"Galacticos" is a word that has become synonymous with Real Madrid, dating back to the star-studded team that featured Raul, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham. But, going further, the past 15 years has brought an era of Galacticos that stretches beyond the confines of the Bernabeu.
From the Brazilian wizards – Rivaldo, Ronaldinho – and the tiki-taka trio of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi to Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the leading light in today's game, there has been no shortage of star power. Compiling a list of the top 20 players from the past 15 years is some challenge.
And yet one deserving name that does not appear widely in this conversation is a man who has spent his entire career at his hometown club, winning the full set of domestic trophies as well as a World Cup and recently becoming the oldest player to score in the Champions League. Francesco Totti turned 38 this year and continues to produce magic for Rudi Garcia's Roma – but, as the end of his illustrious career looms, it is hard to shake the feeling that Totti is one of the most underrated players of his generation.
Of course, that might sound ludicrous to the many Serie A fanatics who consider him to be the finest Italian player of his generation – ahead of Alessandro Del Piero, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. After all, he was voted Italian Footballer of the Year in 2000 and 2001, is arguably Roma's greatest ever player and was a key contributor for Italy en route to World Cup glory in 2006, including an ice cool penalty against Australia that booked Italy's place in the quarter-finals.
Add to that a Scudetto in 2001, two Italian Supercup victories and two Coppa Italia triumphs as well as a strong performance in Italy's gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat against France in the Euro 2000 final. He has also assembled a catalogue of stunning goals that includes highlights such as his majestic solo run against Sampdoria and a glorious chip against Inter.
And his manager is adamant that Totti's magic has not worn off over the years.
"Totti is exemplary on the pitch", Garcia said last season. "When I saw him play, I said to myself that he is not just one top player but he is simply one of the greatest players in the history of football."
But from a global standpoint, the man they call Golden Boy, The Gladiator and The King of Rome is less of a decorated name. With Serie A's popularity impacted by the strength of La Liga, the Premier League and the Bundesliga, the audience for Totti's moments of inspiration has dwindled. That does not help. Nor does Roma's inability to put together a deep Champions League run. And that hole on Totti's CV – the one significant missing piece – hurts his standing in the game when put side by side with other playmakers like Zidane, Figo and Ronaldinho.
The Roma skipper has also blotted his copybook with a few moments of petulance over the years in front of large global audiences which may stick in the minds of neutrals. An unsavoury spitting incident at Euro 2004, for instance, damaged his image and he picked up an untimely red card against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup as Italy succumbed to a major upset.
But this season offers a chance for Totti to write one more dramatic chapter. Despite back-to-back losses against a superior Bayern Munich team, Roma are positioned to pip Manchester City and CSKA Moscow in the race for the second qualifying spot in Group E of the Champions League. If Garcia's men can reach the knockout round, they will not go out quietly. In Serie A, Roma remain hot on the heels of leaders Juventus and look the likeliest team to push the Turin giants all the way. Through all of this, Totti's talismanic presence and leadership have been critical – and he seems to be hungry for more.
"Anyone still playing at the age of 38 has a great passion for this sport. That's phenomenal", explained Bayern boss Pep Guardiola prior to his side's recent clash with Roma. "Normally at the age of 38, a professional player has earned enough money and quits. Totti still plays and that's because he loves this game."
Sooner or later, the curtain will come down on Totti's fine career. Make no mistake, his body of work puts him firmly in the conversation for the top 20 players of the last 15 years, even if that is an unpopular opinion in some quarters. Italian football will not be the same when the Roma magician hangs up his boots but, before that day, he may have one big trick left up his sleeve.