arjen Robben (2004: €18 million to Chelsea)
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (2004: €16 million to Juventus)
- Michael Owen (2005: €25 million to Newcastle)
- Robinho (2005: €24 million to Real Madrid)
- David Villa (2005: €12 million to Valencia)
- Luca Toni (2005: €10 million to Fiorentina)
AC Milan claimed the 2003-2004 title by nine points over second place Roma, so, even if Totti left, Roma were still an appealing club to up and coming players. Whether or not they could have lured any of those names away from the likes of United, Real, Barcelona or Chelsea is an entirely different question, however.
Assuming they couldn't persuade any of those bigger names, a best-case scenario would have seen something like Luca Toni, Fabio Cannavaro and maybe Giorgio Chiellini come to the capital for €30 to €35 million, but even then, you're still competing with Juve for the latter two names. Rather than competing for star talent, it's more likely that Roma would have invested in two or three Italian players to shore up the squad.
Even without a marquee name leading them onto the pitch every week, it's not likely Roma would have completely fallen off the cliff. But if we assume that certain things still would have come to pass (Cassano and Chivu leaving, Vucinic and Taddei arriving, De Rossi ascending, Aquilani struggling with health), could Roma have even managed those string of second place finishes to close out the 2000s? Would they have won back-to-back Coppa Italia titles between 2006 and 2008 without Totti leading the way?
Consider Totti's performances between 2004 and 2011, his fictional stay in Madrid. Over those seven seasons, Totti made 256 appearances, scored 139 goals, and contributed 61 assists. Without some sort of super-stat linking those numbers to actual wins, we can't definitively say how much worse off Roma would have been without Totti at his absolute apex, but, let's be real, you can't replace that; Totti was Roma's chief play-maker and biggest goal threat during this era.
Totti at Madrid really only raises one question: How much would he have won? But this Roma-less Totti raises a litany of issues for the Giallorossi between 2004 and 2011. In addition to who they would have signed in his absence or how much they would have won, consider these issues:
- What happens to De Rossi: Do they develop him in a more attacking role? With Totti gone, might he follow suit in the 2010s?
- Is there any scenario in which they pin all their hopes on Cassano?
- Does Matteo Brighi somehow fulfill his potential as a play-maker?
- Would they have pushed harder for some of the talent they allegedly missed out on; Gareth Bale perhaps?
- Would they have rebuilt themselves as a defensive juggernaut instead?
- How many managerial changes would there have been?
- Is the club sold sooner than 2011?
- Would that 2016-2017 team, with Spalletti still attached, have survived?
We're not suggesting that Totti directly impeded the development of any player or trend, but without his monumental presence in all things Roma, there would be huge gaps in the clubs development during this period.
For a club as old as AS Roma, there are no shortage of What ifs, but none loom quite as large as the prospect of Francesco Totti leaving the only club he's ever known. From the results on the pitch to the actual value of the club itself, Totti leaving would have changed everything about Roma.
I could (and have) waxed poetically about the bond between Francesco Totti and Roma, but no one can describe it quite like the man himself.
Twenty-seven years ago, there was a knock on the door of our apartment in Rome. My mother, Fiorella, went to answer. Who happened to be on the other side would define my football career.
When she opened the door, a group of men introduced themselves as football directors.
But they weren’t from Roma. They were wearing red and black. They were from AC Milan. And they wanted me to come play for their team. At any cost.
My mother threw up her hands. What do you think she said to the gentlemen?
When you are a kid in Rome, there are only two possible choices: You are either red or blue. AS Roma or Lazio. But in our family, there was only one possible choice.
Our love for Roma was something we carried on. Roma was more than a football club. It was part of our family, our blood, our souls...
It was hard saying no to AC Milan. It would have meant a lot of money for our family. But my mother taught me a lesson that day. Your home is the most important thing in life.
People ask me, why spend your whole life in Rome?
Rome is my family, my friends, the people that I love. Rome is the sea, the mountains, the monuments. Rome, of course, is the Romans.
Rome is the yellow and red.
Rome, to me, is the world.
This club, this city, has been my life.
We have a saying around these parts. If you don't understand why Francesco Totti playing for Roma matters, then you don't understand Roma.
Totti understood that and he lived it. And for nearly three decades we were lucky enough to witness the greatest and most unique career in the history of sport.