When his playing career came to an end, Francesco Totti felt a ‘huge hole…like a chasm opening inside’. In this exclusive extract from the English-language version of his autobiography, Gladiator, the Roma icon recalls his final match in 2017.
Football Italia also has a copy of Gladiator to give away thanks to publishers deCoubertin.
‘You have to write it yourself, I can help you,’ my wife Ilary said, and we set ourselves down on our big bed to put my most meaningful thoughts together. Every now and then I got stuck, because I had a lump in my throat. ‘Hey, don’t cry!’ she pleaded with her usual conviction. I didn’t cry. Or I cried just a bit, trying to make sure she didn’t notice. I had an allergy. A cold. A bug in my eye. The last letter I’d written was to her, a message of love ahead of our marriage. I told her that I was moved by that memory, and maybe she believed me
But would I be able to read this letter in front of 80,000 people? Doubt suddenly came over me because, after all, I was used to playing football in front of such a crowd, not talking.
Before the meeting, Mum called: ‘I’m not coming, I can’t do it. Enjoy the evening, I’ll be crying in front of the TV.’ I stayed in Rome all my life for you, Mum. Above all, for you. If people’s affection is overflowing out of every pore tonight, as I imagine, it will also be because of you.
Five minutes. It was then that I felt the avalanche come down on me. As long as Roma were chasing a result, my mind had been focused on something else. Now that the result had been achieved, and the mission was to ‘waste’ five minutes, the situation suddenly appeared to me in all its enormity. And in its paradox. I had to waste the last five minutes of my career. I, who, if I could, would have played another five thousand minutes. The thought tormented me until I found myself, who knows how, by the corner flag, ready to battle with Diego Laxalt in front of me. I kicked the ball, and seconds later the referee blew his whistle three times. It was over. A couple of Genoa players came over to be the first to hug me, Laxalt did so afterwards, as if it was only in that moment that it occurred to him that he was part of a scene that was bigger than him.
It was over. I felt a huge hole widening inside me, like a chasm that takes your breath away. I briefly celebrated with my teammates because ultimately we’d achieved our objective, and this was a great thing. But then I was in a hurry to get to the dressing room. I’d promised this to myself again and again: If you feel you’re losing emotional control, trust in the schedule you’ve memorised. So at that point, I had to disappear and get changed while the others stayed on the pitch, the president came down from the stands, and the scenography could be set up.
The first very hard moment was this one. In the empty dressing room, where the noises of the stadium were a distant hum, there was me, Vito and our five kit men. They were crucial people, burdened by me for their entire lives, indeed for longer than that because before them it was their fathers, a reaffirmation of this extraordinary family story that is Roma. Think of Giuseppe Giannini, whose father was a youth team coach. Think of Daniele De Rossi, whose father is the Primavera coach. Think of Bruno Conti and the relations with his son Daniele I told you about. The five kit men started to cry their eyes out, and I had to start shouting – with my voice broken by the first tears – ‘Don’t try it’, ‘If we start like this we’ll be here all night’, and any similar nonsense that came into my head to stem the tide. They turned around to avoid looking at me, I turned around to avoid looking at them, and Vito later told me that he almost fainted at that precise moment when, with my back to him, I took off my shirt. He knew that that was the last Roma shirt that I would take off, the last one soaked in my sweat, and he felt the earth fall away beneath his feet. A knife to the heart. I faltered a moment later, while taking off my boots. I hurried things up and left the dressing room. I sat on the steps outside, and I waited for the moment to enter the stage. Many minutes passed, about twenty minutes, there are photos that show me staring into the void. Actually, I was thinking: not about the future, but about the past. I thought and I relived victories, defeats, injuries. The deprivation was unbearable. Mutilating.
When they told me that it was time – everything was ready and the stadium was waiting for me – I headed towards the Distinti Sud exit, thinking about how nice it would be if Pallotta was waiting for me with a new contract in his hand, ready to say that it was all a big joke. But it was nonsense that flashed through my mind in a few moments. I knew all too well that it was over, that this was it. I came out into the light, and the roar of the Olimpico was like the one for the scudetto. Everyone was on their feet, applauding. Music from Gladiator floated through the air.
I’ve rewatched the videos of those minutes many times. I continue to do so even today, and every time gifts me with a new detail, a banner that I hadn’t noticed, a face that makes me feel some very intense emotions. What happened at the Olimpico that afternoon was unprecedented, because thousands and thousands of people were crying as if a very dear relative had died, interpreting my retirement from football as a farewell to an important part of their lives. Without insincerity, I knew it would be a special ceremony, somewhere between a graduation party and a day of mourning. But not this.
The plan was to kick a ball into it, but there had been a crazier one, if fate had given me the opportunity: if, on that final Sunday, I’d been able to take a penalty – with the result already secured – I would have kicked it directly into the stand, a kind of ultimate gift to my people. The result being secured already was a condition that I’d promised to the very few who knew, in fact I’d have liked to do it anyway… as soon as we were a goal up. OK, right, let’s not exaggerate. In any case, there was no penalty, and the ball I had to give to the curva was the one Vito was handing me, together with a marker pen. I wrote ‘I’ll miss you’ on it, signed it and, before kicking it far away, I looked at it for a long time, reluctant to part with it.
Everything seemed symbolic to me, and the final kick had a powerful significance. Then I decided. I turned slightly to set myself, then sent it with the outside of my right foot into the curva, towards the highest rows. I saw a good melee where it landed, and for a moment I wondered who would take it home. (I soon found out, just a couple of days later, because the guy who managed to capture it came to Trigoria to let me know, also showing me the video – taken on his mobile – in which you can see the ball being kicked and flying closer and closer until it hits the smartphone. Yes, I hit it, making him drop it, and the screen broke too, but from what the guy told me, he wasn’t worried about getting a refund: ‘I’ve already been offered €100,000 for that ball, but I wouldn’t give it away even for €10 million.’ Come on now, it’s not like it’s a relic.)
Gladiator is published by deCoubertin Books priced £14.99. To order a copy visit deCoubertin.co.uk/totti