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Joke’s On Him

Times Staff Writer

Did you hear the one about ... ?

Francesco Totti walks into a bar. “What did you do on your vacation,” the bartender asks. “I went water-skiing,” he responds. “Was it good?” “No!” Totti says. “I couldn’t find a downhill lake.” Aho!

Francesco Totti is probably Italy’s most popular soccer star, a deft playmaker known for his formidable passing and scoring. He also has a reputation for being, well, stupid.

Long before this tournament Totti became the butt of countless jokes in his country that spoof his intelligence and his heavy Roman accent.

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Totti, 29, is a key player for Italy in today’s World Cup game against the United States. The U.S. faces a must-win game after being routed by the Czech Republic in its opener, but the Italian squad is stocked with stars.

However, in this age of super-celebrity athletes, Totti has embraced his simpleton off-field image and capitalized on it, further endearing himself to his fans.

Did you hear the tragic news? Totti’s library burned down. Yes, both books were destroyed! Totti was really upset because he hadn’t finished coloring the second one.

Totti’s wife is peeved that he’s always portrayed as a dimwit. She urges him to prove them wrong. “Have you ever read Shakespeare?” she asks. “Yeah,” he responds, “but I just can’t remember who wrote it.”

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And so it goes. Italian fans have pinned major hopes on Totti, whose availability for the World Cup was in question until the last minute because of a serious ankle injury four months ago. But he was in fine form in the Azzurri’s victory last Monday against Ghana, and he says he is recovering steadily.

With his uneven good looks, blond hair (newly trimmed for the World Cup) and impish grin, Totti is a welcome relief in a sport that in Italy is heavily tainted by allegations that dozens of sports figures, including referees and team owners, conspired to fix soccer games for years. Criminal charges are expected next month.

Totti has remained remarkably free of scandal. That makes him someone Italian fans can look to redeem their national sport. Born in a working-class Roman neighborhood and fiercely loyal to Roma, his picture is everywhere, featured heavily in TV advertisements for the World Cup. His wedding a couple of years ago to a gorgeous former model was an elaborate, paparazzi-covered affair, and his books are bestsellers.

“Totti is one of the few remaining symbols of good Italian football,” said Tonino Posteraro, a chef and die-hard Roma fan. “He never betrayed his friends, his people or his city.”

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Totti collected about 100 of the jokes made at his expense and published them in a book, “All the Jokes About Totti Collected by Me,” that reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He donated some of the proceeds from it and two other books he wrote to the poor and to UNICEF.

Totti once told an interviewer that it initially bothered him that he was the object of so much ribbing, especially when it touched on his family. But he learned to laugh along and figured he could show that even a dummy can succeed. In Italy, before Totti, it used to be the carabinieri paramilitary police that were subjected to this kind of good-natured ridicule.

Many of the Totti jokes are difficult to translate because he speaks in a Roman dialect or in Italian peppered with slang. His remarks always seem to start with Aho!, a slang exclamation that might translate as Hey!, but a little stronger.

Totti tries to finish a jigsaw puzzle. It takes him nearly four months. Then he turns the box over and reads: “For 2-3 years.” “Aho!” he says, “This means I’m a genius!”

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That Totti can laugh at himself is somehow comforting to Italians, as though they have been let in on a shared joke.

The only time Totti has faltered in the public eye, indeed his greatest claim to shame, was at the 2004 European Championships when he spat in the face of a player from Denmark. Three times, every burst captured on TV. He was suspended for three games (one for each spit).

Chagrined, he has been apologizing ever since, and this week in Germany he again said he hoped to atone.

“When we are young we all do crazy things, and that is what I did,” he said. “It won’t happen again because it cannot happen again. I have learned from this.”

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Totti does not want to be seen as a bad boy. A dumb boy, well, that’s another matter.

Livia Borghese of the Times’ Rome bureau contributed to this report.

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At a glance

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TODAY’S MATCHES

* Iran vs. Portugal

6 a.m. PDT, ESPN2 and Ch. 34

* Czech Republic vs. Ghana

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9 a.m. PDT, Ch. 7 and Ch. 34

* Italy vs. United States

Noon PDT, Ch. 7 and Ch. 34

RESULTS (D6)

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* Argentina 6,

Serbia and Montenegro 0

* Netherlands 2, Ivory Coast 1

* Mexico 0, Angola 0

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STARS

* Maxi Rodriguez, Argentina, scored in the sixth minute and again in the 41st to help his team get off to a fast start in a 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro.

* Joao Ricardo, Angola, made several stunning saves to help preserve Angola’s 0-0 tie against Mexico. Ricardo made a dive to his right to block Rafael Marquez’s shot in the final minutes that ranks as one of the best saves of the tournament.


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