The Lion who beat cancer to conquer Europe
Sports Consultant, Joseph George writes about Italian footballer and devout Catholic, Francesco Acerbi
11th July 2021 gave Italians across the world reason for jubilation. ‘Forza Italia! Campioni d’Europa! – Come on Italy! Champions of Europe!’ roared the supporters. Italy was the first and hardest hit country in Europe during the coronavirus pandemic. Loss of human life, economic hardships, travel bans, and unemployment had dealt hard blows in the recent past, but their national team’s success brought cause to forget their sorrows and rejoice in glory.
Italy brought the Euro 2020 trophy to Rome when the English were signing, ‘It’s coming home’. The penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, London was a resurrection for the Italian football team. The second European success tasted even sweeter for the 4-time World Champions, as they overcame the failure to qualify for the previous World Cup (FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia) in some style. The Azzurris1 went on to establish a new world record run of 37 matches unbeaten before Spain got the better of them in the first week of October in the UEFA Nations League semi-finals.
The guiding force behind their success: Roberto Mancini
Italy’s dominant run of 37 matches was spearheaded by Coach Roberto Mancini. He abandoned Italy’s pragmatic defensive approach to adapt an attacking 4-3-3 formation, which gave them a new identity and sense of belief. The Italian football team under Manicini was a hard working unit composed almost entirely of non-superstars, mostly young with a few polished veterans, who did their job at Wembley.
The 57-year-old manager, who won 3 Italian Serie A titles with Inter Milan2 (2005/06, 06/07 & 07/08) and the famous Premier League title with Manchester City in 2011/12 collected his 14th trophy as a manager, which was also his first with a national team. The former Sampdoria and Lazio3 attacker, had won 12 trophies during his playing career including the Serie A titles with Sampdoria in 1990/91 and with Lazio in 1999/00. During his playing career, Italy finished 3rd best side in Euro 1988 in West Germany and had to settle for the 3rd place at the 1990 World Cup as well.
The first international trophy was a crowning jewel in the devout Catholic’s cabinet. Roberto Mancini had a small relic of St. Therese of Lisieux in his pocket, when Manchester City won the dramatic Premier League title in 2011/12 season.4
Mancini had also made a pilgrimage to the holy village of Medjugorje in Bosnia after his father recovered from a heart attack in 2012. Former altar-boy turned football manager said he didn’t ask God or the Virgin Mary for football help as it wouldn’t be right. ‘I have been very religious since I was a young boy. But I would not say that God or the Virgin Mary helped me in my career. They have more important stuff to do’, he laughed.
Cancer Survivor to European champion: Francesco Acerbi
Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi was part of the Italian squad which won the Euro 2020. The ‘help’ that Roberto Mancini needed came when his first choice defender and skipper of the national team, Giorgio Chiellini was forced to withdraw due to an injury during Italy’s second game at the Euro 2020, against Switzerland. This at the 24th minute with the game tied at 0-0. Up stepped Lazio’s 33-year-old veteran, Francesco Acerbi, who earned his 14th cap for the national team that night. Italy kept a clean sheet in that match and went on to score 3 goals to secure 3 points in the absence of the skipper.
In the third match against Turkey, Mancini opted to pair youngster Alessandro Bastoni with veteran Leonardo Bonucci, who was handed the skipper’s armband in Chiellini’s absence. Injury played spoilsport yet again, the man wearing the captain’s armband couldn’t complete the game, and once more it was Acerbi who stepped up to the field. Acerbi helped Italy keep another clean sheet and they progressed to the round of 16 as group champions. In the round of 16 game, Mancini went with the pairing of Acerbi & Bonucci to marshal the defence, the teams couldn’t be separated in normal time and in extra time, Italy scored 2 goals against Austria’s solitary goal to book their Quarterfinal spot. Francesco Acerbi, held the ball upfront and set it up for Matteo Pessina to score Italy’s second which eventually proved out to be the difference maker. Skipper Giorgio Chiellini regained fitness ahead of the quarterfinals and rest, as they say, is history.
As we often see, an injury to key personnel in defence, especially to the skipper can derail any team in a major tournament. Italy held their fort in the absence of their leader, even when they were dealt a double blow, thanks to the experience and calmness of Francesco Acerbi, who fit the scheme of things like duck to water.
