‘Money can’t buy loyalty.’ This is one of the more iconic banners ever produced by the AS Roma faithful.
It has been nearly two months since the footballing world celebrated the fortieth birthday of Rome’s King and Capitano, Francesco Totti. The outpouring of heartfelt and emotional messages sent to the Italian bomber were a lighter, more refreshing sight than what we are accustomed to seeing in an era of intensifying football rivalries.
We often forget football itself acts as a large fraternity; a society where lovers of the game share tales, dish out banter and enjoy a drink. But underlying the widespread praise for Totti was an appreciation of his undying allegiance to the Eternal City and its natives.
Whilst touring North America, Roma’s general manager Mauro Baldissoni (a Roman himself) spoke to Sports Illustrated and knighted the 40-year old “The Son of the City.” He went on to proclaim: “He’s not just a player. He’s not just the best player. He’s not just the idol. He’s a person of the family. He’s a brother…He’s a son of the people.”
Totti, who could have joined AC Milan early in his career, is a rare figure in 21st century calcio. He is more than just a footballer for AS Roma. This is evident in the manner he takes the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico for each and every match, in particular the Derby della Capitale. He is a God amongst mortals. He is royalty.
Having said that, the somber reality of seeing Totti age and creep closer to the final chapter in his historic career is an illustration that his type, his breed – the ‘bandiere’ – is on the brink of extinction.
‘Bandiera’ is a term often used by Italian supporters to define an individual who is loyal, embodies club values, and is a symbol in all aspects of the game. This title is interpreted differently depending on whom you ask. Most of the time, the best-known of the lot are one-club players.
Each nation has their own. Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Javier Zanetti and Alessandro Del Piero are amongst the many bandiere in calcio’s storied history. Yet they are not the only nationals that epitomise the word. Chelsea’s John Terry, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, Bayern’s Philipp Lahm, Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs and Barcelona’s Carles Puyol are all considered emblems. They have been iconic for their respective clubs and their success creates a strong bond with their fans.
Footballers have long enjoyed the riches that have revolutionised today’s game. This cultural shift has transformed football immeasurably. Zinedine Zidane’s previous world-record transfer of €75 million from Juventus to Real Madrid at the turn of the century reconstructed the industry. The obscene amounts of money now available – perhaps manufactured by clubs – is staggering. As a result, loyalty and the one-club player have rapidly become unfashionable. Modern football is at the mercy of its biggest asset: footballers.
Years ago, only the world’s best and brightest demanded major money on the open market. Times have changed. Today, your average professional, the one with a single season (tournament) of success, moves freely from club to club in search of a fat payday. Money can change a man, even the most loyal of them, and seldom do they consider the virtual bridges they leave to ashes. For the majority, the temptation is too great and the figures simply too large. Numbers they – and their families – can only dream of. Then there is the minority, who simply envision themselves wearing no other shirt, which is the case for Il Bimbo d’Oro - Totti.
Money, albeit a major factor, is not the only reason behind the diminishing bandiere. Players can refuse an offer should they consider it below par. But in their ear, is an agent who may disturb their thought process.
Italian super-agent Mino Raiola is the first name that comes to mind when discussing such characters. There is no debate; Raiola has become the most recognisable figure in the industry, representing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Balotelli, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, and most recently, Milan’s wonder-kid Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Everyone is familiar with agents’ influence and their job description: negotiating their clients’ wage and club demands. Players have the option to choose representation: whether that be an agency or a family member. In Totti’s case, it is his brother Riccardo, for example.
For any young footballer playing during the late-1980s-to-early-90s, the glamour of AC Milan held a strong allure. Under Silvio Berlusconi’s reign and Fabio Capello’s guidance, this era belonged to the Milanese giants. However, 27 years ago, Totti rejected the Diavolo’s advances thanks to the calming influence of his mother, Fiorella. Totti himself later reflected:
“When you are a kid in Rome, there are only two possible choices: You are either red or blue. AS Roma or Lazio. But in our family, there was only one possible choice.”
