Gavin White was a teenager when he first travelled to Italy to see Francesco Totti in action, having grown up mesmerised by the skills of the Serie A legend. He casts a nostalgic look back on the career of his favourite player, Il Re di Roma.
It was my first trip to see Roma at the age of 15 and they were cruising to a 6-0 win over a hapless Siena but, bizarrely, I was still disappointed. Of course, I came to see Roma, but Totti had been my idol ever since I had started religiously watching them on Football Italia every weekend.
They were up by three and Totti was walking up to the penalty spot. This was it, I said. Then he blew it, of course, missing the spot kick, and he later proceeded to hit the bar with a stunning effort. It wasn’t going to happen. I remember wanting it so bad. That moment you see your favourite player score in real life for the first time will stay with you forever.
Finally, directly in front of where we were sitting in the Distinti Sud of the Olimpico, the ball looped up to the far post where Totti drilled a volley to make it six in the last minute. The place erupted as if the goal had just won the Scudetto and suddenly I was in dreamland.
I have always followed Shelbourne at home but I had fallen for Roma and Il Capitano from afar quite young. I’ll never forget the enduring image of him standing in the middle of the Olimpico clinging on to the little clothing he had left as the crowds scrambled onto the pitch looking to get any piece of memorabilia from Roma’s last Scudetto win. Michelangelo would have been proud to have sculpted him in that exact, iconic state.
He was a player like no other in my eyes. He embodied the romance of the game I had so deeply fallen for as a boy. Time and time again he would score when it was most crucial or just produce a moment of pure unadulterated genius. I remember when he scored that goal in the San Siro against Inter, that I had fallen and smashed a vase in my mother’s sitting room because I was jumping around so much.
Already in love with his style of play and his character, I was most in awe, however, at the World Cup in 2006. Walking into the Hanover Stadium on June 12 for Italy’s opening game of the World Cup they would eventually win, I was feeling nervous.
Tickets were like gold dust for the whole tournament and we had managed to get hold of ‘restricted view’ tickets for the Italian clash with Ghana. I had this fear we’d be behind a concrete pillar or so far back in the stadium that I’d be needing binoculars.
We got in and thought something must be wrong because we were in the front row on the half way line. The restricted view was a cameraman and Mauro Camaronesi was sprinting by us two metres away in the warm-up. You could see the sweat dripping on the Italians’ foreheads on a sticky, humid and hot night in Hanover.
It was unbelievable but during the 90 minutes, time after time, Totti was so close to us that I was mesmerised, taken in by his control, his touch and his utter coolness.
“The ball just stuck to him, opponents just bounced off him. Having taken the pilgrimage to see Il Gladiatore in Rome eight or nine times, I knew this was the closest I’d ever get to him.”
At one stage, he came over to where we were sitting to take a throw and I just wanted to shout out Francesco, but I genuinely just didn’t want to disturb genius. I found it hilarious that he had his critics back in Ireland. He won this world cup with the highest assist ratio and those assists started in this game where he just didn’t make any mistakes.
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) May 29, 2017
Going to see Roma was always magical and every time I went, Totti’s god-like presence just grew and grew. The final time was on his birthday on September 27, 2014. Myself and a friend had been snuck into the famous Curva Sud by an Italian man, also named Francesco, who didn’t speak a word of English. He had taken care of us that day and the only thing we could converse on was Totti’s greatness. Whenever we’d get lost in our lack of coherent discussion, we’d just say ‘Totti’ and we’d start clinking beers again.
The legendary stadium announcer Carlo Zampa was almost inconsolable with tears of joy when he was announcing Totti’s name on the line-ups before the game. I really would be surprised if he got that emotional with his own son. It was as if he was introducing the return of Christ into the Vatican. In the Curva, one very hard-as-nails man, who had previously described to us his run in with CSKA Moscow ultras the week before, was visibly welling up when Totti was being substituted.
He was surreal but at the same time was one of them – a true marvel. Totti’s final game was suitably dramatic. Roma got off to a nightmare start, but there was no better reminder of the longevity of the Roman king when 16-year-old Pietro Pellegri fired Genoa in front after three minutes to stun the Stadio Olimpico. Pellegri wasn’t even born when Totti first put on the Giallorossi jersey for the first time.
How must the teenager have felt when the Olimpico erupted with noise as Totti came off the bench? The boy must have been on top of the world when he became Serie A’s youngest ever goalscorer but would soon know just how far he has to go to achieve even a fraction of what Totti has in the decades the icon has spent as Roma’s number 10. Grazie Francesco.
Although sometimes known for being one half of electronic music group White Collar Boy, Gavin White is a journalist for the Irish Independent and writes on football too for extratime.ie
Main Image: @ASRomaEN