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20 Years Ago Today: Francesco Totti becomes Roma captain

October 31, 1998 will forever be an important day in Roma’s history. And, as with so many dates from recent years, it involves Francesco Totti.

After all it was on this day, ahead of a Serie A clash against Udinese, that a 22-year-old Totti officially became club captain.

The young forward had worn the armband before, of course, but only ever as a deputy – when defender Aldair had not been available to start a game. But the Brazilian, another iconic player in Giallorossi history, was heading towards the end of his career and, despite having taken on the captaincy himself at the start of the 1998-1999 campaign, was perhaps already beginning to feel that he could not lead the side with the authority that he wanted.

Of course, perhaps he also saw the transcendent talent that was emerging within the squad. And so it was that, barely two months after taking on the captaincy himself, Aldair decided to hand over the responsibility to the homegrown youngster who was already something of an idol around the city.

“Francesco was a bit down because he did not go to the 1998 World Cup – but the Italian team had a great attack back then,” Aldair later recalled.

"I told him, ‘Now is your moment, and you will wear this responsibility, because you are Roma. Now go and show the world who you are’.” Aldair, on Francesco Totti

“He was 22, had just had his first season as a regular starter and was scoring regularly too.

“I was 33 and was already incredibly proud to have become the first Brazilian captain in Roma’s history. I felt like I was giving the armband to that little Roma fan who gives everything and more on the pitch – so I did it to encourage him, to push him.

"I told him, ‘Now is your moment, and you will wear this responsibility, because you are Roma. Now go and show the world who you are’.”

He added: “You are incredible, Francesco. To play alongside you is an honour.”

For Aldair, perhaps, the gesture was the acceptance of the inevitable. He made 27 appearances that season, but injuries had stunted the early part of his campaign and meant Totti had already stepped in as captain on a couple of occasions.

That, coupled with his advancing years and the growing challenge of youthful rivals for his position, meant that the decline of his influence, if yet to begin, was at least on the horizon.

Nevertheless he was never anything less than a vital pillar for the group, his departure in 2003 leading the club to retire the future Hall of Fame member’s No. 6 shirt for a decade.

For Totti, however, it was all just starting to unfold. Just 22 when he took the armband, he would go on to wear it, uninterrupted, for the next 19 years – by his retirement in May 2018, he had been the Giallorossi captain for almost half his life.

In numbers, Totti was the 26th captain in Roma history – following the likes of Attilio Ferraris (No. 1), Amadeo Amadei (No. 5), Agostino Di Bartolomei (18) and Carlo Ancelotti (20).

Perhaps most meaningfully to him, he was following in the footsteps of Giuseppe Giannini (No. 21) - his idol as a boy, and the man who had worn the No. 10 shirt that Totti had already assumed.

Like Totti, Giannini was Rome-born and bred, a boy he bled yellow and red and then grew up to live all the dreams he ever had. He had won the Scudetto with Roma (something that, at the time, Totti was still to do) and gone on to make almost 500 appearances for the club – at the time the second most ever.

Before Totti, Giannini was the dream they all aspired to.

“Il Principe [‘The Prince’, as Giannini was nicknamed], he was my hero and role model when I was a kid,” Totti told Roma TV in 2014.

“Even if we played different positions, I identified with him as the captain. We eventually got to know each other, and he taught me so many things.

"I was lucky enough to do what he did – to become captain and wear the No. 10.”

“To score twice at the Olimpico is always an incredible feeling, but what matters is that the team played brilliantly and we took the three points." Francesco Totti, after his first game as official club captain

For the new captain, running out at the Stadio Olimpico on that October day, his new life could not have started much better. He was at his brilliant best and so were the Giallorossi, Totti scoring twice in an emphatic 4-0 win.

“To score twice at the Olimpico is always an incredible feeling, but what matters is that the team played brilliantly and we took the three points,” Totti said afterwards.

“So far no-one has really tested us and that is important: we are starting to understand how good we are.”

A little over two years later that squad, aided by a couple of key additions, would really show its quality. Back at the Olimpico, a 24-year-old Totti would be lifting the Scudetto – after a dominant campaign where the No. 10 led from the front, providing and scoring goals in equal measure.

Aldair was there too, of course, his experience proving vital to a group as they battled for victory down the stretch.

“It’s a day I will never forget,” Totti later said. “The joy… it’s indescribable.”

It would prove to be the highlight of his club career, although plenty of further honours would come in the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa.

And there would even be international success, too, Totti making up for that 1998 disappointment by playing a starring role in Italy’s run to the final of Euro 2000, before helping the Azzurri lift the World Cup in Berlin in 2006.

“Totti is what every child dreams of being when they grow up,” one of his former Roma coaches, Zdenek Zeman, once said.

“A fan that become a champion, a champion that becomes a symbol, a symbol that becomes a legend."

For his part, Totti was never the classic image of a captain – roaring them on from the pitch, setting the tone with a tackle, physically and verbally looking to impose himself on the action.

On the pitch, he did all that with his feet. Off the pitch was where he worked most as a leader, offering advice to teammates – or lightening the mood with a joke.

"There is no secret to being a successful leader," he once said at a sponsor event.

"The most important thing is to understand the group, and to respect your coach and teammates. It's also useful to be available to everyone and stay humble, even in your highest moments.”

Almost 20 years on from first taking the armband, on May 28, 2018, Francesco Totti passed it on – in a literal sense, to a young member of the Giallorossi academy; in a metaphorical one, to the next generation of home talent.

More immediately, of course, it was taken by Daniele De Rossi – another son of Rome, another one-club man, another supporters’ idol.

“It is an incredible honour for me to follow Francesco as captain,” De Rossi said earlier this year.

When he retired, Totti had been captain for almost 19 of Roma’s 91 years of existence – over one-fifth of the club’s entire history.

In the 20 years prior to him, Roma had seen 10 different captains – and that is including Giannini, who was Totti’s first captain and held the armband for nearly a decade.

“Being born Roman and Romanisti is a privilege,” Totti said. “I am fortunate to have only worn one shirt in my career.

"It is something I have always wanted: to be one of these few who wear only one shirt - a fan and a player of the same team.”

Like all parts of Totti’s story, his reign as captain was an example of longevity and quality that will prove almost impossible for any other player – at any other professional club – to match.

And at all began on this day, October 31, 20 years ago.

 
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