Re-inventing football, re-inventing oneself

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."
-Arthur Schopenhauer

Part of my required everyday Internet reading takes me to TrueHoop, an eminent basketball blog. A couple of weeks ago, Henry Abbott wrote a great post examining that sport's two best players. Even if you should happen to have no interest in basketball, the angle from which Abbott takes on the subject is very interesting, at least my hunch is that even non b-ball aficionados can appreciate it. The post is worth reading, so I recommend you to do so.
In short, he mentions world renowned chef Ferran Adrià and his talent for creating new, previously unthought-of dishes, and goes on by likening LeBron James to Adrià's experimental creations, whereas Kobe Bryant represents man's staple food; steak. Now, without wanting to encourage comparisons between Totti and LeBron - they are fundamentally different athletes even considering the different sports - Abbott's post was on my mind as this piece you're reading started gaining traction. Totti, like LeBron, isn't the norm for his position nor sport, and he plays the game very different from anyone else right now. This is a look at how Totti plays, and how it has evolved from that March day in 1993 (no, that's not a typo. 1993.).

Totti is a paradoxical footballer. He is so many things that he either weren't at earlier stages of his career, or even a few years ago, or that you would never expect him or anyone like him to be. In the sixteen years Totti has played for Roma he's gone through many phases. He's been the young pup with eye-popping talent, he's been the full blood trequartista in the purest of moulds, he's been The Man in international football's second most successful team ever, he's been a Roman Bobo Vieri, he's been an Italian De Stefano. But ultimately, and most importantly, he's always been Checco. That kid who grew up to be a family man, but whose inner child has remained within him, with his trademark grin ready to be flashed at a moment's notice.

In December of 2005 away to Sampdoria, an injury crisis (sounds familiar, doesn't it?) forced Totti to move to the front of the team, operating as the sole 1 in the to-be famous 4-2-3-1 system. He scored Roma's goal in the one all draw, but more importantly, he would score eight times in the coming eleven games (of which he virtually played only nine) as Roma set a new serie A record for most consecutive wins. As he suffered at the hands of substandard defenders everywhere, that afternoon in the shape of Empoli's Vanigli, he went down, and out. The team had enough steam left to dismiss lazio in the coming game to break the record, pushed on by Totti's mere presence on the sidelines, in crutches, having had his operation performed successfully mere days previously. During the game Totti became the talisman, young Aquilani who inevitably grew up idolizing Totti running out for his blessing and his touch after scoring the final goal of the evening. After the game, everyone, from player to Mister, put on shirts with his name and number on the back, and the words 'Forza Capitano' written on the chest, for the post game celebration. But without Totti in his new-found role, the team soon withered and became distinctly beatable, crumbling down as the season finished.

That was a not entirely unnatural reaction to losing one's leader, especially in footballing Rome. The only thing one can count on with any Roma edition through the ages is an atmosphere that could never lend itself to creating machines. I'm talking about those machine like teams, usually with stripes, who habituate the north of the peninsula, and who for the most part win, win and win. There's too much scrutiny, too much genuine warmth from the fans for that to happen, and so Roma remains a perfect reflection of it's captain; at times brilliant in the truest sense of the word, and at times victim of its temperament. But I digress - Totti's leadership wasn't the only reason that team soon fell back to normalcy, the team lost with it his goals. Having moved up one step from the trequartista role, Totti now found himself the principal finisher of every other Roma move, having spent a fine career making sure others got to be the one that ended plays. That added responsibility was on top of remaining creator-in-chief, re-interpreting what it was that a targetman, a striker and a trequartista usually did, all at the same time.

