Can we talk about football?
"What else would we talk about?"
Francesco Totti was 12 when he joined Roma. Over 26 years later, he’s still captain of the club he idolised as a boy and still in love with the game of football. Why wouldn’t we want to ask him about it?
Let’s begin with the start of your career in 1993 when you made your debut in Serie A. It all began for you as an attacking midfielder or second striker…
“Yes. I was young and I had a lot of strikers ahead of me. [Abel] Balbo was there and then in ’94 [Daniel] Fonseca joined too. At that time I liked providing goals for my team-mates. My job was to set up as many goals for them as possible. I enjoyed setting them up more than I did scoring myself.”
Then came Zdeněk Zeman who moved you out wide left as part of a three-man attack…
“Right - but that position was based heavily on his formation - in which I had a slightly different job. We needed to work even more for the whole team. Basically, my playing style was the same but from the wing I had more opportunities to take players on and beat them down the flank. I really enjoyed those two seasons.”
Then Fabio Capello moved you up front…
“Yes, from 2001-02 onwards, I started being picked regularly at centre forward alongside [Antonio] Cassano or [Gabriel ] Batistuta. I felt immediately at home. Playing further up the pitch you have more opportunities to score and provide assists and it’s something I liked right from the start. With [Luciano] Spalletti, my position changed once and for all.”
What was it that changed?
“They were two different formations. Under Capello, when I played with Cassano, we were often nominally strikers but playing as attacking midfielders - given licence to roam and a free role. In Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 meanwhile, I played out and out centre forward albeit still in an unusual way.”
What was it like having to reinvent your playing style?
“I would never have imagined playing centre-forward my whole career as I didn’t think I had the attributes suited to it. Thankfully though, it went really well. With Spalletti, I was free to roam and that was the position where I felt best in my career.”
If you had your time again - would you like to have played centre-forward from the start of your career?
“Yes, if I could choose, I would.”
So you’d happily swap the buzz you got out of providing assists at the start of your career for the thrill of scoring in your later years...
“They’re different spells of my career. When you grow up, you gain experience and realise what you’re capable of. They’re two separate phases of my career and I can’t compare them.”
How many things have you reinvented over the course of your career?
“I couldn’t tell you! So much has changed over the years, while there are other things I feel comfortable with and use more often. Like the way I take penalties.”
While we’re on the subject, you’ve scored around 80 penalties in your career and lots of people think you prefer going to the keeper’s right. Is that the case?
“In general, yes. I find it easier to strike the ball with my instep across goal. But I’ve scored in loads of other ways too.”
Can you tell us about them?
“I’ve scored some by opening up and side-footing the ball. Others with the outside of my laces, with power to the keeper’s left - like in the penalty shoot-out against Arsenal. Of course, the latter is risky and tough to pull off. If you miss hit it, the ball ends up in the stands.”
Then there’s the chip that made you famous at Euro 2000...
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that!”
Can you improve your penalty-taking technique in training?
“No. Taking them in training and matches are two very different things. During a game, it comes down to your mind - the pressure. There are loads of other aspects too. Many people say taking penalties is easy but when you’re stood over one, that’s not the case. It’s in no way easy. The goal really does become a lot smaller.”
How do you pick your side?
“Before I take it, I think of an option. Then while the referee prepares to blow the whistle, you start weighing up thousands of others and you change your mind too many times. But penalties are all about concentration. You have to run up with the intention of striking it one way and that’s it.”
Coming back to the chip - is it more a case of impressing the crowd or sending the keeper the wrong way?
“For me, it’s like side-footing it. What matters is the ball goes in. The technique required is obviously different - it’s more difficult and nicer. It’s instinctive. It’s something I do in games as well - in the middle of the park. Sometimes I dink the ball like that just to play a pass. I do it without thinking. It’s spontaneous not to wind up the opposition.”
Do you remember the first penalty you scored like that?
“Of course. We were home to Bologna in May 2000 - against [Gianluca ] Pagliuca. It almost served as a warm-up for Euro 2000. Then there were lots of others. For example, a goalkeeper stood his ground and caught the ball. I was annoyed at the time but, as I’ve said, a chip is a way of striking the ball like any other. I don’t do it to make a fool of the goalkeeper. It’s execution.”
