In Good Conscience

Even gladiators must know when to leave the battlefield

Sorry is not the hardest word; goodbye is harder to say and to mean.

Thursday's Corriere dello Sport in Italy carried a full-page advert, paid for by fans of Roma, as an acclamation to Francesco Totti.

The ad, following a campaign by the radio host Mario Corsi, depicted a picture of the forward imperiously pointing a finger above the image of the Colosseum. "THE KING OF ROME WILL NEVER DIE," read the inscription.

No, not die, not for years yet anyway.

But it was hardly a coincidence that Roma had thrashed their bitter city rivals Lazio 4-1 in the Stadio Olimpico last Sunday - and captain Totti was an unused substitute.

Roma are, as they must, finding new heroes to wear the imperial purple and yellow colours.

Totti is finding it hard to fade away, as any great performer does.

A frustrated Francesco Totti on the Roma bench during the Serie A derby against Lazio last Sunday. His services were not needed in the 4-1 win and his long career is set to finally end in June.  PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY


Roma are finding it hard to call time on him because he has been their captain, their best player, their biggest achiever in the club's entire history.

But time, as the saying goes, waits for no man. And Totti will turn 40 in September. His heart wants to carry on doing what he has done for 23 years, his body, particularly those vulnerable weight-bearing muscles around the thighs and the calves, are inhibiting his movement whether he admits it or not.

Totti cannot accept his decline any more than the supporters want to.

But it is coming anyway. His contract runs out in June and, though he hasn't said the word, Roma have to retire him then.

Il Gladiatore, to use just one of the titles the Ultras of the Curva Sud gave him years ago, has won a World Cup, won a Scudetto, but beyond those has appeared in the shirt 751 times.

He has scored 300 goals, made 188 assists, from the position that Italians call a trequartista. It is neither a striker nor a classical No. 10, rather a combination of both.

Brilliant, mercurial, irreverent and, most important, Roman, he cannot accept his decline any more than the supporters want to.

But it is coming anyway. His contract runs out in June and, though Totti hasn't said the word, Roma have to retire him then.

And after that?

It is a question that Chelsea are wrestling with over their skipper, John Terry.

There is no comparison in playing terms because Totti was ever the creator and Terry's role from the start was to destroy. However, Terry, now 35 and a half, has spent exactly half his years as a player, a hard rock, of his only club's defence.

There has even been talk, mostly newspaper talk, of England recalling Big John because central defending is not a forte anyone young is excelling at in the national team.

But Terry revealed that Chelsea have offered him nothing beyond this season. The announcement was premature because the club said they have to talk.

Unsaid was what Antonio Conte, the Italian appointed Chelsea's new head coach last weekend, wants. Conte is his own man, no-nonsense and intolerant of anyone who raises a voice against his methods.

He has yet to declare one way or the other on Terry's future. Some speculate that the new coach will have Terry sitting alongside him on the bench. Some that Terry will be swept away, the voice and figure of the past.

Most of us do not know which way the incoming head coach will move his pawns around. Conte has unfinished business with the Italian courts where he faces trial over sporting fraud, a euphemism for the match-fixing claim around Siena when he was coach there.

Conte also is Italy's national coach, up to the point when they are eliminated from the Euro 2016 tournament in June or July.

So "King" Totti and team leader Terry are in limbo until others decide.

Totti is railing against the dying of his light but even his wife, the TV personality Ilary Blasi, has suggested it is time to go. His club, now led by American hedge fund investors, hasn't yet said anything about life after Il Gladiatore.

And his coach Luciano Spalletti (one of 17 men who have had to work around him since Totti emerged as a gifted youth in the team) is trying to play the diplomat.

"I want to play because I still feel like a player," Totti said on television in February. "I'm the first at training and the last to leave - I still have the hunger, the passion, the humility."

Sure he does, in his heart and his mind. But he said himself in the same interview that his relationship with the coach amounted to good morning and good night, with nothing in between.

Spalletti tried the grand gesture of giving his star the last 16 minutes of the team's Champions League campaign, at Real Madrid's iconic Bernabeu stadium.

And that looked like a farewell, a splendid one as the Madrid crowd rose to a man, woman and child to applaud one of the greats who never played for them.

Since that cameo on March 8, Totti has barely figured. His six Serie A appearances this season total 227 minutes on the field, one goal and almost a sad lingering from an athlete whose waistline (like most of ours) thickens out in middle age.

One-club footballers, we mustn't call them servants on the wages they are on, are growing rarer with time.

Steven Gerrard wept when Liverpool sent him on his way to the Los Angeles Galaxy last year. Xavi Hernandez was allowed by Barcelona to phase out his career there, and to leave on the high of Barca cleaning out everything from the Champions League to the Spanish league and cup double before he said adios and headed to Qatar for a sinecure.

But the ultimate accolade of recent times was bestowed on Bobby Charlton just a week ago. The club renamed its south stand the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand. It faces the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, and you approach it down the Sir Matt Busby Way.

Charlton sits on the board, and is welcomed in the dressing room, home and away, after virtually every match.

Sir Bobby, 78, found a way to stay humble and to stay inside his beloved club.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Even gladiators must know when to leave the battlefield'. Subscribe