The start of the season might have been delayed but in Serie A the off-pitch drama always arrives right on cue. The first managerial sacking of the new campaign came last Wednesday, when Palermo confirmed the dismissal of Stefano Pioli after just two competitive games (both drawn with FC Thun, but adding up to an away goals exit from the Europa League) in charge. And the first reports of trouble behind the scenes for Luis Enrique at Roma? Well the omens were there the very day he pitched up in the capital.
“Above all I hope that he who is born a Romanista, and who has given much to this club, will always be granted the respect they deserve,” mused Francesco Totti in a column for Corriere dello Sport on the day of Enrique’s unveiling. “That is what I have asked for – to be respected. For that which I have been, that which I am, and that which I will be and have always represented for Roma.”
A reasonable enough request, on the face of it, but it didn’t take a forensics specialist to read between these lines. Totti had in the same piece praised Enrique for his charisma and “determined” personality, speaking of a desire to win trophies together, but his words nevertheless represented a clear marking out of territory before the new manager and those who had appointed him. “I hope that with the new ownership our identity as Romans and Romanisti never vanishes,” he added.
Totti, after all, is Roma – the living, breathing embodiment of a team unlike any other. He is the unsigned kid who turned down a professional contract with Lazio because he couldn’t bear to betray his heroes, the golden boy who brought home the Scudetto in 2001, the champion who passed up moves to Real Madrid and Milan because winning elsewhere just wouldn’t have been the same. A fan, in other words, who just happened to have the talent – and dedication – to warrant a place on the pitch instead of one in the stands that surround it.
Or at least, that’s how it used to be. Totti was once so untouchable that TV broadcasters would make his continued presence at the club a stipulation of their contracts with Roma, yet it had become clear long before Enrique’s appearance that he could no longer take a starting berth for granted. Claudio Ranieri’s rotation policies had long infuriated Totti but even the Tinkerman’s replacement Vincenzo Montella, had few guarantees for his former team-mate.
Now here was a new ownership talking openly of a need for new beginnings. The incoming general manager, Franco Baldini, spoke of his pleasure at appointing a manager “uncontaminated” by the Italian game. The director of sport, Walter Sabatini, said Luis Enrique had been chosen specifically because he represented “discontinuity” with the past. With a 35th birthday looming and the club making no secret of its interest in a number of young forwards from La Liga, Totti had every reason to be wary.
Pre-season started smoothly enough, with Totti offering further cautious praise for Enrique, but then came the manager’s first competitive fixture: a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava. In the first leg Totti found himself benched in favour of an inexperienced attack made up of the 22-year-old Stefano Okaka, the 18-year-old Gianluca Caprari and the newly-signed 21-year-old Bojan Krkic. Roma lost 1-0, with Totti coming on only as a late substitute (though before Roma had conceded).
Reports of the match were thick with references to the reopening “il caso Totti” – the Totti issue, a cover-all phrase used to encompass his recent fallings-out with the club’s hierarchy. The following day he arrived at the team’s training facility in Trigoria wearing a shirt with the word “Basta” – Enough – written in bold type across the chest. If Totti felt persecuted then it was not only because of his failure to make the starting line-up. A few weeks earlier Baldini had won headlines when he told reporters Totti needed to get over his “laziness”.
Baldini is not the first to level such accusations – even Totti’s athletic trainer and friend Vito Scala remarked on the player’s need to put aside his “lazy-mindedness” in a video commemorating his 200 goals – but none could be surprised if they were not well received. Although Baldini, still in his role as Fabio Capello’s assistant for England, is not even set to take up his post until the beginning of October, a rift had already been created between the two.
Enrique attempted to play any tensions down, insisting he did not read the papers and had made his decisions purely on the basis of who had been performing best in training (though that, in itself, was seen by some as implicitly supporting accusations of laziness). He wouldn’t have needed a newspaper, though, for feedback on his decisions in the second leg against Slovan Bratislava. This time Enrique selected Totti to start, but the decision to replace him after 74 minutes was met by a cacophony of boos from the near 50,000-strong crowd at the Stadio Olimpico.
For some newer members of the squad, it was an eye-opening experience. “Why did the Olimpico massacre Luis Enrique for taking off Totti?” protested a bewildered Bojan Krkic after the game. “When Guardiola substitutes Messi the Camp Nou doesn’t make a fuss.”
It is a question that could not have been posed by one more familiar with the club. Totti cannot dream of matching Messi’s capacity to dictate a game at this stage of his career, but equally the Argentinian, as much as he is loved, does not hold the same connection with Barcelona’s supporters as the Roman does with his. Even the most devout Catholics on the Olimpico’s Curva Sud have been known to spend Totti’s birthday wishing each other Happy Christmas.
He is one of them, after all – the local boy done good. Totti’s constant references to his own status as a supporter – whether by accident or design – serve to reinforce a sense of ‘them and us’. When he is slighted then so too is every other Romanista, especially if the source of the criticism is from an outsider: one who ‘doesn’t even understand Rome’.
Sabatini attempted to seize hold of the situation in an extraordinary press conference over the weekend, which started out in a conciliatory tone, yet at a certain point veered into the sort of language that cynical reporters were ready to feast upon. “[Totti’s] talents are unquestionable, but at this point of his career he needs to think of himself in a different way,” said Sabatini. “It may be that he can be more useful to Roma playing 20 matches than 30.
“Even if he is on the bench he needs to keep a smile inside and out, so as not to distract the young players. I am not talking about putting Totti to one side, I am talking of a request to let the manager go about his work calmly. He should be able to decide that Totti is not playing without being put on trial or being subjected to aggression from which he may not recover … Totti needs to put aside any vanity to help the group, otherwise his situation risks killing the team.”
If the papers painted the press conference in alarmist terms then the reaction to them from inside the camp was more measured than the hacks might have hoped. Today at training the player was seen to disappear for a behind-closed-doors chat with Sabatini, but emerged smiling for training – where he laughed and joked with Enrique.
But if peace has been established then it is hard to believe it will be a lasting – with Baldini not yet present on a day-to-day basis and Marco Borriello also unsettled over his role in a team that has added two strikers – Bojan and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo – at significant expense. Unless Totti is prepared to accept the role suggested by Sabatini – one of a player like Ryan Giggs, willing to sacrifice quantity of games for quality – then it seems inevitable that the existing problems will recur.
Enrique believes he is tough enough to take the heat. “I will not be cowed, I am an Ironman, I do things my way,” he announced recently. “If I really can’t do my job freely, without triggering these show trials, then I would rather just leave.”
But if that truly is his criteria, then it is hard to be optimistic of a lengthy reign in a city where the margins between heaven and hell are thinner than at any other club, and where the fans’ Messiah does not yet believe his work is completed.