There's a great line in Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson in which the author refers to the Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme as a glorious anachronism. The description conjures images of the enganche supreme raging against the dying of the light. But while Riquelme has stuttered in recent years, a familiar figure continues to prevail in Europe.
Francesco Totti is two years older than Riquelme and, superficially at least, every bit the man out of time. With the socks rolled down to the ankles and the requisite swagger, it often seems a pity that he doesn't get to use the Adidas Telstar ball of days gone by, or perhaps for his every move to be accompanied by 1978-style ticker-tape.
But Totti endures. Totti thrives.
There are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't. "Look at the sides occupying the top positions in Serie A, and finding a classic trequartista is difficult - even Francesco Totti has been shifted to a deep, left-sided forward role in a 4-3-3," explains Michael Cox for ESPN. Italian football may have largely dispensed with the traditional No.10 in favour of hard-running athletes but Totti has succeeded in finding a role.
In this respect, he has perhaps been fortunate to operate under the aegis of veteran coach Zdenek Zeman so far this season - a man often accused of refusing to grow up himself. The Czech retains a childlike love of attacking football and, more importantly, a love of Totti. Asked to name the three best Italian players, he once famously replied: "Totti, Totti and Totti."
Saying his name three times doesn't change the facts. It's clear Totti is a one-off. And the demise of his role and players of his ilk only serves to accentuate the majesty of a true creator. As expected, Totti ranks among the top dozen players in Europe in terms of chances created. But when it comes to his trademark - the defence-splitting pass apropos of nothing - he is out all on his own.
|Accurate Through Balls - Major European Leagues 2012/13|
Totti has played an outrageous 36 through-balls so far this season. That's just one short of Andrea Pirlo and Santi Cazorla - the talented midfielders third and fourth on the list of Europe's through-ball exponents - combined. The stats cannot recreate the joy of seeing the man in action. But they do hint at the extraordinary vision of the 36-year-old playmaker.
Zeman certainly indulged Totti's creativity. As a result, Roma are the current top scorers in Serie A. But it has come at a defensive cost. The Giallorossi are languishing down in eighth place with no team in the division having conceded as many goals. The 4-2 home defeat to Cagliari on Friday evening proved decisive for the 65-year-old coach and the axe finally fell.
"Zeman has turned a perceived problem into his greatest asset," wrote Paolo Bandini in The Score back in December. But the subsequent failure, even as Totti continues to shine, will have some questioning the wisdom of playing to the strengths of a man approaching the twilight of his career. What will the future hold for Totti without Zeman? Life under Argentine coach Carlos Bianchi was fraught for Er Pupone as a youngster, while Claudio Ranieri had difficulties more recently in accommodating the player in a 4-4-2 formation.
The modern game has changed a lot, but I think it is essential for a club to have a player who represents it like Totti does in Rome.Pep Guardiola
In contrast, Zeman's enthusiasm for Rome's prince showed no sign of abating. And yet, not all will mourn the manager's exit. Perhaps not midfielder Daniele De Rossi who was linked with a move to Manchester City in August and had been forced to accept a role of diminished significance under Zeman. "Do you want to end up like Totti? A great player who has never won anything," Roberto Mancini is reported to have told De Rossi, according to Italian broadcaster Mediaset.
It is not an entirely accurate assessment given the Serie A title that Totti won in 2001 and, of course, the small matter of that World Cup winners' medal in 2006. But it also overlooks something very different - something De Rossi might well aspire to even more than silverware.
"The modern game has changed a lot, but I think it is essential for a club to have a player who represents it like Totti does in Rome," Pep Guardiola told Spanish newspaper El Pais. "Money is important in football, but there are other things of more important value to an entity."
You see, it's not just about the trequartista with the socks round the ankles. There is the remarkable loyalty too. Totti remains an anachronism. And with his supportive manager gone, perhaps he has taken a step closer to the end of the journey this week. But just as Zeman was willing to do, there's a lot to be said for cherishing him in the here and now.