Rome Stories: Footballer has the last laugh - in Roman dialect

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The Independent Online

The strapping Roma captain, the Italy forward Francesco Totti, is as famous in Italy as it is possible for a footballer to be - up there with the Pope. But he has done something rather striking with his celebrity.

The strapping Roma captain, the Italy forward Francesco Totti, is as famous in Italy as it is possible for a footballer to be - up there with the Pope. But he has done something rather striking with his celebrity.

Totti is a Roman, and is most comfortable speaking not standard Italian but Roman dialect. What's the difference, goes an old Sicilian crack, between a language and a dialect? Answer: A language is a dialect with an army. And since the closest thing Rome has to its own army these days is the Vatican's Swiss Guard, a dialect it remains - and the butt of all those Italians who don't speak it.

So given Totti's fame and the fact that when he talks people start to snigger, he has become the subject of numerous jokes. Whenever he strides on to the pitch, he can be confident that chortling spectators are swapping gems like this:

Totti's girlfriend: "Darling, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?"

Totti: "One question at a time!"

But instead of getting mad about all the cracks, Totti began collecting them. Then he put them in a book, Totti's Collected Jokes, which sold about a million copies. And because he was a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, he split the proceeds between it and a Roman charity. A second volume is now out.

"Hey Totti," it says on the back of the new book, "is it true you've sold a million copies of your book?" "Impossible. I only wrote one."

Silvio Berlusconi roared into power in 2001 because, it is said, he persuaded many Italians that only an entrepreneur of genius could bring back the good times. He's been a sad disappointment on that score: the economy remains stuck in the mud.

So he's brought all his business skills and a good deal of his fortune to bear on the election campaign: turning current affairs programmes into de facto party political broadcasts, sending millions of letters to voters, itemising achievements and listing new pledges. Berlusconi posters are everywhere.

In one last-minute gambit on Friday he had millions of text messages sent out, urging citizens to vote. His adversaries calculate the SMS blitz could have cost €6m (£3.9m). They also claim it is against the law.

But the boldest move of all (the conspiracy theorists claim) was bringing Italy's three hostages home from Iraq safe and sound - four days before polling. One man involved in earlier, fruitless negotiations for their release claimed that $9m (£4.9m) was paid to obtain their freedom. Now who has that sort of money to chuck around?

A stern new decree went out from Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, this week. To "safeguard the decorum of the city," he intoned, the giant posters fixed to the scaffolding on Roman restoration projects must be "in keeping with the place" where they are displayed.

Many famous sites have been snapped up by sponsors and shrouded in monster images of cars or lipstick. Tourists have reason to harrumph: they didn't come all this way to gape at "gigantographs". The Romans, on the other hand, don't seem to give two hoots.

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