O Captain, My Captain

La Repubblica (Paolo Di Paolo) First thing in the morning, a young boy was playing on the piazza di Testaccio wearing a number 10 shirt. He was 9 years old. Meanwhile a small group of old men were gathered outside one of the bars, talking about that same number 10. A small sign of how one man can bring generations together. Yesterday this could be seen in Rome as perhaps never before, from the early hours of the day: supporters of all ages and tourists were everywhere, wearing Francesco Totti’s shirt, looking focused, anxious, and melancholy.

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It was the longest Sunday of them all, which ended with tears both inside and outside the Olimpico. The congratulations, the tributes, one after another – from team-mates, both past and present, from famous fans, from mayor Raggi (“An incredibly emotional day for all of Rome”), the murals, the banners. All you had to do was stop a passer-by and, without even needing to ask them a question, they would tell you something about the man at the centre of it all. Some would tell you about the derby in 1997, others would repeat like a stuck record that nothing would be the same again, that the team is the team, but nothing would be the same as before.

With the game already underway, some fans were still trying to get into the Olimpico, agitated, stressed, imploring the stewards to let them in. It was like that for 90 minutes, while on the pitch things immediately got off to a bad start. Second place was in the balance right up until the last few minutes. “He’s the only one in the world, there’s no Falcao, there’s only him,” shouts an old, sweating supporter. The chant quickly starts up underneath the obelisk in Foro Italico, where the supporters’ average age is 20 years old – youngsters who were born when Totti was already playing.

From the outside, to a neutral observer, this could all have appeared to be excessive (and this article to be exaggerated), but not from close up. Here, in the shadow of the Olimpico, everything is connected to the Captain. Marco is 28 years old, from Garbatella, and says he might not be able to get in, he calls his father (“Nobody is getting in”) and regrets not having a season ticket. A mother and her 16 year old son – he is glued to his smartphone. He’s about to cry. The battery is running out. Do you want to be inside? I ask her. “Maybe”, she shakes her hear. Maybe not. Meanwhile someone is still trying to get in, but without success – he’s yelling, going mad. “We’ve always got in but not today, today of all days, how much do you want?”

There isn’t a single person that doesn’t have a shirt, a card, a flag with the number 10 on it, there isn’t a single person that isn’t talking about him like a superhero. He isn’t just a footballer, he’s more than a footballer. And you can see one girl crying – she can’t stop – she explains she’s crying because of “all the beautiful moments he’s given me. The 300 times I’ve celebrated [his goals]” she says. Do you remember them all? “No, not all of them, but a lot of them, and every one is a part of my life.” There’s a guy who has come from Perugia without a ticket, he tried everything he could to get one but the prices were too high. He talks to his girlfriend on the phone, he explains what’s happened. “I’m stuck outside.” Didn’t she come? “No, she’s a Laziale.” And you haven’t left her? “No.”

When Genoa score their second goal, a shadow falls on the group watching the game. Fine, comments someone resigned to the draw, the important thing is to honour Totti. No, second place matters as well. And when a roar signals that Roma have taken a late lead, the celebrations can really start. This way there would be no regrets, and no heavy hearts. It was too funny to see one woman – 50 years old wearing a white t-shirt with the message ‘Per sempre capitano’ written in red on it – watching with amazement at how a large group of adults were wildly celebrating like children. “It’s not just any celebration,” she says, “It’s not just anything that is making them cry, only Totti can have scored.” Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren are together in one enormous embrace: the ultimate and most powerful symbol of a beautiful and divided city.

One peddler, who has a non-Roman accent, tries to sell me a cardboard mask with Totti’s face on, while the woman who has been selling shirts and scarves at the top of the bridge her whole life complains: “I’ve got a licence, they don’t.” She adds that she was there for Totti’s first game in March 1993, “but I’m here, outside” for his last. It makes me sad.

A few years ago, close to Porta Metronia (where the Captain was born), someone put up a plaque: piazza Francesco Totti. It isn’t on any map, it’s an imaginary, intangible place, but perhaps it really existed, beneath the Olimpico’s obelisk, on the longest Sunday of the last 25 years. “You have to be a robot not to cry.” I hear this phrase, and it seems the right conclusion to me. One couple are embracing for a long time – he and she are both wearing number 10 shirts, not moving. The stadium empties, I head towards the tram, and a crowded one heads past me. I notice – as it moves away into the darkness – that the driver, has replaced the sign saying Flaminio Metro A with another (with Romanista and very Roman spirit) that says “Grande Francesco Totti”.

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