Francesco Totti: We love you but let’s end this shirt number retiring nonsense now

Francesco Totti: We love you but let’s end this shirt number retiring nonsense now

After one of the longest and finest farewells seen anywhere in football, it is simply taken as read that as Franceso Totti departs Rome’s Stadio Olimpico for the final time he will be taking his shirt number with him. It will be an enduring memento of his stellar service to AS Roma, the club he has served man and boy.

© AS Roma

After all, Roma president James Pallotta had already revealed his plans to retire Francesco Totti’s number 10 jersey – way back in March 2014.

A World Cup winner in 2006 with Italy, Totti also won a memorable 2001 scudetto with Roma. The stylishly modern front six player dubbed Il Re di Roma (The King of Rome), played 786 times for his club and 58 times for his country. He scored 307 goals for the capital side and nine goals for Italy. One banner at the Olimpico captured the prevailing mood, not just in Rome but in the wider world of football. “Totti E La Roma”, it said. “Totti is Roma”.

Perhaps it is the footballing longevity of Totti, as the Eternal City’s most famous present day son, as much as any other factor, that will cement his legacy. After all, Francesco Totti is a visual embodiment of all that is good about AS Roma and the hopes and dreams of that club’s support, which like Totti, is both fanatically Roman and locally-sourced.

Roma president James Pallotta said back in 2014: ”I’d like to have players who spend 10-15 years in the squad. When Francesco stops we will retire the number 10 jersey, there is no doubt – his farewell won’t last just an hour either, it will be at least a month.”

Totti, one of the most visible one-club players anywhere, has been at AS Roma since the age of 12. He arrived in 1989 and over 800 games for club and country later he is considered to be one of the finest players to have graced Serie A. And it is this representation of Totti as a one club every-fan that ensures the depths of love for a player with the status of a present day Italian folk hero.

World Soccer’s Paddy Agnew, a spectator in the packed 65,000 capacity Olympic stadium as the curtain fell on a wonderful career, said: “Francesco Totti may not be the greatest Italian footballer of all time, even if he has to come close to that mythical epithet. There may well have been better playmakers and goalscorers down the years, even if Totti was more than useful in both departments. What needs must be said, however, is that never has a football icon been the object of such unconditional love and admiration as that directed at Totti by Roma (and other) fans.”

As Paddy Agnew confirmed in World Soccer: “The sense of loss and the warm feelings prompted by his retirement are, partly at least, linked to the fact two whole generations (if not three) have lived under the spell of Totti, marvelling at his football and adoring his fierce sense of “romanista” (the club) and “roman” (the city) pride.”

But while I love an encore, and a tear-stained send-off as much as anyone, I am very much against the practice of retiring numbers. Even for a Totti, a Messi or Ronaldo, a Bobby Moore or a Henrik Larsson. It goes against the grain.

The practice, imported from American sports in the 1990s has specifically taken hold in Italian football where there are currently 17 retired numbers and a roll-call that includes Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini (AC Milan 6 and 3, respectively), Roberto Baggio (Brescia 10), Inter’s Giacinto Facchetti and Zavier Zanetti (3 and 4), Gigi Riva (Cagliari 11) and Diego Maradona (Napoli 10). In the case of Paolo Maldini, there is a stated provision that his sons Christian and Daniel can inherit their father’s number should they progress from AC Milan’s youth section to the first team. Barring that eventuality though, AC Milan’s number 3 is gone for good.

Despite the temptations of emotionalism and nostalgia there is nevertheless a great consolation that both life goes on and that football’s story exists within a historic continuum of restless modernity and the pursuit of perfection. We can surely still give credit where it is due without denying these immutable facts of life?

And it is also a form of consolation that the passage of time in football is inextricably bound up with great shirts being handed down to the next generation of hopefuls. The players and staff are no more than custodians of both their clubs’ values and their onfield results while employed there. As such the act of passing on the baton (and the jersey) as they move on, is an important practical and symbolic act that ensures that clubs’ and football’s history evolves.

Think of Man United, as an example and Best, Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo. That’s an incredible legacy for one shirt number. And it is more potent, not less, for being worn by successive generations. Then think of all those great 7’s at other clubs, then the 9’s, the 10’s and the number 1’s, the 2’s, the 3’s, the 8’s and 6’s. Football is a beautiful game of light and shade, compare and contrast. And that is how it should be.

