Judging by Francesco Totti’s goals in Roma’s match against Sampdoria on November 26, his left extremity is doing just fine, hardware in his ankle notwithstanding. Any doubts were put to rest by the blistering left-footed volley that tore across Samp’s penalty area in the 74th minute, leaving Samp defenders bug-eyed and millions of soccer fans in blissful awe.
The odyssey of Totti’s left foot started against Empoli last February: on a tackle by Richard Vanigli the Roma captain’s ankle gets twisted like a corkscrew -- ligaments tear to shreds and fibula goes to pieces. A super-speedy recovery allows Totti to play a key role in Italy’s journey to World Cup victory with 10 screws in his left ankle. But throughout Germany 2006 there’s no getting over the feeling that to field Totti is like serving dinner to rowdy relatives on granma’s precious china: impressive on special occasions, but everyone’s just dreading a crash at any moment. And after the azzurri’s victory, the announcement that shocked Italy: Totti’s feet are no longer available to the world champion squad, at least till 2007.
It’s Totti’s decision, and it’s final. “I won’t play for the nazionale as long as there are screws in my ankle,” he’s been quoted as saying. “My mind is only on Roma,’ he says.
To the millions of Italians who support the big teams of the North, Totti’s refusal to play for the world champion national team has been seen as an affront to the nation. Never known as the sharpest knife in the drawer -- Totti joke-books based on the idea that he’s a dim-wit who only expresses himself in vulgar romanesco have been available at practically every newsstand in Italy for many years– Totti’s stance has confirmed his detractors’ view of him as a typical Roman ruffian: venal, cynical, and arrogant (Juve fans will contrast Totti’s arrogance in refusing play with la nazionale to Ale del Piero’s humility in accepting relegation to serie B). Even Michel Platini has weighed in on the controversy, from across the Alps, to say that Totti has no right to make such a decision. Totti’s feet, it seems, should be treated as a national treasure -- or at least as state property.
What’s interesting about all this is that in the globalized world of soccer superstars, Francesco Totti is what the ancient Romans would’ve called rara avis, a rare bird. He’s a homeboy playing for his home team in his hometown. Born in Rome, bred in Rome, trained by AS Roma youth squad, Totti, just like defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi, has never played – or wanted to play – anywhere else than in Rome, for his people. So when he says his mind is only on Roma, that’s exactly what he means. And while detractors see him as cynically protecting his assets, his adoring Roman fans see him as the real deal in a world of fakes and mercenaries: he’s “the Kid” -- “Er Pupo”, as you’d only say in Rome.
In a curious twist of fate, northerners whose politics might lean toward support for federalism and separation from Rome , the capital of the nation, are now using the nationalist stick to beat up on Totti for declaring football independence from the national team. But Totti’s focus on Roma is obviously paying off for the giallorossi – that’s five victories in a row for his team, now second in Serie A. Can Romans count on their homegrown talent to topple international Inter and “Emperor” Adriano?