G.K Chesterton once claimed: “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” And although he left our world over 80-years ago, if the English philosopher had been referring to the city’s football, he would have certainly been talking about Francesco Totti.
On the 28th of May, the capital city was fully geared up for the Emperor’s farewell, building statues, flying planes and bringing 65,000 fans to the Stadio Olimpico to watch the final 40 minutes of Il Bimbo de Oro’s career. Roma were hosting Genoa, and with the game tied at 2-2, a dramatic last-gasp winner from Diego Perotti was enough for the Romans to clinch the three points and start the last Totti Party!
With a choreography that read “Totti is Roma”, adoring fans hailed their 'King' for one last time. In one of the most emotional nights in the history of Rome, the Giallorossi’s 40-year-old captain stood in the middle of the field next to his wife and kids sobbing, tears shared by every Romanista treating him to a standing ovation.
But whilst this emotional farewell was unfolding, some Roma supporters were also jeering. Their ire was directed towards club coach Luciano Spalletti, urging the bald-headed Judas to dance his way out of their club and off their bench.
Giving Totti only one start in Serie A this season landed Spalletti in hot water with the supporters. Tired of this constant scrutiny, after crushing AC Milan at San Siro, Spalletti hit back: “All this [speculation about Totti] really disappoints me… If I could go back, I would never have returned to Roma.” These words were the final nail in his own coffin.
“We always end up talking about the same thing,” Spalletti continued: “This team deserves praise, but instead we are always talking about this and if I play him for just 5 minutes, I’m disrespecting a legend, then if I don’t introduce him, that’s wrong too.”
Since Fabio Capello led Roma to their last Scudetto triumph in the 2000/01 season, the Giallorossi have desperately tried (in vein) to re-capture those glory days. Before hiring Spalletti for the first time in 2005, former Roma president Franco Sensi even went through four different coaches in one season to return his beloved club to the top. But, after numerous failures, Sensi turned to Spalletti after watching the Italian tactician guide Udinese to fourth place and Champions League qualification in 2005.
Spalletti knew how to dance with the wolves, and after a disappointing start to the season, he re-configured Roma’s formation, throwing Totti up-front as a false 9. The move was a master stroke, and helped Roma to achieve a record-breaking 11 consecutive Serie A victories. This helped them climb from fifteenth to fifth in the Serie A standings.
Only during his second season did Spalletti start collecting silverware, as the Lupi won two consecutive Coppa Italia titles for the first time since Nils Liedholm was coach back in 1979-80 / 1980-81. Meanwhile, during two historic nights in the 2007/08 Champions League round of 16, two headers from Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vučinić saw Roma beat Real Madrid over two-legs and progress to the quarter-finals.
But, the Empire started dwindling during the 2008/09 season due to financial difficulties and as a consequence, Spalletti started losing grip of the locker room. Roma ended the season in sixth place and barely secured UEFA Cup qualification. Worse, the financial insecurity lingered, stymieing Roma’s dealings in the transfer market, which led Spalletti to resign in September.
The turning point came in 2011, when multi-billionaire James Palotta bought the club and sought to restore past glories, but his reign began with two head-coaching flops in Luis Enrique and Zdeněk Zeman.
With the cliché problem of lacking a ‘winning mentality’ in mind, Roma assigned Ligue 1 champion Rudi Garcia to the hot seat. However, after a successful debut season, Garcia and his side stuttered and struggled, leading to the return of Spalletti, who had since added two Russian Premier League titles to his shelf.
The statistics since the Italian’s return speak for his exceptional influence at the Giallorossi. He managed 50 wins from 75 games, which equates to a win percentage of 66.7%: a record that hasn’t been matched in all of Totti’s 25-years, nor during the days when the likes of Nils Liedholm and Helenio Herrera took charge.
Moreover, with the help of defensive reinforcements such as Federico Fazio, Spalletti turned Wojciech Szczesny’s eight clean sheets into 14 this campaign. Transformation was also evidenced going forward, after the 2016 fiasco striker that was Edin Džeko was crowned Capocannoniere with 29 league goals to his name. Combined with the contribution of Roma’s other talisman, Mohamed Salah, the Bosnian-Egyptian double act scored 44-goals in Serie A. The last duo to do so were Enrique Guaita and Alejandro Scopelli, who played over 80-years ago during the 1934/35 season.
Spalletti may have ruffled some feathers along the way – most notably disparaging Il Capitano and substituting Dzeko whilst the forward was chasing the Capocannoniere crown towards the end of the season – but the 58-year-old coach earnt his club 87 record breaking points. To put this in perspective, this points total would have been enough to win the Scudetto during any of the seasons between 2008 and 2013.
However, as the path opened for reconciliation with the Roma fans, instead of continuing to build his Roman Empire, Spalletti escaped fan and media pressure, taking the emergency exit door to Internazionale. "When they find someone who holds a better winning record, or who has more points, I will become number two; but until that moment, Judas is number one," It seems he thinks of himself à la Mourinho - or so we imagine.
The next chapter in Spalletti’s career will be intriguing. Twice he has succeeded in reversing the fortunes or a struggling Roma side, albeit without claiming the ultimate prize of Lo Scudetto. Ultimately, however, he has left the Capital a pariah. But can he be the saviour for an Inter side that has been in turmoil since Jose Mourinho left in 2010?
Words by Ramez Nathan: @RamezYNathan
A Calcio Maniac, Ramez sees life through a black and white lens. He is part of the biggest Euorpean YouTube program in the Middle East "Saba7o Korah" and he dreams of writing the pieces you want to read.