Rome’s original Papa Francesco thrills his Stadio Olimpico congregation

Francesco TottiPope Francis I will have to get used to living in the shadow of another popular Roman resident named Francesco

At midday on Sunday, Pope Francis I – Papa Francesco to the locals – delivered his first Sunday prayer to a throng of more than 200,000 people in St Peter’s Square. Eight hours later, another Francesco stepped out to greet his public a couple of miles away to the north. The crowd at the Stadio Olimpico might have been a touch smaller than that which attended the Pope’s address, but that is not to suggest these followers were any less devout. Francesco Totti (papà Francesco to his kids, presumably) has long inspired a religious fervour among his faithful. Every year a section of the Roma support can be found wishing each other a merry Christmas on 27 September – Totti’s birthday. More than one Roman comic quipped on the day of the Pope’s election that the new pontiff really ought to have taken the name Francesco II.  The player himself professed to find the whole situation rather embarrassing. “The fact that [the Pope] is called Francesco makes me blush,” Totti told reporters on Friday, before adding that he had high hopes for his namesake. “His face transmits calmness and kindness. Young people need this sort of reassuring presence in their lives.”

Roma fans, likewise, are comforted by the sight of Totti’s name in their starting XI. At 36 years old, he has been playing for the club longer than some of his team-mates have been alive, yet instead of slowing down Totti has lately shown some of his best form in years. Prior to this Sunday’s meeting with Parma, he had started more games this season (26) than anybody else in the squad. He led the team with 10 assists and had scored the same number himself. Along the way, Totti had pulled level with Gunnar Nordahl in second place on Serie A’s all-time goalscoring list. That left just one more person to catch. Silvio Piola, on 274 goals, remained 49 goals ahead in first place. Totti would need to play on for at least two further seasons to have any shot at matching such a figure – and even that would require remarkable consistency.

On Sunday he at least made a start. Parma had already been Totti’s favourite victims, a team the forward had scored against 17 times over the past two decades, and in the 70th minute he added one more. After winning a free-kick on the edge of the visitors’ area, Totti slammed a low, rasping effort into the bottom corner. His team already led 1-0 by that point, Erik Lamela having put them in front after just seven minutes when he diverted a wayward Daniele De Rossi shot past Antonio Mirante. On another day the headlines might have belonged to Lamela, whose goal represented his second in as many weeks as well as a team-leading 13th of the season. Still just 21, the Argentinian has established himself as one of the brightest young talents in the division. On this occasion, though, he was outshone by a man 15 years his senior. Totti’s strike had arrived at a critical juncture, with Parma in the ascendancy and chasing hard for an equaliser, yet it still only represented one small part of his overall contribution.

Leading the line as the lone striker in Aurelio Andreazzoli‘s 3-4-2-1, Totti interpreted the role in the way that only he knows how, drifting from side-to-side and back into midfield to deny the defence their usual point of reference. When he got the ball, he was a menace – alternately taking on defenders or feeding the ball to his team’s various runners-from-deep, a mode which called to mind his best years in Luciano Spalletti’s “strikerless” 4-6-0. A fine performance was further elevated by two moments of standalone brilliance. The first arrived early in the game. Marquinho had been making progress down the left flank when he nudged the ball inside to Totti. In one motion the forward span through 360 degrees and backheeled the ball straight back into his team-mate’s path – taking out three defenders in the process. Unfortunately for Roma, Simone Perrotta was unable to apply a finish to Marquinho’s subsequent cut-back.

Totti’s next such moment came from a set-piece. Two minutes into the second-half, with the score still 1-0 to Roma, he curled a sumptuous free-kick against the bar and then post from just outside the box. “It was so beautiful that I would have given it a goal [even though it didn’t go in],” declared Totti with a grin. His goal would eventually arrive, however, and when it did the Stadio Olimpico rocked to the cheers of 40,000 delirious worshippers. “Totti! Totti! Totti!” yelled the public address announcer, drawing a response of “Francesco! Francesco! Francesco!” from the crowd. On Twitter, the staff behind the club’s official account were so enthused that they posted Totti’s name 226 times – once for every goal he had scored with the club. As well as sealing his team’s victory (the game finished 2-0), Totti had moved ahead of Nordahl on the all-time scorers’ list, and cut the gap to Piola down to 48 goals. The forward, though, seemed in no mood to dwell on such thoughts. “Right now my objective is to get into Europe,” he said. “It is not enough for Roma to only play in the Italian league.”

The Giallorossi’s hopes of playing in continental competition next season certainly look brighter today than they did when Zdenek Zeman was fired on 2 February, in the wake of a 4-2 defeat to Cagliari. At the end of that weekend, Roma sat eighth in Serie A – six points off the Europa League spots. This Sunday they moved level with Inter and Lazio in fifth, albeit the former still have a game in hand after their meeting with Sampdoria was postponed. Much of the credit must go to Andreazzoli. Promoted from tactics coach to caretaker manager, he promptly lost his first game in charge, away to Sampdoria, 3-1, but since then it has been a different story. Roma won four of their next five games and secured a perfectly creditable draw away to Udinese in the remaining fixture. If the Champions League remains a distant prospect it is only because third-placed Milan are also in such strong form themselves. Whether or not such results will be enough to win Andreazzoli the job full-time remains to be seen. He has responded to questions on the matter by simply stating he expects to be back with Roma one way or another, since he has three years left to run on his existing contract as coach. Totti somewhat danced around the subject on Sunday by saying: “I hope Andreazzoli will stay on as manager –because that would mean we had got into Europe.”

Totti might also be keen to avoid appearing disloyal to Zeman – a manager who he continues to hold in the highest regard. Asked on Sunday how he was managing to play at such a high level this season, Totti replied: “The credit goes to Zeman’s [pre-season] preparation. He got me going.” That may be so, and certainly Zeman shared a rare understanding with Totti. But while the forward was having a fine season even before the change of manager, the rest of the team seem to have responded to Andreazzoli. Though his formation has remained largely unchanged through six games in charge, the caretaker has demonstrated already that the same basic shape can be used in many different ways. On Sunday, for instance, Lamela was deployed on the right side of midfield, instead of as one of the two deep-lying forwards supporting Totti – where he had previously been used. Totti himself, meanwhile, offers a very different kind of outlet at the top of the formation to Pablo Osvaldo – who had been called on to lead the line during wins over Juventus, Atalanta and Genoa.

With games against Lazio, Inter, Fiorentina, Milan and Napoli still to play, Andreazzoli may need to get more creative still in the coming weeks. Just like the pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, the manager will draw strength from knowing he has Francesco on his side.


The Guardian


One thought on “Rome’s original Papa Francesco thrills his Stadio Olimpico congregation

  1. Pingback: Piola and Totti: divided by a club rivalry, brought together by goals | theitalianist

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