What changes then when you chip the ball from distance? That’s another of your favourites…
“That’s trickier. You need to control how much power you put on the ball and see if the keeper’s off his line. They happen in the moment - it’s a case of intuition.”
Your first was against Parma in 97-98...
“Yes, I remember it very well. It was against [Gianluigi ] Buffon. I was running through on goal from midfield and I had already thought about it on the run. I said to myself, ‘If he stays off his line, I’m going to try and lob him.’ I managed it too, with my left foot.”
Ah, yes, your left foot. You’ve scored some wonderful goals with your left and yet it’s not your favoured foot…
“Do you know why? Because I don’t think about it. And perhaps my coordination is better. And then when a high ball drops to me on the volley, I’ve got my stronger foot as my standing leg. When I use my right, perhaps I’m too sure of succeeding. It’s different with my left - I just hit it without too much thought. I don’t expect too much but in actual fact I have to concentrate more to strike it well. And every now and then, they go in.”
Have you put in a lot of work on your left foot over your career? Have you ever stayed late after training to improve it?
“No. In the academy, they taught me technique with both feet and then I did it on my own.”
How important is training compared to talent?
“I’d say 50-50. Training is essential to staying fit. You need to manage it. Often you have to be better mentally than physically.”
How much of your play is instinctive and how much of it do you think about?
“It’s all instinct.”
Sorry, when you play a first-time ball forward you’re not thinking about finding a team-mate waiting there
“It’s better not to think too much about it. You need to be on the same wavelength. Knowing how I play, my team-mates know where to run. If I played with someone like me, I’d know where to run. Just like [Simone] Perrotta did for instance during Spalletti’s time in charge. I knew his strength was making runs from deep and he had figured out the way I played. It was easy for both of us.”
What’s your favourite celebration?
“Sucking my thumb. It’s become my trademark and I can’t change it now. I’ve used it ever since a home match against Chievo in 2005. I wanted to start doing it for Ilary to be honest, as she’s always sucking her thumb. Then it became a celebration for all three, my wife and two children: Ilary, Cristian and Chanel.”
The one goal you wished you’d scored?
“That’s a tough one. Let me have a think. In a home game against Juventus in 1997-98, [Angelo] Peruzzi pulled off a ridiculous double save. It was pure instinct. I can still picture it.”
Let’s talk about another of your favourite tricks - the backheel. You’ve done them in basically every area of the pitch…
“That’s also instinctive and aesthetically it’s more difficult to do but it’s a skill that I often use to my advantage. Often it’s easier to play a team-mate in with a backheel or the outside of the boot than with your instep. It’s something I think about for a fraction of a second.”
Are you disappointed you’ve never scored from one?
“No, to be honest I’ve never thought, ‘Now, I’ll score with a backheel.’ It’s something that happens rarely in a career and when I’m in front of goal, I prefer to score. I don’t think about scoring with a backheel simply because it looks nicer.”
Who’s the most awkward defender you’ve come up against in your career?
“There’s not one in particular. There have been a few pitbulls who stand behind you and spend all game kicking you.”
“It would be easy to say [Richard Vanigli] because his challenge seriously injured me at home to Empoli in 2006. But he was relentless. In the first few minutes he stayed tight to me. And that was the same week I’d revealed my battered ankles on television.”
So you had the feeling he wouldn’t give you a second’s respite in that match?
“Yes, that’s why when he called me to apologise, I got angry. I regret reacting like that because these things can happen in football. Injuries happen. I got injured after seven minutes but it was the first six minutes that irritated me. He did more than many other defenders I played against over the course of my career. [Paolo] Montero, for instance, was someone who could come scything in on you when he lost the plot but he wasn’t as bad during the game.
"The same goes for [Igor] Tudor, [Marco] Materazzi and [Fabio] Cannavaro. They were more relaxed during matches but they left a foot in at the right time. You felt the air move and you realised they were coming. Sometimes, if you’re experienced, at times like that you try to jump just before and avoid the contact, knowing who’s behind you. They didn’t do so to be dirty but you really felt it when they caught you.”
