In the slowly shifting landscape of Italian football, the past week has marked a relatively quick change of focus. From old to new. Past to present. From Francesco Totti to Mario Balotelli. The homegrown Roman senator vs. the son of Ghanaian immigrants.
It all started a week ago, when the Azzurri opened their training camp and Italian media latched onto a comment from coach Cesare Prandelli, who said that if Totti keeps up his form he would consider bringing the forward to next year’s World Cup in Brazil just a few months short of the Roma captain’s 38th birthday. Never mind that Totti retired from the national team seven years ago. Or, as Totti himself eventually said, that he could be retired altogether by 2014. The next day’s headlines were total Totti — Totti this, Totti that — while the current crop of Italy players, the group that reached last year’s European Championship final, were left to prepare for a friendly vs. Brazil in near oblivion.
Fast forward to Thursday’s match in Geneva, which concluded 2-2 after Balotelli’s stunning equalizer, a screamer from about 25 yards (meters) that took his tally to eight goals in eight matches in 2013 for club and country. It was the type of goal that only a highly skilled and confident player would even attempt — and reminiscent of Balotelli’s second strike in Italy’s 2-1 win over Germany in the semifinals of Euro 2012.
After the goal against Germany, Balotelli stripped off his jersey and flexed his muscles in a defiant pose, an emblematic moment that announced his arrival on the sport’s biggest stage — in the face of his wide array of critics and the fans who still direct racist chants at him. This time, Balotelli simply waved his hand in a common Italian gesture, as if to say, ‘Look at what I’ve done’ — indicating that he had impressed even himself.
From total Totti, the discussion surrounding the Azzurri was now squarely focused on ‘Super Mario,’ who will be expected to score more goals in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in Malta. “Balomania: Can he become the greatest?” said the front-page headline in Saturday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “Forget about Neymar, he’s the real star,” said former Italy’s 1982 WC winner defender turned TV analyst Fulvio Collovati, a member of the squad that won the 1982 World Cup. “Down 0-2 he carried the squad on his shoulders and leveled the match practically by himself. … If he plays like that he’s among the best in the world.” For now, best in the world still means Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Totti was never really considered best in the world, it is remarkable how long he’s been among the best in Italy, which is now being documented by his steady climb up the Serie A record books. Earlier this month, Totti scored his 226th league goal in Roma’s 2-0 win over Parma, surpassing Swedish great Gunnar Nordahl for second place on Serie A’s all-time scoring list, 48 behind Silvio Piola‘s record. Piola played for Pro Vercelli, Lazio, Torino, Juventus and Novara from 1929-54 and his mark of 274 goals had seemed insurmountable for more than half a century.
Now, though, the discussion in the capital’s myriad bars and cafes is whether Totti can catch Piola, which would be a just reward for an entire career dedicated to one club — 21 seasons and counting. Totti has 11 goals with nine matches remaining this season. If he can keep up that level of production for a few more seasons, it’s possible. Of course, age is working against the 36-year-old Totti, who credits his current form to his preseason preparation under Zdenek Zeman, the Roma manager who was fired last month. “It won’t be easy, because I’m not 20 anymore,” Totti said. “But when I get an idea inside my head I try to realize it.”
Totti also appears rejuvenated by a stable family life, as evidenced when his two children, Cristian and Chanel, ran onto the pitch to celebrate his 225th goal. His kids presented him with a T-shirt that said, “Sei forte papa!!” — “Dad, you’re great!!” The decision to leave the national team, made after helping Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, has also helped — leading to fewer matches and more rest time for Totti’s surgically repaired left ankle, which was injured in 2006. Totti is still sensitive when opposing players get overly aggressive with his ankles, and he was memorably handed a red card for retaliating against Balotelli by kicking the younger striker in the back of the thigh in the 2010 Italian Cup final when Balotelli was with Inter Milan. Balotelli also claimed that Totti racially abused him in that match, which Inter won 1-0 under then manager Jose Mourinho. No occasion to cross each other paths after that.
But all appears forgiven now, with the 22-year-old Balotelli back in Italy with AC Milan after 2 1/2 seasons with Manchester City. On Sunday, Balotelli was asked if he would mind Totti rejoining the national team, and if Roma player’s return with the Azzurri jersey would be good for him, then it will be good for everyone. Doors wide open, first by Italy captain Buffon, and now also by the most representative player of our country. “Totti in the national team? I wish, he’s a phenomenon – Milan striker said – champions like him are always welcome in the team”. Topic closed. The issue will be discussed again in twelve months.
It’s worth remembering how Italy fared when midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo missed most of the group stage with an injury at the 2010 World Cup, when the Azzurri made an embarrassing first-round exit as defending champion. Who knows, maybe Totti and Balotelli — the best Italian players of the past and present generations — could be the right combination.
Sources: AP, Il Tempo, Il Romanista