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On This Day: The friendly tournament that saved Totti's Roma career

A seemingly innocuous tournament that ended up fundamentally changing one player's career - and one club's history...

If there was ever a sliding doors moment in the career of Francesco Totti, it was without doubt his involvement in the invitational Torneo città di Roma ('City of Rome Tournament') on 9 February 1997.

With a transfer - as the player himself has confirmed many times since - to Sampdoria on the verge of being completed, the landscape suddenly shifted as the performances of Roma’s future No. 10 in the friendly tournament showed what a talent the Giallorossi had on their hands.

Totti would go on to spend his entire playing career at Roma. There was no move for Real Madrid, where he could well have signed almost a decade later, or for any other club.

Twenty years on from that friendly tournament, on 28 May 2017, Totti would hang up his boots as a one-club man, with 786 appearances and 307 goals – more than anyone else in Roma history.

Here are 10 facts about that friendly tournament that took place at the Olimpico 24 years ago. An evening from which a new Roma symbol, captain and talisman would eventually arise.

Where, how and when

On Sunday 9 February 1997, the Torneo Città di Roma was staged at the Stadio Olimpico, organised in partnership with Ina Assitalia, who wer the Giallorossi's main sponsor at the time. Three teams took part: Roma, Ajax and Borussia Monchenglabach.

Low-price tickets and live TV coverage

Tickets for the event were very reasonable: only 10,000 Italian lira (approximately €5) for the north and south stands and the distinti sections, 25,000 Italian lira for seats in the Tribuna Tevere, and 35,000 for the Monte Mario sections. Children under 1.5 metres tall were granted free entry.

The event was also broadcast live on television by Italia 1 in Italy as well as on Eurosport on the continent.

Match order

The tournament consisted of three matches, each lasting 45 minutes. They were scheduled as follows: Ajax v Borussia at 19:30; Roma v Borussia at 20:30, Roma v Ajax at 21:30. Before that, however, the event kicked off at 18:15 with an exhibition involving Roma youth teams, which saw a 13-year-old Daniele De Rossi make his debut on the Olimpico pitch, playing two 20-minute halves.

That missed call-up

Many footballing stars took to the Olimpico pitch that night, including Jari Litmanen (“the best footballer in the world”, according to Carlos Bianchi), the brothers Frank and Ronald De Boer, Stefan Effenberg, and there was also a young Francesco Totti, who had not even turned 21.

The fact the emerging Roma talent played in the tournament was a pure twist of fate. The event was held on a Sunday when there were no Serie A matches, with the league on hold due to international fixtures. Totti was on the list of candidates for Rossano Giampaglia's Italy under-21 team that would play away against England, but curiously and sensationally he wasn't called up for the national team and he was therefore able to take part in the Torneo Città di Roma.

Bianchi's praise for Litmanen, meanwhile, was no coincidence. The Giallorossi were being heavily linked with the silky Finnish forward, who had already established himself as one of the most impressive creative forwards in Europe. As far as the press were concerned, offloading Totti was also a way of making space for the more established, more incisive Litmanen.

Foto: asromaultras.org

Match report

Roma won both their matches. In the first, the Giallorossi beat Borussia 3-0 thanks to goals from Damiano Tommasi, Marco Delvecchio and Totti, with the latter impressing with his skills and vision throughout. Roma then beat Ajax 2-1, with Totti and Vincent Candela scoring for the home side and Marc Overmars netting for the visitors.

The final standings

At the end of three 45-minute matches, Roma won the trophy by topping the table, having picked up three points for each victory. The final standings were as follows: Roma first on 6 points, Ajax second with 3 points and Borussia Moenchengladbach last with 0 points.

Roma players involved

Thirteen Roma players competed in the two matches of the tournament. In Roma v Borussia Monchengladbach, Carlos Bianchi picked the following starting 11: Cervone, Tommasi, Pivotto, Aldair, Candela, Statuto, Bernardini, Thern, Totti, Moriero and Delvecchio. Against Ajax, meanwhile, Albo Balbo started in place of Delvecchio, while Luigi Di Biagio was picked ahead of Francesco Moriero, who came on in the 23rd minute against the Dutch side.

The opposition teams

This is how Borussia Moenchengladbach, coached by Hannes Bongartz, lined up against Roma: Kamps, Passlak, Andersson, Fournier, Neun, Effenberg, Lupescu (replaced by Krznaric), Wynhoff, Pflipsen (Villa), Juskowiak and Pettersson. Meanwhile Louis Van Gaal picked the following team to play the Giallorossi: Van Der Sar, Veldam, Blind, F. De Boer, Musampa (Melchiot), R. De Boer, Litmanen, Witschge, Babangida, Gabrich and Overmars.

Was Totti jeered?

In the following day’s edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport, journalist Ruggiero Palombo revealed something truly sensational, especially looking back 24 years later. Totti was jeered before the tournament kicked off. This was most likely due to the Giallorossi's poor run of form and the rumours that the young talent was close to joining Paolo Mantovani’s Sampdoria.

Palombo wrote: “Totti, who had previously been jeered in the same way as [Francesco] Statuto (the Romans in Rome aren’t so well-loved these days), first sparked the move for Roma’s second goal (lovely play involving Totti, Moriero and Delvecchio) with a pass that was the stuff of champions. He finished off the humiliating 3-0 win with a solo effort culminating in a Maradona-esque lob.”

From jeered to cheered in one afternoon, Totti had almost instantly overhauled his perception in the eyes of many fans.

“Francesco will not leave Roma”

The effect really was that immediate. At the end of the tournament, comments from Roma president Franco Sensi left no room for interpretation regarding Francesco Totti's future: “Totti is better than Litmanen. We need someone like him – he will not leave Roma.”

That was that – the star player would not move to Sampdoria, the team he would go on to face a week later.

On 16 February, when the season resumed, Totti turned in an impressive performance as Roma won 2-1 at the Marassi, laying on a delightful assist for Moriero to score.

The rest, as they say, would become history.

 
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