Francesco Totti's awkward Roma farewell as legend says ciao to Serie A
As Francesco Totti prepared to come on in Verona last Saturday, a kid arose from the bench opposite and readied himself to do the same.
"Who are you?" the Roma captain asked a bashful Emanuel Vignato, who became the latest millennial to make his debut in Serie A.
There was a "Shouldn't you be in school?" feel to Totti's question. "He looks like he's 12," Totti shouted to Radja Nainggolan.
Vignato is actually 16. He's a winger and it's as yet unclear whether or not he'll fulfil his potential and develop into a fine player. Totti probably has more talent in his little finger. But imbuing this moment with a special poignancy was the manner in which Totti, not Vignato, looked at the other in wonder. As Vignato presumably imagined what it might be like to have Totti's ability, Roma's captain dearly envied Vignato's youth.
"Do you want to take 10 years off me?" he joked.
As the fourth official lifted his board to the sky, it wasn't just the travelling Roma fans who sang Totti's name. The rest of the crowd at the Bentegodi joined in. There were only five minutes remaining and their team were losing 5-3 but many Chievo supporters stuck around to see Totti one last time. It would take Totti 20 minutes just to walk the 40 metres between the mixed zone and the exit after the game. Chievo club officials, and a number of journalists wanted a word, as well as a selfie or an autograph with the 40-year-old.
Before Totti could step on the bus for the train station, though, Chievo owner Luca Campedelli wanted to give him something. It was a plaque commemorating his 25-year career. The engraving captured the mood around Italy.
"True champions don't have just one shirt," it read. "True champions belong to everybody."
A fortnight earlier, a banner appeared in the Milan end at San Siro "Paying homage to our rival Francesco Totti."
Then, most surprisingly of all, last Sunday evening came another one unfurled at the Stadio Olimpico by Lazio's biggest group of Ultras, the Irriducibili.
"Enemies of a lifetime salute Francesco Totti."
Not stopping there, they issued a communique the following day saying: "You haven't received respect, not from your fans, not from your club, and, for this, we're deeply sorry. We would never have allowed one of our players to be treated this way. We would never have stayed silent on what they are doing and what they have done to you."
Frankly, it's a little rich coming from them and not entirely fair.
As far as Roma are concerned, the final word on Totti's future was delivered last summer when they announced he would play for "one final season." Nothing more needed to be said and when Monchi confirmed a few weeks ago that this Sunday's game against Genoa would be Totti's last for the club, he was only respecting a decision that had already been taken. It will be an occasion of mixed emotions. Tickets for the game sold out within hours of going on sale and the league has brought the kick-off time forward to 6pm local time so parents can bring their kids to see Totti.
The Olimpico will be full for the first time this season but nobody knows exactly what awaits them. All we can say for certain is Totti won't start. Roma need a win to wrap up second place and automatic qualification for the Champions League. Fortunately, Genoa are now safe and have nothing to play for, so you'd hope Roma take care of business early and Totti gets at least 20 minutes on the pitch. Alternatively, the Hollywood scriptwriter in all of us can easily envisage a situation in which Roma fall behind and Spalletti has no choice but to turn to Totti, who comes on to save the day, clinching victory and a place in next year's Champions League group stages with an audacious trademark lob.
But then what?
Well, it's no secret that Roma's desire is for Totti to become a director. A tacit agreement over a six-year contract has long been held. But Totti doesn't seem ready to sit behind a desk. Not just yet anyway. Breaking his silence on his future on Thursday, Totti confirmed in a Facebook post this is "the last time I can wear Roma's jersey." The use of language in that sentence alone is pretty suggestive. Let's just say it has done nothing to discourage former teammates like Marco Borriello from believing that retirement is being "imposed" on Totti. But the rest of Totti's post hinted at a wish to continue playing.
"I just feel that my love for football never fades: it's a passion, my passion. It's so deep I can't imagine not fuelling it any long. Ever. From Monday I'm ready to go again. I'm ready for a new challenge."
After turning down Milan and Real Madrid at various stages of his career, is Totti now willing to pull on a shirt that isn't the red and yellow of Roma? Might it be with Alessandro Nesta's Miami FC? It would be odd to see Totti wearing another team's colours just as it was when Alessandro Del Piero turned out Sydney FC and Delhi Dynamos. That's why La Gazzetta dello Sport think it would be a great idea, providing Totti does walk away, for him to go back to Trastevere in Serie D. Totti began his career at SMIT Trastevere and he would come full circle. If he does hang up his boots and leaves Roma, ambassadorial roles with the Italian Football Federation and the Olympic Committee could have an appeal. Totti isn't short of options.
The atmosphere at the Olimpico on Sunday will be a curious one to say the least. "When he stops there will be mourning," Alessandro Florenzi predicted. Totti's former teammate Vincent Candela struck a familiar tone. "When a campionissimo stops, it's a funeral for the game."
There will be tears and you have to ask: how has it come to this? The Curva Sud, where Roma's Ultras stand, hold both Totti and the ownership to blame. "You [Francesco] and above all the club could have done more to stop your name being used against Roma of late," a statement read. "It would have created less friction and not exacerbated the situation."
But we are where we are, in an awkward and uncomfortable situation. If only the Trevi Fountain were a fountain of youth and Totti could emerge from it as fresh-faced as Vignato. The whole thing has divided Roma fans. But a banner left for Totti outside the Colosseum on Thursday night expressed a sentiment they will no doubt all share come Sunday.
"You will leave the field," it read, "only to enter into legend."
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.