Tuesday 26 June 2018

Enter Francesco Totti

"Io non sono un mezzo giocatore."

"I am not half a player."

Seemed like a reasonable thing for Francesco Totti to say after cannoning home the winning goal from the penalty spot in Italy's Round of 16 encounter against Australia.

Totti was there, whole, not a fraction, and not a fraction less, when he stepped up to face Australian goalkeeper Marc Schwarzer. 

The problem was the media didn't quite believe the evidence.  Just four months previous to June 26, 2006, Empoli's Richard Vanigli had broken Totti's fibula in a Serie A game.  Not intentionally, of course, but there Totti was, clutching his ankle, and NOT writhing in agony, which confirmed to me that it was serious. 

When the diagnosis came in later, I anxiously recalled how long it had taken me to recover from a broken fibula a couple of years previously.  6-8 weeks, I thought.  But it seemed Totti's ligaments were involved too. But maybe that would be offset by the standard of care he would receive?

Over the ensuing weeks, the Italian media ensured they kept me apprised of Totti's convalescence. The race was on to heal for the World Cup.  There Totti was smiling in a picture from the hospital bed.  There Totti was wearing a bulky cast in the stands, taking in a Serie A game with partner Ilary Blasi.

He made it for the World Cup, and Marcello Lippi started him in Italy's 2-0 win against Ghana, but Mauro Camoranesi came on for him in the 56th minute.

The criticism took shape.  Was Totti a liability?  Was he picked because of his name, and, really, he was still not himself, but only half of what he could be?

Totti had a chance to issue one rejoinder at least--emphatically, decisively--from the penalty spot.  It was the third minute of injury time, and 10-man Italy looked to be heading into extra-time against Guus Hiddink's Australia.  Guus Hiddink, the man who four years earlier had been the architect of Italian embarrassment.  His South Korea had managed extra-time against Italy, and had won.  Then, Totti had been sent off to leave Italy playing with ten men.  On June 22, 2006 Marco Materazzi had for Italy.

The symmetry of the situation increased the pressure. 

The penalty had been won by Fabio Grosso. Generously, the Australians would contend.

It didn't matter to Italy.  Totti stepped up. 

It took an eternity to set the ball up.

The referee fussed about the placement (correctly, Totti would later admit).

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon turned away, not able to look (as he so often does).

The camera honed in on Totti's eyes, slightly squinting in the sun and from the focus.

But what would he do? How would he kick it? This is a man, after all, who at the age of only 23 was audacious enough to fool Edwin Van Der Saar with a panenka or cucchiaio from the penalty spot. And that in a semi-final of the European Championships no less.

"I thought about doing it," Totti later admitted.  "But it was hot."

He looked at the referee once more to see if he had complied with everything.

And then, he blasted a penalty that gave Schwarzer no chance.

It was 1-0. Italy were through. Totti sucked his thumb in celebration. 

Whole again, defiant against the media, ready to show off his knowledge of fractions: "Today, at least for quarter of an hour, I was a complete player."

You were, Francesco.  You were.

On this day, 12 years ago.

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