Family looks out for their own. However, an agent often has ulterior motives. Agents – like some players – are egocentric and Raiola is an example par excellence. Juventus director Beppe Marotta revealed that the Italian super-agent earned a staggering €27 million in commission brokering Pogba’s world-record transfer to Manchester United.
Financial clout and agent power alone deserves its own article, but perhaps the most fascinating rationale in understanding the decline of the one club player is the idea of exploring new pastures. Football is as much mental as it is physical. As Andrea Pirlo once opined: “Football is played with the head, your feet are just tools.”
Over the course of an entire season and a long career, football takes its toll mentally. Aside from what is done on the pitch, the strenuous plane rides and long spells away from the family can affect any player. In those hours travelling, footballers do an awful lot of pondering: “When is it my time to call it quits? Do I still have what it takes to excel at this level? Are there new, more appealing challenges out there for me?”
It is human nature to seek fulfillment. Footballers grow accustomed to their environment, climate and livelihood. But often, they eventually hit a tipping point where they feel the need to explore something new; something fresh. This, along with the pressure clubs are under to meet seasonal objectives is contributing to the rapid disappearance of the bandiere.
Perhaps lost in all of this discussion on money, fame and new endeavors is how one deals with adversity surrounding their club’s performance and reputation. Take Alessandro Del Piero, who is the prime example of loyalty. The World Cup winner remained at Juventus despite the controversy that haunted the club after the Calciopoli scandal. Rather than jumping ship and taking his prime years elsewhere, Del Piero stayed at the Vecchia Signora and played for them during their 2006-07 season in Serie B. Of course, Juventus bounced straight back to Serie A, but it was his eternal love for the badge that has made il Pinturicchio an idol in Turin
Former AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini served the club his whole career, from 1978 as a boy to his retirement in 2009. In an interview with Sport 360, he explained how times have changed:
Different players have different goals. When I started it wasn’t so common for an Italian player to go and play in another country. Now it’s changed and that is almost the norm. There are a lot of former players like Franco Baresi [20 years] and Alessandro Costacurta [21 years] who played their whole careers for AC Milan. For us, it was much easier because our winning era was so long that nobody wanted to leave the club.
In modern football, it is often said that players and coaches come and go, but the fans remain the one constant. Thus, when the loyalty of the supporters is replicated by that of a player’s, the love for that bandiera will always stand the test of time. But the harsh reality is that the Totti’s of this world are becoming increasingly rare.
The question is, who will be Italian football’s next bandiera?
Totti’s Roman compatriot, Daniele De Rossi, is the unanimous choice to carry the torch in Rome. With his contract set to expire at the seasons’ end, it is unclear if he will remain at the Olimpico. The 33-year old would undoubtedly reject any incoming offers from Italian rivals, yet he may decide to ply his trade elsewhere, such as North America for example. The Giallorossi also have Alessandro Florenzi, another Roman who could follow in Totti's footsteps.
Then there is Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma. The precociously talented goalkeeper has already become one of Europe’s most sought after commodities. The Naples born youngster has repeatedly quashed Juventus links, committing his entire career to the Rossoneri. Milan fans pray he will eventually become the club’s captain and restore the glory days. But, with Mino Raiola as his agent, a lucrative transfer is well within the realms of possibility.
Returning to Totti, although the capitano’s role at his beloved Roma has waned, he remains integral to the club’s identity. But his conspicuous absence in the Lupi’s recent Derby della Capitale victory – a fixture that has become synonymous with his record breaking exploits – felt illustrative. The curtain finally appears to be closing on this era-defining career. But his legacy, much like his city, will be eternal.
This past summer, The Players’ Tribune set the stage for Totti to express the importance of Rome to his social, cultural and football well-being. He summarised as follows:
People ask me, why spend your whole life in Rome? Rome is my family, my friends, the people that I love. Rome is the sea, the mountains, the monuments. Rome, of course, is the Romans. Rome is the yellow and red. Rome, to me, is the world. This club, this city, has been my life. Sempre.
It was poetry from Francesco Totti, one of the last bandiere standing.
Words by Matthew Santangelo: @Matt_Santangelo
Matthew is an Italian football writer who co-founded the blog, Milan Brothers. He is also an editor and columnist at Italian Football Daily.