It’s a good job large portions of Italy have been put back into a precautionary lockdown ahead of the Easter holidays, because if not, thousands of men and women would be calling in sick to binge-watch the latest TV drama, ‘Speravo de morì prima’ ( I was hoping to die first).
The series is based around Francesco Totti’s final 18 months as an AS Roma player, and his public feud with coach Luciano Spalletti, who the King of Rome criticised due to his lack of respect.
Many believed Spalletti had returned to Roma to force Totti into retirement, and no matter how crazy it may have sounded, he eventually got his wish. The number ten left the beautiful game at the end of the 2016/17 campaign, almost 25 years after making his debut on 28 March 1993 as a slight 16-year-old.
He barely featured under Spalletti in his final season, scoring only twice in 18 appearances. And the Italian coach’s arrival, combined with Totti’s public comments regarding his relationship and rapport with the boss, left many Roma supporters heartbroken at the prospect that they would never witness another magical moment conceived from the feet of their king ever again.
Other than his emotional, 12-minute farewell speech on a sunny day in May 2017, he did leave I Giallorossi with one final parting gift back in April 2016, despite Spalletti’s refusal to utilise the 39-year-old forward.
Totti had been restricted to cheering on his teammates from the bench in the second half of the 2015/16 season, and although Spalletti had helped turn their poor season around after his January arrival, they were still in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification.
For a team like Roma, who couldn’t rely on sponsorship money or the whopping television income that the Premier League commands, it would have been an unmitigated disaster. And the Roman soldiers appeared to be sleepwalking into the lions’ den without their star gladiator, during a home clash with Torino on matchday 34.
I Giallorossi were losing 2-1 at Stadio Olimpico, struggling to put the bulls to the sword in front of an anxious and growingly frustrated home support. As a final throw of the dice, Spalletti turned to Totti in the 86th minute, introducing him into the action in a move many saw as more of an insult to the club captain.
“Go on then, if you’re really the King of Rome, go and save your people now!” Spalletti obviously didn’t utter those words, but that was the feeling as Totti trotted onto the pitch, with Roma’s Miralem Pjanic simultaneously lining up a free kick on the right-hand side of the penalty area.
Totti did what any king would do. He led by example. Pjanic whipped the cross into the box and the ball travelled all the way to the back stick via a neat little flick on. It was begging for a nippy poacher to get onto the end of it.
From nowhere, the 39-and-a-half-year-old darted off the shoulder of his marker, anticipated the danger, and snaked out that beautiful right boot of his, meeting the ball with immense timing to send it crashing into the net.
The stadium erupted. They had been rescued by their saviour. As he had done countless times over the previous 20 years, Totti leapt over the advertising hoardings like a sprightly teenager, and stood with his arms aloft, basking in the applause and love of his loyal subjects.
Seconds after coming on, Totti had rolled back the years in the blink of an eye and made every fully-grown adult feel like a child all over again – no one could quite believe what they were seeing.
But he wasn’t finished yet. After all, there were still another three minutes on the clock. 69 seconds later, and there was pandemonium in the stands. Roma, now smelling blood, charged at the Torino back line again, and this time, a cross from the left flank was blocked by a hand.
The referee spotted it – penalty. We all knew what was coming. The gladiator had stepped into the coliseum, wrestled his opponent to the ground and was now standing over the wounded animal, sword in hand, waiting to put them out of their misery.
The spectators sat in silence, baying for blood. The anticipation of seeing their hero defy the odds one final time was too much for some. Totti shouldered the pressure of a kick worth €77m to his side, the difference between Champions League ecstasy and Europa League mediocrity.
And sure enough, he gave the fans one last hurrah, smashing the ball to the goalkeeper’s bottom right and into the corner of the net. Chaos ensued. Some supporters were spotted in floods of tears in the stands, desperately fumbling for mobile phones to immortalise this moment forever, while others simply stood and saluted their captain, giving him the credit he deserved, for what could be the last time.
As it happened, it was indeed Totti’s final genuine miracle, one that Roma supporters will remember for the rest of their lives, and brag to their mates that ‘I was there when Totti rescued us one last time’.
But even if Roma hadn’t reached the Champions League in the end, it wouldn’t have mattered. All the Romanisti wanted was for their loyal god to be given the respect he merited, after dedicating his life to the club that provided them with more happiness and love than any fame or glory could bring.
Grazie di tutto, Capitano.