"Next Stop Piola" read a banner unfurled in the Stadio Olimpico's Curva Sud a fortnight ago. Roma captain Francesco Totti had just scored his 225th goal in Serie A. It meant he was second in the all-time list, level with Gunnar Nordahl and 49 behind the record holder Silvio Piola.
Since then, the count has come down again and now stands at 48. Few expect Totti to break it as he nears his 37th birthday. One newspaper estimated that at his current scoring rate, it would take him another 114 games. Time doesn't appear to be on his side.
Yet maybe this is exactly the motivation Totti needs to keep going. Piola didn't retire until he was 41. So why should he? It's especially curious that the careers of these two players are aligning. All of Totti's goals have come at Roma. Most of Piola's were for Lazio in the '30s and '40s. Here's a pair of footballers separated by time, divided by a fierce club rivalry but brought together by goals, the pursuit of a record and longevity.
- Totti considers Italy return
Totti's magnificent showings of late have not gone unnoticed by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. "If next year he were still to be in this kind of form and have the same motivation that I see now, we would be obliged to take him into consideration," Prandelli said at a press conference ahead of Thursday's friendly with Brazil and Tuesday's qualifier against Malta. It would be a stunning turn of events.
Totti's last game for Italy was the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin. He announced his retirement from international football the following summer. A comeback after over six and a half years away wouldn't be unprecedented in Italy, though. For it's here that Piola's name recurs.
An encounter between Austria and Italy in Vienna on November 9, 1941 looked like the final time he'd represent his country. Later, however, Piola, then almost 39, would return for one last appearance in a blue shirt, against England in Florence on May 18, 1952. It was a friendly, though. Not a major tournament like the 2014 World Cup, which is what Prandelli said he might prospectively be open to calling Totti up for next year.
Let's be clear, this wouldn't necessarily be a regressive move indicative of a change in selection policy. Using the inclusion of Milan's young full-back Mattia De Sciglio ahead of Fiorentina's more experienced Manuel Pasqual in his latest squad, Prandelli insists that "between a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old, I prefer the 20-year-old. [But] for Totti, it's a completely different argument."
He'd be an exception to the rule, just like Udinese's 35-year-old striker Antonio Di Natale was at Euro 2012. Prandelli had never picked him in qualifying but told him that the door was open and that he should make sure he was ready if the time came, which it did. He is taking more or less the same tack with Totti.
It's worth reflecting at this point on how and why Totti's international career ended nearly six years ago...
As an open top bus carrying the Italy team slowly made its way to Rome's Circo Massimo to celebrate their triumph at the 2006 World Cup, many of the players on board couldn't believe the scenes they were witnessing.
According to the city's mayor at the time, Walter Veltroni, at least 700,000 people were out on the streets to welcome the Azzurri back from Germany. Team-mates looked at each other in disbelief. The only one prepared for it was Francesco Totti. "What did I tell you? This city is like this," he said. "When we won the Scudetto there were even more people..."
It was an innocent enough remark. And yet it was spun by some to mean that, for Totti, winning the league title with Roma, his hometown club, in 2001 held a greater personal significance than lifting the World Cup for Italy. The insinuation was a familiar one: To Totti, club came before country.
It hurt him that people still thought he was more committed to one than the other. Totti played under this suspicion throughout his international career. He was once criticised heavily for pulling out of a friendly with the United States in 2002. To avoid that happening again he played on despite picking up an injury in Italy's following match against England. By doing so, he aggravated it further and was ruled out for much of the run-in that season. Some believed his absence cost Roma the Scudetto.
But back to the 2006 World Cup. Hadn't his very presence in Germany again done enough to disprove the claims that he shirked his international duties?
A hundred days before the tournament began, Roma were playing Empoli at the Stadio Olimpico. Totti fell awkwardly following a challenge from defender Richard Vanigli, his left ankle getting trapped in the turf and buckling under his body weight. He'd torn the ligaments and suffered a fractured fibula. No one gave him a chance of recovering in time for the World Cup.
If he didn't care for Italy, as some claimed, he wouldn't have made the effort that he did to come back. Totti wanted to be there. And so he was.
The debate about whether Totti's loyalty was exclusively to Roma and not to Italy as well should have ended there and then. It didn't. The sacrifices he'd made were soon forgotten once the tournament began. As you might expect, he was lacking in match fitness and unable to give the best of himself in the group stages.
None of this was taken into account in the assessment of his initial performances. He was "lame, un-influential, [and] never decisive". The criticism was unfair and showed a lack of appreciation for the pain he'd gone through to answer coach Marcello Lippi's call to be part of the squad and to repay him for waiting until the last possible moment so that he might get the all-clear from the doctors.
As a tournament, the 2006 World Cup wasn't Totti's best - Euro 2000 was - but without him, perhaps Italy wouldn't have won it.
