In 2005, I was yet to turn 29, and it was the period in my career in which Roma were paying me the most: €5.8m a year and image rights that were entirely mine. My contract had another year to run, until 2006, which meant that while Roma could ask Real Madrid for a fair amount for the transfer, as it should be, it would be hard for them to say that I wasn’t for sale.
Florentino Pérez, the Real president, had pursued me since 2001. The name that he had chosen to continue his collection of galácticos – enriched in the meantime by David Beckham and Michael Owen – was mine once again. Real Madrid offered me €12m a year and hybrid management of image rights, both personal and the club’s. The percentages dropped as the numbers rose, but a first estimate indicated possible earnings of €15m, even more than my salary. Absolute madness. I’d definitely have become the highest-paid player in the world. The offer was accompanied by the €60m initially offered to Roma for my transfer. Initially, I’m told, meant Real could have gone up to €70m without a problem.
What do you want to do with your life, Francesco? You’ve got the chance to become a “normal” star player: a big transfer, victory after victory in a team of superstars, world fame and fabulous riches. Moreover, Real are also selling Figo, which will also free the No 10 shirt that Florentino Pérez has promised you. The star of Real Madrid, their No 10, their projected captain. You never even dreamed of a career ending like this. Too big even to conceive.
But have you done enough to repay Rome before leaving? Of course, you guided them to the scudetto, and that’s a rare feat. But the river of love that you’ve been swimming in since the day of your debut, the affection with which it supports you and protects you, the faith that it has in you – not trust, faith! – can these know their end? The season that’s just finished has been the most absurd of all, and there are no new projects on the horizon. Can you leave it with a light heart? What will you do on a Sunday evening, before taking to the pitch at the Bernabéu, when someone tells you Roma have lost the derby? Or that they’ve slipped into the bottom half of the table? You’ll hit the locker, making a dent in it, you’ll massage your sore fist, and you’ll murmur something in your hesitant Spanish to your shocked teammates… You’ll want to be 2,000km away from there to organise the Giallorossi’s rescue. You’ll want to, but you won’t be able to.
I wouldn’t go to Real Madrid, because it wasn’t my story. My story was Rome, Roma, and a series of reference points that allowed me to express the best of me as a man and therefore as a footballer. Forever my family. Both the one that was being born, because my wife Ilary was expecting our son Cristian, and the one at our training base, Trigoria, which wasn’t an ordinary sports complex but an entity made up of individuals, of people who had loved me from day one, from before I became a champion. I’m talking about the masseurs, the kit men, about those who woke up early in the morning so that I could find towels folded neatly in front of my locker and the pitch in perfect condition for training. They did it because they receive a salary, of course. But believe me: they felt a particular pleasure in doing it for Totti. I could tell from the way they looked at me. I couldn’t tell them that I was leaving, they’d feel like I’d betrayed them. I couldn’t do that to them.
A story. The youngster sat in the second row is very agitated. I don’t think he’d listened to the warden’s speech, and I don’t think he’s following mine now either. Not that it’s anything unforgettable, but, well, I’d done a bit of work on it. Forget it. He’s bouncing impatiently on that chair, and you know that the moment he’s anticipating the most is yet to come. The photo, of course. The usual stage has been erected in the corner of the Rebibbia hall, and when the award ceremony for the calcetto tournament has finished, I’ll head over there for a photo with anyone who wants one. That’s what he’s waiting for.
“Hey, I’m first,” he’s saying, laughing with excited joy, over the top, which intrigues me. First for what? I finish my talk and look at him again, still bouncing excitedly over there. He must be 20, 22 at most, and he’s dressed a little better than the other inmates. “I’m getting a photo first,” he repeats, and this time he turns to me, giving me a thumbs-up, as if he were communicating an organisational matter that I should know about.
Awards are handed over, hands are shaken, and glances, like those of fans but a bit more intense, are exchanged. It’s not the first time I’ve been to Rebibbia, and I’ve visited Regina Coeli, too. They were touching experiences. From outside, you can’t imagine what prison means. “Me, me, me first.”
The general movement towards the photo area, where some guards are regulating the traffic towards me in a friendly but firm way, is preceded by my “friend” taking a step forward. Now I’m curious: what’s the difference for him if he has a photo first, or 10th, or a hundredth? I’ve already told everyone that I’m staying until I’ve posed for the last one. But this guy is walking faster than the others, cutting the queue by jumping in here and there, without arrogance but with determination, and the great thing is that he’s allowed to do it. He doesn’t have an intimidating physical presence; he’s slender, very skinny, and yet the others are treating him with a combination of respect and amusement. He’s still bouncing up and down, like a boxer who’s working out his opponent.
“I’m here, me now,” he says, while we’re still about three metres apart and there are another two inmates between us. He looks at them with a slightly toothless smile, and they move aside to let him past. Who is he? Is he already a boss? So young?
I call him over next to me in a falsely gruff tone – “Come on, over here, just calm down” – and he slides over to my side, wraps his arm around my waist while I put my arm around his shoulders, one, two, three, click, thumbs up, all proud. He has the bright eyes of those fans who couldn’t love me more, and his joy is contagious because everyone’s laughing just looking at him. As he’s about to go, I put an arm out to stop him. I’m too curious. I have to know. Why absolutely first?
“Captain, I should have got out a week ago, finished, sentence served. But when I found out you were coming, I said to myself: ‘When will I have another chance to pose for a photo with the captain? Never, even if I lived for a hundred years…’ So I asked to speak with the warden and I begged him to stay until today. But because the regulations didn’t allow it, I played my joker: ‘Look, if you let me out, I’ll do something stupid to be sent straight back here, and that’s no good for either of us,’ and he understood. But now I want to get out of here, my girl’s been waiting for me for three years…”
I hope that that girl’s patience lasted that extra week, especially if the guy told her about his stunt. Seven days in jail for nothing, just to have a photo with me.
I was shy as a child and I still am now. I’m embarrassed in front of expressions of affection that flatter me beyond all limits, but which demand something of me too. It still happens today: when I walk with the team into a stadium, an airport, a hotel, everyone runs up to me. In those moments, I want to dig myself a hole and disappear. I’m not playing anymore, now others are the protagonists, go up to them and shower them with love just as you did for me for 25 years.
It’s always been like this, practically from day one. Roman and Romanista, I’m considered one of the family. All the fans want to invite me to their children’s communion. And maybe this is the real difference with the others: the talented footballer, the best in the team, is usually an idol, a role model, a poster boy. They’re beautiful things, but different from being one of the family. I’m something more, the son and the brother. Wonderful, but a little stressful. Idols pass, posters tear. Sons and brothers, though, never betray, or at least, no one thinks they can. This feeling, so special and so widespread, has made me the symbol of romanità – “Romanness” – for many. That’s another great honour. But I didn’t ask for that either.
Rome is a mother, we all know that. To be her favourite child is a beautiful thing, and yet sometimes frightening too. Here’s that question again: what have I done to be worthy of such crazy, such absolute, such excessive love?
Gladiator by Francesco Totti is published by deCoubertin Books and out now. Order a copy here.