Of course, keeping sacred numbers in circulation almost inevitably means that progress sometimes strikes a discordant note. I am thinking specifically of James Milner wearing the no.7 shirt at Liverpool – the shirt synonymous with Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, for example. Or the veteran Per Mertesacker limping towards retirement wearing the squad number 4 that is associated with the all-action prototype modern midfielder Patrick Vieira.

Other numbers too, also offer up something of a poisoned chalice. The number 9 at Spurs recalls the likes of Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean, and Dimitar Berbatov but also ‘flops’ like Roberto Soldado and current misfit Vincent Janssen. Newcastle’s famous number 9 shirt redolent of Alan Shearer, Jackie Milburn, Malcolm MacDonald and Les Ferdinand is currently in the property of Dwight Gayle at St James Park.

The one exception that should be upheld perhaps is for a player dies in tragic circumstances or on the field of play. That then might constitute a legitimate form of commemoration. This has happened notably in Spain with Sevilla’s tragic midfielder Antonio Puerta (whose death was also memorialised on a hand-written t shirt displayed by Andres Iniesta in the aftermath of his scoring Spain’s winning goal in the 2012 World Cup Final in South Africa). Man City similarly retired the number 23 after Mark Vivien-Foe collapsed and died while representing Cameroon in 2003.

But one of the key joys in football is the eternal tension between the game’s glorious past and a bold, bright future that is always unfolding. And that should not be denied by either sentiment or commercial opportunism.

Without Maradona no Messi, they say, and the great players’, clubs’ and nations’ solemn duty is to anoint their successors.

That said, we should also steel ourselves for the inevitable retiral of Messi’s 10 and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 7. Their shirts, given their game-redefining achievements, represent nothing more than ‘a rod for their own backs’ for this great pair’s putative replacements. And that is despite the fact that in retiring these specific shirt numbers we will lose the strength of connection to a modern line that runs through Messi, Maradona, Romario, Rivaldo, Riquelme and Ronaldino at Barcelona. At Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo was preceded by a similarly illustrious Raul Gonzalez and Juan Esnaider, Emilio Butragueno and Amancio Amaro.

But now, you can certainly argue, in the era of extended squads, shirt names and largely meaningless numbers relative to on-field roles, that the potency of magic numbers is all but gone, in any case.

The reality is that your club’s current star turn is as likely to wear 25 or 20 on their back as 9 or 10. And in this climate there is an inevitable commercial pressure exerted to milk every last penny from the merchandise potential of iconic strips and retired stars.

Held in trust

But the number is only held in trust by the players as custodians. It isn’t ‘their’ number – it belongs to the game itself, even more than to either a specific club, country or set of fans.

Indeed, FIFA is a rare act of good sense, notably prevent member nations from retiring squad numbers for major tournaments. The Argentina, Ecuador and Cameroon national teams have been expressly forbidden from retiring the numbers of Diego Maradona (10), Christian Benítez and Marc-Vivien Foé (17), respectively, due to FIFA squad numbers stipulations for Finals tournaments.

I also love the implicit challenge that lies within Jock Stein’s arguably most famous quote: “Celtic jerseys are not for second best, they don’t shrink to fit inferior players”.

To my mind that quote is just as applicable to the players at all great clubs as it is to the descendants of Stein’s great Lisbon Lions.

The beauty of football is not that it eloquently celebrates its own at the end of of great and glorious careers but rather that it maintains its steely-eyed gaze fixed upon some imaginary and evolving focal point that is forever just beyond the horizon. Football’s beauty resides in its key theme of constant renewal, the next team, the greater glory, the pursuit of excellence. And the handing on of key shirt numbers is integral to that process.

So, let the fantastic Roman Francesco Totti have his greatest souvenir in the shape of a retired number 10 and save two final ‘number retirals’ for Mr L. Messi and Mr C. Ronaldo before enacting a moratorium on this mawkish and commercially driven practice.

Then let the suits ‘stand down’ and allow the football people alone to decide themselves who are worthy of wearing their clubs’ most famous shirts.

All other considerations notwithstanding, it is right and proper that the greats are only ever passing through and that no player should be bigger than the game – however valuable their image rights.