ROME — The first half of Francesco Totti’s last ever game in an A.S. Roma soccer jersey ended, and the fans at the Roma Club spilled onto the street in a sour mood.
“It’s a sad day,” said Luigi Carinci, 65, who had sat in the front row in Testaccio, the neighborhood that is the club’s spiritual home, and dabbed his eyes whenever the screen showed Totti stretching his legs or sipping water on the bench. “Rome is a mess. The bus never comes, they don’t pick up the garbage and the cops do nothing. Now Totti’s leaving. It’s the last thing we need.”
Totti’s final game on Sunday, after a quarter century with Roma that has made him the most celebrated and beloved player in the club’s history, was a kick in the stomach to a city already knocked to the ground and then rolled into a pothole filled with trash.
The past decade or so has not been kind to Rome. Garbage piles up in the piazzas. The parks look like littered Iowa cornfields. The city’s sputtering economy hemorrhages jobs and its mayor’s name has become a national byword for urban disaster.
But at least it had Totti.
The Golden Child. The Phenomenon. The Captain. The Legend. The greatest player who ever wore the Roma jersey, and one who grew up not far from the Coliseum, as a die-hard fan. He refused to leave Rome — the team or the city — no matter how much money bigger clubs threw at him. Fans, including some supporters of the rival Roman club, Lazio, called him “The symbol of Rome,” “The Emblem of Rome,” “Rome.”
“Rome is a city of symbols, the pope, the Coliseum. And Totti is part of this,” said Maurizio Crosetti, a sportswriter for La Repubblica, who considered Totti essential for beleaguered Romans who struggled to tell a good story about themselves. “He was something not to be ashamed of.”
And so Romans, both fans and citizens, took his departure especially hard.
“Today it’s hard to live in Rome,” said Giulio Lucarelli, whose Core de Roma restaurant, on Totti’s childhood street, is essentially a shrine to the “yellow and red,” as the Roma team is often called for its team colors. “The image of Rome has yellowed from the vivid yellow and red of the glory days.”
Totti’s career spanned more than 25 years. He first caught the notice of soccer aficionados at age 12 as a junior player in Roma’s youth teams. He broke into the first team in 1993 at age 16, dazzling the city with his skill and imagination.
He wore his Romanness on his tongue, with an accent and a homespun vocabulary that outsiders mocked but that Romans loved. He embraced his role as an ambassador for the city’s ordinary people in television ads and Totti joke books.
And then, in 2001, he visited a miracle upon the city. With Rome already spick and span after preparations for the Roman Catholic Church’s Jubilee year celebrations in 2000, Totti led his club to a long elusive national championship.
The city basically lost its collective mind.
Totti, disguised in a bandanna and red and yellow face paint, went with Lucarelli to parties in Testaccio and at the Circus Maximus, where a million people showed up and a famous actress, in attendance at Totti’s last game, performed a strip tease.
“Rome was a more joyous city. There was enthusiasm, fun, now it is darker; melancholy,” said Alessandro Vocalelli, the editor of Corriere dello Sport. “Now that Totti stops playing, many people will feel a little older, suddenly grown up.”
Aged 40 and weathered, with a famous showgirl wife and three children, Totti had found his role diminished this season: He was usually playing as a substitute. The team’s management had decided his time had come.
The holder of so many records wasn’t happy about it, and he made sure, with a sour Facebook post, that everyone knew he was being forced out. Mostly, however, he handled the situation with grace and humility. The papers speculated that he might move to another club in the United States or Asia, but never in Italy.
“We’d kill him,” said Lorenzo Ciliberti, 23, who wore a No. 10 Totti jersey as he stood in a circle drinking beers in Piazza Vittorio, now overrun with homeless men and vagabonds, some of whom used its palm trees as toilets.
Crimson Totti jerseys were everywhere on the afternoon of the game, as fans sidestepped pizza crusts and broken beer bottles to make pilgrimages to a 2001-vintage mural of the player pointing to the sky. They marched across the Circus Maximus, now only partly mowed, like a half shaven face.
As game time approached, Sergio Rosi, 80, opened the gates of the Roma Club in Testaccio. The walls were covered in pictures of the club and of Totti through the ages. Here he was raising trophies, posing for the national team, getting married.
“We Romans are all in mourning,” said Rosi, pausing to yell “Forza Roma!” (“Let’s go, Roma!”) at the people yelling “Forza Roma!” to him. The state of the city, he said, had made the loss that much more bitter. “For two months they didn’t clean this street,” he said. “The filthy animals!”
The game started, with Totti on the bench. Roma, in the hunt for the second-place slot, gave up an early goal to lowly Genoa. The screen showed Totti’s anguished face. Carinci dabbed his eyes in the front row.
The second half started and — to some surprise, and applause — Totti entered not long after the break. Roma soon scored a go-ahead goal and Rosi rose to blast a deafening siren and pump his fists.
The club members then waved disgustedly at the screen and Totti shook his head on the field after Genoa tied the match at 2-2. Then Roma scored the winning goal. With only minutes left, Totti kept control of the ball, eating up the clock by kicking the ball off the shins of his opponents and out of bounds.
“He’s a maestro at this,” the television commentator said.
After the game, a Totti took a victory lap around the stadium accompanied by his wife and children, including his son, Cristian, 11, who many hope might carry his father’s torch.
As the theme from “Gladiator” gave way to Elton John’s “The Circle of Life,” Totti started weeping. Bawling. So did the members of the Roma Club, old and young, men and women. They sang the chorus of the team song — “Roma Roma Roma” — and wept. They held their children and wept. They screamed “mortacci loro” and wept. One man, wearing a “There’s Only One Captain” shirt, wrote his son at the stadium and asked for an update.
“Weeping,” his son’s reply read.
As Totti read out a letter (“It’s not easy to switch off the light. Now I am afraid”) the faces of thousands of fans contorted with tearful anguish. In the club, Rosi started pouring white wine with an A.S. Roma label. “I feel awful, awful,” he said, from behind a small plaque that referred to Totti as the “King of Rome.” “Now we will realize it. That he is gone.”
But not just yet. A couple of hours later, Totti and his family arrived at La Villetta, a favorite restaurant. There was a barrage of kisses from loved ones, several of whom said they had spent the game in tears.
As homeless men made their beds on the sidewalk in front of Totti’s old haunt, a handful of fans in No. 10 jerseys peered through the windows. Like them, Totti still wore shorts, but he had traded in his jersey for a red polo shirt.