Everything is ready for Roma vs. Real Madrid. Merengues supporters have arrived in the Italian capital, ready to face off against their Giallorossi opponents in a battle stadium chants. Meanwhile, the two managers Luciano Spalletti and Bernd Schuster have already begun their ‘battle of the mind’, a tactical showdown which will determine who holds the key to this game and who will reign supreme at the end of the two legs. Players, Roma’s and Real Madrid’s alike, have been training hard and are fretting in anticipation of the big match. All players, including Francesco Totti and Fabio Cannavaro, protagonists on a veritable ‘match-within-a-match’ Tuesday night. Riccardo Pratesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport introduces us to this epic battle.
Two champions, with a wonderful memory in common. July 9, 2006, a day they will remember for eternity: Berlin. the FIFA World Cup final game, the victory against France. It could have been the apogee of their football career but instead, both rebounded to fly even higher. Cannavaro went on to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, an ‘intruding’ defender amongst the dozens and dozens of European scoring machines. Totti won the European Golden Boot, aka the award for the best goalscorer in Europe. Almost an irony for someone whose playmaking abilities and passing skills have always tagged him as a ‘midfielder’ in fantasy football charts. Tonight, they will be left facing one another in one of the top matches of UEFA Champions League First knock-out round. A classic duel between the striker and the defender, between he who must score the goals and he who must prevent the other from doing so.
He will be acting as host for this match. The Olimpico, all sold out for the occasion, is like a home to him. Francesco is 31 years old, he first wore the Giallorossi shirt in March 1993, quite some time has passed since then. During all these years, the boy grew to become a man, the great Italian promise became a symbol for all Romanisti worldwide. This has become Totti’s Roma, he’s the face, the emblem, the heart of the team. Born and raised in the Italian capital, he never betrayed his colors, despite the many tentations from the top teams across Europe. Totti fought many battles through the years, some lost and many won, and he also made mistakes. All forgiven by the Olimpico faithful. Better yet, mistakes which have made them love Totti even more than before. The kind of little defects that you learn to live with, as you do with a best friend or a soul mate.
As Totti steps on the Olimpico grass tonight, he will reach 35 caps with Roma in the UEFA Champions League and 66 in European cups. 1 more than another Giallorossi legend, a certain Aldair Santos do Nascimento. Totti, the man who in the top-flight European Cup competition has scored 12 goals, two of which against Real Madrid, one of which the victory goal at the Bernabéu, October 30, 2002. Another unforgettable moment. Totti, the same man who hasn’t scored a goal since January 16 however, and who seemed a bit lost in Roma’s latest match against Juve. Totti, a player for which Roma coach Luciano Spalletti recites words similar to the national motto of the United States (“In Francesco I trust“) and on which former manager Fabio Capello says “Roma will need Totti at his best in order to beat Real“. Totti, a man with a real spine, capable of saying no even to the best clubs of Nothern Italy and Europe. Totti, a man whose same spine is causing him a myriad of fitness problems this year, and which has forced him to specific work-out programs in training.
But Totti will be there tonight, despite the spine problems. For Roma, he is their main man and their main limit at the same time. There is no substitute for Totti. As the Real Madrid website states, “to talk about Roma means talking about Totti“, and only he can provide a match for a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the player with the 12 goal-total in the Spanish Liga. Two more than Totti in Italy. But Francesco will be there, despite the injury problems, ready to battle it out with Fabio.
Fabio, 34 years old. With Francesco, he shared the Italian jersey and two managers, Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello. One thing he didn’t share however is the dedication to a single team, despite remaining a true Neapolitan at heart since his birth. Napoli first, then Parma with his friend Lilian Thuram (the best years of the Gialloblu in the past decade), with whom he won his first important trophy, the UEFA Cup in 1999. Then came Inter, followed by Juventus, now Real Madrid. And that’s okay if some of the supporters back home were angered by his last transfer, judged as “one too many” by several. Italians love Cannavaro, as demonstrated by the many handshakes and autograph requests at the Fiumicino airport yesterday, when the Real Madrid team arrived in Italy. He is the symbol of the 2006 Azzurri, the player which you would find everywhere on the field during the World Cup. “Cannavaro… Cannavaro… KKKannavaro!!“, as the mythical Fabio Caressa would say.
He was everywhere, now he is in Spain. Trying to win the first Champions League of his career, the 10th for the Madrid giants. He started off the adventure with Capello, had a bit of a tough year following the World Cup, but now has become the main man of the Blancos’ back-line. Don Fabio is gone, Schuster is keeping a close watch on the boy from Napoli. Boy? I should say ‘man’ really, but Fabio is the kind of player that most closely resembles a kid on a playground: he will steal the ball from you in a perfectly graceful tackle and will then throw a big smile in your face, as if he was just kidding around, playing cat & mouse with you & the other kids. The kind of kids that play football for a living, in a stadium in front of 80,000 people. This kid right here has a resumé of 56 caps and 2 goals in the UEFA Champions League, a bit more than that other kid we were talking about before. When they meet on the grass tonight, Cannavaro will undoubtedly feel somewhat emotional, but then armed with his big smile, he will start running. Running to keep Iker Casillas’s goal safe.
For our two Italian heroes, the UEFA Champions League represents the only forbidden dream remaining. They have achieved the peak any football professional aspires to, the FIFA World Cup, which they hoisted together high in the Berlin sky. This time, the ‘Cup with the Big Ears’ will not allow them to share the joy, one must go. So tonight, Cannavaro and Totti will put their Azzurri memories aside, if only for a moment, and step onto the field as gladiators. Gladiators of the beautiful game, ready to battle in the circus of Rome.