At least one Roma player knew what was coming. As the Giallorossi congregated for their preseason training camp up in the hills at Riscone di Brunico in early July, many had heard the rumours about Zdenek Zeman’s brutal fitness sessions, but one had experienced them first-hand. “Fortunately I know him,” said Francesco Totti. “So I know what to expect.”
Thirteen years had passed since Zeman last coached this team—long enough for every other member of that Roma squad to either retire or move on to pastures new. But not Totti. A player who had turned down contracts from Milan and Lazio before he got the chance to sign for Roma as a teenager remained as committed to his boyhood club as he was back then.
He had welcomed Zeman back with open arms. The mutual admiration between coach and player is well-documented, dating back to their time together at the club between 1997 and 1999—a period in which Totti grew from precocious teen into a consistent difference-maker. In one famous interview long after he had left Roma, Zeman was asked to name the three best Italian players in circulation. “Totti, Totti and Totti,” he replied.
On numerous occasions, the forward would return such praise. After Zeman steered Pescara to promotion from Serie B last year, Totti informed him that: “You are football”. When the manager’s return to Roma was confirmed, he could barely contain his excitement. “I have had many managers, but the ones I have appreciated most are Zeman and [Luciano] Spalletti. Both are extremely well prepared, but [Zeman’s] football is the best thing for an attacker, there is nothing else like it.”
Nevertheless, even Totti found Zeman’s methods to be something of a shock to the system. For the first few days in Riscone, the players barely touched a ball, Zeman instead having them strap 20kg bags of water to their backs as they were sent out on brutal runs across the nearby hills. “This is not a holiday camp,” Zeman would tell reporters. “Anyway, more than training I would say we’re just having some nice hikes through the woods.”
By the time Roma reached their first friendly against the Romanian side CS Turnu Severin, Totti was among a number of players struggling to keep up the pace. At half-time of that game Totti had to ask to be substituted due to sheer fatigue.
Totti, though, was ready to embrace the challenge. A further shock to the system arrived for most Roma players when they discovered Zeman’s plans to put them on a special “detoxifying” diet, with a meal plan consisting of little more than boiled vegetables.
Rather than protest, Totti instead went to see a nutritionist, getting a personalised plan drawn up to take him through the season. Again the focus was on boiled vegetables and fish, with the player allowed no more than 50-60g of pasta per day, supplemented by 30g of bread. Desserts were banned altogether, with apples and pears designated as acceptable snacks.
The transformation was remarkable. Totti had already been observing a strict diet with reduced carb intake, but between his new alimentary intake and the manager’s punishing fitness routines, he would reach the season 13 lbs lighter than before Zeman had arrived. On the pitch, he was running more than he had in years.
He was rejuvenated, too, by the manager’s tactical schemes. During his previous stint at the club, Zeman had deployed Totti on the left of a three-man attack, and now the player was restored to that role. In reality, though, Totti was granted the freedom to roam across the pitch as he saw fit, most often dropping in behind his fellow attackers to become a sort of deep-lying regista for the forward line.
This was a new departure for Zeman, a man whose best teams have typically relied on great cohesion and a firm adherence to his tactical plans, but it quickly became clear why he was so willing to bend the rules. Totti was playing better than he had in years, still mystifying opponents with his craft and guile but now supplementing such qualities with an explosiveness and energy that were thought to have been lost.
More than once in recent years it had been mooted that Totti’s enduring presence was holding Roma back, his declining ability but enduring influence in Rome presenting a dilemma with for each new manager who arrived at the club. But now Totti was pulling strings on the pitch as well as being accused of pulling them off it.
An inspired performance in Roma’s 3-1 win over Inter in early September, capped with a glorious assist for Pablo Osvaldo, served notice of his footballing renaissance. He has confirmed it since by becoming the only Roma player to start all 15 games so far this season. Along the way he has scored six goals and provided his team-mates with seven assists.
He has returned his manager’s faith off the pitch, too, defending Zeman from accusations of tactical naivety after Roma blew leads twice in four days en route to defeats to Udinese and Parma at the end of October. “We [the players] are putting into practice only 50% of what he is asking of us,” said Totti. “That is not good enough …. [But] by following him we will come out of this difficult period.”
So they have; Roma’s 4-2 victory over Fiorentina on Saturday was their fourth consecutive win. Totti was once again in inspired form, his two goals moving him to within four of second-placed Gunnar Nordahl on Serie A’s all-time scorers’ list. Fiorentina’s Emiliano Viviano had become the 103rd different professional goalkeeper to be beaten by a Totti strike.
The following day’s papers were thick with praise for Er Pupone. “Question: can a 36-year-old footballer, a World Cup winner, a player who has won the European golden shoe, who has silenced the Bernabeu in Madrid and who has made many different sets of opposing supporters stand to applaud, still shock us?” asked Gianluca Piacentini in Corriere della Sera. “The answer is yes, if his name is Francesco Totti.”
Where Roma had previously been criticised for handing Totti a contract that lasts until 2014, when he will be 38, now fans are asking whether he will get to fulfil his dream of extending that beyond his 40th birthday. Zeman might be thinking even longer-term. Lamenting Totti’s conversion to a central striker a few years ago, Zeman insisted that if he had stayed out on the left “he could have played on in that role until he was 50.”
That, clearly, will not happen, and there is a danger in making any assumptions when it comes to a player’s potential longevity. As well as anything, Totti has not been immune to injury in his career. For now it is better to simply revel in his renewed glory, and marvel at how Zeman has turned a perceived problem into his greatest asset.