Francesco Totti is showing no signs of slowing down despite being in the twilight of his career. Are footballers playing on for longer in the modern game?
"You know when you get old in life things get taken from you. That's part of life but you only learn that when you start losing stuff." Al Pacino's words as Tony d'Amato in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday obviously struck a chord with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Javier Zanetti and Francesco Totti. Aged 39, 40 and 37 respectively here are some players who continue to defy their critics and continue to perform exceptionally well at the highest level. Over the last two decades I've had the privilage of closely observing from start to finish the careers of some of the best footballers in the world. I watched Del Piero score that last minute volley against Fiorentina in 94 and his subsequent rise to legendary status. I watched Shevchenko terrorize European defences in the champions league in 99. However, for me, there's something about Totti that seperates him from his peers, a one of a kind and possibly the best of his generation. There's no doubting the fact that the man's no angel. On countless occasion he's been accused of diving, petulent behaviour on the field and then there was that Balotelli incident. But I've seen defenders kick lumps out of him over the years and it could easily be argued that he's a man moulded by circumstances. Regardless of shortcomings in his personality, his record speaks for itself. and his ability to sustain high levels of performance for such a long time demand respect.
Totti, best player of his generation?
First thing to draw attention to Totti's claim as a great is the loyalty he's shown to his beloved Roma. In a world where ego and monetary concerns usually prevail, Totti's relationship with his club gives hope to those of a romantic disposition. A boyhood Giallorossi fan, Totti realized a dream when signed by them aged 13. An eight year long love affair followed and turned to marriage when the Gialorossi named him club captain, the youngest in its history aged just 21.
Even by that age he'd already established himself as a prodigy in Serie A and Europe. His technical ability, positional awareness and fearsome shooting with both feet more than made up for a lack of blistering pace. There was an air of George Best about him even at that age. Unlike Best however,Totti always appeared uninterested in the delights of non football related distractions. Watching him play in the late 90's it was clear that for him, Roma was sex, football, drugs and goals were his rock and roll. He'd already been nicknamed the Roman Gladiator by this stage and like gladiators of old, he lived for his fans and spent most of his time honing his art. His club clearly had faith in that discipline when appointing him as captain at such a young age. Sixteen years later he remains at the helm and to suggest he's repaid the faith shown in him would be a monumental undertatement.
Some would at this stage point out that he's not the only player who's showed that kind of loyalty to a club, and they'd be right. Paolo Maldini (played 25 seasons at Milan), Del Piero (played 19 seasons at Juve), Baresi (shirt was retired after 20 years of service) and Giggs (currently playing in his 24th season at Manchester United) all come to mind. However what all these players and others like Puyol and Xavi have in common is the fact that they were all part of sides that were extremely successfull. Maldini won the 7 scudettos and 5 Champions league trophies, Giggs won 13 premier league titles and the Champions League twice. These world class players didn't need to move clubs to win top honours their talents warranted and deserved. On the contrary countless players over the last two decades have, moved clubs specifically to do just that. Remember Gabriel Batistuta? Even Batigoal was unfaithful to his beloved Fiorentina with a seasonal romance in Rome which yielded a league title in 2001. Not Totti! Despite the continued efforts of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, all of whom offered him more money, more European and domestic success, il Gladiatore could not be parted from Rome.
Inevitably that loyalty has earned him the kind of respect that rings eternal. He's become a symbol of the football club and permanently been etched in its history and legacy. Not only has he broken most of the club's records, including most appearances (686) and most goals (285), he also currently sits a handsome 2nd in Serie A's all time top goalscorers list at 230 behind only Silvio Piola on 290 strikes. That's ahead of the likes of Beppe Signori, Roberto Baggio and Alex del Piero, all of whom were out and out strikers. The staggering nature of this achievment is put into context when you glance across the top goal scorers of all time in other European leagues. In the premiership only Shearer has more goals scoring 260. In La Liga he's a close second, ahead of legends like Raul, Puskas and Di Stefano, again all strikers. In fact in the modern game it's only Messi who could ecplise Totti's achievments. But we're all aware that for almost a decade he's had the pleasure of playing in a side that's dominated world football. Totti on the other hand in the words of former manager Zdenek Zeman has carried Roma on his shoulders for the last 16 years. It's No wonder then that the likes of Pele, Maradonna, Platini, Beckenbauer and Roberto Baggio himself have lavished praise on the Roma legend.
Roma currently sit on top of Serie A with a 100% record having won all 8 of their opening fixtures. They've scored 22 goals and conceded only one. Totti has been involved in 9 of those 22 goals, scoring 3 and assisting with 6. With Milan struggling in mid table, Juventus distracted by the Champion's League and their closest rivals Napoli being managed by Rafa Benitez, there's a high probability of Totti winning the much coveted second scudetto of his career. No one deserves it more.
(To see a collection of Totti's 20 best goals click here. Look out in particular for goal 11, a sublime chip against a young Buffon at Parma.)
Where are they now?
To further put into context Totti's achievements this season here's five other 37 year old footballers who were world class in their heyday.
