ROME — Once upon a time, Francesco Totti, the crowned prince of Italian soccer, celebrated a goal by ripping off his jersey and revealing a T-shirt reading, “You’re the One,” a proclamation of eternal love for Ilary Blasi, a showgirl who stole his heart. The two got married on live television, had three children and moved into a villa befitting Rome’s born-and-bred royal family.
Now, 20 years later, he says Ms. Blasi’s the one who stole his Rolex watches.
In response to her filching his timepieces, said to be valued at more than 1 million euros, Mr. Totti, 46, admits he raided his wife’s Jimmy Choo, Amina Muaddi, Le Silla, Casadei and Gucci shoe collection. He also hid her purses by Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Chanel, which is the name of one of their daughters.
“The War of the Wardrobe,” declared the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero.
“What could I do? I hid her handbags, hoping we could trade,” Mr. Totti said in one interview. She wouldn’t, but in recent days, Ms. Blasi, 41, reclaimed the bags — either with the help of a locksmith in the villa she, awkwardly, still shares with Mr. Totti, or through a peace offering from her husband.
For a country — and especially a city — that is often afflicted with a deep cynicism about storybook appearances, the durability of happiness and even the existence of true love, the breakup has proved to be a public trauma and tabloid bonanza.
The split may be run of the mill for the blingy soccer celebrity industrial complex, but in Rome, the separation has cut into a legend. Mr. Totti — one of the most celebrated players of his generation and the most beloved player in A.S. Roma’s history — is revered in Rome for staying with his hometown team throughout his entire quarter-century career, including his days as The Golden Child, The Phenomenon, The Captain and The Legend.
The more outsiders mocked his Roman accent, dialect-abbreviated grammar and colorful vocabulary for its Roman provincialism, the more he became the city’s human coat of arms. He eventually poked fun at himself in television ads and Totti joke books.
In Mr. Totti’s final game, generations of Italians shed a tear, and Romans bawled uncontrollably, as the star took a victory lap around the field with Ms. Blasi and his children. He became the personification of Roman fidelity.
Now all of Italy, it seems, is focused on his alleged infidelity.
This week, Mr. Totti publicly house hunted with his girlfriend, Noemi Bocchi, 34, a florist who looks not entirely unlike how Ms. Blasi used to look. (“Photo Exclusive,” read the cover of Chi, a gossip magazine, “Francesco Totti builds a home with Noemi.”)
Not to be outdone, Ms. Blasi carried one of her designer bags like a newborn baby to dinner with a mystery real estate investor, a night out captured by paparazzi and splashed on the cover of Diva and Donna magazine. (“Between Totti and Blasi Always More War,” the headline read.)
Next week, the estranged couple are expected to meet behind closed doors in a Rome courtroom for a second hearing over the missing merchandise.
The proceedings are considered a warm-up to a nasty divorce fight over their villa, which she apparently wants him out of, stakes in the Totti soccer school, which she apparently wants to keep a chunk of, and blame over who betrayed whom first.
The first tip came in February, when Dagospia, the most trusted name in Italian gossip, reported that Mr. Totti had a girlfriend, pointing out Ms. Bocchi seated a couple of rows behind him at a soccer game in December.
Both Mr. Totti and Ms. Blasi vigorously denied the report.
“It’s not the first time it happens to me, to hear this fake news,” Mr. Totti, wearing a gray hoodie and down jacket, said in a video filmed on an empty street. “And, sincerely, I’m really tired of having to deny.”
But people started looking for signs of discord. The British media zeroed in on a 2020 conversation that Mr. Totti had on video with Christian Vieri, another now middle-aged star of Italian soccer, in which the Roman introduced a bald cat that he called a “bat,” named Donna Paola, that he said his wife had demanded become a member of their family.
“I swear, I was going to separate with my wife over her getting this cat,” Mr. Totti said lightheartedly. “We didn’t speak for days, and then I fell in love with the cat, too.”
It’s not clear who will get the cat now. In July, the couple acknowledged the end of their marriage in back-to-back news releases. Both pleaded for privacy for the sake of their three children.
Ms. Blasi, who has hosted the reality show “Big Brother,” currently conducts “Celebrity Island” and is the face of a dietary water drink, has not necessarily shied away.
This week, she switched up her selfie-in-exposed-midriff social media game and instead posed facing away from the camera, wearing only ripped jeans and her long blond hair. She summered in Tanzania, where she populated her Instagram feed with pictures of herself and her physical attributes in various brand-name bikinis.
Other posts seem to have her marital situation in mind. On Halloween, she visited an escape room in Rome.
But Ms. Blasi’s most scrutinized social media appearance by far came in early October, when she seemed to taunt her husband in an Instagram video, filming herself in front of a Rolex store, raising an eyebrow and rotating her wrist. She tagged Mr. Totti in the post.
Both Mr. Totti and Ms. Blasi, through their lawyers, declined to comment, but in his tell-all interview in September with the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper, Mr. Totti copped to hiding his wife’s designer accessories, products that her lawyers say are critical, along with more than 30,000 euros a month, for the maintenance of her lifestyle.
In the interview, Mr. Totti said the marriage had been on the rocks for quite a while, and alleged that he was “not the first one to cheat,” and subsequently said that informants had told him that his wife had “more than one” paramour. Italy’s gossip sheets have proposed the former lover of a popular Argentine showgirl and a personal trainer as good candidates.
But supporters of Ms. Blasi countered that one of the messages Mr. Totti intercepted on her phone with instructions for a hotel rendezvous was actually intended for a private investigator Ms. Blasi had hired to follow her husband.
Mr. Totti said she also planted bugs and GPS trackers in his car. He pointed to several pressure points, including the death of his father from Covid in 2020 and his own illness from Covid. “My wife, however, when I needed her most, was not there,” he said. He admitted some fault (“I should have taken her to dinner more”), but said the marriage was in trouble as early as 2017, as his career ended.
“I was fragile,” he said. “And Ilary didn’t understand the importance of this pain.”
That pain was compounded, Mr. Totti said, by the discovery of his wife’s extracurricular activity.
“Noemi helped me get through this,” he said.
Last month, the couple made their official public debut, sitting together at a soccer match. This week, Chi had a multipage spread showing them looking at houses with his daughter and her daughter from a previous marriage.
As a seemingly final blow to the Cinderella story, Mr. Totti, the scion of Rome’s hardscrabble south, where residents bleed Roma’s red and yellow, is looking at places in the tonier northern section of the city.
Northern Rome is identified with A.S. Roma’s crosstown rivals, Lazio.
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.