Down to 10 men after Marco Materazzi's red card early in the second half of their last 16 knock-out tie with Australia in Kaiserslautern, Totti came off the bench with the scores still level at 0-0 and saved the day for Italy. He freed Fabio Grosso down the left. The full-back jinked into the penalty area, where he fell over Lucas Neill. A spot kick was awarded, which Totti converted to win the match in the 94th minute and take Italy through to the quarter-finals. Once there, a back-heel for Gianluca Zambrotta and a cross for Luca Toni assisted two of his team's goals in a 3-0 win over Ukraine.
There can be no doubt that he'd gone above and beyond for his country, still managing to make the difference in key moments despite not being near 100%, something that Prandelli will be mindful of. Even if you can get 45 minutes, or less, of high quality from Totti maybe it would be worthwhile taking him to Brazil to start on the bench.
That Totti's contribution to Italy's triumph in 2006 got lost in the polemic disillusioned him.
"It was difficult to make some people understand, above all outside of the squad, that I wasn't a normal player in that period because I'd recovered from a [serious] injury in [just] two and a half months," Totti said. "I showed an attachment to the blue shirt, I showed that I wanted to be there at all costs, but once again many people didn't understand. Even if I'd already thought that it could be my last World Cup, everything that they said about me convinced me [that I should retire from international football]."
Rather than do that, though, Totti revealed it was his initial intention just to take some time out. This was comprehensible. He'd worked non-stop to make it to the World Cup and needed to relieve his body of some of the strain. Once again, though, this was construed as Totti prioritising Roma.
Admittedly, the whole situation could have been handled much better by his camp. Playing for your country is an honour and a privilege not something that you should be able to opt in and opt out of when you feel like it.
Totti was only just turning 30 too and evidently still had something to contribute. Concentrating solely on his club football, he'd have one of his best seasons, scoring 26 goals to win the European Golden Boot. There was a clamour for him to come back, but also some resentment that he was keeping Italy waiting on his decision.
As if replacing a World Cup winning manager wasn't enough of a problem, Lippi's successor Roberto Donadoni could have done without this. Seeking legitimacy, it threatened to undermine what authority he had. Totti, it seemed, was making his job harder. It was a drawn out process. Too drawn out. Totti drew flak for it and on July 20, 2007 came his announcement.
He was retiring from international football "for physical not technical reasons". "My health is the most important thing," he said. Totti's wife had tried to talk him out of it. But his body was telling him 'enough was enough'. There was controversy. Roma were the priority, he said, doing nothing to discourage the claims that he lived to serve his club not his country, as if it were that black and white. He'd had a go at Donadoni too. "When I need to talk to someone I call them. I don't do it through the newspapers," he said.
"All the criticism that rains down on me is because I am Roman," Totti argued. "When Maldini and Baggio said 'Basta' to the national team, the treatment reserved for them was different. But the decision has been taken. If I want to continue playing at these levels, unfortunately I have to give something up."
So has that stance changed over the year? It doesn't seem to.
In a blog post on Monday, Totti wrote: "It's always nice to get compliments and I'm really getting a lot at the moment from coaches, colleagues, from many people who live and work in football.
"I'd like to thank everyone once again and Mister Prandelli too because his words are definitely an incentive to do well. As it's right to, obviously I now live 90 minutes at a time, game after game, I focus on the present and right now I'm thinking about the challenge of [Roma's next opponents] Palermo."
Later, speaking at a charity event, Totti was asked what his reaction would be were Prandelli to call him up now or in the future. "I don't know," he said. "Sure I'm doing well at the moment but between now and tomorrow or the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, we'll see." When pressed for a percentage chance of a return to international football in the near future he replied: "I'd say zero" and intimated that he might have retired by the time the World Cup comes around.
His respectful reticence is understandable. If Totti is playing as well as he is now late into his 30s, it is, in part, because he retired from international football relatively early. But were Prandelli to call him up, it would presumably only be for the World Cup itself, not for the remaining qualifiers, just as with Di Natale for the Euros.
There'd be no begrudging that within the squad. Gigi Buffon has said he'd be in favour, while Italy's other veterans, Andrea Pirlo and Totti's club team-mate Daniele De Rossi are behind him on that too. The youngsters, you'd think, would relish the opportunity to learn from him. All except Mario Balotelli, perhaps, with whom he has previous.
"That said, we hope we don't need [him] in a year's time," La Gazzetta dello Sport's Luigi Garlando wrote. It would mean that the likes of Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy, Giuseppe Rossi, Lorenzo Insigne and Italy's other promising young forward players hadn't established themselves further. Italy have moved on. But Prandelli is right to keep his options open, to leave the door ajar. Not least because it seems Totti, as the pink paper quipped, is Italian football's equivalent of Benjamin Button.