Cristiano Ronaldo may have a phenomenal goal scoring ratio at Real Madrid, but his Brazilian namesake was a much better player in his heyday. Playing at a time when defenders got away with hacking strikers to pieces, Ronaldo was an absolute beast. A Mike Tyson of football, his meandering runs not only showed mind boggling dribling skills (the step over was perfected by the Brazilian years before Critiano) but also brute force. Most of his runs towards the goal left a trail of floored defenders, scattered in his wake like collateral damage. Unfortuantely for the footballing world years of being kicked by vindictive defenders jealous of his God given talent his knee finally buckled in 1999 whilst playing for Inter Milan, he was never the same again. After numerous comebacks and reoccurences of the knee injury, a love of food and samba parties Ronaldo called it quits two years ago. After a year looking severely over weight and bloated he's recently got back to shape on a Brazilian celebrity reality show.
Growing up, like most football fanatics I worshipped Sheva. Had he shown a little bit more loyalty to the Rossoneri in 2006 however it might be him with over 230 Serie A goals instead of Totti. Compared to Ronaldo the Ukranian was an artiste on a football field, the closest thing to Van Basten in the modern era. A complete striker equipped with the positional sense to poach goals inside the six yard box as well as the skill to score wonder goals from outside. The move to Chelsea was a curse that never lifted. Milan had desperately offered him a six year contract and a chance to finish his career at the san Siro but he turned it down. He was in his prime when he left Italy, but an unhappy, unsuccessfull, injury laden time since leaving meant retirment last year in favour of a career in politics. Since hitting the age of 30 Totti has scored more than a hundered league goals, had Sheva stayed at Milan I'm certain he would've scored more. Instead he managed a measely 32 only 9 of those for Chelsea. Having failed in his short lived political career, Sheva is currently attempting a career in golf.
Another example of a player who chose to move on from the club that nurtured his talents. Kluivert was part of the golden generation at Ajax that included the likes of Van De Sar, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, De Boer brothers, Finidi George and Kanu. I remember watching in awe as a 19 year old Kluivert brushed aside Costacurta and the legendary Baresi to slot home the winner in the 1995 Champion's league final. A star shown bright that night, but fizzled out over the years. He never won the Champion's league again. In fact those early years at Ajax would prove to be the most successsful in his career. Like Totti Kluivert too had the boyish good looks, but as numerous managers unfortunately found out, the Dutchman's appetite for the nightlife was much stronger than Totti's. Disciplinary action followed him throughout his career, how much of that was down to racism he suffered throughout his career, we'll never know. He is however currently assistent coach with the National team and his future in management looks bright.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Unofficially Kluivert's twin brother (Both have exact same birthdays) Van Nistelroy,like Totti probably watched that 95 Champion's league final in awe just like me. Unlike Kluivert though Van Nistelrooy was a late bloomer. Almost a Dutch version of Filipo Inzaghi, like the Italian his gangly figure paroled the 18 yard box like a Hyena hungry for goals. At PSV in the late 90s he could do no wrong. His movement and running style may have appeared clumsy at times, but it was ruthlessly efficient. A big money move to Mancehster United was inevitable and a fruitful spell at Old Trafford followed. Had Alex Ferguson sided with Van Nistelrooy instead of a young Cristiano Ronaldo in a training ground bust up in 2006, his career at United may have taken a different path. In a parallel universe where Van Nistelrooy stayed at United until he retired, Bobby Chorlton's all time United scoring record may well have toppled. But, it didn't happen and despite switiching clubs twice Van Niatelrooy still managed nearly a century of goals after leaving the red devils. A range of injuries, loss of form and appetite for the game whilst at Malaga caused the Dutchman to retire 2 years ago. He's currently enjoying life away from the game doing charitable work.
Despite not winning an International tournament Ballack has a far better goal scoring record at International level than Totti, returning an impressive 42 goals from 98 appearances. However unfortunately that's not reflected at club level. Much like Shevchenko, Ballack was lured to Chelsea by Abramovic's millions in 2006 and whilst he made valuable contributions winning five trophies, he wasn't as prolific in front of goal as he should've been. Had it not been for internal conflict between him and senior members at Bayern a more stable career may have been forthcoming. In fact conflict appeared to follow Ballack throughout his career. After his FA cup final clash with Kevin Prince Boateng 3 years ago ruled him out of the world cup, it also spelled the end of his International career. Rifts with the national coach and Lahm were blamed for his abrupt exclusion from the national side. It was a premature end to a glittering International career. He finished his career last year at a club where he first made his name, Bayer Leverkusen. What's he upto these days? He was last spotted on a night out in Hamburg with a drag queen. Being a former national hero, his post career options don't appear to Be-llacking?
If Totti is a successfull example of what can be achieved by staying loyal to one club. Then so to strangely is Seedorf a perfect example of what can be achieved by moving clubs wisely. Seedorf is the only player in the history of the game to win the Champion's league 4 times, with three different clubs. He's won 21 trophies in a magnificent career with 6 different clubs. Despite playing most of his life in a deeper midfield role (requiring more stamina and physical strength) it's a testament to the Dutch international that he's still playing at a high level for Botafogo in Brazil. Alongside Edgar Davids, he is arguably the best central midfielder to play the game in the last 20 years. In his heyday, he was a nothing but a complete player with the tackling ability/strength of a Marcel Desailly and the technique/passing range of an Andrea Pirlo. The fact he adapted to the demands of three very different European leagues, being successfull in each, distinguishes him from the rest. As does the fact that likeTotti he's still playing, and scoring.
Rana Malook is a sports writer for HITC. You can tweet him @rararana.
image: © mmmchoco