It wasn’t an easy ride for the Milan-born defender, who had to wait until 2014 to make his debut, 35 matches after he got his first call-up to the squad in 2012. Before Mancini took charge of the national team in 2018, Acerbi only had 2 caps to his credit. By the end of 2021, Acerbi accrued 22 caps in the era of Chiellini-Bonucci partnership – the foundation upon which the Italian national team was built. But Francesco Acerbi was the rock Mancini could rely upon when needed.
During his early days, Francesco Acerbi was a party animal whose career nearly derailed. The youngster was part of the Milan ultras group5. At 14, he left a small team to play amateur football with his friends. He got his career back on track in 2008/09 season at the age of 20, with then fourth division side FC Pavia 19116. Two years later, he found himself at Serie B side Reggina 19147. In 2011 he secured a contract with Serie A side Genoa8 and then played for ChievoVerona9 in Serie A and the next year he found himself making his UEFA Champions League debut for AC Milan10 against Malaga CF11 and also earned a call up to the Italy national team.
Francesco’s father, Roberto, survived multiple strokes but died in 2012, four months before his son signed for giants, AC Milan. He was the one who constantly challenged Acerbi and the dutiful son dedicated his Serie A debut with the following words, ‘I did it for my father, not for me’. Years later Acerbi shed some light on his party life, ‘I was wearing Alessandro Nesta’s No 13 but I was partying rather than training. I used to drink anything and I seriously considered quitting football. Cancer saved my life. I thank God for this.’
In July 2013, during a preseason medical with Sassuolo12, Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The tumour was removed but reappeared soon afterwards, forcing Acerbi to undergo chemotherapy for three months. ‘Back then I had no fear. I just wondered why the cancer did not change me. Then, during a Sunday afternoon nap, I had a strange dream. It was like my father and God were the same person, pushing me to improve. I cried and realised that cancer was an opportunity. I had something to fight against again.’
A new life began, night outs were replaced by regular life, training and peaceful evenings. Alcohol was replaced by water, vegetables, fruit, rice and bresaola. Acerbi got his career back on track with 149 appearances in Serie A without missing a match, first for Sassuolo and from 2018 onwards for Lazio. No rest, no injury or suspension for over three years.
Premier League champions in 2015/16 Leicester City came calling for his signature in-between. Acerbi didn’t leave the family club Sassuolo, which always stood by him. Acerbi started spending hours with disabled people and children with cancer. Almost every Thursday morning, you could find him in a work smock, assembling fishing floats and modelling clay with disabled workers. ‘I feel at home here,’ he said. ‘These guys hug each other, always say “thank you” and do not judge other people. They help me see life from the right perspective’.
Even after his move to Lazio for Champions League football, his priorities didn’t change. He still sees sick children and prays to his father. An admirer of Pope John Paul II, Acerbi leads a life inspired by Catholic values.
In July 2019, Bologna manager Sinisa Mihaljovic revealed that he had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. Acerbi put up an Instagram post asking the former Milan manager to show courage. ‘You must not give up, you must have courage! These are obvious but true words. Mister, let me tell you to face this bad phase fully, not caring about what you have! Live as if you have nothing and always think positive, COURAGE.’
The Italian national team had visited a Children’s hospital in October 2019, and the members of the squad gave away gifts and match tickets to them. When it was time to return, Acerbi was willing to miss the team bus: ‘I don’t care, they can go. I’ll take a taxi. But I won’t leave until I’ve seen everyone.’
Among other things, Acerbi’s Instagram bio reads, ‘Account ufficiale del Leone’, which translates ‘Official account of the Lion’. The lion became a symbol for Acerbi in memory of a little boy who succumbed to cancer. ‘He is my lion, he passed away fighting’. Ascerbi adopted the nickname, ‘Leone’, lion in Italian.
The lion who beat cancer to conquer Europe lives a life of Catholic values.
1 The Italian National team is nicknamed Azzurri.
2, 3, 6-11 Inter Milan, Sampdoria, Lazio, FC Pavia 1911, Reggina 1914, Genoa, ChievoVerona, AC Milan, Sassuolo are Italian professional football clubs.
5 Ultras are a type of association football fans, known for their fanatical support.
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