Totti will make the head turn

The Star: Performers
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The Independent Football

There are those who remain unconvinced about the international pedigree of Francesco Totti. And not all of them are fans of Lazio. Even the Italians were once suspicious of Totti's perfection. No one, they reasoned, could be so blatantly blessed, not in the Eternal City. But, one by one – and the process has been more Lambretta than Ferrari – Totti has broadened his constituency so that the nation's chief debating point is no longer whether he should play for the azzurri, but where. The doubters have been banished beyond the borders.

While the last Italy coach, Dino Zoff, played Totti as a striker in Euro 2000, his successor, Giovanni Trapattoni, has used him in the playmaking role the Italians call the trequartista and the Dutch know simply as "the number 10". Fabio Capello made a virtue of Totti's versatility in guiding Roma to their first scudetto for 19 years. "Francesco can play just as comfortably in either position which means that we have the ability to change shape at any given moment," said Capello. But he managed to score 13 goals for the Giallorossi in Serie A, a striker's haul.

Totti has business in the Champions' League with Liverpool this week, but yesterday's World Cup draw has temporarily turned minds to more distant horizons. Totti's good fortune, already apparent in his handsome face and robust physique, extends to his year of birth. He will be 25 next summer, an established international, yet fresh and ambitious enough to relish the call of such a grand stage.

Like Raul, who will turn 25 four days before the final, and David Beckham, who will be just 27, the timing is near perfect. Capello has already talked of Totti as a potential winner of the golden boot for top scorer in the tournament; Raul is an obvious challenger for the honour, if Spain can at last cast off the mantle of international underachievers, and Beckham is the undisputed leader of a talented, but as yet unshaped, young England. All or any one of the three could lift themselves into rarified company in Japan and South Korea next year. All three are already rarities, one-club men in an age of disloyalty and temptation.

"This is home. How could I play for anyone else?" The words are Raul's about Madrid, his native city, but they could equally be uttered by Totti about his beloved Rome. Beckham, though a Londoner by birth, joined United as an apprentice.

If Totti has emerged as the complete player under the guidance of Capello in Rome, it has been the encouragement of Giovanni Trapattoni, the most successful club coach in Italian history, which has brought the Roman to the verge of international fulfilment. Totti's earlier career was blighted by premature comparisons, with his own Roman idol, Guiseppe Giannini, with Fiorentina's Giancarlo Antognoni and Internazionale's Sandro Mazzola. Trap has added the name of Gianni Rivera of Milan to that list and, now certain of Totti's growing maturity, unreservedly vowed to build his 2002 World Cup team around the Roma captain's slick skills.

"Totti, like Zidane, is one of those players who can give a team character," said Italy's 62-year-old coach. "He is class and he is the right age to take this Italy by the hand in the World Cup. Great players like Michel Platini, Rivera and Mazzola had not made their imprints on the team until they were 24. At 25, they had taken over that role. Now Totti is there, ready to lead us."

It has taken time. The boy who made his debut for Roma in a 2-0 defeat of Brescia at the age of 16 took another six years before he pulled on the shirt of his country. There was no questioning the technique, merely the application and the industry. Not until Alessandro Del Piero suffered his ligament injury in 1997 did anyone outside Rome start to re-examine deeply held prejudices. Before then, Totti conformed too easily to the archetypal Romanista, inconsistent, a bit of a poser, untrustworthy, in other words.

Totti grew up with posters of Giannini – "The Prince" – on his bedroom wall and signed as a seven-year-old for Fortitudo, the club from which Roma was initially founded. At 13, he was on Roma's books and earmarked for stardom, though the club maintained a rotation policy in its desperate search for success. Coaches came and went, from Carlo Mazzone through the controversial Czech, Zdenek Zeman, to the charismatic Capello. Totti pays tribute to them all, but only in Euro 2000 did Totti finally begin what he calls his "consecration at international level".

"The European Championships marked a new chapter in my career," he says. "When you do something good, you obviously get the recognition you want. Abroad people look at me with respect and here in Italy the majority are beginning to do the same. I am no longer just a Romanista. I'm an Italian now." He was named Player of the Year at Serie A's Oscars.

Much the same transformation has been apparent with Raul and Beckham. England's travelling roadshow, with ringmaster Sven Goran Eriksson, had increased Beckham's popularity long before his late free-kick against Greece confirmed his elevation to national icon. Raul invokes grudging respect inside the citadel of the Nou Camp in Barcelona, which is as much as can reasonably be demanded of a Catalan.

The biggest danger to them – and to our enjoyment of the World Cup – lies in the heavy text of the fixture list. Roma, Real and United will all be expected to extend their European adventures into May, which leaves little time for recovery. Totti, Raul and Beckham will be at the height of their powers next summer, three players who can define the 2002 World Cup.