The best performance of your career?
“I think it was the 4-0 home win over Juve in 2003-04. Cassano and I nailed almost every pass. But, hang on - I want to have a good think about this. I think there was another one where everything came off.”
“Roma v Empoli on neutral ground in Palermo again in 2003-04. I scored two - one was a header and the other was a chip over the keeper. I played really well. Now I’ll have to have a good think about it and watch back more games. But, here and now, I’d choose the two I’ve just mentioned.”
What was your favourite match from the Scudetto-winning campaign?
“The home match against Parma - the one that wrapped up the title. I’ve already said that too many times, right?”
OK, let’s pick another…
“OK but are we talking about one of my best games or my favourite from that season in general?”
In general, pick one. The one that means to the most to you?
“The 2-2 draw at Juve.”
The game against Juve where you were subbed off for Nakata?
“I know it wasn’t my best game, far from it. But that was the title decider and you can’t forget that. Plus the two crucial matches were probably at Parma and Bologna at the midway point of the season. I hit the post with a penalty in the first-half against the Gialloblu and I didn’t play against Bologna. But those matches at the halfway point of the campaign were key. At the end of the second game in Emilia I thought, ‘Perhaps this is our year.’”
You’ve said many times that your volley against Sampdoria in 2006 and the chips against Lazio in 2001 and Inter in 2005 are your favourite goals. Can you confirm that’s still the case?
“Yes, they’re the top three. But there are others too.”
Go on then, choose one of the many others…
“You should have made me study beforehand! Let’s see… I’d say home to Udinese in 2001. A cross from Cafu and my left foot again. See what I mean?”
You scored another great goal against Udinese in ’98. That one was with your left too…
“Yes, but in terms of the difficulty of the strike, the one from the year of the Scudetto was much harder.”
Is there a player you looked up to and with whom you see similarities in your game?
“If I’m honest, I only watched [Giuseppe] Giannini when I was a kid. He was my idol. Now, though, I can’t say I see myself in him. We’re two different types of player and the brand of football has changed too. I liked the way he played - how he moved. He was the captain - a legend. I saw him in a different light.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career?
“Show respect to everyone.”
Who told you that?
“My mother and father and it’s helped me immensely.”
What’s the hardest pitch you’ve played on?
“The one at Reggina. The surface was often unplayable.”
What about atmosphere?
“Brescia and Bergamo. Lively places - especially for us Romans. Hang on, I mustn’t forget Livorno. They hammer you all game - I don’t know why. In 2007 they had a chant just for me and it lasted all game. I got worked up - it was a tough time and, after the sending off, I got visibly worked up with Vito Scala, the guy who does everything for me and that’s something I’ll never do again.”
What does Vito mean to you?
“He’s a big part of everything I’ve achieved. He looks after every aspect of my body and more. It’s important as a footballer to have someone like that alongside you. You perform a lot better because you have a clear mind. Vito really helps me a lot. He’s sharper than everyone else - he’s really switched on about everything. He’s a big part of my footballing life. He’s a brother to me, although he’s older - a bit too old now!”
After all the different playing styles you’ve had during your career, what league do you think would have got the best out of you?
“Spain, without a doubt.”
Do you say that because Real Madrid tried to sign you?
“No, my style of play is very similar to the Spanish one. It’s more technical than physical when compared to the Premier League and Serie A. Compared with England, they tend to play more football in the Spanish league - it’s greater entertainment. You see that when you play there as an opponent. If you produce a piece of skill, they applaud you.”
Speaking of which, you once came off to a round of applause at the Bernabeu. How did that feel?
“It was an incredible feeling. Now I’ll anticipate a question because I know you’ll get there soon. The goal I scored at Real Madrid is my favourite goal in Europe.”
Thanks, you’re right. I was going to ask you that. You scored two there, one in 2001 and one the following year. Which one are you talking about?
“The first one, in 2001. Even though Candela did everything to tell you the truth.”
One last question. How would you like to be remembered by opponents when you decide to retire?“That’s not for me to decide. I’ll leave it up to them. Respect would be enough for me. That’s the most important thing in the career of a footballer.”