Francesco Totti faces uncertain Roma future after controversial comments
The irony will not be lost on anyone who watched Francesco Totti make public his very obvious dissatisfaction at being sidelined at his beloved Roma.
Here was the Roma captain, complaining that his coach, Luciano Spalletti, was saying "certain things" to the press rather than to his face on national television. And not just on any old channel, either, but on state broadcaster Rai's evening news.
"I'm not saying 'I want to play', I've never been the sort of person to say that," Totti said on Saturday, before going on to complain about not playing. "I'm not happy, and the people around me aren't happy. I'm coming off a bad injury, but I'm fully fit and the decision to keep me on the bench is purely a coaching one."
Just yards away at Roma's Trigoria training ground, Spalletti conducted his pre-match media conference, in which he revealed that he was going to start the No. 10 against Palermo on Sunday. Totti was subsequently dropped for a match that Roma won 5-0.
Talk about timing.
Totti must have known what he was doing. In publicly bemoaning his lack of game time -- just 33 minutes since Spalletti took over -- and basically threatening to leave if not given the assurances he wants, he put both the coach and club into a corner.
He was daring Spalletti and chairman James Pallotta. The manager was challenged to show he means business by disciplining a living legend, while Pallotta was painted as the man who will force Totti to play out his final days away from the Stadio Olimpico, over a measly one-year contract extension.
Totti certainly looked to be well aware of what he was saying, which means he knew the impact his words would have. The interviewer only had to ask the simplest of questions -- "What's your relationship with Spalletti like?" "Do you agree with Zdenek Zeman that the situation should have been managed better?" - for him to open up.
What's baffling not just how Totti chose to air his grievances, but when he did it. Spalletti had just got Roma firing again and moving back into Champions League contention with four straight Serie A wins, while Pallotta is coming to Rome next week for talks about the future.
Why would someone who, in his heart, has the best interests of Roma, go public instead of waiting a few days? Moreover, you'd think that Totti is already in a strong enough position for renegotiations without having to disrespect his coach and employers.
After all, General manager Mauro Baldissoni said late on Sunday that Totti already has a six-year contract for the move "upstairs" next season, should he not come to an agreement with Pallotta for an extension to his playing contract, while the American knows that the legend's name is at least as big as that of the club, if not bigger. Thus, keeping him around makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view.
Spalletti had no choice but to drop Totti for Palermo and, in doing so, made it clear that he's not to be messed with. Totti missed an opportunity to show the fans that he can still cut it at the top, and had to watch from the stands while his exuberant teammates rolled to victory.
Sunday night would have been the perfect chance to play himself back into contention, but instead he plunged Roma into unnecessary controversy over two issues that could have easily been resolved behind closed doors.
Now Totti, who was all smiles at training on Monday, might have to wait before being given another chance. Roma's improved league form is putting serious pressure on third-placed Fiorentina in the race for the Champions League, which is a club priority.
Spalletti, meanwhile, has played an absolute blinder by dropping Totti but refusing to criticise his captain -- "The club knows that whatever Francesco wants, I'm by his side" -- despite being within his rights to do so. He's showed fans that he wants to put this needless row in the past and support his player in whatever he wants to do.
The manager has also had a double stroke of luck, in that he's been able to made headlines for himself by disciplining a huge name that he doesn't have to rely on for results. Of the 16 goals Roma have scored in seven games since Spalletti returned to the Italian capital, Totti has figured in just one.
"I asked him what he wants to do because it's important," Spalletti said to Sky Sport. "He wants to be like (Ryan) Giggs? He can be by my side. He wants to be like (Juventus director, Pavel) Nedved? Do that. He wants to be a footballer? Fine, be a footballer, but I can't gift him anything. I have to improve the team's fortunes and I can't allow myself to make any mistakes."
Totti is one of the contemporary game's finest players and stuck with his hometown team when, at his peak, he could have gone anywhere in the world. But the reality is that he will turn 40 in September and, simply put, Roma don't depend on him like they once did. He negotiates a contract extension as a player and accepts a minor role in Spalletti's side, he retires and moves upstairs, or he takes his waning playing talents elsewhere.
For those who saw Totti in his pomp, it would an enormous shame to see him play anywhere else but Father Time catches up to everyone. The sooner Totti realises this and accepts his situation with good grace, the better it will be for everybody.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley