Today, September 27, sees Francesco Totti turn 47.
The man who captained Roma to their third and most recent Serie A title in 2001 was a one-club man – but that almost ended up not being the case.
A switch to Sampdoria in 1996-97 nearly materialised, at a time when the young attacker felt marginalised by coach Carlos Bianchi. When Bianchi gave the Roma board an ultimatum late in that season as the club languished – essentially, “Me or Totti” – the decision was firmly in favour of Totti and that summer began a 20-year association with a storied number.
When Serie A introduced squad numbers for 1995-96, it was only natural that the number 10 would go to their captain, the legendary Giuseppe Giannini – Totti’s idol. An up-and-comer seen as part of the club’s future, Totti was allocated number 20.
He played 36 games during that season in all competitions but, while Giannini left the club at the end of the campaign, the number 10 was given to Uruguayan forward Daniel Fonseca, who had had 11 for 1995-96. As part of a fairly widespread musical chairs number operation, Totti was given the number 17.
Also departing Roma in the summer of 1996 was head coach Carlo Mazzone, who had taken Totti under his wing. His successor, the Argentinian Bianchi, was not so gushing in his praise for the youngster and even tried to sign Jari Litmanen to play in the role earmarked for Totti.
While Totti did play 26 times in the league, there was a real possibility of him leaving his boyhood club when Sampdoria made an approach. Thankfully for him, Bianchi was jettisoned and the arrival of Zdeněk Zeman as coach for 1997-98 coincided with him inheriting a special heirloom.
With Fonseca having joined Juventus, a trio of experienced players – Luigi Di Biagio, Marco Delvecchio and Abel Balbo – suggested to Zeman that giving Totti the number 10 shirt would underline his status as the jewel in the club’s crown. Roma chairperson Franco Sensi agreed, saying that, “It was right that he should take that shirt.”
Totti – for whom an old number 10 shirt worn by Giannini was a prized possession – wanted to honour his mentor.
“The first one I use I will give to Giannini,” he said. “I hope he doesn’t throw it away but uses it, because I don’t think his wife, Serena, will make him hang it in his room like I did with his. For me, it would be enough if he wore it, perhaps just playing five-a-side football.”
Within a year, Totti had become club captain and he would go on to skipper them to the Scudetto and two Coppa Italia victories – as well as wearing 10 as Italy won the World Cup in 2006.
By 2017, as Totti’s retirement loomed, it was only natural that talk should turn to the idea of retiring 10 in his honour, as had happened with Aldair’s number 6 (before being ‘un-retired’). This was something becoming more common in Italy – Milan had retired 3 for Paolo Maldini and 6 for Franco Baresi, Inter 3 and 4 for Giacinto Facchetti and Javier Zanetti respectively and Napoli had made 10 unavailable as a tribute to Diego Maradona.
However, the man himself did not agree with such a move, preferring instead to allow youngsters dream.
“I have always said no, they shouldn’t, but in the end it is a decision for the club to make,” he said.
“For the youngsters, for the kids, it is natural that they are all going to dream of wearing the number 10 shirt for Roma. I had that dream as well, and fortunately I got to live it. So, to take a child’s dream of doing it too, that would upset me.”
As of 2023, nobody has worn 10 for Roma but it has not been retired. If and when it is used again, the wearer will be in no doubt as to the privilege afforded him.