Francesco Acerbi: the ‘lion’ who beat cancer to be a pillar in Italy’s defence

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Francesco Acerbi had to quit playing for Sassuolo and started chemo to fight testicular cancer in early 2014. He had a strange routine. Chemo in the morning while watching TV (his favourite program being House, the series with Hugh Laurie), some rest in the afternoon, clubbing at night, sometimes till 7 sono. Definitely not a Cristiano Ronaldo-style approach to life.

The pizza with tuna and onions was part of the routine, because chemo left Acerbi with no appetite for delicate flavours. “Sometimes I did not eat at all, nor did I sleep," Egli ha detto.

Un giorno, a year after the cancer diagnosis, Francesco woke up seized by terror. “All of a sudden, I started thinking about all the concerns I gave my parents, all the wasted opportunities and nights spent clubbing. That morning I was afraid of my own shadow. I started seeing a therapist, who helped me a lot.”

Seven years later Acerbi is ready to play in his first European Championship. Adesso 33, he is one of the best central defenders in Serie A and Italy’s coach, Roberto Mancini, considers him a pillar of his defensive line. Left-footed and technically gifted, Acerbi is able to pair with Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Alessandro Bastoni to protect Italy’s keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. He is living the life he imagined but his journey has been a rollercoaster ride.

Acerbi grew up near Milan loving football. “I was part of the Fossa dei Leoni, the Milan ultras group,” he once said. A 14 he left Atletico Civesio, a small team, to play amateur football with his friends. But somehow he bounced back. A 20, he found a contract in Italy’s fourth tier. A 22, he was in Serie B. A 23, he played his first Serie A game for Chievo. “I did it for my father, not for me,” he recalled in 2016. “We had a love and hate relationship. He constantly challenged me. Nel 2011, after signing for Genoa, I waved the signed contract in front of his face.”

Francesco’s father, Roberto, had a weak heart. He survived seven strokes but died in 2012, four months before his son signed for Milan. “I missed his challenges,” Acerbi said years later. “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.”

Nel mese di luglio 2013, during a pre-season medical with Sassuolo, Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The tumour was removed but soon afterwards showed up again, forcing Acerbi to undergo chemotherapy for three months. “Back then I had no fear. I just wondered why the cancer did not change me. Quindi, 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. All those nights out gave way to a regular lifestyle, training and calm evenings at home. No alcohol, only water, vegetables, frutta, rice and bresaola. Improvements followed. Acerbi, from October 2015 to January 2019, played 149 consecutive games, close to Javier Zanetti’s record streak of 162. No rest, no suspension, not a single injury for more than three years.

Leicester called but “Ace” said no. There was no hurry to leave Sassuolo, a family club that 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," Egli ha detto. “These guys hug each other, always say ‘thank you’ and do not judge other people. They help me see life from the right perspective”.

Nel 2018 Acerbi moved to Lazio and in the last few months played Champions League football. tuttavia, his priorities have not changed. He still regularly sees sick children and prays to his father. An admirer of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, Acerbi leads a life inspired by Catholic values. His WhatsApp profile photo remains the same, a picture of him and Elia, a little boy that did not survive cancer. “He is my lion, he passed away fighting,” Acerbi wrote after losing his young friend. The lion became a symbol to him. He tattooed the animal on his chest and right arm and adopted the nickname “Leone”, “Lion” in Italian.

Life has not stopped challenging him. Acerbi had two desires back in 2016. Primo, playing in the Euros in France. Second, marrying his girlfriend, Serena. Antonio Conte did not select him for Italy’s squad and the relationship with Serena ended. Five years later, no one doubts Mancini will include him in his squad. And Claudia, his partner since 2020, is now pregnant. “Ace” will soon become the father of a girl and maybe one day a little boy will be part of the family. As for his daughter’s name, it is a race between Celeste, Aurora and Vittoria. As for a future son, why not Elia?

Luca Bianchin writes for Gazzetta dello Sport.

Follow him on Twitter @lucabianchin7.

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