Rather than mirroring other big men who are used for points of reference (i.e. hoof the ball to the big guy, and see if he can nod it on), Totti created (or if not, at the very least re-vitalized) another way in which he could function as the lighthouse. By never remaining constantly in the box, as strikers are prone to, he was a reference for every Roma player with the ball in the final third of the pitch, no matter where they were. He ran back, presented himself as an option, and sucked the ball in before releasing it, either for a one-two or for an entirely new opening. And after doing so, he'd somehow beat his marker back into the box and be available to finish the play as well. His affect on Simone Perrotta between 2006 and 2008 is modern folklore, in how his holding of the ball and subsequent killer pass released Perrotta and managed to turn this previous mediano into a real danger, worthy of special study from opposition coaches on just how to stop his maniacal running. Despite battling injury problems and with nine metal screws left in his foot, Totti did what few expected (it seems he has always knows he could do this), and put up goalscoring numbers every single last player to have ever played the game would have been proud of: through his unorthodox interpretation of what an attacker is, he scored 32 goals that year, winning the Golden Boot as Europe's best goalscorer.

But for the bulk of his career, Totti was nothing like what he is now. He matured into a trequartista's trequartista, the quintessential Italian fantasista. The ultimate luxury player, whose only raison d'être was to roam around that fabled land between opposition midfield and defense, and serve up his team mates their bread and butter. Never frail, he is now a lot more sturdy and robust than he was around the turn of the millennia - coupled with a then more permitting mindset and reasoning, he fell often. Sometimes, much more than now, because he wanted to, even more often because he was the most fouled and kicked player in serie A. Now it is he who uses his physique as an added weapon - the way he turned away Criscito, one of the finest defensive talents in Italy, a year and a half ago, as if he weren't even there was enough for Juve to lose faith and send him to the dog house, and then later put on the train back to Genoa.

Totti is a living, breathing paradox. He dreams of winning the Golden Ball for Europe's best player in a season, yet he essentially sacrificed his career by staying with Roma, instead of going to play for Real Madrid or Milan. His personal exposure and recognition would, doubtlessly, increase exponentially with such a move, along with his chances of winning the award, but he stayed. He fought his way back from an injury that has ended careers in record breaking time (back kicking a ball after 58 days, projected recovery time was four to six months) to be able to play in the World Cup, only to very publicly declare that the final in Coppa Italia the season after was of much greater importance to him. He is also at the same time the Romans' ideal representative and a living caricature of Romans for many in Italy, finally being accepted despite his accent and native city, yet also mocked for it and a lack of intelligence. (Although I feel it must be said the books he released with jokes on his own expense showed a very astute self awareness, clearly going beyond the confines people in general has assumed of his intellect.) And despite my suspicions that a lot of his perceived thickness is more intertwined with his accent than the meaning and/or thinking behind the words, I'm not here to proclaim him as an intellectual. But he is a genius. Because no one can play football in that way without being one. His single greatest strength - forget being able to pass forty meters onto the toe of a team mate, forget being able to shoot the ball faster than a bullet - is his intelligence, and the way he instinctively understands the game. He sees passing angles others couldn't conceive of even if they were able to stop time and study the situation from three different directions. Simon Kuper wrote once for the Financial Times:
Studying him on freezing Roman evenings this winter, I was mesmerised by his pass. Totti plays with his head up, always in balance. He sees the furthest pass first, and can hit it first touch with the inside or outside of either foot, or with either heel: he is in effect, six-footed. He rarely bothers running, but can shed a marker with one clever step.
That, to me, is a near perfect description of Totti's genius. Kuper seems to understand what those who only look at his or Roma's game superficially miss: Totti is slow when running, but he does not slow down the game. Contrary to the view many seem to hold of him, he doesn't slow the game down, rather he jacks up the pace by hitting the ball first time. What can be faster than that?

The next goal Totti scores in serie A pushes him into the top ten list of most prolific goalscorers ever in the competition, with 174 (tied with other Roma legend Amadei). Five more after that and he surpasses Boniperti, which for those who know their history, is about as telling as can be. Especially when we consider that Totti become an attacker in the twilight of 2005, less than three and a half years ago. He has scored 215 goals for Roma in all, but for twelve years of his professional career he was an attacking midfielder whose job it was to pass the ball, not score himself. Genius.