Friendly. Exhibition. Glorified scrimmage.
Call it what you will, but Roma’s 4-1 victory over Toronto FC was only the appetizer for the main event.
With Italian national team midfielder Daniele De Rossi missing the match due to injury, it was left to their other World Cup-winning talisman, Francesco Totti, to occupy the affections of the 18,274 mostly Roma fans on hand at BMO Field.
For a man that was not even in the starting lineup, it was some feat. The scene was more reminiscent of Rome’s Coliseum than a soccer stadium as the fans bayed for their champion incessantly: “Totti, Totti, Totti.”
Their appetites were partially whetted in the 57 minute as the top goalscorer in Roma history – second all-time in Italy’s Serie A with 227 league goals - began his warmup along the touchline to great noise.
And that volume increased to a cacophony in the 71 minute, as No. 10 made his way across the touchline and onto the pitch for teammate Alessandro Florenzi, and was roundly cheered every time he touched the ball for the final 29 minutes of the contest.
Totti is in many ways the symbol of a bygone era in soccer. Much like Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard or Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, the 36-year-old has remained a one-club man, eschewing lucrative offers from elsewhere to pile on to his years of service with his hometown club, for which he is about to embark on a 22 campaign. For fans of a club like Roma, which lacks the international acclaim of country rivals such as Juventus or AC Milan, this is seen as the ultimate sacrifice, as witnessed by his single scudetto, or Italian championship, while former Italian national team teammates like Andrea Pirlo have racked up the honours, both domestically and abroad in the UEFA Champions League.
Totti almost gave the fans what they came to see in the dying minutes, but his first shot was blocked and a second, mere seconds later, was high and wide, while a third was chipped straight into the arms of substitute TFC ‘keeper Quillan Roberts.
But it wasn’t just the fans left swooning over the Italian World Cup winner. Toronto substitute Doneil Henry, for one, wasn’t about to leave his club’s first match against Italian opposition without the souvenir that everyone in the stadium would have killed for.
“I was smarter than everyone else,” Henry said of getting Totti’s No. 10 jersey. “I was just waiting for Totti to get on and then I was watching the clock. The 85th minute came and I said, ‘Hey, Totti, can I get your jersey?’ He was really nice, a really humble guy, so credit to him.”
Not wanting to be compared to a star-struck fan though, Henry cautioned this isn’t something that he does on a regular basis.
“I don’t usually do it, but when you face some of the top footballers in the world, they’ve done it, and I want to get there.”
The game itself was played at a less-than-frantic pace, as friendlies often are, but Roma clearly held the upper hand, with a 20-6 attempt-on-goal differential.
Both coaches got out of the game exactly what they wanted though, with Roma boss Rudi Garcia lauding it as the ideal buildup to a slightly bigger exhibition contest against Chelsea on Saturday in Washington, and was even nice enough to point out that “there are very good players” in the Toronto team.
With TFC manager Ryan Nelsen “overseas” with hopes of bringing in another player with the MLS transfer window closing at the end of the day Thursday, it was left to assistant Fran O’Leary to galvanize the troops, and despite the lop-sided result he was perfectly content with the evening.
“It was a good workout for us,” the Irishman said. “Let’s face it, it’s the midweek game with a big game coming up at the weekend [against Seattle]. It’s was a valuable outing.
“Typically on a Wednesday we work hard for 45 minutes anyway, and that’s what all the guys have got tonight .We’ve come through unscathed, although Alvaro [Rey] picked up a wee bruise, but he’ll be okay. I think in the first half we gave as good as we got, for the first 20, 25 minutes. They tightened up the midfield after that, got a grip of the game and I think we’ve come away looking at the new signings and there’s some quality in Jonas Ellmer and I think Alvaro Rey is going to be a quality player in this league once he gets his fitness up and gets his feet under him.”
O’Leary was likely as surprised as anyone to see his team take the lead in the 15 minute, especially as they’ve only won four games all year. Still, given their profligate ways up front – their tally of 20 league goals is better than only two other teams in MLS – it was predictably Roma that showed the killer touch in front of goal, with captain Nicolas Burdisso inadvertently turning Alvaro Rey’s cross into his own net past a helpless goalkeeper.
But an MLS club is always going to struggle to keep a Serie A side down for long, even one shorn of some of its biggest names from the starting lineup.
But they still possessed some potent players, especially ageless wing-back Maicon.
Canadian World Cup viewers may well remember the Brazilian’s wonder goal against North Korea from 2010, but he has fallen a long way from those heights in the interim. Sold by Manchester City at the conclusion of last season, Maicon rolled back the years midway through the first half, evading the flailing challenges of at least three TFC players before delivering silver-plate service to the always-impressive Florenzi, who had the simplest of tasks to tap into the net.
The killer blow came shortly afterwards, as Borriello tallied at the attacking end this time, nodding home from Florenzi’s cross to effectively salt the game away.