At 40, Roma and Italy hero Francesco Totti aging like a fine wine
As a boy, the last thing Francesco Totti used to see before he turned off the light and fell asleep in his bedroom in via Vetulonia was a poster of The Prince, Giuseppe Giannini. He dreamed of being just like him.
Giannini was a Roman like Totti. He grew up in the city's African quarter and not only joined the club he supported but became their captain and No.10 as well. One can imagine the hours Totti spent sat up in bed visualising himself in those colours and in that role, the commentary running through his head in the pick-up games he played in the local churchyard on via Cilicia. "Giannini takes the ball... Giannini shoots... GIANNINI!"
As Totti turns 40, it can't be easy for his friends and family to find him the perfect birthday present. What do you get the man who has everything? Unlike so many of us whose dreams go unfulfilled, Totti lives his with eyes wide open. He has been Roma's captain and No.10 for years and in 2001 helped Roma win their third ever Scudetto. Today the posters adorning the bedroom walls of Rome's youth show Totti, Er Capitano. For years, they have gone to bed dreaming of walking in his footsteps.
This season is Totti's 25th as a professional. The match-winning penalty he put away against Sampdoria in stoppage time the other week also just so happened to ensure he stamped his name on the scoresheet for a 23rd consecutive year. For an entire generation seeing Totti in giallorosso has been one of life's certainties, and an infinitely more pleasurable one than experiencing death and paying taxes. "I grew up on bread and Totti," they say.
His longevity astonishes. Luciano Spalletti believes Totti could play on for another five years: more proof, if more were necessary, that life really does begin at 40. Looking further ahead, that perhaps 50 is the new 40, as Totti will no doubt still be able to play the same delicious over-the-top on-the-turn pass he executed for Edin Dzeko against Crotone even then. There are just some things you never lose. Genius does not grow old. It has no age.
And yet the Great Beauty of watching Totti these days comes in seeing a footballer who is under absolutely no illusion that the end of his playing career is approaching. Rather than rage against the dying of the light, Totti seems to delight in it, to be completely at peace with it. There is no bitterness and anger at the dawning realization that time waits for no man, only a zen-like serenity, an embrace in acceptance. Totti appears to play with an appreciation that his time as a player is short. Not one minute goes to waste. He is making the most of every second he has got left.
Late last season it looked as if Roma would not extend his contract beyond the summer, but Totti recaptured his brilliance. Il Rey di Roma averaged a goal every 51 minutes over the final three months of the season and this season carpe diem continues to be his motto. What we're getting is Totti distilled. The pure essence. Small, intense doses that blow your mind. The absolute proof. A shot of Totti. The best of him. His last 13 appearances in the league, almost all of which have come as a late substitute, have brought six goals and five assists. Sunday's was his 250th in Serie A.
It's genuinely remarkable particularly at a time when other players who made their debuts as 16-year-olds - Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney spring to mind - begin to decline in their late 20s and early 30s and excuses are made that they have so many games under their belt and in reality, have the bodies of 35-year-olds. Totti, lest we forget, emerged at a time when Serie A was not only the best league in the world, but the most competitive, exacting and unforgiving of all-time. He played in a position where he didn't dish out the kicking - like Paolo Maldini and Javier Zanetti - but got kicked and was often doubled or even tripled teamed by hatchet men disguised as defenders. That left ankle of his is held together by a metal plate and some screws.
But Totti, at 40, still affects games. He still wins matches. He is the image of his city: the Eternal city. Bruno Conti thinks Totti should get a museum for his birthday. Simone Perrotta, his former teammates, believes "more football, at least another year" would go down well. "A two-year contract would be better [than a present]," Vincenzo Montella added, "because he still entertains and makes people emotional." A lifetime achievement Ballon d'Or would certainly look nice on the mantlepiece. The most novel gift idea of all, however, came from Spalletti. "I was thinking of the DeLorean from Back to the Future." That way Totti could go back and relive the highs or go forward and see what's next.
If Totti did set the DeLorean to 1992 we know one thing: he would still turn down Milan. If he set it to 2004, he would still pass up the chance to join Real Madrid. "Players today are like nomads," Totti said in July. "They follow money and not their heart." Totti stayed true to his when he could have won and earned a lot more elsewhere. He has been a gift to Roma. Happy Birthday, Francesco.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.