Rudi Garcia may feel otherwise, but players don’t inherently deserve team trophies, even the ones that have played 22 seasons and crafted an icon’s legacy. The more iconic the player, however, the more we want to bend the rules and make the case: Somebody of Francesco Totti’s stature should enjoy everything the game has to offer. So when, earlier this week, Garcia told Kicker that Totti “deserves [to win Champions League] after his fantastic career,” the sentiment had resonance, even if Roma will surely fail to deliver that honor.
Still, tying team accomplishments to player value it one of the worst (and oldest) lies sports media have ever told. It’s a relic of a bygone era — a fragment from the days when players’ reputations came down to scant column inches, a reporter’s intuition, and narrative. Its survival persists, however, fueled by handed-down privilege and the vindication that comes with being handed a paycheck. How individuals perform influences team results, sure, but for too long, we’ve confused the causation. Teams don’t make players great, but when we didn’t have a sea of statistics, unfettered access to seemingly every game, and a huge digital forum to flush out our conclusions, it was too tempting to look at the standings, consider a leader’s best player, and conclude: If that team’s winning, its star should be given extra credit, never mind the star’s greatness is already reflected in the result.
That logic has never done Totti any favors, though. The preeminent No. 10 of his generation – a man whose 237 league goals have dovetailed with five Italian player of the year honors – the career-long Romanista has never enjoyed the renown of a Messi or a Ronaldo. As a kind of superstar counterpoint, an elitists’ favorite, Totti hasn’t even captured the caché of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or even Steven Gerrard, and, as remarkable as the 38-year-old’s career has been, it’s also been vastly underappreciated beyond soccer fanatics and Giallorossi supporters.
This guy should be Zlatan, just of a different sort, but whereas Ibrahimovic’s rebellious artistry has come to be adored, Totti’s violent passion remains a subject of awe. Every time Totti kicks a ball in anger, part of us cowers. It’s intimidating — something that evades empathy. We see Ibrahimovic’s skill and appreciate it for its pure aesthetics, empathize because of the childhood whimsy behind each of those moves. Totti’s power, however, is domineering, fierce, and threatening. It transcends our imagination and engages our insecurities. There’s a brutality to his play that our dreams can’t aspire to, because to come short would indict us. If we can’t even imagine how to be Totti, we’re lacking, as men.
Had Totti played for Inter, he’d be seen as a Ned Stark – a noble brute flanked by the scudetti of his late oughts. Had he played for Juventus, he’d be hailed as the best attacker Italy’s ever produced, and had he shifted to Milan earlier in his career, he’d be adored in a way that would shame Kaká. All that’s missing from Totti’s legacy is more medals to complement his one Serie A title.
Consider the attention Andrea Pirlo gets from those looking for narratives to define their athletes. It’s a practical example. Beneath the revering depictions of a withdrawn visionary is the subtext of a renaissance artist, one with the noble detachment of a romanticized hero. As soccer has progressed to glorify its attacking midfielders and offset its registas with more physically persuasive forces, Pirlo has become adored as an anachronism, his long hair and leathered skin made irresistible by the man-crush beard that’s thrust him on to magazine covers. We imagine him with a cigarette that’s almost never there, but might as well envision a beret and painter’s palette and discard all restraint we have with our caricatures.
Is Pirlo any more iconic than Totti? Perhaps, but they exist in the same realm. There’s also the argument that his iconography comes from winning with Milan, leading Juventus to its recent scudetti, and being the cornerstone of a team that won a World Cup (Totti was also in that squad). He fits the formula — the one that promotes that timeless lie. Italy’s 2006? Juventus’s dominant teams of the 2010s? Even now, as Pirlo’s legend grows (and Kaká’s has waned), those Milan teams that won two European titles? Where the romance of his play stops, the prestige of Pirlo’s teams carries on.
No, as a player, Pirlo is not more iconic than Totti. At their positions, they’re both generation-defining players, which makes their disparate legends even more curious. Totti is an icon, but Pirlo’s a god, for no other reason than his teams have accomplished more. But there’s nothing in the quality of the two that should convince us Totti is any less influential than Pirlo.
Perhaps that’s what Garcia was getting at. Platonically, Totti and Pirlo should be equals. That they’re not means Totti deserves more. For justice’s sake, he needs something to raise his regard. It may not make sense, and it may play into an old lark, but yes, it would be nice to see Totti win that title.
It won’t make him any more accessible. Zlatan is our dreams, and Pirlo is our inspiration, but Totti would still be out of reach. He’ll always be too threatening to approach. But in that way, regardless of the titles on Roma’s shelves, he should be as revered as the other stars we hold close.