I am sure you heard it, too: AS Roma legend Francesco Totti just retired after over 20 years at the Club.
Although I admire his soft touch, amazing vision and technical ability, he’s not one of those players who made me dream; I will be forever grateful for the paneka spot-kick against Holland during the epic Euro 2000 semi-final and also for the professional, ice-cold conversion of another all-important spot-kick, against Australia during Germany 2006 World Cup but that’s basically it.
I felt he lacked some poetry, as a player, if compared to Roberto Baggio or Dennis Bergkamp, only to name some illustrious number 10s.
That’s just my view and I’m not here to debate where Francesco Totti ranks among the finest footballers in Italy, Europe and the world.
His retirement made me think about how much loyalty counts for supporters and how many footballers seems to ignore its importance.
Francesco Totti send-off was extraordinary, the whole stadium was in tears and everyone, from the grandma to the little kid, were paying a well-deserved tribute to the King of Rome, l’enfant du pays who went through the ranks and became possibly the best player in the Club’s history.
I was watching him crying, waving at the supporters, reading a letter to them and my mind went to the days I’ve seen the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Javier Zanetti and Alessandro Del Piero called it a day.
Although they all have different stories and different backgrounds, the farewell days were pretty similar – which prompted me to ask: what makes a legend?
When you look at Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, it’s rather easy to understand why they’re seen as true symbols of AC Milan: they rose through the youth system, won everything a footballer can dream of and never switched to another Club. Jackpot!
If you look at Javier Zanetti, it is very much the opposite: he came from Argentina at 22-years old, alongside the much more hyped Sebastian Rambert, and slowly won the heart of his fans through dedication, passion and – most important – loyalty.
FC Internazionale went through some really tough times and Zanetti was coveted by several big Clubs but always refused to leave his Club.
He got rewarded, eventually, in the late years of his career in Milan, when he grabbed several league titles and the famous Triplete under José Mourinho, but if you ask any of his former fans, Javier Zanetti would have been a Club legend regardless of trophies.
The story is slightly different for Alessandro Del Piero, who only joined Juventus as 19-years old and was initially brought to bolster the youth team squad.
He’s not a local lad but he won everything and, most important, stuck to the Club even after the relegation to Serie B, showing fantastic loyalty.
I guess a similar reception will be prepared for Gianluigi Buffon when he retires (will he, ever?), despite the fact the he joined from arch-rivals Parma as a full international and was born nowhere near Turin; he too turned down the chance to join another Club when Juventus were relegated and won several trophies with the Bianconeri.
Then, there is Francesco Totti: born and raised in Rome, from a family of AS Roma fanatics, he joined the Club as a 13-years old kid and retired at the age of 41, having spent his whole career at the same Club despite winning close to nothing.
He has a league title at his name and two Coppa Italia – nothing to do with the charm and tradition of the FA Cup, mind – which is a very low return for such a talented player.
He turned down AC Milan and Real Madrid several times, moves that would have guaranteed him lots of trophies and a serious candidature to the Ballon d’Or, yet he’s sent-off a hero not only from his fans, but also from fellow footballers from all over Europe and a lot of neutral – if not rival – fans.
To the eyes of the majority of football fans and also from other footballers’ point of view, loyalty seems to count as much as trophies, when it’s time to write history.
The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, Figo and many others cannot identify themselves with one Club and its fans but only with trophies – which I guess is very rewarding for them but don’t make them any different from Matt Le Tissier or Johnny Haynes – players who won nothing at Club level.
I fully understand every player’s desire to challenge for major honours but I wonder if Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie really feel they will be making history; sure, they put their hands on some trophies – not many, to be honest – and got some medals to show but what status would have they reached, had they stayed with us?
When you see the unbelievable gratefulness and esteem we do have towards any player who graced the red&white, you could only imagine how legendary these two players might have been for the Arsenal.
Regardless of the trophies they might or might not have won during their time in Islington, Robin van Persie would have easily spent 13 seasons at the Club and would have got very close to the Club’s top goalscorers, while Cesc Fàbregas might have represented the Club for almost twenty seasons, captaining the side for at least ten years.
That alone would have granted an eternal place in the Gunners history and, more in general, in the history of English football – while today one is hated by two sets of fans – us and Manchester United – while the other has somehow wasted the best years of his career on the bench at Barcelona.
It’s not about being nostalgic or playing a pointless “what-if” game, it’s more about preserving the romantic, poetic side of football that is slowly but surely fading away; footballers are too quick to forget how much they mean for supporters – especially the younger ones – and how much loyalty counts for many of us.
Even more than trophies, apparently.
Thirty-something Italian, currently in Switzerland. Gooner since mid-ninties, when the Gunners defeated my hometown team, in Copenhagen. Twelve years ago I started my own blog (www.clockenditalia.com) after after some experiences with Italian websites and football magazines. Debate, don’t insult or you’re out.